Rock lyrics as poetry --- An explanation of the teaching method
In the movie Dangerous Minds, a schoolteacher (played by Michelle Pfieffer) in an inner-city school breaks through with an impossible class by getting them interested in poetry. Poetry?! To a group like that?
Yes, poetry. But not Frost or ****inson. Not Angelo or even McKuen (God forbid). It's the poetry of Bob Dylan, the poetry of rock music.
It worked for her and it works for me, too. When I first started using rock lyrics in my classroom some twenty years ago, I did it surrepticiously with an eye towards the hall and an ever-twitching finger on the volume control. I didn't talk about my work in the teachers' lounge. If a fellow department member would ever ask what I was doing in class, I'd mumble, "Poetry," then hurry off. At parent-teacher conferences I focused on the grammar we were doing, and the classical literature. Yes, I kept it a secret but I must tell you, it was the only way I tried that actually got kids interested in poetry.
Today, I openly discuss my "American Pie" unit. Other teachers bring me newspaper clippings of Dylan, and the Beatles, and Buddy Holly. I even have a guitar-playing history teacher/friend come in for one day to demonstrate the key figures of 50s music and how they each, to use Don McLean's metaphor, "caught the last train for the coast." And now I'm going public, worldwide.
What changed? Well, for one thing, poetry as genre in its own right basically fell off the charts. Who buys poetry books these days, anyway? For another thing, twenty-five years went by and guess what was still around, as popular as ever? Rock music. And finally, those same twenty-five years moved the wild young rebel teachers such as myself into the department chairs. And let's not forget that movie...
What follows is a general run-through of the rock-poetry unit I teach. It's an evolving work. I don't teach it to the exclusion of classical poetry but rather as an entry point (aha, there's that word again) into the entire world of verse.
I encourage you to peruse, pick, and choose what you'll use and embellish any and all parts of it. And one more thing: write me about what you do with (psst) rock lyrics. (Hey, I'm still a little paranoid about this whole thing.)
The objectives of this unit are twofold:
1) To cause students to appreciate poetry in two keys ways:
o by showing students how language can be used artistically to express thought and evoke emotion
o by breaking down the barriers some students have towards the artistic use of language
2) To enhance students understanding of their own choices of music.
It isn't a goal of mine that students will write poetry, though many of them do become interested in synthesizing their learning into a new creation. It also is not a goal that they become interested in 60s rock, so-called "classic rock," though many of them do pay the Beatles and others more attention after some serious lyric analysis. I simply want students to get interested in poetry.
To achieve this, I start by defining for them a set of poetic devices that we will be looking for. I use a handout and then define the terms with them in class. From this list of terms, I focus on these three: metaphor, irony, and imagery. The rest we study and learn to identify, but these three are the kingpins of the unit.
Choosing the songs for my unit was, at once, both a difficult and simple task. I had two overriding goals: to choose songs that demonstrate the poetic devices we would cover and to choose songs that would enhance students understanding of the culminating work we would study, "American Pie." If you're unfamiliar with that song, you might want to click here right now and check out what it's all about. I'll wait for you.
As you can see, "American Pie" is, no matter what else anyone may say (and believe me, on the web they're saying a lot), a song about 60s music. It's a tribute to 50s music (or at least, to Buddy Holly), but the 60s are Don McLean's subject matter. Thus, the music I had to choose needed to be 60s music. Plus, it needed to be the 60s music that is referred to in the song, or at least, the musicians who are alluded to. That left me with this list: The Monotones, Fabian (et al), Marty Robbins, Elvis, Dylan, the Beatles, the Byrds, the Stones, Janis Joplin, and (I think) Simon and Garfunkel. And others. Well, forget the Monotones and Fabian...the musicians in the first official verse of "American Pie." I personally never liked this era of music and couldn't see much of how this was sophisticated poetry.
And forget Elvis, too. Sorry, I know that's heresy to some, but he didn't even write his own songs. I hardly think he deserves to be in a poetry unit.
Bob Dylan. Well, of course Bob Dylan. He's the poet laureate of this group. And the Beatles simply had to be in the unit. Not only were they the most influential group of the 60s, they were reference in three of the six verses in the song. Paul Simon? Though only obliquely referenced in "American Pie," his poetic skills simply had to be examined.
The Stones, the Byrds, and Joplin I left out because, 1) I never really was a fan of any of them, and 2) I don't consider any of them superior poets. Maybe I should've included the Stones since they certainly captured youthful lust and angst, and maybe I will add them next year (the song, "Sympathy for the Devil" would make sense). But I left them out.
I put Neil Young into my unit because, even though he isn't anywhere to be found in "American Pie," he's a 60s rocker with a gift for imagery who is still around.
Here's the most important thing you must do in putting together a rock poetry unit of your own: choose songs you like. If you like them, you'll know them better and probably have more historical texture to add to your teaching. At least you can tell them, "Yeah, I remember when my girlfriend Sue and I listened to 'Me and My Bobby McGee' while watching 'Night of the Living Dead' at the drive-in." Kids like that sort of background info.
Or just use my songs. That's what they're here for. I don't claim them to be the holy canon. Some of the songs aren't even all that poetic ("Helter Skelter" comes to mind). But they are songs I know and like and that's what any teacher should choose when they put together a unit such as this one. And -- and this is important to me when I teach any literature -- they all are thematically tied together, as you shall see.
Now for a second point about choosing the songs: Be open. Let the unit evolve as the years go by. Broaden your tastes by listening to the songs the kids like (that's part of the unit). This year, I added Garth Brooks' "The Thunder Rolls" after reading one student's unique exegesis on it.
And a third point: choose songs that demonstrate the poetic devices of the unit. I made sure I had at least one example of each of the poetic devices I would teach. You should do the same if you take on this challenge.
That said, here's a look at my "canon."
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