on teaching poetry

The Poetry of Superstition and Supposition



Superstition continues to flourish around the earth even in the face of the most technologically advanced societies. Some may regard it as a curious relic dating from less scientifically advanced times when people sought explanations for the apparently random workings and spinnings of nature. To others, superstition is an integral and constantly shifting part of the richness of culture in an increasingly secular world. New technologies and new relationships to nature often breed new superstitions as we grapple with changes and advancements.

We now know that some superstitions originate from scientific fact, such as some that are related to animals, food, and weather, and yet—on other occasions, there seems to be no reason or rationale behind a notion at all. People still cross their fingers in a promise or become leery when a black cat crosses their path. Why do you think superstitions have such a hold on people? Imagine the spark (and sparkle) of incorporating superstition with supposition in a poem—it's a direct request of the reader to trust the speaker: Trust me, have faith in me—just for a moment. First this stanza. Then one more. And if you like that so far, perhaps come along with me for just one more stanza . . . Such intimacy for being total strangers, no? The intimacy can be as quiet and tender as if breaking bread together over a dimly lit table, or as fun and frolicking as if riding a tilt-a-whirl side by side. But there it is—at the end of a poem, it's as if the reader and speaker shared a knowing wink: a reader's loneliness solved, even if it is for just one moment.

Before you write, consider:
What does the word superstition conjure up for you? Any favorite supserstitions come to mind? Do you actually believe in any? What does it mean to be superstitious? Is it harmful? Helpful?
Superstition = the poetic explanation/expression of a phenomenon that is otherwise logically unexplainable.
How does this function (if at all) in your writing of poems?
One connection between poetry and superstition that I see is faith—i.e., What happens when something is believed and/or understood without explanation, or when you hold a belief and don't need physical proof in order to trust its existence.
Supposition is a way of drawing the reader into a moment of hypothesis. You can use, then, superstition to pose a question of "What if . . ."for the reader . . . a sort of welcoming (or nudging or shoving, even!) into the speaker's world of faith and imagination to present/explain a larger, more universal truth that is otherwise unexplainable. And to do this by choosing what Coleridge calls "the best words, in the best order."1

What happens when you take a superstition and try to connect it to a line or two of an actual belief that you hold, or an actual memory of yours? For example: What connections can be made between the belief, "There is no such thing as love at first sight," and the superstition that if you sleep with a yarrow herb underneath your pillow, you will see a vision of your future partner in your dreams?

1. Cover your mouth when you yawn or evil spirits will fly into your body.
2. If you sit by a fire with a group of friends and a person's shadow does not appear to have a head, that person will be the first to die.
3. If a bird frightens a pregnant woman, her child will be born with a wing instead of an arm.
4. "A mole on the arm can do you no harm, a mole on your lip—you are witty and flip. A mole on your neck brings money by the peck, but a mole on your back brings money by the sack."
5. If a hen runs into your house, you will receive important visitors.
6. If a person's eyebrows join at the nose, they are not to be trusted.
7. If you can catch a dragonfly, you will be married within the year.
8. Dimples are a sign that God has touched you with favor, but "a dimple on the chin means a devil within."

1. Samuel Coleridge. The Table Talk and Omniana of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Ed. by Humphrey Milford. Oxford Edition. Oxford University Press, 1917. 73.


Reprinted from Poets on Teaching: A Sourcebook, edited by Joshua Marie Wilkinson, by permission of the University of Iowa Press. Copyright © 2010 by Aimee Nezhukumatathil.