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Poetic Sensibility: What It Is and Why We Need It in 21st Century Education

Written by

Madeleine Fuchs Holzer

Contributor Page


February 06, 2017


on Teaching Poetry
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Poetry's work is not simply the recording of inner or outer perception; it makes by words and music new possibilities of perceiving.
Jane Hirshfield, from Ten Windows:  How Great Poems Transform the World (Alfred A. Knopf, 2015)


Defining Poetic Sensibility

The process of writing poetry begins with a struggle to describe what is not easily captured in words, but is put down in words that create associations in the mind and emotions of the reader. It requires a keen multisensory experience of the surrounding world; an ability to ask questions of, and see patterns in, that world; an ability to make both logical and intuitive connections; a facility and passion for finding just the right word or phrase to express what, at first, might seem inexpressible; and the use of imagination to connect all in unexpected ways. Language, along with its sounds, rhythms, associations, and appearance on the page, are the tools poets have to explore phenomena and situations that they find compelling.

When someone deeply engages with poetry, she experiences, through mind and sense connections, its meaning and emotional impact; she understands the experience beyond the words. I liken this experience beyond the words to what Jane Hirshfield describes as “new possibilities of perceiving” in her book Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World (Alfred A. Knopf, 2015). Hirshfield writes, “Distinctive realms appear to us when we look and hear by poem-light. And these realms are clearly needed.” Readers who can do this, and take imaginative leaps based on their perceptions, have developed what I would call “poetic sensibility.”

The idea of poetic sensibility primarily draws on John Dewey’s definition of aesthetic experience from his book Art as Experience (Perigee, 1934), in which he examines what happens when we perceive visual art.

…to perceive, a beholder must create his own experience.  And his creation must include relations comparable to those which the original producer underwent.  They are not the same in any literal sense.  But with the perceiver, as with the artist, there must be an ordering of the elements of the whole that is in form, although not in details, the same as the process of organization the creator of the work consciously experienced.  Without an act of recreation, the object is not perceived as a work of art.  The artist selected, simplified, clarified, abridged and condensed according to his interest.  The beholder must go through these operations according to his point of view and interest. 

In the case of poetry, the “beholder” is the reader. Developing a poetic sensibility parallels Dewey’s idea of perceiving a work of visual art, the difference being that the reader has to more or less “recreate” the poet’s process.

Developing a poetic sensibility can help students pursue discipline-based inquiries more fully and deeply and think creatively with more substance than they would otherwise—skills that have been described as even more necessary for living in and contributing to a peaceful and vibrant twenty-first century.  For poets, this sensibility is most likely intuitive; it doesn’t need to be learned. For readers, the experience of engaging deeply with poetry requires consciously understanding and using some of the same skills that poets use when they write.


Learning about Poetic Sensibility

Laura Donnelly’s poem “The Carolina Wren” helps us understand the distinction between intuitive poetic sensibility and what readers may have to learn to deeply experience her poem. Not only is the poem a product of Donnelly’s intuitive poetic sensibility, it is also a poem that makes some of the poet’s writing process transparent, so readers can begin to understand what may be intuitive to her.

In describing how she heard the wren, the speaker in the poem says she “noticed the mockingbirds first / not for their call but the broad white bands.”  She follows this with, “…Noticed because / I know first with my eyes, then followed / their several songs braiding the trees.”  Then she makes a connection that foreshadows hearing the wren: “only later, this other, same-same-song, / a bird I could not see but heard.”  In this way, seeing and listening to the mockingbirds begins a multisensory experience, a foundation for her poetic sensibility.

The speaker goes on to make further connections, intuitively linking one to another in her mind—first to a child bouncing on a trampoline, and then living alone on a mountain:

                                  stilled into the daily

which isn’t stillness at all but a whirring

           gone deep.

—Then to a composer whose hands 

a shape like a cone, a honey bee hive

And, when playing the piano

      how the hand likes to hover each patch
of sound. Likes gesture. To hold.


is like this.

We believe the last line because of these complex sensory descriptions, connections that create metaphors and similes, and patterns with words that the poet creates by line breaks and placement of words. When the speaker finally describes her moment with the wren, she has, herself, had deeper and yet expanding experiences. Over a period of time (a week), she has revisited childhood, heard the “deep whirring” of stillness, and experienced the hovering, holding and gesturing of the composer. At the same time, through the art of her writing, the poet has created experiences for the reader that also are deeper and expanding.  In the end, we seem to be with the speaker beyond her words, and our own senses, “…pinned to the ground. / Pinned and spinning in the sound of it.” We also have been brought into the writer’s process, itself.


Fostering Poetic Sensibility in Students

Drawing from this analysis of “The Wren,” on John Dewey’s idea of aesthetic experience with visual works of art (cited earlier), and Maxine Greene’s work and lectures at the former Lincoln Center Institute, we can begin to teach some, if not all, of the aspects of a poetic sensibility to students. (Maxine Greene's work can be read in Variations on a blue guitar: the Lincoln Center Institute lectures on aesthetic education, published by Teachers College Press in 2001.) Again, the characteristics of a poetic sensibility are

  • a keen sensitivity to the surrounding world (multisensory perception);
  • an ability to ask questions of that world;
  • identifying patterns;
  • being able to make both logical and intuitive connections;
  • a facility and passion for finding just the right word or phrase to express feelings and meaning; and
  • the use of the imagination to connect the above in unexpected ways. 

Teach This Poem, a weekly series that features a poem, an interdisciplinary resource, and set of activities for teachers to use in the classroom, aims to foster some of these capacities. To illustrate this, two specific examples of classroom activities from Teach This Poem follow.  The first poem under study is “1905” by Marilyn Nelson, the second, “My Skeleton” by Jane Hirshfield. Further, these poems were chosen specifically to illustrate how poetry can be incorporated in lessons in Social Studies and Science, two disciplines where poetry is not often found. For clarification, after each activity, there is a reference corresponding to the aspect of poetic sensibility to which it refers.


Teach This Poem: “1905” by Marilyn Nelson

George Washington Carver

George Washington Carver

Photo credit: Circa 1910; photographer unknown. This photograph is in the public domain.

Classroom Activities

  1. Show your students the photograph of George Washington Carver, but conceal his name. Ask them to write down all the things they notice about the person in the photograph. Then ask them if they know who the person is. If no one knows, tell them. Then ask your students if they have ever heard of George Washington Carver, and if so, what they know about him. (multisensory perception, making connections)
  2. Project the poem “1905” by Marilyn Nelson in the front of the classroom. Have your students write down what jumps out at them in the poem, including words they might not understand.(multisensory perception)
  3. Ask one student to read the poem aloud while the listeners write down new things that “jump out.” Repeat this process with another student reading out loud. (multisensory perception)
  4. Ask your students to get into small groups and help one another figure out the words they might not understand, as well as share what they noticed in the poem. (asking questions, making connections)
  5. Hold a whole-class discussion: What did your students learn from the poem about George Washington Carver? What surprised them? How does Marilyn Nelson get us to feel about Carver? What poetic techniques does she use? (use of the right word or phrase, using imagination)


Teach This Poem: “My Skeleton” by Jane Hirshfield


Diagram of the Human Skeleton


Jane Hirshfield Reads Her Poem "My Skeleton"

Classroom Activities

  1. Show your students the labeled image of the human skeleton. Ask them to write down what they see in the skeleton. (multisensory perception)
  2. Project the poem “My Skeleton” by Jane Hirshfield in front of the class. Ask your students to read it through silently and circle all the words and phrases that jump out at them. (asking questions)
  3. Ask one student to read the poem aloud paying attention to the structure of the poem on the page, followed by a second student reading the poem aloud with the same instruction. Have the students who are listening add anything else that jumps out at them to their notes. (multisensory perception, asking questions)
  4. Show your students the video of Jane Hirshfield reading her poem and talking about what inspired her to write it. (multisensory perception)
  5. Ask your students to turn and talk with a partner about what they noticed in Hirshfield’s poem after the first four activities. (multisensory perception, identifying patterns, making connections)
  6. Ask your students to look at the image of the human skeleton again. Hold a whole-class discussion: Do they notice anything differently about the way they look at the skeleton after experiencing the poem? If so, what is different? (using imagination)


Poetic Sensibility across the Disciplines

So…why study poetry in disciplines other than English? What does poetic sensibility have to do with anything besides poetry? If the basic capacities fostered from studying poetry in ways similar to that used above specifically help us understand (and express) more of what seems inexpressible (a critical skill if we are to expand our knowledge of our complex, diverse world) then extending these ideas to other disciplines makes sense. What would happen if students and teachers developed some specific capacities related to poetic sensibility as a way to reinforce work in other disciplines—with one change to the list of capacities to which we have been referring? The fifth capacity—(e) “a facility and passion for finding just the right word or phrase to express feelings and meaning”— is specific to disciplines that use language as a tool of expression. If we substitute the analogous phrase, “finding just the right way to express insights and reactions,” then each discipline’s mode of expression or analysis may be used, e.g. numbers and symbols in mathematics, as well as materials and methods in the other arts.

For instance, in astrophysics, as part of their scientific process, practitioners spend much time observing celestial phenomena through powerful telescopes.  When they see something unexpected, they ask themselves how it came to be or what it represents; they describe it, and make connections to phenomena they know about that might be similar. And they form new theories and explanations by precisely using both language and mathematical notation.* Social Studies teachers ask their students to read from primary sources, as historians do, by reading deeply, asking questions of the text, making connections to other sources, seeing patterns among thoughts, and forming their own meaning. And the teacher facing math-phobic students might enter into the study of a new concept by asking students what they noticed about the numbers, what questions they might have about them, and how they resembled other number concepts they have seen in the past, the responses to these questions ultimately leading to an answer in mathematical notation.


Poetic Sensibility and Reframing Education

Poetic sensibility is important to consider as we reframe what education is about in the twenty-first century, because it allows us to start with a rich field of discovery before we branch off into specific disciplinary content.  A person cannot make a new discovery, unless she looks carefully and somehow experiences what has already been discovered.  She cannot solve a pressing problem unless she knows how to understand its complicated nature fully.  She cannot imagine new possibilities that will work, unless she knows how to make connections to what she already knows and can identify patterns.  In this way, developing a poetic sensibility, or at least aspects of it, can help deepen the whole nature of creative problem solving.

Those of us in education, most often, have prioritized learning discipline-based content over the process of discovery.  And we rarely talk about using our imaginations, unless we are teaching in the arts. We now know it is not only the content of the subjects that we need to learn or find; it is also the process by which new discoveries are made in these disciplines that matters. We also have learned that teaching process without relevant content does not work.

Developing a poetic sensibility, broadly defined to apply across disciplines as a common ground of discovery and imagination, can play an important role in this conversation. Educated citizens in the twenty-first century require both the ability to be creative and the ability to understand discipline-specific content. Defending our beliefs, educators often get mired in either/or arguments rather than generating an appropriate blend.  Developing a poetic sensibility may just set the groundwork for this much needed synthesis.

*I am indebted to Luke Keller, an astrophysicist at Ithaca College, for the opportunity to learn more about the process he and his students use.