Article for Teachers

Agents of Imagination

Science fiction poems in the classroom.
Illustration of a student dressed as an astronaut.

Poetry lessons too often progress something like this: a teacher reads aloud with feeling a poem she loves. Because she is a good teacher, she doesn’t immediately start peppering students with questions about imagery and diction but instead gently queries, “So what do you think?” Silence. Not a raised hand in sight. But English teachers hate silence, so she starts talking, telling students about the poet’s life and influences, pointing out where the poem turns, explaining every allusion. In no time, the bell rings. Students shake themselves out of their stupor and whisper, “Phew! For a minute there I thought we were going to have to do something.”

What pains me about this scenario, which I have enacted more times than I care to admit, is that students leave class thinking, “Mrs. Jago knows a lot about poetry. Not me. I don’t get it.” They depart feeling both insufficiently smart and insufficiently soulful —the exact opposite of what we intend. They leave without imagining new worlds, different lives. They haven’t engaged the imaginative possibilities of poetry.

In the introduction to his book Beautiful & Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry (2011), poet and critic David Orr suggests that our whole approach to teaching poetry needs rethinking:

If there’s one thing that often unites academic treatments and how-to guides, it’s the implicit assumption that relating to poetry is like solving a calculus problem while being zapped with a cattle prod—that is, the dull business of poetic interpretation … is coupled uneasily with testimonials announcing poetry’s ability to derange the senses, make us lose ourselves in rapture, dance naked under the full moon, and so forth.

He may have a point: students think they need to find the answer to the poetic riddle and participate in extreme emotional responses that often just aren’t there. In my experience, students don’t dislike poetry; they just find the art form annoying. A frustrated teenager may exclaim, “Why can’t the poet just say what he means?” Others may question why we make them read a particular poem, how it is relevant to their lives, why it is considered art at all, or what there is to learn from it. Along with feelings of annoyance, students—particularly students who consider themselves good at English—are embarrassed when they can’t immediately figure out what a poem means. Accustomed to having answers on the tips of their tongues, they are uncomfortable with the way lines of poetry make them feel inept. In truth, great poetry humbles us all.

For example, I have read Joy Harjo’s poem “She Had Some Horses” many times, and for the record, I have never understood it. I do, however, respond with emotion to its extraordinary beauty. This beauty makes me return to the poem again and again. Its repetition is mesmerizing. I feel the same way about her poem “Praise the Rain.” Why should we praise the hurt or the baby’s cry? Why praise crazy? Why praise sad? The poem raises many more questions than it answers. By sharing our uncertainties with students, we demonstrate that even experienced readers of poetry puzzle over lines and struggle to understand the poet’s intent. Maybe sometimes we can allow poetry to bewilder us. Instead of fighting that bewilderment, or diagnosing our emotional responses, we can let it trigger our imaginations.

One technique for helping students become more comfortable with uncertainty is to have them close their eyes and imagine they are holding in their hands an object of rare beauty: a perfect rose, a rare gemstone, a baby robin. Then I invite students to talk about what they would do next, how they would respond to the presence of this object. They tell me they would stay very still and look at it very closely. They say they would touch the object gently and observe it from every angle. Depending on the imagined object, they say they would smell or listen to it. I then suggest that they try to behave similarly when holding a poem. That’s not to say that a poem is a precious or delicate object but that we can experience a poem as an act of imagination.

Science-fiction poems are ideal vehicles for demonstrating the imaginative nature of the genre. Students can easily recognize how the writer’s imagination ignites the futuristic world of the poem. Less obvious is the extent to which readers must employ their imaginations to animate the words on the page. I purposely choose a poem for this exercise that is exquisitely beautiful and at the same time likely to confound readers at first glance, U.S. poet laureate Tracy K. Smith’s “Sci-Fi,” which imagines a distant and different future. Here are the first three stanzas:

There will be no edges, but curves.
Clean lines pointing only forward.

History, with its hard spine & dog-eared
Corners, will be replaced with nuance,

Just like the dinosaurs gave way
To mounds and mounds of ice.

I hand out copies of the poem and read it to the class. I then ask students to read the poem again for themselves, choosing a line that strikes them as luminous. We pause to talk about the meaning of luminous. As students finish reading, I instruct them to copy the line they have chosen and then write for four to five minutes about why they chose this line, about what it makes them think or feel. I give them permission to pose questions along with their comments.

When I notice that most students have stopped writing, I organize them into small groups with the following instructions:

  • Have one person in your group read the poem aloud once more.
  • Go around the group sharing your chosen lines and your reasons for choosing them. I encourage students to make this a conversation about the poem rather than read from their papers in a round-robin format.
  • Collect questions that continue to puzzle students.

As I sense that their small-group discussions are winding down, I call the students together and read “Sci-Fi” once more. I then call on individual students to share lingering questions or compelling ideas that emerged from their conversations, encouraging them to avoid simply reporting what their group talked about (too boring and rote). I urge them to discuss what they see now that they didn’t see the first time I read the poem to them.

You will have noticed that by this point in the lesson, students have heard or read this poem four times. We know the value of rereading for comprehension, but assigning a poem for students to read four times for homework will never work. I tricked them into reading Smith’s poem multiple times by creating different purposes and attaching difference voices to each reading. I can’t leave it there, though. My goal is much larger than simply teaching Smith’s poem: I want my students to become more confident and competent readers of poetry and to understand its broad possibilities.

Taking up the reins, I lead a discussion with my students, offering these questions:

  1. What human issues or problems does “Sci-Fi” explore?
  2. What does Tracy K. Smith say about those issues?
  3. What emotional response do you think the poet is trying to elicit?
  4. Does the poet want us to think about something? Is she trying to tell us what to think?
  5. What details in the poem confirm your interpretation?

I want to go where my students’ answers lead, but before the lesson ends, I make sure they examine this couplet from the poem: “For kicks, we’ll dance for ourselves / Before mirrors studded with golden bulbs.” What does it suggest about the future if we dance for ourselves in front of a mirror instead of with others? To what extent are we doing this even now? What is being lost in our solipsism?

For homework, I hand out copies of The End of Science Fiction,” by Lisel Mueller, and ask students to apply what they learned about reading poetry from Tracy K. Smith’s poem to their reading of this one. Here is the first stanza, which can grab a teenager’s attention:

This is not fantasy, this is our life.
We are the characters
who have invaded the moon,
who cannot stop their computers.
We are the gods who can unmake
the world in seven days.

I offer the following questions—not for students to answer in writing but to stimulate their thinking and prod them toward making comparisons between the two poems.

  • Where do you find similarities in how Smith and Mueller imagine the future?
  • Where do you see differences?
  • What do people in the future give up? For what? To what end? What does it leave them (us) with?

Other poems that work well in this thematic collection include Jon Anderson’s “The Robots, the City of Paradise” and Kyle Dargan’s “The Robots are Coming.” The connective tissue in this collection is more than simply space travel. I want to expand students’ conception of what poetry can be about to include imaginative explorations of artificial intelligence, technological advances, and the world as it one day might be.

Teaching poetry often feels like walking a tightrope. Too much lecturing, and students are intimidated; too little, and they are lost. I want students to hold a poem in their hands the way they held their imagined precious object, to feel a poem’s beauty before worrying about what it means. I don’t want them putting gold frames around poems with the label “Great Art” but rather to look closely, carefully, lovingly at what is there.

It is hard to argue that the ability to read poetry ranks high as a criterion for career readiness. Many highly successful people never glance at any poem after high school. Job prospects for budding poets are few. Maybe as Orr’s title suggests, poetry really is just “beautiful and pointless.” Of course, he has a point. Some poems are beautiful, but some aim to accurately represent ugly realities. Some are intentionally pointless; some aim for justice and truth. Many people don’t need poetry, but many people do.

Students who can and do read poetry possess an ear for language that serves them well whatever the reading or writing task, from reading between the lines of an email message to writing a heartfelt note on Mother’s Day. They develop an eye for words with nuanced meanings and how to employ such words for effect. They also possess a lifeline to some of the best thinking about what being human means. As William Carlos Williams reminds us, “It is difficult to get the news from poems yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.”

Originally Published: August 3rd, 2018

Carol Jago has taught English in middle and high school for over 30 years. She has served as president of the National Council of Teachers of English and as chair of the College Board’s English Academic Advisory committee. Jago has authored several books on teaching, including With Rigor for All: Meeting...