Teaching Essay Writing through Poetry

As a writer and teacher, I am pained to admit, but in the big picture I do agree with Kurt Vonnegut who opens “Teaching the Unteachable” with “You can’t teach people to write well. Writing well is something God lets you do or declines to let you do. Most bright people know that….”

My caveat, however, is about what we mean by “writing well.” Vonnegut above and my agreement are confronting what I would call those who are by their nature and inclinations writers first—those who labor over poetry, fiction, essays, and the like for months and even years (and decades) without any real hope anyone will ever publish that work. These are writers who write because they have to, but not necessarily because they want or need to.

For over thirty years now, I have taught primarily high school and undergraduate students to write—but that effort is rarely about the sort of writer mentioned above; instead I am teaching writing that is essentially functional and disciplinary. And it is there that I diverge from Vonnegut because I know for a fact that we can teach people to write well in the disciplines, often extremely well even when they do not particularly like to write, even when they insist they are not very good writers.

One of the most effective approaches to teaching disciplinary-based essay writing is to focus on large concepts about effective writing and then grounding that in examining poetry in order to teach those concepts. Using poetry to reinforce essay writing helps highlight the universal qualities of powerful writing and continues to push students in their awareness of genre, form, and medium as they impact expression.

This fall, in fact, I have had several students directly challenge my focus on being specific—the importance of details, concrete language, and, as Flannery O’Connor has argued, triggering as many of the reader’s senses as possible.

Kingsolver’s “What the Janitor Heard in the Elevator” and the Essay

Barbara Kingsolver from her collection Another America/Otra America begins “What the Janitor Heard in the Elevator” with “The woman in the gold bracelets tells her friend:,” and then continues:

I had to fire another one.
Can you believe it?
She broke the vase
Jack gave me for Christmas.
It was one of those,
you know? That worked
with everything. All my colors.
I asked him if he’d mind
if I bought one again just like it.
It was the only one that just always worked.

Her friend says:
Find another one that speaks English.
That’s a plus.

The woman in the gold agrees
that is a plus.

In class, we begin to read and examine this poem, but I use this discussion to highlight the craft of writing (especially as that relates to disciplinary essay writing), not to do the traditional poetry analysis most students expect.

Here are some of the elements of effective writing I highlight:

  • After we begin discussing the poem, I steer the students back to the title, which in this case is extremely important. Thus, I emphasize the importance of the title as well as discuss the art and craft of subheads in disciplinary essays. Many students have not focused on titles, and often submit essays without titles so this is typically a key lesson for first year students.
  • Next, we highlight the use of “gold” in the opening line and the final stanza. The points I stress are about word choice, connotation, and framing. I believe essay writing must begin at the word level for young writers; they need a greater sense of purpose in the words they choose, notably specificity, concreteness, appropriateness (key here is that words have specialized meanings in the disciplines), and clarity. And that connects with connotations of words; in the poem, “gold” carries a great deal of important information about the scene, issues related to wealth and privilege. My students are quick to admit that Kingsolver has chosen “gold” with intent, purpose. Further, “gold” serves as a framing motif since she incorporates the word in the opening line and the end. I stress to students that essays are often framed (and to avoid the mechanistic introduction and conclusion format they have learned in high school). Framing and motifs add powerful and concrete elements to writing that young writers often lack.
  • We also confront Kingsolver’s use of “one” and “it,” especially the latter since I have stressed the problems with the pronoun to my students. In this poem, “one” and “it” create meaning in their repetition but also in their mixed implications about both the domestic worker and the vase. The point of emphasis is that Kingsolver, again, chooses and repeats words with purpose to create meaning, and this contrasts with how students are apt to repeat and use empty or vague language from carelessness.
  • Finally, we discuss the effectiveness of writing with characters and plot as well as the impact of showing versus telling. People doing things are powerful, much more powerful than abstractions. Kingsolver in her poem trusts the reader to know the abstractions she is showing; however, young writers tend to make many grand announcements (often overstated) and fail to show or support those claims.

This fall I followed the discussion of Kingsolver’s poem with Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” and the result was impressive. We were able to identify these craft lessons immediately in King’s essay; students were also significantly more willing to embrace the concepts once we worked through the poem and then into King’s writing.

While there is a cynical irony to Vonnegut’s claims about teaching the unteachable—written by a writer who often taught at writing conferences and legendary writing workshops—ones that do elicit laugher, I am convinced that we teachers of writing who serve primarily students who will have to write while in formal education and then may go on to write in the disciplines can be very successful, but only if we take the teaching of writing seriously, and seek ways in which students can grow as writers.

Focusing on the universals of effective writing and then allowing students to examine and practice those universal are essential. And to do that, I find that poetry is an excellent resource for teaching the writing of essays.

For Further Reading

Are we teaching students to be good writers? 

Why Are We (Still) Failing Writing Instruction?

More on Failing Writing, and Students

From Failing to Killing Writing: Computer-Based Grading

Misguided Reading Policy Creates Wrong Lessons for Students as Writers

4 comments

  1. Jerry Heverly

    For me teaching writing connects with the enjoyment of life. “The canons of art are merely the expressions in specialized form, for depth of experience.” A.N. Whitehead wrote that. The things that make good writing make a good life even if you are never called upon to write professionally. To write details you need to see and feel and hear and smell and taste details.

  2. Marilyn J. Hollman

    Some poetic forms do have a sort of “thesis statement” or “here’s where you should go on thinking” line. Take Hopkins in “Pied Beauty.” We’re advised, or we overhear, “Praise God for dappled things!” and then we get a list and consonant reversals and lots of serious fun; then we get the “why does it matter” lines, or the “so what” as a colleague named it.

    This essay made me laugh a little in light of the most previous essay about intimacy and reading. Essentially, you prescribe a kind of close reading in this one, but I guess if it’s in the service of teaching service writing, it’s fine.?.
    Actually, I had thought all those devoted to New Criticism had retired. But with the exception of the “text and only the text -nothing outside thee margins” rule, it’s a perfectly useful way of reading many genres. Witness the recent readings of “go missing.” It also struck me that your novelist uses one of David Bleich’s questions: this is the most important scene. Altho’ he claims – or doesn’t – know the answer.
    None of us ever does.

  3. Marilyn J. Hollman

    I know that’s what you named it. However, looking at connotation, at framing (placement), word choice and detail — all those are elements involved in close reading. Or perhaps, you have a good definition of cr that I can profit from.

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