A colleague of mine devised the following first day activity for his Introduction to Creative Writing class in the interest of fostering a substantive and unintimidating discussion of poetry among beginning students who would not necessarily consider themselves proficient in the genre. Here’s how it works:

  1. You hand out the following two poems to the students and read them aloud together:

Song of the Little Cripple at the Street Corner

Maybe my soul’s all right.
But my body’s all wrong,
All bent and twisted,
All this that hurts me so.

My soul keeps trying, trying
To straighten my body up.
It hangs on my skeleton, frantic,
Flapping its terrified wings.

Look here, look at my hands,
They look like little wet toads
After a rainstorm’s over,
Hopping, hopping, hopping.

Maybe God didn’t like
The look of my face when He saw it.
Sometimes a big dog
Looks right into it.

And then this poem.

  1. You refer to the former as Poem A and the latter Poem B, and you ask the students to discuss each of them not in terms of preference, but in terms of how they work—what moves and devices each poet makes that allow the poem to operate effectively (or ineffectively).
  1. You do all this without saying who is responsible for either one (although you do let them know that they are both from published books by well-known poets).
  1.  After 20 minutes of close reading and conversation, you have the class vote on which poem is “better.”
  1. You reveal the authorship of the pieces to the stunned audience and analyze the poems a bit more in relation to that information.

I did this activity with my two Introduction to Creative Writing classes on the first day of the spring quarter last week. Here are some highlights and the results:

Class One:

Poem A:

Those who preferred it preferred that it was “more concrete” than Poem B which was “way too abstract.”
They found every line to be “both descriptive and unique.”
They saw a possible allusion to Hell and Cerberus in the last stanza with the dog, and liked the final image, even if it was not necessarily allusive.

Poem B:

Those who preferred it preferred that it was “relatable” because “who hasn’t had a bad dream or insomnia?”
They found that each line had something in it to “appreciate.”
They liked the “conclusive” declaration of its last line in comparison to the “ambiguity” of the ending of Poem A.
This poem felt “more stream of consciousness, like you’re right inside somebody’s brain.”

Poem A loses to Poem B, 8 to 13.

Class Two:

Poem A:

Those who preferred it admired the “idea” of the poem—the notion of someone’s exterior being flawed, but his soul being perfect.
They preferred the “strong verb” and how it had “more motion, action, and emotion.”
They felt as though they could “feel the speaker’s pain more clearly” than in Poem B.

Poem B:

Those who preferred liked that it had “no frills”—they dislike poems “with too many details” which they thought Poem A got bogged down by, and they also disliked the repetition in Poem A.
They could not “see” the toad hands in Poem A and preferred the simplicity and lack of figurative language.
They like that the speaker “doesn’t tell the reader what he or she is scared of.”
They thought the author here said “more with fewer words.”
They found this poem “more relatable”—“everyone has been scared, but not everyone has been disabled” (NB: this comment led to a sidebar on the concept of empathy.)

Poem A loses to Poem B, 7 to 11.

And here is the big mind-blowing reveal: Poem A is by Rainier Maria Rilke (1875 to 1926), considered to be one of the most significant and influential German language poets in history. Poem B is by Jewel Kilcher (1974-present) from her collection A Night without Armor, the best-selling debut volume of poetry by an American ever, although she is probably better known for her career as a musician and actress. Once the truth comes out, the students want very badly to know—but I don’t tell them—which one I think is better. Because my job  is not, I don’t think, to say what is better than what, but to help them figure out how to decide that for themselves.

So what is there to be learned from this exercise? The students learn about how to read poetry when you don’t have any context for it and then how that reading changes when you do have context, as well as how to discuss a poem in terms of individual lines and devices, not just whether they “like” it or not overall. Bonus considerations: relatability and originality; intimacy and distance; literary translation; the lyrics of songs versus lyric poetry; and the capacity of literature to evoke empathy and cause a reader to perceive the world from a strange set of eyes. The instructor learns, maybe, something about the expectations of an untrained but receptive audience for poetry.

The point here seems to be not, “Oh my god, isn’t it terrible that a majority of young people think Jewel is better than Rilke?” but rather more of a reminder of how much the experience of a particular poem is largely dependent on what readers bring to it in terms of their desires and expectations. Two classes certainly don’t make a statistically significant study, but still: why am I getting 24 votes for Jewel versus 15 for Rilke? Why does Jewel win?

Originally Published: April 2nd, 2012

Kathleen Rooney is a founding editor of Rose Metal Press, a publisher of literary work in hybrid genres, and a founding member of Poems While You Wait, a team of poets and their typewriters who compose commissioned poetry on demand. She teaches English and creative writing at DePaul University and is...