Wednesday, January 18, 2017

I'm teaching a sonnet next week...

   I'm teaching a sonnet next week, and I'm not sure how I feel about it.

   Growing up I read my mother's literature anthologies, the thick books of poems and stories for seventh and eighth graders, and I read some of her college textbooks too. These books came from a dank room we called the library, but was really an unfinished room in our basement; what we'd call a bonus room today. Even now when I think of certain poems and stories I remember the damp smell of books that spent many years there.

   I read my mother's anthologies, but I had the good sense to skip the sonnets. I read some of the narrative poems--I was a sucker for a good story, the more blood and sorrow the better, and I loved encountering Lord Randal again and again in different books. But I really loved the modern poems, stripped of all but the most important words, like the ones by Gwendolyn Brooks or found inside the gift of a watermelon pickle. Perhaps I was a lazy reader.

   Or perhaps I just had the good sense to skip sonnets. Rhyme I could deal with, but only in the hands of someone like Robert Frost, and a poem written just to meet a set pattern of rhymes seemed an absolute waste of time. Plus sonnets tended to have extra words like O and I really didn't like that. Sonnets, in my opinion, weren't long enough to tell a good story or short enough to really grab my attention and leave me breathless.

    On my second or third reread of A Wrinkle in Time I did notice what Mrs. Whatsit said about sonnets, and it made me reconsider a bit. Maybe sonnets were not such a lost cause after all.

  So I consented to read a few sonnets, and while I still didn't like the form I could at least like some of the sentiments, especially in "If Thou Must Love Me..." by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. But I still skipped the sonnets in most of the poetry books I read. I think that, besides the form, I also was just too young to appreciate the themes. After all, what 12-year-old is really looking back on lost loves as in "What lips my lips have kissed" by Edna St. Vincent Millay? 

   And this is what gives me such pause as I think about teaching sonnets next week. Sonnets pose both a structural and a thematic challenge to young readers. They come from another age, an age when poems followed rules and when every word, carefully chosen, conveys a meaning that may not be initially apparent. Teaching students about reading a sonnet should take time, time to look at what a sonnet is and what it is not, time for students to move through the stages of disliking sonnets and into enjoying them.

    According to my basal series lesson plan, I have 5 total days to teach lyric poetry, sonnets, personification. Well, four days actually, because the fifth day is supposed to be for assessment.

   Which brings me back to where I began: I'm teaching a sonnet next week, and I don't know how I feel about it.


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