on teaching poetry

Teaching Poetry: The Reading-Conversation-Writing Cycle

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In his essay “Of Studies,” first published in 1625, Francis Bacon declared, “Reading maketh a Full Man; Conference a Ready Man; And Writing an Exact Man.”1 Certainly, all three apply to teaching and learning about poetry. To be a writer, one must be a questing reader, forever seeking closer intimacy with the art; and talking about its details, whether in actual conversation or merely to oneself, can lead a reader down unexpected imaginative paths. The three actions are entwined: one leads to the other, leads to the other, leads to the other. Even if you think of yourself as more reader than poet, more teacher than reader, participating in all elements of the reading-conversation-writing cycle will help you become a more concentrated and flexible practitioner.

 

Reading

There are many ways to absorb a poem: by listening, by reading silently, by reading aloud, by memorizing. But in my view, copying out a poem—letter for letter, word for word, comma for comma, line for line—is an essential tool for engaging with poetry. Although memorization is a wonderful way to absorb a poem, it leaves us open to error: for instance, we often misremember words or omit lines. Memorization also allows us to overlook the visual power of a poem: punctuation and capitalization, stanza and line breaks. But when we write down every element of a poem, we come as close as we ever will to living inside another mind as it actively creates a poem.

Moreover, copying out a poem forces a reader to slow down and take note of every single detail. This makes it an amazingly useful way to counteract writer’s block, which is often simply the malaise of distraction. Copying presses us to concentrate on the entirety of the poem—not its so-called meaning but its actuality: the bits and pieces of language that accrue to form a work of art.

In the classroom I frequently dictate poems to students so that the class as a whole can experience the sensation of discovering a poem in this focused, cohesive, mesmerizing way. Master teachers Baron Wormser and David Cappella write persuasively about this approach in A Surge of Language: Teaching Poetry Day by Day: “By dictating the poem I can slow time down and get the words into my students’ bodies. Poetry is physical and I want them to experience that physicality. By writing the words down . . . they have to grapple with the physical nature of each word.”2 For poets, readers, and teachers who are grappling alone with a poem, copying directly from the page serves a parallel function.

In truth, the very act of copying out a poem can be a form of homage, even a gift. Picture the look on a student’s face if you were to copy out one of her poems and then return it to her, along with your admiration. In 1904 Rainer Maria Rilke offered such a gift to an aspiring young poet named Franz Kappus. In Letters to a Young Poet, Rilke wrote:

You see—I have copied your sonnet, because I found that it is lovely and simple and born in the form in which it moves with such quiet decorum. . . . And now I give you this copy because I know that it is important and full of new experience to come upon a work of one’s own again written in a strange hand. Read the lines as though they were someone else’s, and you will feel deep within you how much they are your own.3

Conversation

Most of you know how transporting a class discussion can be. There are moments when the group’s verbal connection seems to lead every participant into new territory. Suddenly, students with different beliefs, ideas, skills, and backgrounds are listening and absorbing each other’s words, not just for the sake of politeness but because those words are leading both the group and the individuals into complex explorations.

In a notebook entry, Robert Frost once wrote, “‘There you are—you’ve said it’ is the most influencing thing you can say to a person. Or I know exactly—you get it just as I have felt it.” By means of this simple interchange, the speakers share, in Frost’s words, “fellow feeling and common experience.”4 At this instant, they are no longer engaged in instruction or chat, in argument or even discussion. They are participating as equals in a conversation that has crystallized around a suddenly shared perception.

In an ideal classroom conversation, one person’s thoughts jumpstart another person’s thoughts. Readers agree and disagree. They draw connections from their personal lives. They branch into further research. They puzzle over crabbed bits of language. They consider the complexities of character. They honestly admit confusion.

At the same time, no one out-talks anyone else. No one behaves as if she has privileged, superior knowledge. No one imposes a viewpoint or hijacks the topic under discussion. Older readers do not patronize younger readers. Younger readers do not sneer at older readers.

Finally, no one loses focus, gets flippant, or digresses into vagaries. This is an intellectual activity. People are thinking hard. They are taking risks when they articulate their perceptions and ideas. They force themselves to stay concentrated on the work at hand.

Yet most teachers and students know that this kind of intense civil engagement is not an everyday event. A teacher may weaken the discussion by focusing too much on her own preconceived answers. Conversely, she may not offer enough structural guidance, so participant remarks may become scattered and irrelevant. Self-confident chatterboxes may squelch diffident participants. Small groups may align themselves according to gender, age, or experience. Debates may descend into quarreling.

Despite these challenges, productive conversation is a crucial element of collegial growth and discovery. Too often, we develop the habit of distrusting our own curiosity about a work of literature because, long ago, a teacher or a classmate dismissed or ignored our observations. Such injuries can fester for a lifetime. But the opposite is also true: a challenging, stimulating group discussion can give us the courage to continue our own private conversation with a work of literature.

So how does a teacher create opportunities for these kinds of productive conversations? One way is to link the conversation directly back to the poem that class members have just read together or copied out. If the teacher structures the conversation around a specific element of language, then the ensuing discussion has a focus but also a freedom.

For example, the teacher might ask, “What’s the most important word in the poem?” On the surface, this is one of the simplest questions anyone might ask about a poem. Words are words: any English reader, however innocent or sophisticated, can identify them, react to them, and talk to each other about them.

Yet words are also a poet’s solid artisan materials, which she grasps and throws down and grasps again as she struggles to construct a poem out of silence. In this way, making a poem is very much like building a stone wall. Poets create something out of nothing; they use words to shape what has, till now, been wordless. “How should this grief be properly put into words?” is how Roman poet Horace chose to open his ode “To Virgil.”5 The way in which he wrestled with that question is the way in which he created the poem.

Imagine that the poem under discussion is Shakespeare’s "Sonnet 81."

Or I shall live your epitaph to make,
Or you survive when I in earth am rotten;
From hence your memory death cannot take,
Although in me each part will be forgotten.
Your name from hence immortal life shall have,
Though I (once gone) to all the world must die;
The earth can yield me but a common grave,
When you entombed in men’s eyes shall lie;
Your monument shall be my gentle verse,
Which eyes not yet created shall o’er-read,
And tongues to be your being shall rehearse,
When all the breathers of this world are dead;
            You still shall live (such virtue hath my pen)
            Where breath most breathes, even in the mouths of men.

As students examine the poem, they will immediately begin to notice that certain words reappear more than once. They’ll notice certain words that puzzle them or mysteriously attract them. They’ll notice that some of the words seem to be bound together by sound or connotation. In other words when a student asks herself, “What’s the most important word in this poem?” she’s starting to think about a poem as a poet thinks about it. She’s also starting to realize that her answer is variable and impermanent. Other people in the room are going to have different answers, and that’s wonderful because these differences are what will spark the conversation that the teacher is working to facilitate.

Great art, unlike so much else in our daily lives, requires us to come to terms with fluidity. As a reader becomes more familiar with the poem, her choice may change. As she grows older, her choice may change. As she experiences some momentous event in her own life, her choice may change. These shifts are themselves part of the ongoing poetic conversation; in some sense, they become part of the poem itself. A reader with a long, intense relationship with a particular poem might even agree with Adrienne Rich, who wrote in “Images of Godard” that “the moment of change is the only poem.”6

Writing

In The Life of Poetry, Muriel Rukeyser prefers to use the word witness rather than reader or listener because it “includes the act of seeing or knowing by personal experience, as well as the act of giving evidence.”

The overtone of responsibility in this word is not present in the others; and the tension of the law makes a climate here which is that climate of excitement and revelation giving air to the work of art, announcing with the poem that we are about to change, that work is being done on the self.

These three terms of relationship—poet, poem, and witness—are none of them static. We are changing, living beings experiencing the inner change of poetry.7

Reading, conversation, and writing are bound to one another. What we read not only changes us but presses us, in Rukeyser’s terms, to take “responsibility” for “giving evidence” of that change. For an analogy, think of how listening intensely to music can press a songwriter to create her own work. Yes, the listener is acquiring information about song craft and construction. But she’s also drawing the sounds and emotional resonance into her inner self. Her subsequent need to write her own music is driven by the “climate of excitement and revelation” that creates her “inner change.”

Philip Levine describes this sensation in his essay “The Poet in New York in Detroit”:

I had known García Lorca only as the author of the “gypsy poems,” a writer of lovely, exotic poems that meant little to me. But now one Saturday afternoon became a miracle as I stood in the stacks of the Wayne University library, my hands trembling, and read my life in his words. How had this strange young Andalusian, later murdered by his countrymen, come to understand my life, how had he mastered the language of my rage? This poet of grace and “deep song” had somehow caught my emotions in a way I never had, and suddenly he opened a door for me to a way of speaking about my life. I accepted his gift. That’s what they give us, the humble workers in the field of poetry, these amazingly inspired geniuses, gifts that change our lives.8

So it’s important, whether you’re in the classroom or working alone at home, to make sure that your forays into writing aren’t limited to detached poetry prompts. By linking creative writing directly to creative yet focused reading, you and your students may be lucky enough to discover that “suddenly [a poet] opened a door for me to a way of speaking about my life.”

I’m sure you’ve met more than one would-be poet who writes reams of verse but never bothers to read books. Often these writers seem to believe that a poem is nothing more than a blurt of undigested feeling, a hysterical diary entry broken randomly into lines.  Detached poetry prompts do nothing to solve this attitude. Merely they offer a formula. Many, for instance, function as templates (“Write a four-syllable first line, a five-syllable second line, a six-syllable third line”). Others are simply story starters (“Imagine you’ve found a locket in a leaf pile”). Even though they induce writing, they don’t draw the writer into the larger conversation of poetry—what Jorge Luis Borges calls “the tale wherein all the voices of mankind might be found.”9

Just as importantly, detached writing prompts don’t inspire revision. When you’ve fulfilled the instructions of the prompt, you’ve finished the poem. Revision becomes a chore, an imposition, not a natural stage of writing. But when you write within the reading-conversation-writing cycle, you’re always returning to poetry: perhaps rereading a poem, perhaps engaging with a very different one. The cycle ignites fresh conversations, and the poet strives to capture her quickened emotions and ideas in new approaches to a draft. Like Borges, she aspires: “Sometimes I am courageous and hopeful enough to think that it may be true—that though all men write in time, are involved in circumstances and accidents and failures of time, somehow things of eternal beauty may be achieved.”10

So imagine that your students have just spent an hour engaged in an intense conversation about which word in Shakespeare’s "Sonnet 81" might be the most important one. Your next task is to give them a chance to respond creatively to what they have just read and discussed with such sensitivity and enthusiasm. How do you shift their thoughts from “What’s the most important word in Shakespeare’s sonnet?” to “What’s the most important word in the poem you are writing?” and then eventually to the recognition “I must figure out how to make every word of my poem important”?

Sonnets can be dangerous writing prompts because they tend to lure poets into rhyme-scheme obsession. Those fourteen come-hither line endings often become so distracting that the poet allows the rest of her draft to fade into undifferentiated filler. So,  as you did during the classroom conversation, structure the writing exercise around the power of individual words. To get yourself started, look at the words that open each line of "Sonnet 81":

Or
Or
From
Although
Your
Though
The
When
Your
Which
And
When
You
Where

Now that I’ve erased the rest of the sonnet, Shakespeare’s first words stand out as remarkably colorless—at least connotatively. With the exception of the bland personal pronouns your, your,and you and a single article, the, all of the words function as sentence drivers. Or what? what? From where? Where to? Every one of them requires a writer to push herself to choose a next word.

When I’m teaching a class, I sometimes throw out this poem’s opening words as verbal writing prompts. “The first word is Or!” I shout, and the students write feverishly. “Next line,” I shout. “The first word is Or!” I don’t give them time to analyze but push them to write quickly. The results of these rapid first drafts are always varied, but they are consistently active and dramatic, making full use of the propulsive sentence logic that fluent English speakers internalize over the course of their lives. The bland opening words force the students to keep moving down the page, yet each writer retains control of her subject matter. Simply she’s responding to an arrangement of grammatical sign posts.

“A poem is the act of having an idea and how it feels to have an idea,” said Robert Frost.11 By teaching poetry within the frame of the reading-conversation-writing cycle, you help your students recognize and participate in the synthesis of thought and invention that drives great poetry. Instead of separating analysis and creativity, you fuse them into a single concentrated experience. As a student once said to me at the end of a class, “I needed that joy.”


 

Footnotes

1. Francis Bacon, “Of Studies,” in The Essayes or Counsels, Civill and Morall, of Francis Lo. Verulam, Viscount St. Alban (London, 1625), http://andromeda.rutgers.edu/~jlynch/Texts/studies.html.

2. Baron Wormser and David Cappella, A Surge of Language: Teaching Poetry Day by Day (Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 2004), 7.

3. Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet (1929), trans. M. D. Herter Norton (New York: Norton, 1954), 52–53.

4. Robert Frost, notebook 6 (1910), in The Notebooks of Robert Frost, ed. Robert Faggen (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap/Harvard University Press, 2006), 87.

5. Horace, “To Virgil” (23 b.c.e.), in The Odes of Horace, trans. David Ferry (New York: Noonday, 1997), 65.

6. Adrienne Rich, “Images for Godard” (1970), in Adrienne Rich’s Poetry, ed. Barbara Charlesworth Gelpi and Albert Gelpi (New York: Norton, 1975), 53.

7. Muriel Rukeyser, The Life of Poetry (1949; reprint, Ashfield, Mass.: Paris Press, 1996), 175.

8. Philip Levine, “The Poet in New York in Detroit” (1994), in A Poet’s Sourcebook: Writings about Poetry, from the Ancient World to the Present, ed. Dawn Potter (Autumn House Press, 2013), 226.

9. Jorge Luis Borges, “The Telling of the Tale,” in This Craft of Verse, ed. Călin-Andrei Mihăilescu (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000), 43.

10. Borges, “A Poet’s Creed,” in ibid., 115.

11. Frost, notebook 4 (1909–50), in The Notebooks of Robert Frost, 54.