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Taking your first steps into higher education
Taking your first steps into higher education

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2 What is poetry?

Are you one of the people who remembers enjoyment from learning a poem at primary school or perhaps the group reading of a nonsense poem? Or did you engage with a poem which really struck a chord emotionally during your teenage years?

Unfortunately, for too many, studying poetry for the purpose of passing exams puts people off for life. If this is you, it is worth remembering that the pleasure of poetic repetition in a Dr Seuss book for young children, or the evocative line about love or loss carried from a pop song heard in the teenage years, can provide insights into how poetry works. To take a first step into learning about poetry, let’s start by bringing in some of your current thoughts and preconceptions.

Activity 1 How do you feel about poetry?

Timing: Allow approximately 10 minutes

I would like you to reflect for a few minutes on how you feel about poetry. In your notebook, jot down a few sentences, responding to the following prompts:

  • How do you feel about studying poetry? Thinking back, did you enjoy poetry at school?
  • Are you a reader of poetry?
  • Do you approach poetry with trepidation because it appears ‘difficult’ or irrelevant?
  • Do you have a favourite poem, or song lyric that you can remember? Is there a short piece, such as an advertising jingle, that sticks in your mind?


Did you find that choosing a text and recording, whether you liked it or not, was easier than saying why the text is memorable?

If you thought immediately of a particular song lyric that is memorable for you, it is worth having a copy of the words in front of you as you work through week 2, and consider the extent to which lyrics might exhibit the kind of sophisticated language techniques which are worthy of study in HE.

It can sometimes be hard to say what makes you like or dislike something, and it can be harder still to spot what it is that makes you remember it. My favourite poems are probably from the 17th century, written by John Donne and Andrew Marvell, and the early 19th century, by John Keats. If I am honest, it is because they are so sensuous. By using words in startling juxtapositions they can evoke the headiest moments of romance (perhaps even desire) in a way that is utterly memorable. Other teachers will suggest markedly different favourites though – and for different reasons! Here are the answers that one student gave:

I remember the line, ‘Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink’ – though I do not know where these words come from.

I like this line. It makes me think of being on a boat, in the middle of the sea.

It is harder to think about why this is memorable. It makes me think of a small boat in a vast sea, and this image has stuck in my mind. I learned it when I was very young. I do not really know why I remember it.

If you look at the sample answer above, you can see that it is the picture or image this student’s chosen text has produced in their head that has helped them to remember the line ‘Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink’. (Incidentally, this line is from a poem called ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.)

You may feel differently to other learners about this reflective activity. Your response might have included words like ‘excited’. Or perhaps you used words like ‘worried’; many students feel that poetry is the most difficult type of creative writing to understand, so do not be concerned if this is your initial response. It is good to make a record of your feelings at this stage as this will give you something to refer back to once you have begun to engage with the material that follows.