The Poetry of Teaching English

The concept of life is inextricably linked to that of creativity as change and development, which naturally govern existence, are enabled and generated by human resourcefulness and, often, genius. As an essential part of life, education cannot be viewed today merely in terms of what it transmits, but also in terms of how it transmits it. Creativity has to play an important role in educating the students’ minds and nurturing their spirit, thus transforming the educational process into an experience infused with creative energy, freedom of thinking and flexibility of approach. This paper aims at offering a brief analysis of the manner in which creativity can be employed during the English classes with a view to providing new contexts for the practice and consolidation of linguistic knowledge and skills.

These new contexts are, in this case, represented by poetry and poetry translation, two areas defined by creativity, which do not only enable the understanding and appreciation of literature, but also offer an interesting approach to vocabulary and grammar teaching. Creative teaching and learning are essential because what ultimately matters is enabling students to develop flexible ways of thinking and perceiving the ever changing life. Some of the areas that can be approached through poetry (translation) are punctuation, prosodic elements, grammar structures, vocabulary aspects and stylistic devices.

Although little attention is usually paid to punctuation during the language class, we cannot deny the important role that it plays, especially in developing the students’ writing ability. As a rule, we tend to assume that punctuation marks will eventually be mastered by students anyway during the process of language learning and we generally focus on matters that we consider much more important, such as using the most suitable vocabulary item or linguistic structure in a given context. Yet, every once in a while we can devote time to punctuation and make sure that our students know how to use it properly. Thus, we can use the following stanza from Keats’ La Belle Dame Sans Merci (2000: 32) and ask students to supply the missing punctuation marks by choosing for each numbered gap the most suitable functional description or by providing explanations for their choices themselves:

“I saw pale kings and princes too …. 1….
Pale warriors ….2…. death-pale were they all ….3….
They cried ….4…. ….5…. La Belle Dame sans Merci
Thee hath in thrall ….6…. ….7…..”

For the first two gaps the students can choose between a punctuation mark indicating the end of a declarative sentence (a full stop) and one indicating a pause or separating items in a list (a comma). If we specify that the same mark is used in both gaps, then the latter choice is the correct one; nevertheless, a full stop would have worked, too, for the first gap taken in isolation. For the third gap the students can think about using either a full stop/period or, as the author did, a semicolon, a mark which indicates a pause between main sentences. A colon (marking the introduction of an explanation or quotation) or a dash (marking a break in the sentence) can be used in the fourth gap. The use of the verb cried in the third line helps us infer that what comes next represents the actual words uttered by someone, which means that quotation marks are the most suitable choice for the fifth and the seventh gaps. As regards the sixth gap, the same verb cried also helps us identify the type of sentence that follows, namely an exclamatory sentence expressing strong feelings and requiring, of course, an exclamation mark. The students do not necessarily have to guess what the author used in the stanza; the purpose of the activity is that of making them more aware of the function that punctuation marks serve in communication, especially in its written form. This will make them become more successful in their essays, articles, reports, letters or e-mails as it will give their writing clarity and persuasive force.

Prosodic elements, such as rhyme, and vocabulary aspects, such as synonymy and antonymy, can be approached by means of an activity that requires finding the most suitable final word in each line of a stanza. Let’s take, for example, the following fragment, which is a translation of the second stanza of the poem O ramură întârziată by O. Goga (1986: 154):

“Haven’t you stopped along the road
To ask yourself: what is the secret
That from your mind is so well stored
By petals shivering with cold
Which, come tomorrow, will be wilted?…”
(Translated by L. Puiu)

All the italicized words can be replaced by synonyms or antonyms which, together with information about the rhyme scheme (in this case, abaab), can become useful tips, helping students find the final word in each line. For instance, in the first line, the word road can be replaced by the synonyms way or path; the word secret, in the second line, can be replaced by mystery or enigma or by an antonymic phrase, such as public knowledge; in the third line, the word stored can be replaced by the synonyms kept or preserved; the noun cold, in the fourth line, by the antonyms warmth or heat; the word wilted, in the last line, by the synonyms withered or faded. By taking into account the information on the rhyme scheme (which specifies that the first line rhymes with the third and the fourth, and the second line rhymes with the last) the students will be able to find the most suitable word in each synonymic or antonymic series so as to complete the stanza. Such an activity is meant to check on the students’ knowledge of pronunciation and of semantic relations, making them aware, at the same time, of the role played by rhyme in poetry. Linguistic structures can become the focus of the following activity that requires students to compare the original first four lines of Sonnet XXXIV by Shakespeare (2002: 40) with the translated version belonging to Gh. Tomozei (Ibidem, p. 40) and to point out the changes and the similarities observed by them:

“Why didst thou promise such a beauteous day
And make me travel forth without my cloak,
To let base clouds o’ertake me in my way
Hiding thy brav’ry in their rotten smoke?”

„Tu mi-ai făgăduit o zi ferice
şi fără mànta-mi am pornit la drum
sub norii începând să îşi ridice
ca să te-ascundă, putredul lor fum.”

As regards the changes, the students will probably notice that the translator chose to turn the interrogative form of the sentence into a declarative one, which also entailed changes in the structure of the sentence, clauses and phrases. The original interrogative adverb and the auxiliary verb are not preserved in the Romanian version because the former is no longer necessary, as the sentence is now declarative (a statement instead of a question), and the latter has no functional equivalent in Romanian, as we do not use auxiliaries in order to ask questions. Another change that can be observed is in the translation of a beauteous day by o zi ferice. Although, apparently, we have the same type of structure in both versions, a careful student will notice that the order of elements in the Romanian phrase is different, obeying the rule of the language into which the translation is done (the target language, as it were). In Romanian, the adjective is usually placed after the noun and only for stylistic purposes does it come before it. In English, the adjective normally comes before the noun, with very few exceptions.

Another change can be noticed in the third line, where the phrase base clouds, consisting of an adjective and noun, is translated by sub norii începând să își ridice, which renders the lexical element base by a grammatical sequence preserving the reference to the low position of the clouds. Again, there is apparent similarity between their rotten smoke and putredul lor fum as, in this case, the order of elements in the Romanian phrase seems to reflect the original one, but the students can observe the fact that lor, which is a pronoun in Romanian, is placed medially in the translation, whereas their, which is a determiner in English, is placed initially. Another aspect that stands out is represented by the old forms of language, such as didst, thou, thy, which do not have a formal correspondence in Romanian, but for which the translator tried to compensate by using archaic words, such as făgăduit and ferice. These are just some of the changes and (apparent) similarities that can be noticed after a careful comparison and they are meant to draw the students’ attention to the fact that different languages have their own manners of encoding reality and foregrounding its features, but, at the same time, that there are also quite striking similarities, reflecting a basic universality of perception and cognition, and, in some cases, a common linguistic source.

For the students who are really passionate about literature and stylistic analysis an activity meant to highlight the manner in which stylistic devices are rendered from one language into another would be quite interesting. For example, they could compare the second stanza of the poem Sara by O. Goga (1986: 44) with the translated version in order to see if the stylistic devices in both versions are functionally equivalent or even present at all in the translation:

„Zarea-și picură argintul
Pe ovezele de aur,
Ostenit, din aripi bate,
Ca un vis pribeag, un graur.”

“The horizon drips its silver
On its golden fields of oats,
Like a vagrant dream, a starling
Wearily, its wings unfolds.”
(Translated by L. Puiu)

Probably the first figure of speech to attract the students’ attention would be the simile present in the last part of the original stanza. The simile is also rendered in the translation (…. ca un vis pribeag… – ….like a vagrant dream…), the major difference residing in the fact that the semantic content of the third line is relocated in the fourth line, and that of the fourth, in the third, in the translated version. The simile also contains an alliteration (the repetition of the consonant /g/), which is present in both versions and contributes, together with the use of commas, to creating the impression of weariness and difficulty of movement as transmitted at the semantic level of the last lines. The impression is conveyed by the slowing down of the tempo of the lines due to the pauses induced by the repeated use of commas and by the repetition of the obtrusive sound /g/. The students can also notice the contrast between the first part of the stanza, reflecting delicacy and ease of movement both semantically and alliteratively (Zarea-și picură argintul / Pe ovezele de aur), and the second part, conveying the idea of difficulty and slowness. The contrast is also rendered in the translated version, although the alliteration centred on /z/ in the original is replaced by one centred on /s/ in the translation (The horizon drips its silver / On its golden fields of oats). Another contrast that contributes to the impression of delicacy reflected in the first lines is the one between argint / (de) aur, mirrored in the translation: silver / gold(en). The study of the manner in which stylistic devices can be conveyed from one language to another does not only reinforce the students’ analytical skill and literary knowledge, but it also develops their critical thinking ability as they have to draw conclusions regarding linguistic differences or similarities and the possibility or impossibility of translating poetry.

If, generally speaking, language provides access to literature, roles can also be reversed, with literature becoming a gateway to language. By using poetry (translation) as a starting point, students can acquire or consolidate their linguistic knowledge and skills, at the same time becoming aware of the subtle beauty of literature and of the creative potential inherent in the human mind. The rigid barriers associated with fixed linguistic structures and common lexical sets and phrases can be broken due to the fact that the encounter between students and language takes place in the artistic realm of poetry, a realm where creativity reigns and words acquire new meanings with each act of reading.


1. GOGA, Octavian, Poezii, Editura ,,Ion Creangă”, București, 1986.
2. KEATS, John, Poems. Versuri, Editura PANDORA-M, Târgoviște, 2000.
3. SHAKESPEARE, William, Sonnets. Sonete, Editura PANDORA-M, Târgoviște, 2002.


prof. Lenuța Puiu

Profil iTeach:

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