When students are seated at their desks I give them a copy of John Donne's The Flea From the Poetry Foundation. I like the way the poems from that site print out, with lots of white space for students to write on. That will be important later on. When students walk in there are five questions on the whiteboard as well.
We start class by listening to Julian Glover recite the poem.
I then wait for about ten seconds and ask a student to volunteer to read the poem. I wait a little longer and ask a different student to read the poem.
I then ask the students what they've heard.
Most of them pick up on Donne's rhymed couplet pattern and others recognize that he is speaking to a lover who kills the flea mid-poem.
I then ask my students to look at the questions I've written on the board. I direct them to answer their questions on the copy of "The Flea" that I handed out to them. Underlining and citing the evidence for each question by writing the number next to the line or lines that answer the question.
I then allow them to move into groups or work independently. For this exercise I try to make myself as unavailable as possible. It's not exactly a quiz, but I want the students to work independently.
After two days of working to unpack metaphysical conceits, this exercise works very well, and students seem to have little trouble answering the questions.
Once it seems that the students are done with the questions, I call the class back together and ask them, "Now that you've read the poem through completely, do you think you understand Donne's main argument?"
One student acknowledges that it was much easier to read the poem because she knew that there was going to be complexity and she knew how to approach that complexity.
Another student said that she would have preferred reading the whole poem through once before learning how to read it, but that because she understands the poem she can decide better whether or not she likes it.
Taking from that comment I ask, "What's difficult about reading a poem like this?"
A student said that is was mainly the language, the way Donne chose his words and the order that he put them in.
Another said it was the complicated imagery that it's not obvious what Donne is trying to argue and that it takes several readings to understand his ideas.
"Do you think an poet might change the order of words to emphasize ideas that wouldn't otherwise be emphasized in the poem?" I ask. It's an idea the students grudgingly acknowledge.
"It's really hard poetry to read", says one student. "And I really can't see the point in reading it."
"The point is to look at the complexity of the world around us, to say, 'This isn't what I thought it was going to be. I guess I should realize things aren't always what they seem.' I want you, when you are confronted with a difficult text to tackle it and understand it, because there might be some important ideas within the text that can help you understand the world or your family or your boy/girlfriend better."
"But that's the trouble with poetry," one student says. "It can mean more than one thing at the same time."
"So can people", I say. "Don't you want to be able to catch their double meaning?"
The students look at me as though I've informed them that volleyball district championship trophy was just revoked on a technicality.
"Look, poetry is complex, because at it's very best it's trying to tell us something important about the world we live in, but tell us in a way that is memorable. Some of you will leave today and forget this poem, but some of you, the next time you see a flea will consider what's inside of it, and consider how it's not all that different than us. Trying to eat, survive and pass on its genes. Or maybe when you see that flea you will consider your own relationship a little differently. Think about your commitment; your goals; where you want the relationship to go."
It's not what they want to hear, but some of them look at me in agreement.