One of the assumptions people make about literature majors is that we are all poetry buffs. Like a parlor trick, they expect you to recite Shakespeare’s sonnets and ancient haikus. Most trust that a degree in literature means you could dissect and expose the meaning of any work that would otherwise be obtuse to the common man. That one, I can do.
I came into my profession thinking that I should take the word-surgeon approach to teaching high school English: I’d be the Great Explainer. Clearly I was hopped up on too many inspirational teacher movies and the smell of my newly minted undergrad degree. My self-deception was easy to come by because that’s also the kind of student I had trained myself to be (despite having many delight-led English teachers). I could bluster my way through any non-math subject if I could write down thorough notes and study well enough for the tests and quizzes. I understood how much weight my assignments carried to make sure I got the A. I certainly remember many banquets lauding academic success, each ceremony focused on students’ hard work and self-discipline, with little mention of whether a subject’s content brought the students both joy and delight for having encountered it. Years of academia prepared me to bring only my left brain to the poetry party.
So I walked into my 10th graders’ classroom wielding my literary scalpel and taught my way through all manner of poems from the textbook and my college training. DID. THEY. GET. THE. MEANING. of this talented poet’s work? I squeezed every last drop of explanation from the artists we read, followed the state standards for poetry instruction, straying only to slip in lyrics from some of the screaming emo bands from my college days, and passed them off as solid craftsmanship—a choice most of the students enjoyed, or at least tolerated. All of it without ever asking my students how the poem made them feel.
One year, getting up a little more nerve, I borrowed an idea from a teacher I knew and staged a coffeehouse poetry day. I decorated my classroom by grabbing whatever pillows and beanbag chairs I could find from home. The students and I made hot beverages for ourselves as we all sat on the floor. We snapped (instead of clapped) for one another as each student shared a poem they had worked hard to write at some point in the semester. The evidence that my students felt drawn to poetry in that moment and that it was certainly one of the highlights of our school year made me realize that having them compose meaningful poetry for us to experience together was as close as I ever got to asking them whether or not poetry enchanted or arrested them. Were they drawn to the text by the text itself, or did I just provide empty inspiration and full coffee cups?
Later, after I left the big classroom for a smaller one in a local tutorial, I heard some older moms and educators talking about how much they loved reading poetry. And those training me for teaching poetry in this new setting made sure to punctuate their inspiration with a warning: to analyze a work to death on the first go does harm to the listener, when she should be primarily thinking about the embodied experience of hearing it. So, while still hesitant, I did what I was told: I let the elementary-aged students listen to me read selections from Dog Songs by Mary Oliver, and I simply asked their thoughts. Like firecrackers lit by the poem, the children burst into colorful stories of their own frisky pets—the children didn’t need to know how to interpret a poem; they intuitively picked up the sense of it and connected it to their own experience, letting Oliver’s word pictures conjure images in their own mind of the animals they knew already.
Those women had been right about poetry. Whether through my own inattention or a gap in my formal training, I had missed the point entirely. I thought I was supposed to have the answers, but it turns out the answers were waiting to be uncovered and pondered by the students instead. My stepping back into a facilitating posture meant our understanding as a class was enhanced by the level of empathy and recognition that came pouring from their minds when they knew that captivation and curiosity were our highest rubric, not whether or not they “got it.” The students revealed true pedagogy to me where I had been blinded by my own insecurities; I had been riding on the coattails of literature professors who enjoyed poetry, but I never embraced it as a spiritual discipline, a manna for my own heart, soul, and mind.
At a recent writers’ conference, I watched British priest and poet Malcolm Guite bubble over with enthusiasm for Seamus Heaney’s poem “The Rain Stick.” From the outset of his talk, you could see that he is a man who uses the rubric of delight when encountering poems. He said to the audience, with his trademark cheekiness, “You don’t want to go out with a poem who will give you everything on the first date. You want a poem who will still come up behind you after 20 years and surprise you with a kiss.” Clearly, Heaney’s poem always gives him a peck on the cheek, a true sensory buzz, though he has lectured on it extensively over the years.
My particular fascination was Guite’s focus on the line “what happens next is a music you never would have known to listen for,” saying that so many moments in life are that kind of revelation; the everyday parts of creation are a music to indulge in if we hear with the intent to listen.
A few days prior to hearing Guite’s talk, our family visited a hard-to-get-to beach, well out of season. The March wind whipped around our daughters as they stood excitedly on the wet sand at Cape Lookout in North Carolina. They stood for close to an hour, hastily slopping the sand over their feet and watching the waves tug, cleanse, and settle it, only to scoop more in an endless cycle. I stood behind them, seeing how each distinct wave that rolled in was of infinite excitement to their whole bodies.
A few hours later, we discovered a badly injured loon that had dragged itself onto the shore. My husband and some of the girls were able to comfort the young animal in its last hour as they spoke softly to it and pet its wounded, tired body. They named it Bailey, and my daughter drew him in her pocket journal to remember their brief moments together.
Hearing Heaney’s poem reminded me that our few hours at the beach as a family were truly “a music you never would have known to listen for.” A blustery adventure on a ferry—with a captain whose Hoi Toider accent is itself becoming endangered music—to gather seashells in the shadow of an argyle lighthouse helped me keep walking the humble ground of the poet’s invitation. This is the poet’s and the poetry teacher’s vocation—to offer pleasure and rhythm and introspection to a world that has so often lost a crucial curiosity about itself, its joys, and its sorrows.
Cover image by Ksenia Makagonova.