Teaching Poetry

This is notes from The Chronicle‘s forum on Teaching Poetry.

st-jerome-carvaggio-gothic-writing“I thought Helen Vendler’s suggestions in the back of the instructor edition of Poems, Poets, Poetry were really helpful for non-major students.”

“At the beginning of the poetry unit, I devote a class session investigating what poetry actually is. I have students talk/write about their notions/conceptions of poetry, how to tell a “good” poem from a “bad” poem, etc., and work from there. I bring in some poems that show different approaches to poetry in terms of form, content, etc., and help students figure out what’s going on in those. Then, I have students search on the Internet for what they think is a “good” poem, and have them explain, in writing, why it qualifies as a good poem. I’ve had very good luck with this method, and it makes the rest of our poetry study much more interesting for all of us.”

“I sometimes teach an intro to lit course for non-English majors, and I have them do a poetry paper on song lyrics — I want them to realize that poetry isn’t something that’s confined solely to a stodgy English classroom.”

I can tell you what I do to introduce the idea of close reading, which might also be useful for you in a general course about poetry. Sorry if it’s a little bit long.

I first try to demystify the idea of close reading–to get them away from the notions that you’re supposed to find “hidden meanings,” to “read between the lines” as opposed to really reading the lines themselves, or, worst of all, to simply make stuff up. I present close reading as a three-step process: (1) understand what you have read; (2) notice details of language that seem strange or interesting; and (3) attempt to explain the effect of those details on the work as a whole.

I then get them to practice the steps with a sample poem that I think is extremely teachable: Shelley’s “Ozymandias.” I have them read the poem and then we go through step one–understanding–by basically having them translate the “point” of the poem into prose. (I always emphasize that this step is a necessary prerequisite to close reading work, but not a substitute for it. I don’t want my students to stop at simple paraphrase or summary. Explaining “understanding” as “Step Zero” sometimes can help to stress this point.)

I then solicit examples of interesting or strange textual details as part of step two–noticing. This phase can be more difficult for them, because they aren’t necessarily sure what counts as a textual feature that is worth attending to. It’s a good idea to have a few sample features held in reserve. Once they get started, though, we quickly get a long list of notable features, all of which are listed on the board.

For the third and final step–explaining–I pick out an especially promising feature from the board and ask them to explain what effect that authorial choice has on the work as a whole. I generally stay away from asking the question of why the author made that particular choice, because it can lead to thorny questions of authorial intent that might be better addressed later on. I stick to explanations based on effect rather than intent. I usually get pretty good answers, which go on the board in a parallel column, that I can then use recursively to reinforce how the process works: I ask whether the explanation for one feature can also explain another feature. Gradually, a theory of how the poem works starts to emerge, a theory that usually tracks standard scholarly readings of the poem as an example of Romanticist thought. As a voila moment, I talk about those standard readings and the importance of Romanticism to the poem–the point is to reveal that they have discovered something real about the poem, something that is empirically “there” and “right.”

When this approach goes well–and it usually does–it gives the students a really thrilling moment of discovery and helps to animate their own later work with close reading.


Since this is the least accessible, most frustrating, and most “boring” genre to many students, I encourage them to recognize the ways in which they are surrounded by lyric in their own lives. One semester for an entire course on poetry, I had students bring in a sample of the most complex lyrics they could identify in a song they enjoyed. And then they had to write short papers explicating those lyrics in the same way that we had used explication to analyze more conventional poetry. That was pretty broadly enjoyed.

When I was teaching the course, slam poetry was still pretty big — we watched that documentary on slam, and a few students even went to a slam-style poetry reading event downtown on a weekend.

When I have taught poetry, I usually start with questions like:
Who writes poetry?
How does one write poetry?
Who reads poetry?
Then I talk about places where poetry exists that people might not expect, like references to Poe’s “The Raven” in a comic strip and “I think that I shall never see” in Letters to the Editor.

I also teach the “grammar” of poetry, recognition of terms, and, after we have practiced on a few poems in class, I have them bring in three copies of some song lyrics. Then we trade those around. Everyone looks for the poetic devices in the lyrics of their neighbors’ songs.

I also go through and read the poems, even though I often have no idea what the song sounds like. They laugh about my presentation.

3 thoughts on “Teaching Poetry”

  1. Getting ready to teach a short poetry unit in freshman compostion class. Thanks for the ideas.

  2. I like this topic. Thank you for presenting it in this way.

    I am a university teacher. I have been teaching poetry since 1990. I always associate teaching poetry with activities in the class and outside class. In the class I show my students vedeos on poetry; they listen, and then they imitate a native voice , while reciting a certain poem to be studied in the class. Outside class I have an annual poetry competition. Now I am doing a research paper on this topic. I need some helpful recent sources. Any advice?

  3. I enjoyed reading the piece and will use some of the writer’s ideas in my class, “Introduction to Literature.”

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