Rose is a rose: poetry in L2 classroom

Rose ...
The other day I got a beautiful red rose. I actually got other flowers too because it was my name day. But roses are special to me. I find them gorgeous and noble. And whenever I look at a single rose, I think of the famous line by Gertrude Stein: rose is a rose is a rose is a rose. It has an incredibly calming effect if you say it several times quietly. It's almost like mediation. Sometimes I think I fully understand what Stein meant when she wrote this; things are what they are. In Stein's view, the sentence expresses the fact that simply using the name of a thing invokes the imagery and emotions associated with it. In other words, we don't need to say a withered rose or a dewy rose because rose is a rose. It is up to the reader to imagine their own roses. Each person has their own experience and thus their own schema of a rose.

This is obviously fascinating for me as a keen linguist and an EFL teacher. The poet inside me dreams about ways of experimenting with such an intriguing style of expressing reality, even at elementary levels of language proficiency. From a linguistic point of view, all the students need is the name of an object, an appropriate article and the verb to be. Apple is an apple is an apple is an apple. Pen is a pen is a pen is a pen. Rain is rain is rain is rain. Students can listen to the sound of the line and start experimenting. They can discuss what effect each word (apple, pen, rain) has on them when they hear it. Does the number of syllables matter? What happens if the word is too long? By doing this they are encouraged to focus on every bit of the line; they need to zoom in on the stress, rhythm and the way the words are linked when being read aloud. This could be done in pairs or as a chain activity (a warm-up, for example), students passing on an object or an image around the class, saying the simple line one by one. As the activity involves lots of repetition, it's great for learning and revising vocabulary. If each student/pair is asked to use a different word, the class then gets more language input to work with. By writing down the same words repeatedly, students can reinforce spelling of problematic words as well as practise bits of grammar (for lower levels the focus can be the indefinite/zero article or the verb to be, while more advanced classes may want to practise difficult vocabulary items).

... is a rose ...

It's interesting that in her writing, Stein threw away the traditional rules of grammar, and she made her words act in a completely new way. For her, each word is a completely independent existence. She didn't use generalizations, and unlike other writers in the 19th century, she wasn't interested in causes, purposes and explanations. In fact, her language had no past and no future - only continuous present - because she wrote about reality which she found directly in front of her eyes. This may sound like good news to a language learner, but by no means does this mean that her language is simple or easily understood. Here is how Stein would describe a scene:

All the pudding has the same flow and the sauce is painful, the tunes are played, the crinkling paper is burning, the pot has a cover and the standard is excellence. (An Acquaintance with Description, 1928)

Here Stein doesn't organize the experience for the reader. Things speak directly and immediately. Each object and event has the same importance, and each of them is complete in itself. What would happen if you let your students describe a place (classroom, park, room, playground) in the same way - as it is, without generalizations, causes, purposes and explanations?

(The chalk is waiting), (the board is impatient), (the room is silent) and (the light is dim). 

.... is a rose ...

There's no complicated or complex grammar here but a great potential for lots of colourful vocabulary. Students describe what they can see right there, on the spot. There are no limits to imagination, and interesting word combinations can emerge. The door to creativity is wide open.

ELT is not just about plain language instruction. Our job is to provide students with various kinds of experience related to the target language. By working with poetry, students will become familiar with alternative ways of expression, and they will broaden their cultural horizons. This may ultimately motivate them to read and explore literature outside regular English classes. Some may even find the courage to try and write their own poetry.

By the way, this is my 100th post. But this is not how Gertrude Stein would put it. She would probably say this is a post number one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one and one. 

Because according to her, this is the reality of the term One Hundred....


... is a rose.

References: High, P.B. (1986). An Outline of American Literature. Longman.