Viewing a Poem as Argument: Helping Students Understand Contemporary Poetry
By: Sara Bauer
Date: September 19, 2008
Summary: When her high school honors students were put off by contemporary poetry, the author found a way to engage them: have them analyze the poem as an "argument."
Having just earned my MFA in poetry, I was confident in my ability to "do poetry" with high school American Studies honors students. I was passionate about poetry and I expected my students to share that passion.
My class was a mix of students from all over the world and I wanted to provide poems in which they could detect aspects of their own voices, their own cultures. A colleague suggested Unsettling America, a collection of contemporary poetry anthologized by Maria Mazziotti Gillan and Jennifer Gillan (1994). Based on this suggestion, I compiled a set of unapologetically modern poems for my students to read and discuss.
Then Matt looked up from his packet to say, "These aren't poems. They're just any old thing typed on the page."
I loved these poems. What innovative language. What radical form and style. I made packets and distributed them, like gifts. Then I invited my students to select poems that "spoke to them." Read a passage aloud to the class, I said, and say something about it.
Dutifully, they began. I wandered between the tables, peeking over their shoulders to see what they turned to. Except for the sound of flipping pages, the room was quiet. This is good, I thought. They're reading. They're engaged. All it takes is finding the right poems.
Then Matt looked up from his packet to say, "These aren't poems. They're just any old thing typed on the page."
Other students begin to chime in.
"This doesn't make any sense."
"I could have written this."
"My little sister could have written this."
And my all-time favorite, "I don't get it."
Some students were critical of the authors' unorthodox use of punctuation. Others were skeptical about the appearance of Spanish words in several poems. And even though we had discussed, months earlier and in excruciating detail, the characteristics of post-modern writing, there were still some who said, "Yeah. It doesn't even rhyme."
I couldn't believe it. Poetry was supposed to be my area of expertise. Besides, over the course of the year, my students had demonstrated the capacity for experimentation and risk-taking in their writing. Why weren't they accepting of the poets' skillfulness in these areas? I collected the poetry packets and folded my arms around them possessively. My students would appreciate—no, enjoy—contemporary poetry. Until I found a way to lead them there, I wouldn't let them read one word more.
I sulked. Then I remembered some advice from my undergraduate professor, Linda Cahir: Start in a safe place and work toward the challenge. Begin where students feel confident.
I made a list of what my students could do well. At the top of the list was "structure an argument."
Using the Toulmin Model of Argument: One Skeptic's Journey
When I inherited American Studies I knew that I would be required to help students hone their skills of persuasive writing. The prospect did not excite me. Argument was dull and dry in my opinion; I foresaw a stack of ninety essays written by fifteen-year-olds attempting to convince me that First Amendment rights entitled them to wear halter tops and flip flops to school if they so chose.
I understood that helping students improve their persuasive writing was important for standardized testing situations, but I hoped that, given their standing as honors-level students, we could cover that quickly and move on to something more appealing . . . like poetry. Though haunted by the prospect of halter tops and flip flops, I looked for help in the thick file folder I had inherited when I took over the class. There I came on the Toulmin model of argument (Lunsford, Ruszkiewicz, and Walters 2007).
The Toulmin model is notable in that it emphasizes—by making it visible—the "warrant," an argument's underlying principle. In this model, the claim (thesis) and the evidence (details that support the thesis) are linked with a warrant (see fig. 1).
With the visual example of the Toulmin model, I was able to help students better understand the concept of warranting. I asked them whether a man should give up his seat on a crowded bus and let a woman sit in his place. This generated lively discussion. At first, boys and girls argued back and forth, making statements about fairness and feminism until Michael asserted, "It's not really about a man giving up his seat to a woman; it's about anyone giving up a seat to someone who really needs it, because the thing about public transportation is that it needs to be efficient."
Michael's contribution was a successful warrant because he hit upon a principle that links the claim and the evidence. Through continued class conversation, we were able to articulate the warrant in figure 2.
One way to test whether a statement is a warrant is to consider whether or not the principle of logic can be applied in additional sets of circumstances. If it can, it's a warrant. If the principle of logic is valid in numerous circumstances, it is a very effective warrant.
The warrant in figure 2, for example, can serve to link several other pieces of evidence to claims. Public transit passengers are advised to keep luggage out of aisles and refrain from behavior (such as loud cell-phone conversations) that could distract the bus driver. Can we argue that passengers should do these things? Based on the principle of logic, "Transportation systems operate most efficiently when passengers behave in ways that assure each other's safety," yes. Keeping one's luggage out of the aisle prevents accidents and injury, meaning everyone arrives uninjured and on time.
In the past, I had been frustrated by students' tendency to state the thesis (claim) and provide some supporting detail (evidence) as though the connection between the two was somehow self-evident. Or, worse, students limited their evidence to details that are self-evident. The Toulmin model emphasizes that the important evidence in a persuasive piece is often the evidence that needs warranting, because the reader may not easily recognize the principle connecting the evidence to the claim.
In September, my students had equated the term argument with "fight" or "disagreement." Later in the year, they saw in argument the potential for negotiation and consensus.
They shared success stories about bargaining with their parents and solving disputes with their siblings. Why should Cynthia's curfew be extended? Because she was only two years away from going to college and never having a curfew. But Cynthia, the class protested, Where's your warrant?
Hmm. We thought about it. Aha! Young people best learn responsibility in increments, not all at once. This principle of logic was effective in convincing Cynthia's parents to extend her curfew in half-hour increments, which, provided she demonstrated responsibility, would continue until she graduated from high school.
I let go of the notion that composing solid arguments was valuable only for standardized tests, but I still wanted to get to the poetry. And my first attempt had been a disaster. I gave some thought to why my efforts had failed.
Students rarely exhibit resistance to the craft of a story or novel the way they do with poetry. The narrative structure is comforting because children have abundant experience with characters, conflicts, and neat resolutions. Stories exhibit the kind of narrative logic that students find comforting—in part because they are exposed to stories from a very early age.
Contemporary poetry, with its frequent disregard for writing conventions, presents difficulty. And that difficulty is typically met with hostility. Often, the poem's composition seems haphazard. Because of this, students assume that either the poet doesn't have a purpose, or that the poet has written with the express purpose of baffling the reader. No wonder students often exhibit frustration, even anger, when asked to consider contemporary poetry.
Is a Poem an Argument?
I began the discussion with one question: What do you notice?
I thought of Dr. Cahir and wondered if there was any way the Toulmin model, and its concept of the warrant, could be applied to help students overcome their resistance to modern poems. I reasoned that perhaps this was possible. I considered the poem itself (what we see on the page) to be the evidence. When we look at a poem, that's all we have to go on. A reader notices a poet's craft (word choice, line length, repetition, etc.) and hypothesizes about the reasons for those choices, thereby making claims. It's the warrant that gives these claims legitimacy. I wanted to test this way of looking a poem.
I redistributed the poetry, one poem at a time. After we read Jesus Papaleto Melendez's "OYE MUNDO/ Sometimes" (below), I began the discussion with one question: What do you notice? Students noticed irregular line lengths, the use of words from languages other than English, and Melendez's nonstandard use of punctuation. These items became our evidence.
When the night air feels chevere
) when I can hear the real sound
of el barrio
on la conga y timbales
& garbage can tops
What claims does this evidence suggest? Laquisha suggested that the author wanted the parenthesis to look like trees bending in opposite directions in the wind; Jesse thought the second parenthesis the shape of an ear, Victor said the author wanted the space between the parenthesis and the words inside them to represent air. All three of these claims could be backed with a similar warrant. "In poetry, punctuation functions grammatically and visually" (fig. 4).
Now students plunged into the text, often reading portions aloud. Equipped with the model, they seemed challenged by, rather than disdainful of, contemporary poets' experiments with form and style. My former poetry lessons consisted of presenting a poetic concept and imploring students to find examples in the poem. Using the Toulmin model, students constructed the poetic concepts themselves.
Making Poems, Making Arguments
Okay, I thought. Not bad. We discussed several poems without disdainful comments. So far, students had read poems as arguments. But what about constructing their own arguments, as they did in their persuasive writing? I wanted to make the transition from reading and talking about poems to writing them.
Could they apply the warrants they had discovered in their analysis of the poems they had read to their own poems?
As I have students from all over the world in my class, I decided to ask them to interview each other, pairing them randomly, and then write a poem about their partner, a poem capturing that person's voice (a concept we had been discussing throughout the year) and communicating something special about that person's heritage.
I encouraged them to think about our discussions of poets' choices as they constructed their poems. "How can you write your poem in such a way that we might guess whom it's about? How can you use word choice, line length, line and stanza breaks, punctuation, and capitalization to help you communicate the voice of your partner?" Finding themselves constructing poems, rather than unraveling their mysteries, many students consulted their copies of poems from Unsettling America for ideas.
Student Poets Make Choices
Students worked carefully on their poems, many making word, form, and style decisions inspired by the poems they had read. When the drafts were completed and rendered in large font, I posted them on the classroom wall. The next day, as students entered the classroom, they gazed at the wall of poems, looking for the poem in which they were the subject.
Now I wanted to take the next step. I wanted them to look at their poems in the context of the Toulmin model, supplying the claims and warrants for their own poems. I asked them to write an explanation of the choices they made as they wrote their poems. I told them that these explanations would make clear the links between their intentions and their finished poems.
Vi's poem about Elie, "Half-Japanese Boys," was one of the most popular on our wall of poetry.
. . . I'm Elie.
. . . I like traveling, especially to Japan,
I've been all over the world,
. . . But I would like to go somewhere out of this
. . . like in space.
I speak the languages,
I eat the food,
"When I found out Elie was my partner for the interview I thought it was a little funny because I've heard Elie say about two words in the time I've known him, so this idea came to me that I should use '...' to represent silences or lack of anything to say," said Vi. "I actually did end up talking to Elie and he had some interesting things to say. Like his heritage. Everyone just says Elie is Japanese; no one knows the other part. He only talks when he has something to say. The short sentences are meant to convey that."
Vi's poem is a reflection of her claim: that Elie is often silent, speaking only when he has something to say. She develops the evidence for her claim, the short sentences, the ellipses. And she understands the unstated warrant that supports her claim and links it to the evidence: In poetry, punctuation and sentence structure are a way of conveying meaning.
Like many teachers, I enjoy giving my students the opportunity to write creatively. But I usually find these assignments difficult to assess. These written explanations, which seem to have internalized the concepts of claim, evidence, and warrant, allowed me to appreciate the students' intentions, even when those intentions are not necessarily clear in the poems themselves.
Sometimes/ There Are Surprises
Reading over my students' poems and explanatory essays, I realized that, rather than making them enjoy contemporary poetry, my first objective as an instructor is to help my students understand it.
At first, they were disdainful of the seemingly random, nonsensical arrangement of this poetry. They were expressing their frustration and disappointment. Their expectations for poetry were not being met.
Using the Toulmin model to establish a warrant, advance a claim, and locate details to support that claim, my students were able to piece together what might otherwise seem unworkable puzzles. In order to motivate and engage them to read, and even write, modern poetry, I needed to give them a problem to solve and the tools with which to solve it.
By treating a poem as an argument they were able to increase their understanding of the poet's intention. And increased understanding is often a first step toward increased enjoyment.
Gillan, Maria Mazziotti, and Jennifer Gillan, eds. 1994. Unsettling America: An Anthology of
Contemporary Multicultural Poetry. New York: Penguin
Lunsford, Andrea A., John J. Ruszkiewicz, and Keith Walters. 2007. Everything's an Argument. New York: Bedford / St. Martin's.
Dobyns, Stephen. 2003. Best Words, Best Order: Essays on Poetry. 2nd ed. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.