Article for Teachers

Advice for Teachers

Classroom tips for approaching poetry, based on what matters most to you and your students.
Image of students raising their hands in a classroom.

I teach at a very selective college these days, and I taught at a rather selective one before that; I’ve been away from K-12 education for a while, and have recently been reintroduced to its delights and rigors through my older son, now on the K end. So when the editors of Open the Door asked me to share, or create, a syllabus for middle- and high-school teachers who want to teach poetry—that is, poetry reading, poetry writing, the history and the appreciation of poetry, all of which go together at their best—I was first flattered, and then compliant, and then troubled by the request. This was not only because my own teaching has almost always involved college students—if you teach tenth graders or eighth graders every week, rather than visiting a high school class from time to time, then you know things about kids that age that I don’t know—but also because the request and the reasons behind it say something about where poetry is, and where it has not been, in K-12 education, lo these past decades.

I had the good fortune to meet a gaggle of graduate students in education last year, most of whom would be high-school English teachers soon, and most of them told me they weren’t sure how to teach poetry. They didn’t “get it”; they couldn’t communicate what they liked to their students. As a result, they taught it entirely as creative writing (students read all and only one another’s work); or they taught it, somewhat reluctantly, as it had been taught to them, as a short set of ultra-American and multicultural “classics” (Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson, Langston Hughes, and not even the most interesting poems by those three very interesting poets); or as evidence of what people used to like; or as puzzles to be solved—intellectual games with no emotional point beyond a test.

That’s not helpful. Nor, I fear, would a syllabus—my favorite poems and my favorite exercises, week by week, for you and your students—be as helpful as it could, because if you are a middle- or high-school teacher, you know your students better than I do. You also know your own evolving tastes. What should you teach when you teach poems and poetry? The answer depends on what you like and what you think they might like, and on what sort of reading you care most about. In lieu of a syllabus and a lesson plan, then, here’s some advice as you make up your own.

1. TEACH WHAT YOU LIKE

If you want to get your students to read poetry, and to enjoy reading poetry, and to write intelligibly about poetry, you must read it, and enjoy reading it, yourself. This doesn’t mean you have to love each poem you teach (some of you will have some poems you must teach, due to school-wide or statewide or AP requirements), but it does mean that you should seek to discover what poems you admire, and then think about why, and teach them alongside whatever else you offer. If your favorite poet is Elizabeth Bishop, work her into your lessons. If your favorite poet is Mary Oliver or Sharon Olds or Sarah Morgan Bryan Piatt or Kathleen Fraser or Emily Dickinson or Bruce Smith or Hart Crane or Alfred, Lord Tennyson, find a way to bring that poet’s poems into your course.

If you are a teacher who loves literature but does not already love poetry (there are many such teachers in America’s best high schools), pick up anthologies and leaf through them until you find some work that you like. I recommend, for poetry in general, The Norton Anthology of Poetry, and for the early twentieth century, the first volume of The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry. For contemporary poetry, consult more than one anthology—try to find anthologies whose editors have radically opposite tastes (say, J.D. McClatchy and Paul Hoover).

You can also ask your students to read an entire book (a single volume, not a Collected Poems) by an author you like, if you think the students will like her, too. I’ve done this repeatedly with college students, asking them to assimilate, for example, Terrance Hayes’s Lighthead, Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems, and Laura Kasischke’s Gardening in the Dark. All three books worked well (O’Hara uses a gaggle of proper nouns, but he’s so informal that most of my students don’t mind; Kasischke and Hayes excel at depicting specifically teenaged experience).

For earlier periods, if you are able to explore them at length, try anthologies devoted to single centuries, such as those edited by Alastair Fowler, John Hollander, Isobel Armstrong, or Christopher Ricks.

You might also consult textbooks. They are no substitute for a syllabus that you design yourself, but they can be helpful as you design it. Helen Vendler’s Poems, Poets, Poetry (with a useful short anthology in the back) and Mary Kinzie’s A Poet’s Guide to Poetry are two of the best.

2. DO NOT PROCEED CHRONOLOGICALLY

Some courses begin at the start of English poetry or in Shakespeare’s day and just march forward toward the present.

Don’t do that. It’s teeth-grindingly counterproductive: students get the most alien, most obviously difficult poetry first. Worse yet, they think they must learn poetry historically—as a series of events—and that they must always work hard to understand it. They do have to work hard to understand some of it, but they will likely want to do so only if they already know the rewards of understanding poems that do not present such a high bar.

So don’t start with hard things. Don’t start with the remote past, or at least not with the remote past exclusively. Start instead either with a selection of more or less recent works—works that you, too, admire!—or with a selection of works from several periods. A unit of poems for eleventh or twelfth graders might begin with Shakespeare’s sonnet 18 (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”) and sonnet 130 (“My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun”) as the oldest poems in a selection of simultaneously presented poems that includes living writers such as C.D. Wright, Kay Ryan, W.S. Merwin, and Juan Felipe Herrera.

That said, please do not confine yourself to living, or to recent, writers; make the eighteenth century, and the Renaissance, and the American Renaissance, and the classics in translation (or in the original, if you can) available to your students, too. Just don’t put them first.

3. GIVE STUDENTS A SENSE OF AGENCY: LET THEM PICK POEMS (FROM AMONG THE POEMS YOU CHOOSE)

When I teach poetry in a seminar (rather than a college lecture-hall) format, I always assign more poems than we will have time to discuss. In each class, I call on a student—usually a randomly chosen student (I sometimes use a Twister spinner for this “choice”)—to select a poem from among the ones we’ve read, and to read that poem to us.

This method means that any poem you discuss will have at least one student in the room who has committed himself or herself to that poem and who has made a tentative claim to liking it.

4. REMEMBER THAT YOUR STUDENTS’ TASTES ALREADY DIFFER FROM ONE ANOTHER

Some students prefer rhyme and meter and “old” poetry as long as it’s not too recherché. Others want poems to sound “modern.” The taste of some students is guided by an interest in hip-hop or classical music or country music. Try to work with them; try to find things you like that they can like, too. Some students find supposedly difficult contemporary poems more fun, more accessible, and easier to discuss than older poems. What’s clear to you may not be clear to them.

5. DO NOT FEAR PARAPHRASE, AND DO NOT FEAR OLD POEMS (THOUGH STUDENTS DO)

Rhyme and meter can put many students off, though they attract others. Complex or archaic vocabulary and reference to alien systems of knowledge (usually religion but sometimes farming, science, English geography, et cetera) almost always put students off. That doesn’t mean you should avoid poems with those references, much less that you should avoid poems with meter and rhyme. Instead, counter alienation and avoid confusion by using paraphrase, sometimes quite brutal paraphrase, to make the core of an older poem evident. Only once students know what it is saying can they describe how it says what it says or what it avoids saying (Frost: “All the fun’s in how you say a thing”). If you use paraphrase well, along with enthusiasm and attention to what your students already know, you can do well with supposedly quite difficult or “advanced” texts.

Good older poets who wrote unusual numbers of relatively accessible poems (poems that I think could engage attentive ninth graders) include the Shakespeare of the sonnets, Lord Rochester (John Wilmot) if you can get away with it (almost all of his best poems are obscene), William Blake, Thomas Hardy, A.E. Housman, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Thomas Traherne, Christina Rossetti, and Robert Burns.

6. ALL POEMS RAISE QUESTIONS; ONLY SOME HAVE ANSWERS

Here are some thoughts, not about what to teach, but about how to teach what you teach. Many college students have been trained to look, in every poem, for a “message”: either a moral lesson about how to live, or a thesis, a problem, and then a solution, such as the same students might put into, or take from, an argumentative essay.

Some poems work that way; many don’t. All poems, even the most recherché, are about something because they are about somebody; they show how somebody feels. All poems, like all other kinds of human speech and writing, address some sort of discovery or problem—from “My love has left me, and life seems meaningless now” to “I can’t find my socks.” But only some poems answer all the questions they raise, just as only some problems have solutions.

It’s important to me that my students see poems as versions of human emotions. It’s also important to me that they see poems as worth the time it takes to investigate them, to ask why these words occur in this order, with these sounds, these overtones. And it has become increasingly important to me that students see how poetry—like life—does not always offer clear solutions to the problems it describes. Sometimes all a person can do is describe. Or howl. Or write “Howl.”

7. POETRY IS AN ART FORM

To enjoy poetry, to go home thinking about it, students must see it as an artistic practice welcomed in but neither confined to, nor designed for, school.

Americans happen to live in a place and a time when the techniques and history of English-language poetry—like the techniques and history of music written for orchestras and string quartets—become available primarily through formal institutions of education. That’s a contingent truth about those art forms, not a necessary one. The techniques and history of other art forms—rock music, for example, and hip-hop and dance music, and scripted television programs—become available to contemporary Americans primarily through nonacademic channels, so contemporary Americans tend to think of the latter group as artless or uncomplicated and of the former group as sophisticated or hard.

They need to think otherwise. Nonacademic art forms are not inimical to analysis: critics have written good, long academic essays about TV. Nor do academically supported art forms require analysis before we can enjoy them. Some people—many people—listened to Mozart and Beethoven for fun before there were courses in music theory and music appreciation; otherwise there would not be courses in music theory and music appreciation. If poetry existed to be put on a test and for no other reason, nobody would ever write it.

Analogies to nonacademic art forms (art forms independent of the academy) can help you disarticulate poetry, an art form, from school, an institution. You can do that without being anti-intellectual, if you do it right. You don’t need to pretend that song lyrics are “the same thing” as poetry made for the page. TV shows aren’t novels, and sculptures aren’t paintings, and jazz isn’t baroque counterpoint, and baroque counterpoint isn’t rock and roll. We learn how to appreciate, and then to describe, each form of art only by paying attention to good examples—whether in or out of school. 

8. POEMS FIRST, LIVES AND CONTEXTS LATER (IF AT ALL)

We have come to care about John Keats’s life because he wrote his poems. The same is true for Elizabeth Bishop, Langston Hughes, Sylvia Plath, John Ashbery, Ogden Nash, Lord Rochester, and almost every other poet whose poetry you might teach. If you want your students to care about poems as poems, rather than as evidence of an eventful life, approach them as poems first and last. Give biographies when they are needed, but give poems, as many as you can, to your students one at a time. I do not mean that you should black out the name of the author, only that you should not lead with biography or context or literary history (“this is Romantic poetry”). If they like the poem enough, students will want to learn about the author and about her milieu in good time; if they don’t like the poem, why should they care about the author?

Leading with poems also counteracts the pervasive fallacy by which students think that true poems are written only by exceptional, super-special individuals—people privileged or cursed as we mortals can never be. That fallacy is the single most annoying thing about the way popular culture represents poets (or “poets”—“Jim Morrison, American Poet”). Some poets had troubled lives, and many had privileged backgrounds (which gave them the chance to read a lot and to learn some languages), but others led outwardly uneventful lives. Lord Byron died fighting for Greek independence; Lorine Niedecker, for a while, cleaned hospital floors.

9. ENCOURAGE STUDENTS TO READ MORE THAN YOU ASSIGN

If you have enough time and space in your schedule, it can be very helpful to ask your students to bring in poems they already like. While you shouldn’t let their choices take over your course, it’s important to encourage them to read more widely than your syllabus dictates. For sources, you might give your students a list of online anthologies and literary magazines and ask each one to bring in a favorite poem culled from reading among them. The proliferation of online mags, which they can read without leaving school or spending money, makes this sort of assignment much easier now, especially at the high-school level.

The Poetry Foundation (www.poetryfoundation.org) has a great archive, as do the Academy of American Poets (www.poets.org) and the British Poetry Library (www.poetrylibrary.org.uk). Some helpful online or partly online US magazines for contemporary poetry include AGNI, Boston Review, Mudlark, No Tell Motel, SHAMPOO, UbuWeb for avant-garde work, Contemporary Poetry Review for formally conservative writing, and too many others to name here.

10. MAJOR POETS EVENTUALLY REVEAL THEMSELVES

For all the weight I am encouraging you to give to your students’ expressed tastes as they come into the classroom and as they develop there, and for all the attention I am encouraging you to give to individual poems (as opposed to whole poets’ careers), you will want to keep in mind that there are experiences you can only have, discoveries that you can only make, with the major figures of the art.

We go on reading Shakespeare and John Donne and Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson and Thomas Hardy, and we will probably go on reading Elizabeth Bishop and James K. Baxter and Gertrude Stein and Langston Hughes and John Ashbery and Philip Larkin, because (a) they offer wisdom; (b) they add sounds and forms to the language; (c) they let us see reality more sharply; (d) they let us escape it more convincingly and without sacrificing our intellects; and (e) they use existing forms with exceptional gravity, power, precision, or panache. Experience suggests that people who read them attentively want to continue reading and rereading them. It’s part of your job, I think, to create more of those experiences, as it is part of mine. 

This essay was originally published in Open the Door: How to Excite Young People about Poetry (2013), a co-publication of the Poetry Foundation and McSweeney's Publishing, edited by Dorothea Lasky, Dominic Luxford, and Jesse Nathan.
Originally Published: December 14th, 2015

Steph Burt is a poet, literary critic, and professor. In 2012, the New York Times called Burt “one of the most influential poetry critics of his generation.” Burt grew up around Washington, DC and earned a BA from Harvard and PhD from Yale. She has published three collections of poems: Belmont (2013), Parallel Play (2006), and...

  1. May 4, 2016
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