On October 6, 2015, Humanities Texas held "Teaching and Understanding Poetry," a one-day professional development workshop for English teachers at the Byrne-Reed House in Austin. The faculty considered works by a range of poets from different backgrounds and time periods, placing special emphasis on teaching critical reading skills. Strategies and content aligned closely with the secondary-level English and language arts TEKS.
Coleman Hutchison, associate professor of English at The University of Texas at Austin, opened the program with a lecture entitled "Teaching Students to Care and Think About Poetry." Hutchison described a multimedia approach to teaching Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson—two of the best-known figures in American letters—that draws in even the most reluctant, poetry-wary students.
Betty Sue Flowers, professor emeritus at The University of Texas at Austin, addressed educators' common concerns about teaching poetry at the secondary level and provided practical advice for increasing student interest in and engagement with poetic texts. Her lecture, "How to Read a Poem," provided practical advice for increasing student interest in and engagement with poetic texts.
In her talk "Walking through an Open Door: Encouraging Creative Writing with Young People," poet Naomi Shihab Nye drew upon her years of experience with writers-in-the-schools programs. She detailed an adaptable creative writing exercise that teachers can easily integrate into their existing lesson plans.
Please enjoy excerpts from each presentation below along with full-length video.
To steal a line from a famous critic, Kenneth Burke, literature is "equipment for living." Poetry especially has an extraordinary potential to allow people to lead their lives in more ethical, more interesting, and more thoughtful ways. But, in order to get students to appreciate poetry's potential power, I first have to get them to care about it and then to think about it. When I teach poetry, I am often preaching to the unconverted; in doing so, I am not looking for a complete conversion. Through my proselytising, I merely need to open students' hearts and minds to poetry. I want to suggest that that's something we have to do anytime we teach poetry.
Of course poetry has a lot of detractors, and some of them are its best practitioners. W. H. Auden famously said that "poetry makes nothing happen." Another quite brilliant poet from the twentieth century, Marianne Moore, says of poetry, "I, too dislike it[. . . ]./ Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers in/ it after all, a place for the genuine." There's also the problem of defining what poetry is. Even our dear old friend the Oxford English Dictionary has a hard time settling on a definition: "Composition in verse or some comparable patterned arrangement of language in which the expression and feelings is given intensity by the use of distinctive style and rhythm; the art of such a composition [. . .]." I prefer Wendy McCloud's somewhat tongue-in-cheek definition from McSweeney's: "What is poetry? Poetry is clumps of words that make people feel something." She's not wrong. . . . So, in addition to some basic animosity toward poetry and some problems with its very definition, teachers face an uphill climb in getting students to care and then think about poetry.
Here's how I introduce four key features of poetry to my students—all four brought to you by the letter "E":
The first feature of poetry is economy. When I talk to students about poetry, especially in the context of teaching other literatures, other forms of writing, I always emphasize its fundamental economy. Poetry is, in many ways, a process of stripping away, a function of people making economical choices about language, imagery, and form. This is true even of expansive poets like Walt Whitman, whose long lines still bear the marks of his winnowing.
Because of that economy, poetry often both relies on and produces estrangement. Poets use an odd way of saying something—a basic weirdness—in order to achieve a given effect. So poetry is economy but it is also its attendant estrangement.
Wendy McCloud gives us our third e-effect: "Poems are clumps of words that make people feel something." Emotion is often at stake in poetry, both in how people think about it and in how they respond to it. People often have an affective relationship with poetry that they do not have with other forms or literature or writing. When do we read poems aloud? When do you hear poems in public life? Funerals and weddings, right? Moments of extraordinary public emotion are the moments when poetry is most used.
As a literary historian, I also remind my students that poetry has extraordinary explanatory power. Perhaps because it is a function of economy, estrangement, and especially emotion, when we look at poetry historically, it can explain extraordinary things about our past, about how people thought and felt in previous moments.
So, that's my pitch for the letter "E." I have twenty-five other pitches, but I'll stick with those brought to you by "E."
Coleman Hutchison is an associate professor of English at The University of Texas at Austin, where he teaches courses in nineteenth-century U.S. literature and culture, bibliography and textual studies, and poetry and poetics. He is the author of Apples and Ashes: Literature, Nationalism, and the Confederate States of America (Georgia, 2012), which offers the first literary history of the Civil War South, and the co-author of Writing About American Literature: A Guide for Students (Norton, 2014). In 2010, Hutchison received a UT System Regents' Outstanding Teaching Award and, in 2015, a President's Associates Teaching Excellence Award.
What is the difference between prose and poetry? Poetry is really slow. I love this Howard Nemerov poem "Because You Asked about the Line Between Prose and Poetry" because I think it's exactly true:
Sparrows were feeding in a freezing drizzle
That while you watched turned to pieces of snow
Riding a gradient invisible
From silver aslant to random, white, and slow.
There came a moment that you couldn’t tell.
And then they clearly flew instead of fell.
That is the difference between poetry and prose. Prose needs to be clear and punchy and sometimes beautiful the way that poetry is, but, mainly, when you read the newspaper, you read through it. We're taught as kids that each individual snowflake has a beautiful and individual design. You know when it snows—well, you may not know because we're in Texas here—when it snows, the flakes fly up. They fly. Rain is held by gravity, and snow isn't, and snow is slow. One of the key resistances against poetry is that we don’t know how to be slow. We don't know how to do one thing at a time. So much of life has to do with experience, and you cannot experience anything profoundly until you slow down. Poetry is slow. It is like snow. It is not like rain.
. . .
Another gift of poetry is that it offers us new emotional experiences, concentrated emotional experiences. We tend to live lives that give us the same emotional experiences. It's how we become efficient. We are animals designed to become efficient in our own lives. Efficiency means not noticing things for the first time. Young children are very inefficient. A thousand times, I have seen a young mother trying to get from point A to point B in a grocery store, and what will the child do? "Oh, look at that doodlebug! Look at that cereal!" "Look" is the mode of the child, and we [grow] out of that to become efficient. The job of poetry is to put us back into that mode so that we actually experience our lives as if for the first time. This is, in a way, the right way to experience our lives simply because every day is, like that snowflake, utterly unique. If we're not present in our own days, we never get them again. They never come again. Poetry teaches us how to be present in our own days.
There is an argument by Robert Frost called "Nothing Gold Can Stay" that illustrates my point here:
Nature's first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf's a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf.
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.
But every day has gold in it. Every day, and it can't stay. Part of what poetry gives us is a kind of emotional intelligence. Where else do we get that in school? We can get all the machines from STEM. We can get new iPhones. How do we progress as a human race without emotional intelligence? If we lose this beautiful earth, it's not because we weren't smart enough in mathematics. There's a case to be made for emotional intelligence. For me, the most direct way to educate the emotions is poetry. It's a place where you are safe to have the most extreme emotions. Poetry is the training of emotions.
Betty Sue Flowers is a writer, editor, and international business consultant, with publications ranging from poetry therapy to human rights, including two books of poetry and four television tie-in books with Bill Moyers. She was the series consultant for the PBS television series Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth and on-air consultant for the nationally broadcast The Mystery of Love. Before moving to New York City in 2009, Flowers served as a professor, director of the LBJ Presidential Library, director of the interdisciplinary honors program, director of creative writing, and associate dean of graduate studies at The University of Texas at Austin. Her most recent publications include (with Peter Senge, Otto Scharmer, and Joseph Jaworski) Presence: Human Purpose and the Field of the Future, The American Dream and the Economic Myth (Doubleday, 2008), and "The Primacy of People in a World of Nations" in The Partnership Principle: New Forms of Governance in the 21st Century (Archetype, 2004).
I had a really great teacher when I was seven, Harriet Barron Lane, in Ferguson, Missouri, a town no one had ever heard of, if you did not live in St. Louis County. Harriet Lane, who was the legendary oldest teacher in the entire St. Louis school district, was passionate about poetry, believing it to be the center of the universe. If you lived with it on a daily basis, it would change everything for you, deepen your abilities to make metaphors for greater understanding, give you friends, grant you emotional intelligence. To this day, I have no idea if she wrote poems herself, and I feel guilty that none of us ever asked her. We just did everything she told us to do. (I did have a chance to thank her when she was ninety-eight for having confirmed my life path for me in second grade.) She loved all of the poets we've been discussing today, especially Whitman, Dickinson, and Hughes.
But she also loved people like Rabindranath Tagore, Robert Louis Stevenson, Christina Rossetti, Carl Sandburg, William Blake—poets who might have been thought, by other teachers, to be above the heads of seven-year-olds. I mean, William Blake? I later took a college course on William Blake, but haven't met many second-grade teachers who share William Blake regularly with their classrooms.
Mrs. Lane, however, believed nothing was above us. We could rise to a poem. Instead of explaining poems to us, she let us rise up into their presences. She respected our possibilities. Our vocabulary and spelling lessons came from the poems, as did many science discussions. She believed in regular recitation and memorization. She believed in making handmade poetry books, which we would stitch regularly through the year—giant needles and large pages, in second grade. We were each editors of our own anthologies. She believed it was okay to put a poem by Jackie, who sat next to you, beside Emily Dickinson's poem in your own book. That would be a reasonable thing to do if it was one of your favorite poems. She honored us by respecting our tastes. Never did I imagine I'd become an anthologist later in life, but I certainly believed in the collections we made when we were seven.
I was so naïve when I went over to the Texas Commission on the Arts forty-two years ago to talk to them about the poets-in-the-schools program—a fledgling program then in the state of Texas and other states as well. They said, "So what are your credentials to be a poet in the schools?" I said, "Well, I started writing poems when I was six. . . ."
I told something about Mrs. Lane to the Texas Commission on the Arts, said I had been working in a summer camp for high school age writers at Trinity University, and those were my credentials. I hadn't brought a vita. I hadn't brought any poems. But I had enthusiasm. The ways we applied for jobs in those days, it seems miraculous that anything ever happened at all, but they said, "Okay, we'll send you out. Could you just travel all the time in Texas?" I said, "Sure, I can do that." And they said, "You'll have to live out of your car." I said, "I just got a car." "We pay no expenses, no hotel or motel, but you'll have a choice. You could stay in someone's home or on ranches in all these towns you'll be going to." I was young and reckless, so I said, "Sure, I'll stay anywhere."
My life in Texas would change forever after making so many wonderful friends in places like Kingsville, Comstock, Albany, Longview, Temple. . . . I thought, this just seems like the greatest job in the world! They said, "How long do you think you'd like to do this?" I said, "Two years."
Forty-two years later I'm still doing it and standing here, a few blocks from the Texas Arts Commission office. I feel so happy about all of the classrooms I have had a privilege to be in. . . coming up with strategies that would help kids find their own lives more full of poetry than they might have dreamed before—always trying to connect with what was already going on in that classroom. I just found an ancient note from twelve-year-old Cody Crane, of Comstock. He wrote to me after my visit, "We are all writing more. It feels great. Could you please come back and stay forever?"
Naomi Shihab Nye is the author of numerous books of poems, including Transfer (BOA Editions, 2011); You and Yours (BOA Editions, 2005), which received the Isabella Gardner Poetry Award; and 19 Varieties of Gazelle: Poems of the Middle East (Greenwillow Books, 2002), a collection of new and selected poems about the Middle East. She is also the author of several books of poetry and fiction for children, including Habibi (Simon Pulse, 1997), for which she received the Jane Addams Children's Book Award in 1998. She was elected a chancellor of the Academy of American Poets in 2009. Nye began working as a poet-in-the-schools in Texas, through the Texas Commission on the Arts, beginning in 1974. She continues visiting schools and writing communities all over the world to this day.
A little Madness in the Spring
Is wholesome even for the King,
But God be with the Clown –
Who ponders this tremendous scene –
This whole Experiment of Green –
As if it were his own!