How Cole Porter Got My Student Interested In Poetry

by Bob MajiriOghene Etemiku

Most of the students I’ve taught Literature-in-English in my school come in expressing an aversion to poetry or poems. How this came to be that students from secondary school come in to study for their A levels have this kind of apathy for that subject I cannot tell. One of them refused to resume my classes because she felt I had made nonsense of all of the fanciful notions she’d been told in her secondary school by her favourite teacher. Luckily for us all, her parents had passed through the A level programmes too and encouraged her to take the class. She did. But I wouldn’t say much what the outcome of her 9-month programme was except that we ended up best friends at the end of the day.

So, to get them involved and interested I attempt a couple of things. First, I try to convince them a poem is peculiar kind of language for very important people, people who’re thinkers like Rousseau, Voltaire or Dante Alighieri. I tell them it’s the language of the gods: I tell them that the whole of the Psalms, the romantic letter of a guy to his lady called Songs of Solomon in the Bible all are poems. I tell them that they could be poets if they wanted. I tell them a poem is a composition that is metrical, not like prose, written in lines and stanzas, may have a rhyme or not and can best be analyzed if we consider its elements – rhythm, sound, diction and imagery. I tell them a poem transmutes into a song if accompanied with a musical instrument, any musical instrument. I tell them that in the early 18th Century that if you were interested in a lady, you’d better go join a Rhymer’s Club to be able to woo her with a love song. I’ve done all this with varying degrees of relative success.

But not so with this particular one: I tried a lot the tricks in my box-a-tricksand at the end I felt like that fox that tried to blow down a castle with a lot of hum and hem. But she was keen with the other genres. She’d contribute actively whenever there were discussions on the implications of an Othello getting hitched to a Desdemona, and risk polluting the so-called thoroughbredness of her blue-bloodedness with his dark mandragora. She picked a keener interest in Pinter’s existential The Caretaker, and told me once that she didn’t find the book as boring as it had been evinced by her mates. She was in love with Gabriel Oak’s steadfastness and resilience in Hardy’s Far From The Madding Crowd, and how at last love seemed to have resolved such tried and tested friends in the aristocratic Bathsheba Everdeen and the farmer, Gabriel Oak, in a morganatic marriage.

But just as I was about giving up, out of desperation and with the perfunctory inefficiency of one who’s just doing his job, I approached my class and student with the business of the day. It was Porter’s’I Get A Kick Out Of You’, a poem that sounded more colloquially constructed than any of the other poems like Browning’s ‘Andrea del Sarto’ or Dylan Thomas”A Refusalto Mourn the Death by Fire, of a Child in London’. It is a ballad, a love story of a persona expressing what chemistry takes place when he’s with his lady. Almost everything of interest to him becomes meaningless compared to the kick or spark or thrill he gets with his lady.

Structurally, ‘I Get A Kick…’ is a four-stanza poem nearly having an alternate rhyme sequence. Stanzas one, two and four have five lines each with stanza three having only two lines that resembled a refrain to stanzas one, two and four of ‘I Get A Kick…’. Therefore, I decided to experiment with the character of the poem as a song. So with the first stanza thus:

I get no kick from champagne;

Mere alcohol

Doesn’t thrill me at all,

So tell me why it be true

That I get a kick out of you.

I began to sing the poem, the song as though I was a rap musician, completely oblivious of the class scene, and thoroughly at peace with myself. SHE JOINED IN! I couldn’t believe my ears. She was smiling at me, urging, egging me on, to continue with my rapping. Of course we both continued rapping in the course of the whole class. At the end, I gave her as homework, to come to school the next day to ‘rap’ ‘I Get A Kick…’

Golly, she did – word for word, syllable by syllable, stanza after stanza. Well, this was my chance opportunity to get her to write her own ‘rap’, look through other poems to see if there was any ‘rap’ potential in them, and when we were through with the classes, it was a little too late for her to pass her A Level Literature exams with the high standards we have here in our organization. But she managed to come through with something of a well-nigh average result. The most important thing for me, however, is that I got the satisfaction of one who accomplished the nearly impossible.

You may also like

Leave a Comment