Thoughts on Poetry in the EFL Classroom

By Kathryn M. Tanaka

            In the field of English as a foreign language (EFL) education, much attention is given to content. Of course, language acquisition and the ability to use language in practical situations is the end goal for many learners, which almost necessitates an instruction of straightforward communication tactics. In Japan, in particular, emphasis is placed on what is considered to be utilitarian language pedagogy, the memorization of grammatical patterns and vocabulary acquisition, despite the repeated debunking of the efficacy of these practices (Hosoki, 2011). What the student is able to communicate, either orally or in writing, becomes the primary evaluation criteria. Indeed, the humanities in general are under attack with current Japanese policy aiming to cut funding and undercut the importance of the humanities and social sciences in favor of a more “utilitarian” education (see, for example, Sawa, 2015 and Delany, 2013).

            Thus, within the field of EFL, then, there is often a separation of form and meaning, and a stress on “practical” language education. Poetry, with its dense, figurative language and culturally-specific content, the complexities of its form, is often considered inappropriate for second language learners. Indeed, the dismissal of poetry in education is not unique to EFL. Terry Eagleton has called for a renewed attention to poetry in education, arguing students are taught literature “as language but not as discourse” (Eagleton, 2). For Eagleton, the study of discourse “means attending to language in all of its material density” (ibid). He argues for the inseparability of form, language, and ideas.

 In fact, poetry can be a valuable pedagogical tool in the EFL classroom, one that introduces creative language and allows the combined teaching of form and content (Tanaka, 2015; Kellem, 2009; Maley and Duff 1989).    Teaching poetry in foreign language education allows for multiple methods of engagement; students can read poems aloud, translate poetry, or write responses to poetry, to name just a few simple activities. All such exercises encourage active engagement with language, form, and content.

            It is not accidental that many language teachers are also language lovers and creative writers. This article aims to introduce the activities of two very different authors whose work foregrounds the importance of creative and active language in Japan. Collectively, their work and their activities highlight the importance of poetry in everyday life as well as in university education. They are a joy to read for the lover of poetry, but they can also be an engaging pedagogical tool in the EFL classroom. In this piece, I aim to highlight some of possibilities of poetry in the EFL classroom. I am inspired not only by the beauty of the poetry discussed herein, but also because the authors discussed herein have combined their creative work with the “utilitarian” work of English education in Japanese universities. As I am sure they would agree, their life as educators has blended into their creative work and has been an inspiration for the inclusion of their creative work in my own classroom pedagogy.

            Jessica Goodfellow is an award-winning poet and English language teacher in Japan. Her class on creative poetry composition at Otemae University was one of the more popular course offerings, culminating each semester in a live reading of original student poetry. Her poetry volumes include her most recent work, Mendeleev’s Mandala (Mayapple Press, 2015), and The Insomniac’s Weather Report (Isobar Press, 2014).

            Goodfellow’s poems are a beautiful loop of dialogues, of negotiations, integrations, and underminings of the arbitrary binaries or categories that structure so much of daily life. In some ways, her book is a powerful reminder of the ways in which the modes and voice of science, logic, and mathematics are in fact part of daily life, and the clean separation of the humanities and science is in fact a cultural construct. That is to say, she reveals the cultural underpinnings and historical contingencies of things that seem permanent, such as time. Her book is a stunning and broad meditation on religion, relationships, and culture. Its depth and breadth, and the beauty and complexities of her language encourage, indeed necessitate, multiple readings and repeated engagements with her work.

            Rich in science, mathematics and literary language, Goodfellow’s poems would seem to prove critics correct—poetry has no place in the EFL classroom. And yet, her linguistic play and the deep meanings she creates through her deft shifts in tone and intensity. is precisely what makes such poetic work a pleasure to read for students and instructors alike. Consider her piece “Ode to the Hourglass (pg. 38):”

The hourglass is the glamour puss in the world of timekeeping

Even standing on her head she’s all business and sex appeal,

simultaneous. Live in the moment is her mantra, and because

she offers no hard data, you do. She is a power lass, the hourglass,

a favorite among sailors, and not for what you think. It was

her equanimity they loved, her constancy across inconstant

weather and tempestuous seas. They chanted, Let us sing

a ditty for the timepiece that’s so pretty, but what they

meant was, Many thanks for the longitude revealed with

the lift of your eggshell petticoat. Her comely shape

drives men to calculate which is why she needs no

numbers on her tumblers. Fellas, it’s all relative,

she murmurs, her voice as smooth and cool

as finely powdered marble.

 

Lately she’s been regulated

to the kitchen or the board game. Still,

when she kicks her ankles above her shoulders,

you too go head over heels, fishing with your best line:

There’s nothing sexier, you wink, than the passing of time.

She cartwheels, 1300 years of knowing it. And when she says sexy

she means desperate. Still, a gymnast of primness and suggestion,

she makes you for a minute, or three, forget the cargo that careens

your capillaries looping through the one-way valve you’ve come to call

your heart. No matter how many times you’ve seen her slide sideways

on her axis you still insist time flows in one direction, like you do,

lock step, all cause and effect, while she is of two everythings, or more,

and equally. That’s why, when she grants you the dainty twist of her wrist,

you never ever know if she’s waving good-bye to you or waving hello

 

            There is no arguing that this poem is, in a word, dense, layered with linguistic play and meaning. It would be easy to dismiss this as inappropriate to language learners, as a piece that should only be read by those who appreciate and enjoy poetry. This is precisely the fallacy that I want to argue against. With appropriate pre-reading tasks and interactive group work on the poem, reading works such as Goodfellow’s can be incredibly rewarding and productive.

            Goodfellow’s poems are incredibly productive conversation starters precisely because they are so rich. Certainly, the language and vocabulary is dense and likely unfamiliar to students. One productive strategy might be read the poem together as a class, then ask students to look up vocabulary for homework. In the next class, the poem can be reread aloud, as Goodfellow’s work in particular benefits from hearing it read aloud as well as seeing it on the page. Indeed, the sound of the poem read aloud is an important part of what makes poems accessible and an integral part of the EFL classroom (Hadaway, Vardell & Young, 2001; 2002; 2006). In the case of this piece, in particular, the texture of the poem, the way it weaves sounds into patterns, is striking when it is read aloud. The subtle rhythm, the meter, the rhymes in the text (power lass/hourglass; ditty/pretty; numbers/tumblers, etc.) and the aural play is underscored by the visual play of the poem—the shape of the verses visually evoke the hourglass itself, which may aid learners in visualizing, and linking the abstract play in the poem to the concrete idea of an hourglass (Mills, 2009).

.           This poem in particular is a rich field in which to ask basic questions about language and form. The obvious questions include What is this poem about? and What does the author want to say? Poems are open to multiple interpretations, and meaning has multiple levels, and class discussion or partner work can allow students to tease out the layers of meaning.

            Goodfellow’s work also allows for a discussion of the creative use of literary language and how devices such as tone, pace, intensity, texture, syntax, grammar, and punctuation create meaning. How something is said is as important in Goodfellow’s work as what is said. Her slips between a colloquial voice and a subjective narrator who interprets the sailors’ ditty and questions the flows of time can be rich conversation starters about tone in writing. Similarly, a discussion of the functions of her use of italics and punctuation can draw attention to the ways in which syntax, grammar, and punctuation further create meaning. Ultimately, her work foregrounds the importance of poetry and discourse in all of our lives.

            Taylor Mignon’s work is quite different. While Goodfellow’s work is in deep dialogue with science, religion, and is rooted in her love of the English language and the emotion it contains (Stawowy, 2015), Mignon’s work is linguistically dialogic, a cacophony of play between images, Japanese, English, vernacular speech, academic modes, and silences. His original work, collected and published in Japlish Whiplash, is an avant-garde and visual collection of poems, collected together with drawings and photographs; its juxtapositions and sudden ruptures force the reader to be actively engaged in creating meaning from the text.

            Taylor Mignon is a poet, translator, and educator. His work includes translations, articles, and original poems published in Atlanta Review, Japan Times, and Prairie Schooner, among others. In addition to the journal, book of original poetry, and translated volume of poems discussed here, he has published the anthology Faces in the Crowds: A Tokyo International Anthology.

            One of the most fascinating elements of Mignon’s work is its internationalism, its refusal to be categorized. The bilingual shifts, the meaning that is created between languages, and between language and image, is in full play not only in this collection, but also in the poetry journal edited by Mignon, the Tokyo Poetry Journal. Miriam Sas has argued (2011) that in avant-garde praxis in Japan, the vision of a foreign space was critical. Both Mignon’s original work and his edited journal are engaging with that space of alterity, rich bilingual and bicultural texts that deserve attention from literary aficionados and EFL educators alike. Indeed, the gleeful play and intentional boundary crossing in Mignon’s work has been noted before (Kyoto Journal).

            The bilingualism in Mignon’s poetry must come in part from his own engagement with the Japanese language. Mignon’s most recent work is an edited  translation of the collected poems of the surrealist poet Torii Shōzō (1932-1994). This collection of Torii’s verse is an important and timely contribution to the study of surrealism in Japan. Torii was a part of the surrealist poetry coterie associated with the journal VOU, whose leader Kitasono Katue (1902-1978) has received some attention in English (Sas, 2002) and has been the subject of a groundbreaking study by John Solt (2011). By and large, however, the surrealist poetry movement in Japan has not received the attention it deserves, and there is a distinct lacuna in English language translation and scholarship.

            As an educator, I have advocated the use of mirror texts in the EFL classroom (Tanaka, 2015). One of the drawbacks of this pedagogical practice is the limitation of the texts available. In that sense, Mignon’s volume is a stunning contribution that can be easily incorporated into any EFL classroom, or enjoyed by any casual poetry fan. His translations reflect the complexities of the original, without attempting to impose meaning or sense. They reflect the artistry of the originals.

            Surrealist poetry is actually a powerful language teaching tool. The sophisticated linguistic play, the juxtaposition of seemingly unrelated ideas, and the foregrounding of unconscious or fantastical elements make texts difficult but at the same time incredibly fruitful. Consider the following poem from Torii’s Alphabet Trap (Mignon, 133):

 

 TRANQUIL ZONE

 

rain falls once the bridge is crossed

BEWARE OF RABID DOGS

is quietly barking

 

the bench in municipal corn park

has a row of signs saying

TOILETS TOO FAR AWAY

even the blue lovers can only

piss from

the top of the slide

 

this is a really gratifying thing

 

while driving a private patrol car

the voice of Mr. YY

reading out the copy of statute 175

commits the crime of public disturbance

 

The original, of the same poem (Torii, 2013)

無風地帯

 

橋を渡ると雨になって

狂犬にご注意

がしずかに吠えている

 

市営玉蜀黍公園の

ベンチはTOILETが遠すぎる

という立札が並んでいて

青い恋人たちも

すべり台の上からオシッコするしか

ない

 

これは非常によろこばしいことだ

 

私製パトロオル・カアを飛ばしながら

ワイ・ワイ氏が

刑法第175条のコピイを読みあげる声

は騒乱罪になってしまう

            The original poem and its translation both stand alone, and are deeply interesting poems on their own terms. Mignon draws attention to the syntactic complexities of the original, noting that in this particular poem: “Again, the thing referred to in the sign itself is what is barking, not what it signifies” (181).

            Mignon makes linguistically interesting translation choices (in this piece, he translates as Mr. YY what is in Japanese Wai-wai-shi, which could also be translated as Mr. Exclamation-of-Happiness, which admittedly does not have the same terse ring as the original). His translations retain the beauty and power of the original, while also opening up new spaces of meaning. This is inevitable in translation, but productive of great conversations in the classroom in this case. The meaning of the name Mr. YY or Wai wai-shi foregrounds questions of what is added or lost in translation. The pieces live alone but also in dialogue.

            Another example is the evocation of the imagery of “blue lovers,” which in English might connote a feeling, such as sadness, that might not be apparent in the original Japanese. This could change the meaning of the poem, and such nuances or ambiguity between meanings are incredibly productive conversation starters in the EFL or literature classroom (Tanaka, 2015).

            Poetry has long been marginalized because its dense word play and multiplicities of meaning. Yet, it is precisely this complexity of syntax and meaning that make surrealist poetry such an asset to any classroom. Both Goodfellow and Mignon break down boundaries and question the form and function of poetry through the production of their verse. I have long desired to integrate more poetry into my classroom, and both Goodfellow and Mignon provide interesting and powerful texts that fully engage and interest students in different ways on a variety of levels.

Acknowledgement: This essay first appeared in the Journal of Research and Pedagogy of Otemae Univeristy Institute of International Education in April of 2016

Texts Reviewed

Goodfellow, Jessica. (2015). Mendeleev’s Mandala. Woodstock, NY: Mayapple Press.

Mignon, T. (2010). Japlish Whiplash. Tokyo: Printed Matter Press.

Mignon, T, Ed. (2015). Tokyo Poetry Journal 1. Tokyo: Daito Bunka University.

Torii, Shōzō. (2013). Bearded Cones and Pleasure Blades: The Collected Poems of Torii Shōzō. Edited and Trans. Taylor Mignon. Hollywood, CA: highmoonnoon.

Works Cited

Delany, E. (1 December 2013). Humanities under strain around the globe. The New York Times. Retrieved 28 December 2015, from http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/02/us/humanities-studies-under-strain-around-the-globe.html

Eagleton, T. (2007). How to Read a Poem. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

Hadaway, N. L., Vardell, S. M., & Young, T. A. (2001). Scaffolding oral language development through poetry for students learning English. [Electronic version]. The Reading Teacher, 54, (8), 796-806.

Hadaway, N. L., Vardell, S. M., & Young, T. A. (2002). Choosing and sharing poetry with ELL students. [Electronic version]. Book Links, 51-56.

Hadaway, N. L., Vardell, S. M., & Young, T. A. (2006). Matching books and readers: Selecting literature for English learners. International Reading Association, 10, 734-741.

Hosoki, Y. (2011). English Language Education in Japan: Transitions and Challenges. Kyushu Kokusai Daigaku Kokusai Kankeigaku Ronshu 6 (1/2): 199-215.

Kellem, H. (2009). The Formeaning Response Approach: Poetry in the EFL Classroom. English Teaching Forum 4: 12-17.

“Japlish Whiplash.” Kyoto Journal: Insights from Kyoto Japan Asia. Retrieved 28 December 2015 from http://www.kyotojournal.org/reviews/japlish-whiplash-2/

Maley, A. & A. Duff. (1989). The inward ear: Poetry in the language classroom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mills, K. (2009). Floating on a sea of talk: reading comprehension through speaking and listening. The Reading Teacher 63(4): 325-329.

Sas, M. (2002). Fault Lines: Cultural Memory and Japanese Surrealism. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Sawa, T. (23 August 2015). Humanities under attack. The Japan Times. Retreived 28 December, 2015, from http://www.japantimes.co.jp/opinion/2015/08/23/commentary/japan-commentary/humanities-attack/#.VoDK_JdCNLE

Stawowy, M. (2015). Mendeleev’s Mandala by Jessica Goodfellow and Q & A with Jessica Goodfellow. Up the Staircase Quarterly. Retreived 28 December 2015, from http://www.upthestaircase.org/mendeleevs-mandala.html

Solt, J. (2011). Shredding the Tapestry of Meaning: The Poetry and Poetics of Kitasono Katue (1902-1978). Harvard East Asian Monographs 178. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Tanaka, K. M. (2015). Teaching literature in translation in the EFL classroom. In P. Clements, A. Krause, & H. Brown (Eds.), JALT2014 Conference Proceedings. Tokyo: JALT: 386-394.

Torii, S. (2013) Torii Shōzō shishū. [Collected Poems of Torii Shōzō]. Tokyo: Shizukisha.

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For more by Jessica Goodfellow in The Font, visit the 2014 Vol 2 issue poetry page 'On the Spoken Word'.

For more by Taylor Mignon in The Font, visit the 2013 Vol 1 issue poetry page here.