Classical Thought for Contemporary Culture

How Not to Teach Poetry

How Not to Teach Poetry

by Joshua Leland


From the Winter 2017 Issue

You might think that loving to read (or even write) poetry would make you qualified to teach poetry, but it doesn’t. I can still recall that sinking feeling in my stomach when, after reading a poem to my 10th grade class, I realized that I had to say something about it. It was a helpless feeling: “If you cannot simply see the beauty of what we read just now, what can I possibly say to make you see it?” It’s a bit like Chesterton explains in Orthodoxy: the things we are most convinced of are often the ones we find most difficult to explain or defend, like if you were suddenly asked why civilization should be preferred to savagery: the multiplicity of reasons is so overwhelming response is impossible. 

Where on earth could I even begin in order to try and show the beauty of a poem? It almost seemed impious to attempt such a thing, like Psyche stealing a glimpse of the god while he slept.

It took me about three years of repeated, demoralizing failure at teaching poetry before several ideas finally came together in my head. There is a lot that could be said about how to teach poetry, and I certainly don’t claim to know it all, but there are a few things I have discovered about how not to go about teaching poetry.

As is usually the case, someone else has already said the same thing, and better, so allow me to refer you to a poem by former poet laureate Billy Collins that really cuts to the heart of what I am trying to say. It’s called “Introduction to Poetry”, from his collection, The Apple That Astonished Paris

 I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive. 

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out, 

or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch. 

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it. 

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means. 


Collins offers several beautiful images for the way he would like his students to experience a poem, many of them wonderful because they are not the sorts of images we would expect. But as varied as all these pictures are, they have this in common: Collins wants his students to experience a poem as a vivid, tangible thing. 

But then he reveals the awful truth of our modern tendency: all we want to do when we read poetry “is tie the poem to a chair with a rope/and torture a confession out of it.”

When we read poetry, Collins says, we tend to begin by “beating it with a hose / to find out what it really means.”

When asked about the meaning of her short stories, Flannery O’Connor said that most people have the “notion that you read the story and then climb out of it into the meaning, but...the whole story is the meaning, because it is an experience, not an abstraction.” Cleanth Brooks, in the introduction to his textbook Understanding Poetry, admitted that the book really might have been better titled Experiencing Poetry. And I think he (and O’Connor) are speaking to a universal thing: we are often so caught up in finding meaning or understanding in art that we fail to do the more basic, fundamental, child-like thing: simply experience it. 

We have many confused pictures in our imaginations concerning poetry, but one big misconception is the idea that poetry is always supposed to be deep — that the value of poetry lies primarily in whatever information it holds locked up within itself, like a walnut whose shell must be cracked in order to get to the nut. We feel stupid if we read a poem and don’t have some profound interpretation to explore right off the bat. And we are very impatient.

As is so often the case, we mistake Blessings for Ends. Depth of meaning and profundity are good things, but if they are the only reason you are interacting with the poem then you are doing violence to the poem itself. It would be like interacting with people only in order to draw out some useful information that they possess, instead of respecting them as individuals made in the image of God. One is manipulative (what can I get out of this?) and the other is relational (how can I get to know them better?). 

Does it seem strange to say that we should treat poems the way we treat humans? Because that is precisely what I want to say. We need to stop thinking of poems as tools, as means to an end, and instead think of them the way we think of people: as worthy of honor and respect in their own right. It may not be the best metaphor for approaching a poem, but it’s a much better metaphor. 

A poem is an artifact of the human spirit. It is a created thing (‘poet’ in ancient Greek meant ‘Maker’), and although our ability to create poetry is not on the same level of creation as God’s (we cannot create out of nothing as he does), we are endowed with the power of what Tolkien calls “sub-creation.” Humans are gifted with the divine prerogative to use the images that God has given us in nature to create art that “pans the vein of spirit out of sense.” In other words, poetry allows us to incarnate, to give flesh to the invisible, eternal aspects of reality that we cannot see or experience with our senses. A poem is created within the mind of a person, and is then shared or passed on to the mind of others who see or hear it. And as such, a poem carries within it a distant glimpse, a faint echo, of its human maker, just as nature reveals to us glimpses of the glory and imagination of God, or as a hand-made chair reveals the craftsmanship and imagination of the carpenter. The Iliad, while certainly not containing all of Homer within itself, does yet contain a part of the great poet. His thumbprints are indelibly impressed into the poem itself. The poem is not the poet, but it is a part of him; he has endowed it with part of himself, just as God imparted himself to us when he made humanity. 

So sit down with poems over a cup of coffee and get to know them. Become familiar with them, so familiar that you begin to recognize their beauties, their faults and failings, their odd peculiarities that make them unique and memorable. Don’t assume that you automatically know what they are saying: before responding to them, take time to mull over the pictures they offer your imagination. Be patient. Love them without their having to prove themselves worthy of your love; be gracious and kind with them, even forgiving. You don’t always have to like them, and you certainly don’t need to attach yourself to them for the rest of your life, but you should treat them with honor. 

And especially, especially: do not do violence to them by treating them as a means to an end.

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