Steve Buckledee employs a poetic strategy for getting students to examine language in greater detail.

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The following article is reproduced with the kind permission of English Teaching professional magazine.


A useful technique to encourage advanced students to read a text intensively, considering both the denotative and the connotative meanings of each word, is to have them change the layout of a sequence of words taken from a newspaper or magazine article in order to produce a poem. This is not an idea that I can claim as my own: Gillian Lazar gives an example of this operation, and she, in turn, is indebted to Jonathan Culler. The essential rule is that the student is free to change the layout and print size/type but must not alter the words themselves or the order in which they appear.

Poetry in action

My own example is shown here.

Text 1 is taken from a magazine article about Luigi di Bella, an octogenarian Italian physician who devised a drug treatment to combat cancer, which he claimed was more effective than chemotherapy. He was a highly controversial figure, revered as a saviour by some and dismissed as a quack by others.

Text 2 is my reworking of precisely the same words in the same sequence to produce what is recognisably a poem, albeit one that is not a candidate for any literary award! What is not in doubt, however, is that its formal characteristics mark it as something with literary intentions, or at least pretensions, since the spatial and graphological changes add something to the original message. Indeed, Text 2 can then be subjected to literary criticism (or more accurately, stylistic analysis).

Text 1

Nothing about Luigi di Bella stands out. He's not tall. His dark suit, by Italian standards, is rather plain. Even the restaurant where he's having coffee is unremarkable. 

Text 2

                  luigi di bella
                                    STANDS OUT
he’s not   

his dark suit
by italian standards
is rather                           plain
even the restaurant
where he’s having coffee
is                                     unremarkable

Stylistic analysis

The poem conveys an idea of negativity from the beginning, given that it starts by highlighting the word nothing and from there goes literally downhill. Indeed, the downhill graphological layout iconically represents a negative evaluation of what is being described.

Luigi di Bella's name is printed in lower case, which implies a loss of status, relegation to the level of a common noun, ordinariness. The verbal expression stands out appears in bold print and capital letters so that the form of the words offers a visual demonstration of their meaning. A significant contrast is observed: the verb 'stands out' but Luigi di Bella, in lower case standard print, does not.

The word tall is printed vertically, so again, form imitates meaning, and a similar contrast is made: he's not is printed horizontally, so the personal pronoun referring to di Bella is one quarter of the height of the adjective tall. Italian is printed with lower case i, another downgrading device that parallels the earlier status-lowering of the obviously Italian name Luigi di Bella, so the effect is to relate the diminishing of the adjective to further diminishing of the man.

The adjectives plain and unremarkable are both shifted to the right of the page (parallelism) in such a way that attention is focused on their semantic similarity. Both items demote di Bella. In addition, the long space between these adjectives and the preceding verb suggests a pause, which conveys the idea of someone struggling to find a suitable word to describe what is irredeemably nondescript.

Finally, all these formal alterations imply something about the author's attitude: the original article is a piece of objective journalism in which the writer's personal opinion of her subject does not appear, while from the devices employed in the reformulated text most readers would infer that the author has a certain contempt for di Bella.

In the classroom

In practice, some students will need some specific guidance as to possible tricks they can play. These include:

  • altering layout or font (perhaps also colour) so that form imitates meaning
  • spacing to reflect meaning (e.g. the word distant separated from the rest of the text)
  • spacing to draw attention to either synonyms or antonyms
  • making each line begin with the same word (easy to do with and)
  • uphill or downhill layout for positive or negative implication
  • layout that forms the shape of a recognisable object (e.g. a text about the dangers of smoking converted into a poem in the shape of a coffin).

There are, of course, many other changes that can be made, and from my experience, students often show great ingenuity in reformulating texts that they have chosen themselves.

In considering possible layout alterations, the learner is obliged to focus on each word in turn and think carefully about its explicit and implicit significance. Using spacing to isolate a term takes it partially out of context, which may modify the reader's interpretation of that word. The fact that word order cannot be tampered with should help the learner focus on the question of collocation; once again, extending the space between two components of a set phrase will weaken their interdependence and thus distort the message. Changes in graphological features often introduce attitudinal or emotive implications that were absent from the original text (as in my example above).

In short, converting paragraphs into poems is an activity which increases students' awareness, not only of the meaning of what is on the lines, but also of the other meanings lurking between them.