teaching idea: dramatic poetry reading

TEACHING IDEA: Dramatic poetry reading
PURPOSE: to engage students with poetry, to get them to think about a poem’s speaker and tone, to encourage collaboration
MATERIALS: copy of poem for each student

I have used this activity (with modifications) in a provincial level literature class (adult upgrading equivalent to Grade Twelve). The poem in the lesson plan linked is Stevie Smith’s “Not Waving But Drowning,” and it includes an introduction from the poet where she explains how she got the idea for the poem:

I read about a man getting drowned once – his friends thought he was waving to them from the sea, but really he was drowning. Then I thought that, in a way, it is true of life too: that a lot of people pretend, out of bravery really, that they are very jolly and ordinary sort of chaps, but really they do not feel at all at home in the world or able to make friends easily, so they joke a lot and laugh and people think they’re quite alright and jolly nice too but sometimes the brave pretence breaks down and then, like the poor man in this poem, they are lost.

The students responded very, very well to this activity–I was blown away by the amazing interpretations each group came up with. One group did a reading with one member lying on the floor as the dead man, surrounded by a Greek chorus-style crowd. When it came to the words of the dead man, the student on the floor would sit up and speak, then lie back down. The “Greek chorus” responded in the middle stanza; the dead man concluded with the final stanza. The activity led to a very fruitful discussion afterwards of the different choices each group had made in how to stage the poem.

I think this activity works particularly well with Smith’s poem–thematically, it also worked well because it provided space for a discussion of loneliness, depression, and the masks we put on to pretend we are coping better than we really are. My students really connected with it. However, I also think it could work just fine with other poems of direct address or dialogue:

“Helen Betty Osborne” by Marilyn Dumont
“Routines” by Tom Wayman
“Plus” by Raymond Carver

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