I Don’t Teach Poetry

I Don’t Teach Poetry

There. I’ve said it. Or perhaps confessed. I quit a number of years ago after noticing that, although I enjoyed books about poetry, especially Perrine’s Sound & Sense and Western Wind, my students did not. Nor were they enamored of William Packard’s Poet’s Dictionary, or the frankly intimidating size of Preminger and Brogan’s Princeton Encyclopedia. And these were students who chose to take an elective in poetry that would not count toward their major.

I began wondering about my own “love” of poetry. Do I really love it if I can’t keep the meters straight? I sometimes manage to remember the anapest because of a line in The Count of Monte Cristo. (“He aspires to the hand of the proud Eugénie,” says Albert de Morcerf, before adding, “Huh! That’s a perfect anapestic line. I promise you, it was unintentional.”) I often recall Robert Frost’s saying: “All that can be done with words is soon told. So also with meters—particularly in our language, in which there are but two, strict iambic and loose iambic” as a means of exonerating my ignorance of metrical forms. I had to ask myself if I genuinely loved something if I couldn’t recognize it (and not for want of trying). And if I did not or could not do this, why should I expect my students to? They certainly couldn’t get from me what I didn’t have to give.

Thanks to a brief, long-lost essay, I began using a threestep approach to individual poems. We still read Perrine, but only as “background”—no quizzes on meter or genre. I was after poetic knowledge—not of poetry, but of poems—even if of only one poem per week.

And that has become the point. We don’t read or study “poetry” (a vague, abstract concept), but rather we read this poem and then we read that one, and so on. As we get more poems “inside” us, we gradually get better at reading them. Robert Frost says:

The way to read a poem in prose or verse is in the light of all the other poems ever written. We may begin anywhere. We duff into our first. We read that imperfectly (thoroughness with it would be fatal), but the better to read the second. We read the second the better to read the third, the third the better to read the fourth, the fourth the better to read the fifth, the fifth the better to read the first again, or the second if it so happens. For poems are not meant to be read in course any more than they are to be made a study of. I once made a resolve never to put any book to any use it wasn’t intended for by its author. Improvement will not be a progression but a widening circulation. Our instinct is to settle down like a revolving dog and make ourselves at home among the poems, completely at our ease as to how they should be taken. The same people will be apt to take poems right as know how to take a hint when there is one and not to take a hint when none is intended. Theirs is the ultimate refinement.

Here’s the three-step process that I have used with high school, undergrad, and grad students for more than thirty years:

1. Read the poem aloud, preferably more than once by more than one person;

2. Ask: “What do you notice?”

After a bit of discussion,

3. Ask: “What is it about?”

And that’s it. Read and ask two questions. Teachers: shut up and let the students talk. Don’t point out what you find interesting; get out of the way and let the students find something. And if they don’t, let the silence grow until something happens (see Teaching With Your Mouth Shut, by Donald L. Finkel). This has proved so liberating for students, and so engrossing for us all that the fifty minutes melt like the snail and we look up saying, “What? Already?”

Incidentally, I rarely have to ask the second question—“What is it about?”; this comes up naturally just by noticing things in the poem. Please notice that we do not ask or discuss “What does it mean?”. Our questions are “What does it say?” and “How does it say it?” A poem is not a puzzle (although they can be puzzling), but rather a poet’s attempt to communicate something—a story, a moral, a mood, a point of philosophy or theology or literary theory, or his or her love or despair or wonder. These purposes are often combined to great effect, as in Hilaire Belloc’s Cautionary Tales for Children and its sequels. Even if a poem’s only purpose is to entertain, like Edward Lear’s nonsense rhymes, Lear nonetheless wants us to see that life is filled with funny doings and sayings because it is filled with people who (bless their souls!) do and say things that are funny.

Do I want my students to know what a sonnet is? Of course! Just as I want them to be better than I at seeing and identifying meter, rhyme schemes, allusion, assonance, and all the rest. But I want them to know them because they have read and enjoyed comparing seven sonnets, because they have seen how a different meter or length of line affects what the poem says. And if they remember it for this poem, perhaps they will recall it when they read that one.

Once, leading a seminar, I chose “Mending Wall” by Robert Frost. A student said, “I don’t like ‘Mending Wall’.” “Here we go,” I thought. After we read it and had pointed out a few things, I wondered aloud if it was composed in blank verse (this was a genuine question—I only ask questions to which I don’t know the answer). “It is?” she said. We all counted all the syllables, discovered that it was in fact blank verse (I offered a very brief “definition”), and the class ended with her saying, “I changed my mind; I love this poem!” That happened about ten years ago; it remains in my mind and heart because studying a poem—this poem—brought us joy in a way that studying “poetry” has never done.

Dr. Frederic Putnam
serves as Professor of Bible and Liberal Studies at Eastern University’s Templeton Honors College. He has taught graduate, post-graduate, and undergraduate courses in biblical language and interpretation since 1984, as well as high-school level seminars in Shakespeare, poetry, literature, and philosophy. He and his wife, Emilie, have three daughters, all of whom live in southeast Pennsylvania.


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