Articles for Teachers & Students

Herbert Sucks. Donne is a Pimp.

Why high school students are the best poetry critics.

by Brian Staveley

In a recent issue of Poetry magazine, Kay Ryan mused, “Who can read [Gerard Manley] Hopkins’s ‘The Windhover’ and not feel welling up inside a kind of giddiness indistinguishable from the impulse to laugh?” Well, every single one of my 11th-grade poetry students, for starters. “I don’t have the slightest urge to laugh when I read anything by Hopkins,” says Becca. “And why does she keep saying we and us?” Her comment is not unique. After reading Elizabeth Bishop’s “Filling Station,” a poem that ends with “Somebody loves us all,” Sammy commented indignantly, “A: that’s bullshit, and B: it sounds like something from Barney.”

I find these responses funny if I happen to agree with the assessment. When the poem being trashed is one I cherish, it’s more difficult. My students gave “Ode on a Grecian Urn” a score of 5.8 out of 10. In high school terms, that’s an F. “To Autumn” earned a D+. “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” failed. Clearly they have not yet mastered the subtle art of grade inflation.

I like Keats, and when his poems get snubbed, I erect defenses. After a year of teaching these students, however, I’m starting to think that irreverence for poetic authority is vital to the appreciation of poetry. The more “professional” we become as readers, the more myopic we grow. Who else but a poet steeped in the craft could have asked Ryan’s question without realizing its absurdity?

It would be easy to rescue Keats (and Ryan) by dismissing these kids as philistines, the mindless automatons of popular culture. But they aren’t. Despite the fact that they didn’t like Keats, they did like Berryman, and Wyatt, and Dickinson, and Donne. The list goes on.

They all chose this course on English-language poetry as an elective in their junior year of high school. Their reasons ranged from the elevated (“I’ve always wanted to read Paradise Lost”) to the practical (“I play guitar, and I want to write cooler lyrics for my songs”) to the solicitous (“I thought you wanted me to”) to the downtrodden (“I didn’t get my first choice”). While some were fired up about poetry, many openly admitted that they loathed the genre and signed up with the faint hope that they might learn to like it.

I teach at a high-pressure private day school in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I’m used to students working diligently, no matter how much they dislike a subject. I was nervous, though, the night before we began Paradise Lost.I wondered if I should start looking into other career paths. After all, here are lines from the opening:

Sing Heav’nly Muse, that on the secret top
Of OREB, or of SINAI, didst inspire
That Shepherd, who first taught the chosen Seed,
In the Beginning how the Heav’ns and Earth
Rose out of CHAOS: Or if SION Hill
Delight thee more, and SILOA’S Brook that flow’d
Fast by the Oracle of God;

Nothing sets the teenage mind afire like gnomic references to the Hebrew scriptures couched in heavily enjambed lines of Latinate syntax. I need not have worried. Milton won them over. I did my best to illuminate shifts from Germanic to Latinate syntax, the perfect placement of a chiasmus, the flexibility of Milton’s pentameter, and the theological underpinnings of the poem. They thought these features were “cool,” but what they loved was Milton’s epic imagination, the scope of the drama, the complexity of the characters. By the time we concluded, the kids wanted to make T-shirts with Satan and the quote “Only in destroying I find ease / to my relentless thoughts.” This year one of my students began a college essay, “I have a crush on Satan.” They didn’t just like the bits with Satan; they liked all of it. Sara even liked book 7, about the creation of the world, which I’m always tempted to skim.

If that wasn’t enough to convince me that these kids appreciate poetry, there was their memorization assignment. Every week I required that they learn by heart 15 lines of poetry. They could choose easy poems (Blake) or hard poems (Eliot). I even allowed them to learn song lyrics, but not one did. Instead, the list included such trifles as “The Hollow Men,” “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” the first two books of Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” and countless sonnets by Donne, Hopkins, and others. One student chose William Carlos Williams’s “This Is Just to Say,” a 28-word poem, but was ridiculed so ruthlessly by the rest of the class—who, at that moment, took 45 seconds out of class to memorize the poem—that she ended up learning something else to avoid the taunting.

I was less encouraged when only a couple of kids liked George Herbert. After our customary discussion failed to kindle any admiration or awe, I stayed up half the night rereading most of “The Temple” and preparing a lecture. I never lecture. The kids listened politely to my best defense of my favorite poet, the only poet whose book sits always at my bedside, the only poet whose poems I read every week. They were unimpressed. Although they tried not to hurt my feelings, they just didn’t really think Herbert was up to snuff. “Up to snuff,” as I was to discover, means “as good as John Donne.” In every end-of-year conference, the kids listed Donne as one of their favorite poets. “He’s a pimp,” according to Hilary. Sammy holds a slightly more nuanced view: “I’m like, ‘John, you’re such an asshole.’ But I mean, I love him.” When asked to write her epitaph, Alex composed a single couplet:

John Donne,
Here I come.

I like Donne as much as the next guy, but I hadn’t meant to start a cult. These responses suggest that students in the 21st century can still have an intense and dynamic relationship with poetry, even old poetry. There is real value and insight in the first impressions of readers who have no emotional stake in the subject, no axe to grind, no schooling to see past. I can’t look at Herbert without hearing Eliot’s voice in my head whispering, “Brilliant poetry. Brilliant.” When my students read Herbert, they read nothing but Herbert.

I can trace my love of many of my favorite poets to the opinions of others. This doesn’t invalidate that love, of course, but it does make me wonder what poets and poems I would gravitate toward if I had skipped my formal education. It makes me wonder if some of my favorite emperors are really wearing clothes.

* * *


The day after reading “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” Daisy walked in the classroom exclaiming, “You didn’t tell us it was a zombie poem!” I was a little unsettled. I consider myself an authority on zombies, zombie movies, and contingency plans for zombie attacks. I also know a little bit about Coleridge. I had never thought of “Ancient Mariner” as a zombie poem. Among my students, I was in the minority. They explained, as though to a somewhat slow child: “The sailors. They’re zombies. They die. Then they get up and move around, but they can’t think. That’s what a zombie is.” They had a point.

They had hit upon what would have been obvious to original readers of the poem: it fit the mold of a kind of writing popular at the time, German, gothic, and delightfully, even preposterously, horrible. As one reviewer wrote 20 years after its publication, it “appeared at a time when, to use a bold but just expression, with reference to our literary taste, ‘Hell made holiday,’ and ‘Raw heads and bloody-bones’ were the only fashionable entertainment for man or woman.”

Opinions and ideas accrete around a poem like barnacles on the hull of a ship until the thing can barely move. Consider these sentences from 20th-century criticism of Coleridge’s poem: “Beres’ psychoanalytic reading of The Mariner’s symbolism suggests that Coleridge’s psyche was characterized by an oral fixation resulting from a repressed conflict between love and hatred for his mother.” Or: “Coleridge’s distinction between Reason and Understanding is the basis for a hermeneutic framework which exploits the tension between signifier and signified.” A good scouring is in order, and my students, I have discovered, are very good with a wire brush.

My students have reminded me that poetry needs to deliver the goods. This may sound obvious—no self-respecting reader of poetry would admit to poring over mediocre verse. As Hilary said, “There needs be the right equation between what you put into a poem and what you get out of it. I’m willing to put a lot of energy in, but I want something awesome in return.” Matt prefers poetry that “makes [him] think a lot more about things, about life.” Will just looks for “something magical.”

I have spent countless hours plodding through things that were definitely not magical; most of Pound’s “Cantos” spring to mind, or long portions of “The Faerie Queen” or hundreds of poems by Wordsworth, or 90 percent of the small magazines published today. I believed for years that Pound was one of my favorite poets. I own about 25 books by or about him. I discovered only recently, much to my chagrin, that I really like just a handful of his poems.

My high school students are willing to put down a Wordsworth poem halfway through just because, well, it’s not that great. They don’t want historically significant poetry, or metrically unusual poetry, or undiscovered poetry on which you might write a decent dissertation; they want great poetry. At a time when so many poets are fretting about the state of their art in our culture, this should be profoundly reassuring.

Originally Published: October 25, 2006

COMMENTS (16)

On November 7, 2006 at 1:28pm Francisco Aragón wrote:
I enjoyed this piece very much and wish I had

had a poetry teacher like this when I was in high

school!

On November 10, 2006 at 6:45am Sarah wrote:
John Donne was a hotty too

:)

Ha.

On November 13, 2006 at 8:55pm David wrote:
Much of what you write is true, but I pause to consider that you are speaking of the epic poem vs. the small poem. It is easy when you have got hundred plus pages to write about Satan, but try doing it in 24 lines!

The great thing about young minds are that they are open. They are very sincere too.

I loved your article. It really cuts to the quick of it all. Well done.

On November 27, 2006 at 7:49pm Jesse wrote:
Sorry JA Midgley but your wrong. The romantics where hardly naive. They wrote many a poem about death, sadness, and unrequited love. The problem is they used lots of allusions to Greek Mythlogy that would have gone over a lot of these kids heads. The romantic verses celebrating nature would smell like manure on the farm to these city slickers. Also the romantics used a lot of straight forward language. There is a reason why post Petrachian metaphorical poets such William Shakespear and John Donne are so popular. The reason is, their metaphorical conceits capture peoples' imaginations. This teacher would have had better luck with more metaphorical verse such as that of the French symbolists. I think these kids would love Charles Baudlaire.

On November 27, 2006 at 8:22pm Jesse wrote:
Also, the mind of a highly metaphorical poet seems more ingenious then that of a romantic, who more often then not presents their feelings in a more straightforward manner. These students read the romantics and thought "oh I could write something like that." They read Donne and said "Holy $##^% who is this genius?

On November 28, 2006 at 9:09am Heather wrote:
Brian well written
Inspire me to begin
Modern Donne is in

On December 10, 2006 at 12:37pm Tabitha wrote:
Unique
In a room that’s full of dark
Pictures and pieces of colorful art
Its not full of evil but full of sin
And no one will let the light come in
Feelings of anger bottled inside
For such a little girl who should have nothing to hide
She fears what no one should fear
For her peers to come near to snicker and sneer
This little girl is so smart and unigue
For shes a spinning dart found at the boutique
She wishes to have a normal life
Shes tired of using bloody knives
Deep into her heart theres true love
This beautiful dove so pure and white
Just as a loving family is full of delight
This little girl as you can simply see…
Is the dark part of you and of me

Okay i have a question is this a good poem??
is there anyway i can improve it?

On January 4, 2007 at 10:13am Muffin wrote:
I Really adore your work it influences me to pursue my dream of becoming an exotic performer in a beauty pagent that i am entering this year it a foundation that gives you a chance to get a scholorship at Julie Art School of art

On January 28, 2007 at 2:15pm Marina wrote:
nice article Mr. Staveley, you better write one about our class this year...only i'm not sure what it would say. Probably that we all read Wyatt and then wrote sonnets about sex. Haha.

On January 31, 2007 at 4:52am Cain wrote:
Concerning the article, firstly, as obviously I will blather on about more about another topic for a few paragraphs in a moment, I found it to be a very insightful review of the facets of poetical initiation and a positive example of the receptivity and malleability that I hold as requisites for instruction. Also, damned amusing.

I'm hardly surprised at the prevailing sentiment of the comments on the Romantics. While I am accustomed to sighing at the frequent juxtaposition of 'naive' and 'Romantic,' I can't say that I'm any less accustomed to chuckling, etiher.

After years spent pondering this, what I would dub, misconstrueing of an epoch I have a few trite explanations that hold enough water to carry the majority of the argument. The word Romance and Romantic are etymological bretheren, obviously, and so somehow the denotations (and connotations) are slurred. Romantic poetry was a revolution of thought and method, Romance entails half naked pirates on half the new-releases on the shelf of the genre.

Also, the Romantics tend to be seen as lacking depth, by my judgement, due in part to their cursory reading on many a poetry aficionado's part. Also, in many cases, the romantics had metaphors that were remarkably abstruse. Even to use a poem that the cursory Romantic reader will no doubt read, Ode on a Grecian Urn, the entire thing is a highly developed metaphor for Keats' inquiry into the epistemology of life. There is within the poem the trait typically ascribed to the metaphysical conceit, namely being that of the ability to review the poem and have new wit and style spring upon you.

Shelley, for instance, is often reffered to as an adolescent panderer of shoddily crafted verses that are tinged with cliche emotions- an idea prolifigated by his contemporary critics and especially the critical leviathan Eliot. Granted, recently he has garnered more acclaim, he is still by and large either a poet's poet or the favourite of a reader who reviews a poem with the sonics and the imagery chief in mind- a thing which the Romantics will often reward. He is often a poet's poet, and the phrase I believe can be extended to astute readers of verse, because unless one delves Shelley is indeed lost to the verses most commonly printed in anthologies.
"Ode on a Skylark"
"Ode to the West-wind"
"Hymn To Intellectual Beauty"
etc
etc

But, even once again remaining in the commonly read, what of When The Lamp Is Shattered? A fair bit of metaphorical and elusive conception involved, per se. Also, Shelley was one of the most skeptical and inquiring poetic minds to exist, hardly ever taking things for granted in real life, and using his poems ways to manifest his questings. What about Clouds, I wonder? After seeing many unfrequented (and many popular) examples of skillful execution of trope I can only say that the youth disregard or regard the Romantics chiefly for stylistic and rhetorical reasons- either enthralled by the diction or put off by the fact that the Romantics -define- poetry for most people outside of the poetic sphere (and not in much more than a bare-chested corsair sense of the term, unfortunately) and so when they get there they have both preconceived notions and aversity to the diction which can be either simplistic, sing-song, or sentimental at times.

As well, not all romantics were straightforward, as I believe was mentioned. Though Wordsworth in part spawned the Romantic Revolution with Coleridge I daresay they define it, and there are more than a few verses from Romantics that are abstruse to or beyond the degree of the Metaphysicians.

I apologize, I suppose, for making this post both overlong and perhaps annoyingly direct. I merely happen to have a lot to say on a topic I feel strongly for, and while that perhaps doesn't excuse me, maybe the fact that I could've kept going will bring me closer to it.

On February 1, 2007 at 12:11pm Nick Frano wrote:
banging me jamoke sloke that thee cannot prevoke, me and I , yourself included all persuing the beauty of dreaming. Cant be I who tells you right, spark plug burnt -out not bright- cacaphony cheers, roars unchosen previsions of light, violet rays stream down, upon this crown gold fades to dust shattered in thin air blast back to the past creepily untold.

Sinners never leave they bleed at their feet, controld by emotions which set them free, knowing of right, told to do wrong, swinging off the edge never to come back home. Clarity dissovles missery injected poisoned by intensions lead by anxiety. curious as you when told not to do, following dark self been spoken, this anxious curse never be broken.

On February 17, 2008 at 1:22pm jewel wrote:
than u for ur article. but i still in dark about what should i call donne a romantic poet...or modern..or religious?

On March 2, 2009 at 11:27am niall wrote:
Donne has only recently come in to favour. In his own time only a tiny number of his poems were published. The great Sam scorned JD as a metaphysical - a yoker of incongrous images. Not until the twentieth century did he get a wide audience for his genius. The truth is poets who write a lot usually only write a few great poems. Some of Keats is airy-faery. Most of Elliot beyond the cats is for a select few, Pound is a ranter, Macdiarmid after the early brilliance is ditto in the other political hemisphere, most free verse could be written by any punk-rocker (ok maybe misspelled) and the sappy suffering sentiments of Wilf Owen makes us forget that most sojer boys love killing.

On September 18, 2009 at 8:05am M wrote:
John Donne, Here I come and Zombies.. fantastic! Keep up this great wook

On July 5, 2011 at 11:10am Adam wrote:
I found this article looking for articles about George Herbert... he's in the title, but not the article!

On September 4, 2012 at 7:31am jsmaxham wrote:
I almost didn't read the article because of the title.
Needless to say, when I did, I learned a lot about myself
and other things as well- like not to judge an article by
its title. I have always loved George Herbert ever since I
sang the Five Mystical Songs of Vaughn Williams composed
to his texts. If you have a chance to listen to them, I
highly recommend it.

POST A COMMENT

Poetryfoundation.org welcomes comments that foster dialogue and cultivate an open community on the site. Comments on articles must be approved by the site moderators before they appear on the site. By submitting a comment, you give the Poetry Foundation the right to publish it. Please note: We require comments to include a name and e-mail address. Read more about our privacy policy.

Related

Article Authors

Biography

Brian Staveley teaches English and History at a high school in Cambridge, Mass. He spends his summers rock climbing, exploring, and trying to stay out of trouble.

Continue reading this biography

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

This poem has learning resources.

This poem is good for children.

This poem has related video.

This poem has related audio.