A Poetry Pedagogy for Teachers: Let the Poem Do the Teaching

“Let the Poem Do the Teaching” is an excerpt from A Poetry Pedagogy for Teachers: Reorienting Classroom Literary Practices by Maya Pindyck and Ruth Vinz.


Anyone who has ever been in a classroom where the teaching of poetry, as Charles Simic writes, serves only “to make children . . . jump with joy the day they no longer have to look at another poem,” will give thanks for the vision of the poetry classroom as a place of excitement and discovery presented in the newly released A Poetry Pedagogy for Teachers: Reorienting Classroom Literary Practices (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2022).

Through an “assemblage of theories, teaching experiences, poetry practices, poems, metaphors, and images,” co-authors Maya Pindyck and Ruth Vinz offer a myriad of approaches to make poetry come alive for students and teachers alike, honoring “that shared magic that happens when we attune ourselves to the possibilities in things and translate what we sense into strange, living language.”

“What teachers do with and through poetry, and how they see themselves in relation to poetry, can burst open how students grow to work language,” says Pindyck, a poet, educator, and former T&W teaching artist. “What I loved about being a teaching artist for Teachers & Writers Collaborative “was the conditions it set up for me to dive into poetry with my students,” Pindyck says. “Just as I was there to lift and expand their writing, they lifted and expanded my own writing practice.”

The book’s “spine and organizing force” is Wallace Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” and each chapter starts with one of the poem’s thirteen stanzas. The first chapter, “Let the Poem Do the Teaching,” excerpted below, lays out the approach to teaching that is woven throughout A Poetry Pedagogy. Here, it shows us, is how to create a classroom atmosphere that makes it possible to slow down and listen to what a poem has to teach us. Here is how to look for an opening “to be in and with a poem.” And here is how we might begin to “travel in the company of poems and poets and learn with and from them ways to prompt our own seeing and saying in the world.”

Susan Karwoska

Read a conversation with co-author of A Poetry Pedagogy Maya Pindyck here


Let the Poem Do the Teaching

Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.

Stillness in proximity with movement; snowy mountains juxtaposed with a blackbird—how do these three lines work together to direct and shape attention?

To be in and with a poem requires some lingering through rereading, pausing, visualizing, gazing. Take a moment to read the stanza aloud. Let the sensations, words, images, and sounds travel through your body and find refuge there. Invite the stanza in. Hang on the edges of meaning—between what you understand and what seems just out of reach. Resist the temptation to speak about the stanza. Let it be in and with you.

Where do you find yourself? Maybe snowy mountains come into view. What stays with you, hovers in your mind’s-eye? Note the surprise—the startling quick zoom to the eye of the blackbird. Is the eye the only moving thing?

A bird’s eye is anatomically incapable of movement. Does it matter if we know this fact or not? Who would ever imagine we could literally capture the eye of the blackbird against the vastness of twenty mountains? We will each come to the scene differently—maybe in puzzlement, perhaps in surprise, or momentarily caught in an image or memory, or ready to go on to the next stanza. For now, pause and read this stanza again:

Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.

Let the stanza in, in-side you. Let the stanza just “be” for a moment. The stanza isn’t going anywhere. Observe where your attention is directed and how it moves or shifts. Slow the reading.

As we suggested earlier, various theories of reading and subsequent pedagogies have led to interpretive practices that inform the ways we have not only been taught to read poetry but also how these conventions have informed how poems are produced. Such interpretive practices, we argue, influence social attitudes toward poetry and shape critical taste. These practices may get in the way of our encounters with a poem’s generative spaces, and our intention is to demonstrate ways to decrease or dissolve the distances between reader and poem.

Let the Force of the Poem Speak

Various practices of literary textual study and criticism have taught us to direct our attention in particular ways. Consider your own experiences with reading poetry in school. You might have been asked to look for images, figurative language, symbols, or to notice rhythm or rhyme schemes. If you focused on these particulars often enough, you likely developed habitual ways of attending. What experiences with a poem may be lost with these approaches as we carry these interpretive practices with us as reading habits? If the end goal of reading a poem is to be able to state what it means or to write an interpretation of its meaning (justifying, of course, with quotes to prove how it does so) then we must ask: What is the purpose of reading a poem? Interpretation is one form of response. What is lost when schooled practices become our habitual way of reading and interfere with how we might understand and experience the creative possibilities of poetry to help us live our lives with fuller awareness?

Let the poem do its work with you. What does it mean to read a poem, to let it whisper-teach you to attend to aspects of the world in new and different ways? Is it possible to linger to give into the poem?

Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.

What might it mean to follow a poem’s moves/moving, allowing the poem itself to have authority in holding your attention in a time-space field of its own? Poems may startle us awake or make us feel alive in memory, image, or idea. Do we always care to know why? Sometimes it is just enough to be with the poem.

Principles of Attention-Making with Poem as Guide

The obvious and ordinary are hardly noticeable in the stream of stimuli we encounter in our everyday lives. And, then, suddenly an image, sound, or voice demands our attention. What do poems teach us about the principles and practices of poetic attention? Begin with the simple idea of receptivity—a poem is both a medium and a material of attention-making. Once there is receptivity to reading a poem or writing one, attention must be paid. How the poem gathers attention is an intricate dance between reader, writer, and the shaping tools, materials, and structures of language that compose a poem-as-text into a spatial-temporal presence of attention. The poem itself, like the eye of the blackbird in Stevens’s first stanza, moves the mind and the body to attention just beyond the edge of meaning, shimmering to stay dynamic even as the words fall away from the page. Notice how a poem is breathing, sighing, laughing, pulsing, tuning—all together to orient attention, which, of course, leads us back to the poem itself.

Resist the Expert Conjecture: Let the Poem Be with You

Poet Bill Stafford (1998) believed that ordinary language has a secret code, an unspoken tongue beneath words. If we accept Stafford’s conjecture, it makes it nearly impossible to reduce a poem into an explication, summarize its constituent parts, or find it necessary to track down and sniff out meaning. The experience of reading a poem may generate feelings of incompleteness or discontent as we wrestle with the desire to “solve” what we do not understand. Some of this results from schooled practices where we are taught that the purpose of reading poems was to figure out what the poem or poet means. But, if a poem lurks on unspoken edges—more than is evident in the grammars of image, rhythm, figurative language, or any other crafting architectures—then we might suggest that the poem leads us back to the poem itself.

We realize it is easier to talk about these ideas than to demonstrate them through an encounter with a poem. Let’s take a moment to think this through with James Wright’s (1992) poem:

The Jewel

There is this cave
In the air behind my body
That nobody is going to touch:
A cloister, a silence
Closing around a blossom of fire.
When I stand upright in the wind,
My bones turn to dark emeralds.

Take time to notice, question, reread in ways that are satisfying to you. Any images, lines that linger? What do you experience in reading this poem? We find it helpful to share how others respond, so here is Ruth’s commentary on reading this poem for the first time, trying to follow our own advice of letting the poem be with her as reader:

I read the poem silently, then aloud. I lingered on the last two lines. The temptation was strong to turn my mind to puzzling out meaning, but I wanted to feel its unspoken-ness. I needed to keep the poem in my mind and body, vibrating off my tongue. Wright sets my mind awhirl with places to attend—cave, air, cloister, blossom of fire, dark emeralds. One of the ways I hold a poem close is to say a line or lines over and over until they are deep in my body, in the very cellwork. For me, the last two lines have staying power: “When I stand upright in the wind, / My bones turn to dark emeralds.” For someone else it is probably other lines. I read Wright’s final lines over and again and felt an urgency to write. Here is the result: A cheerful thunder begins and then rain. The rain deepens. It rolls off the porch roof. The black earth turns blacker, absorbs the needles of rain without a groan. The sky is low and bones turn to coal or diamonds. The hum of sky and birds’ eggs.

And I am reminded that a simple line of a poem has the potential—to what? Set the mind awhirl—to remove us from isolation as we reach toward others. And then, I move into writing again. And, just now, on the edge of these words and images and sounds I found with Wright, I start a poem of my own.

Black earth turns blacker

absorbing needles of rain

without a groan and ink deepens
the sky against a moan of thunder.

Poppies fall to their knees
in a swerve of wind. Floating
above, every gathered song of birds
hums the trees awake

You see the idea? We travel in the company of poems and poets and learn with and from them ways to prompt our own seeing and saying in the world. A poem is more than a text to be explicated, to be tamed into a stated meaning. The poem is its meaning and experience for each reader. Poems are one way we explore together, as Tess Gallagher (1986) writes, the feelings, imaginings, and experiences we have in ways that work “against the taxidermy of logic.” We emphasize in our teaching this communion with poems and encourage our students to write poems in response to poems as a way of reorienting interpretive practices focused on explication of poems.

Emphasize Connectedness and Intimacy with a Poem

Poems bring to light unexpected revelations, intimacies, and awarenesses toward life. We believe the purpose of poetry education is to engage students in creative possibilities, encounters with the imagined, and peak their curiosities about the world in which they live. This requires us to risk opening our hearts and bodies to the intimate relationship between poems and ourselves. How might this relationship be encouraged for our students as well? We believe that finding ways to bring readers closer to poems is the starting point.

Let’s take haiku as an example. Haiku is a traditional Japanese form often taught in schools. An introduction to haiku usually includes a definition of form first: three lines with five syllables in the first line, seven in the second, and five in the third. A typical teaching sequence might follow by naming the subject matter of haikus; that is, a haiku is most often written about nature in its seasonal expression. Next, try writing one. Yes, try one. Where to start? Something in nature? Now, describe a tree branch in three lines and in words that meet the syllabic count?

The problem here is that we are working first from the logic of definition and form. What happened to the branch, to its relationship to what surrounds or is part of it, or to what the viewer/poet notices or feels? Why this branch or a branch at all?

Let’s begin again. This time let’s start by reading a haiku by Matsuo Basho (1688) rather than providing a definition of haiku by form and content.

[I come weary]

I come weary,
In search of an inn—
Ah! These wisteria flowers!

Be with the poem and the poet in this moment. Feel with and through the words, ideas, and images. What feelings or experiences linger? Ask yourself this question: What is the effect of brevity in three lines? This focus on three lines may remind us of the first stanza of Stevens’s poem. How does the brevity affect each, both?

To answer the question on the effect of brevity, move from reading to writing. Take a moment to look away from this page to your surroundings. Scan. Gaze. What draws your attention? Write down a phrase to describe what you see.

Clouds blow the moon dark

Now, close your eyes. Let your mind’s eye make the next move. Try to capture where your mind moves in another phrase.

Fireflies glimmer like lanterns

Once more. Close your eyes. Where does your mind take you?

Steady and clear

An Invitation

For a few days, commit to a daily practice of making time to pause, paying attention to what surrounds you. Record in three brief phrases, one built on the other, as demonstrated earlier. At the same time read haiku. Find traditional ones from Basho, Issa, Buson, and Shiki. See how these migrate and mutate over time and place. Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro” or Richard Brautigan’s “Haiku Ambulance” suggests how individual poets have participated in derivations of haiku that contribute to their practices in attuning and attending to the world around them.

After this preliminary preparation in reading and writing, take a closer look at the effects of how haiku reaches for the “ah-ha-ness.” Consider how brevity, form, and language work together to create this compressed encounter. Choose parts of the week’s writing and from your jottings create haikus. Only then might you better understand how the form shapes thought and controls language. By observing, reading haikus, and writing them, you will find it much easier to answer this question than if you were working from definition: What is the effect of a haiku? Writing haiku may be the most poignant way to learn about the form and effect of haiku.

We recommend reading Kwame Dawes’s essay “And What of the Haiku?” (2007) published on the Poetry Foundation’s website and reflecting on his claim that, as an American devoted to the writing of haiku, “I will always come to haiku as a stranger—as a tourist hanging out with the form and constantly aware that I must come to these forms with reverence and with the posture of one who is a guest, eating at someone else’s table.” Dawes embraces the collaborative renga form, or writing haiku with other poets, as a way “to really study the insides of western poetry largely because there is something about the haiku that runs counter to the typical western instinct in poetry.” Consider how studying and being with a non-Western form can influence our literary instincts as (Western) readers and writers. How might the posture of arriving as a guest at someone else’s table orient our relationship to a poetic form? What forms of care and respect might that approach cultivate? For Dawes, this recognition does not prevent him from continuing to write haiku. Quite the opposite, he is dedicated to trying out, studying, and working the form to the best of his ability.

If we only read poems through a limited range of strategies—to identify a poet’s purposes and viewpoints—what intimate and experiential connections to the poems and the poets might be lost? Our Invitation was intended to involve you intimately in reading and writing haiku as a way of understanding haiku. There are not five strategies, a checklist of figures of speech, or ways to explicate a poem that will lead to effective reading any more than there is one way to experience a song, a sculpture or a photograph. And yet, through a long history of schooled interpretive practices, we have come to a commonsense understanding of poetry that may limit our encounters and the ways we employ our attention to poems.

As Louise Rosenblatt’s (1964) conception of the poem-as-event reminds us, an aesthetic stance enables us to have an in-the-moment experience and intimacy. Poems are written out of some deep need, intuition, and intention to wonder, notice, console, or point to the unusual and the difficult. How do we come to feel a poem, viscerally, as we write or read one? The poem does the teaching. Hold on to this moment.

Avoid the Hunt for Literary Devices: Let Them Find You

This discussion and the work of dwelling with haiku lead us to make this point directly, and we hope persuasively. Let literary devices and forms find you. Let them seep into the meaning as you read without assuming these are the keys to unlock some puzzle that is supposed to be the meaning of a poem either in reading or in writing. If we allow figures of speech and other devices to work indirectly, becoming part of a way of expressing rather than being identified for the sake of finding and naming them, then what? Consider this question: To what effect is a literary device employed?

Take a few minutes to read Robert Frost’s (1920) “Fire and Ice,” and allow the poem to be with you:

Fire and Ice

Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

Linger for a moment longer. Where is your attention concentrated? What stays with you? Words, sounds, an image, the beat of rhyme or what? Read the poem again. What lingers? Work with Frost. The poem influences what you notice, but you are a partner in the making. Suddenly, you see: not things as they are but the less obvious spaces of what might be? Here is a central question: How far do we push questions or explanations before we lose the impact of experiencing the poem?

Think of Poems as Voyages of Discovery

Imagine for a moment: What might it be like to go inside a stone? We suspect this might not be something you would ask or question often in your daily lives. But, the poet Charles Simic (1971) considers this, draws us into a journey of us-in-stone through his poem “Stone.”

Stone

Go inside a stone
That would be my way.
Let somebody else become a dove
Or gnash with a tiger’s tooth.
I am happy to be a stone.

From the outside the stone is a riddle:
No one knows how to answer it.
Yet within, it must be cool and quiet
Even though a cow steps on it full weight,
Even though a child throws it in a river;
The stone sinks, slow, unperturbed
To the river bottom
Where the fishes come to knock on it
And listen.

I have seen sparks fly out
When two stones are rubbed,
So perhaps it is not dark inside after all;
Perhaps there is a moon shining
From somewhere, as though behind a hill—
Just enough light to make out
The strange writings, the star-charts
On the inner walls.

What would it be like to live inside a stone? How might you describe this? First graders were asked the same question. A series of quick responses from the imaginative six-year-olds:

Dark, oh, so dark you can’t see your breath.
Cold like shivery.
Hard to crack out.
I’ll need snacks inside?
It would always be dark.
Is there room for my Mom?

It seems everyone, including Simic, might have a version. You might want to create a version of your own.

After reading Simic’s poem, I thought about taking an object and asking students to go inside that object, to wander its inner walls or its imagined middle. As with a six-year-olds, I wonder if there is a slant of light, the shiver of cold. Conjuring up questions, my imagination is set awhirl again. Suddenly I’m there in the stone, and I can feel the dew of morning on my porous outside. Or, maybe I start rolling down a steep hill, tumbling over and not feeling the thud as I hit one boulder after another in my free fall. And, because Simic led me on this little riff I carry strange writings, star-charts, and the mystery of caves and cave painting. Yes, and you, dear reader, are you now considering your own possibilities, tumbling in different directions?

Talk with the Poem Rather than about It

To be in and with a poem requires some lingering through rereading, pausing, visualizing, or gazing. Choose a poem either from these opening chapters or one you would like to read or reread. Take time to read and reread. Make notes on any changes in focused attention or questions, notices, or reactions through the multiple readings. If possible, locate a recording of the poet reading. Explore where a poem takes you by mapping or drawing your journey through it. What happens when you set the poem aside? Write an additional stanza to be in conversation with other stanzas in the poem. Write a poem to talk back to or be in conversation with the experience of a poem. In these ways, we, as readers, can center on what is drawing or demanding our attention. What a remarkable mystery it is—animated by how words and sounds and blank spaces work together through the crafting—that a poem can nurture our capacities to imagine, to care, to feel empathy, and, yes, again to set the imagination awhirl.


Maya Pindyck is a poet, interdisciplinary artist, educator, and scholar. Her most recent poetry collection, Impossible Belonging, won the 2021 Philip Levine Prize for Poetry and is forthcoming from Anhinga Press in 2023. In collaboration with Ruth Vinz, Diana Liu, and Ashlynn Wittchow, she co-authored A Poetry Pedagogy for Teachers: Reorienting Classroom Literacy Practices (Bloomsbury, 2022). Pindyck taught in classrooms throughout New York City for over ten years and earned her PhD in English Education from Teachers College. Currently, she is assistant professor and director of Writing at Moore College of Art & Design in Philadelphia.

Ruth Vinz teaches writing, literature, and narrative research and is the author of nine books and the recipient of the Richard Meade Book Award. Vinz taught high school and currently is The Morse Endowed Professor at Teachers College, Columbia University. Vinz calculates in her 55 years of teaching, she has responded to at least 36,500 students’ poems, essays, stories, research papers, and dissertation drafts from which she continues to learn and be thrilled by the power of the imagination combined with the resources of language to craft writing into the most exhilarating and intimate portrayals of our hopes, fears, and dreams.


Featured image courtesy of Maya Pindyck and Bloomsbury Publishing.


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