The Secret to Teaching Poetry: Focusing on Feelings

Can You Keep a Secret While I’m a firm believer that poetry should be read throughout the year, I fear I tend to wait until April, when it’s National Poetry month, to write about it—just as many a teacher waits until then to dust off the poetry books. This is a shame, if not a crime, as is the fact that too many Common Core interpretations have all but squeezed poetry out of the curriculum or relegated it to a handful of lessons to tick off Reading Literature Standards 4 and 5.

Why this is so, I can’t say for sure–though for me it’s related to the schools where I work doing less poetry. But I’ve wondered whether the reason why poetry is so absent from the Common Core has to do with the fact that, perhaps more than any other genre, poems ask, even beg, to be felt. Poets want us to feel their words in a way that seems almost antithetical to those Common Core close reading approaches that say that the meaning of the text resides, not in a reader’s heart or mind, by within the four corners of the text. Mary Oliver, for instance, talks about the pleasure readers feel when they “enter the rhythmic pattern of a poem:”

“It takes no more than two or three lines for rhythm, and a feeling of pleasure in that rhythm, to be transferred from the poem to the reader.”

And Dylan Thomas’s definition of poetry goes straight to feelings as well:

“Poetry is what in a poem makes you laugh, cry, prickle, be silent, makes your toe nails twinkle, makes you want to do this or that or nothing, makes you know that you are alone and not alone in the unknown world, that your bliss and suffering is forever shared and forever all your own.”

My experience in classrooms, however, is that if I begin by asking students what a poem is, I get a list of terms of the things poems can have—stanzas, rhyme schemes, similes, metaphors; I’m sure you know all the culprits. But if we begin instead by reading poems Seeing the Blue Betweenwith the question “What does a poem do for a reader?” in mind, we get closer to Dylan Thomas as students start seeing that poems can make us smile or feel sad or see ordinary things in extraordinary ways. Once kids start feeling poems this way, it’s often fun to bring in quotes by poets like Dylan Thomas, which can affirm what students are experiencing and offer new ways of thinking about how a poem affects them—as in, considering which poems make your toe nails twinkle. For younger students I love using quotes from Seeing the Blue Betweenwhich pairs poems with letters of advice to young poets and readers of poetry by 32 renowned children’s poet. And for older students, I have a stash of quotes, such as the ones below:

“What is poetry? And why has it been around so long? . . . When you really feel it, a new part of you happens or an old part is renewed, with surprise and delight at being what it is.”  James Dickey

“Poems are other people’s snapshots in which we see our own lives.”  Charles Simic

“We should read poetry because only in that way can we know man in all his moods—in the beautiful thoughts of his heart, in his farthest reaches of imagination, in the tenderness of his life, in the nakedness and awe of his soul confronted with the terror and wonder of the Universe.” Amy Lowell

Then and only then do I move from exploring what a poem does for a reader to how it manages to do that. And one of my favorite ways of helping students—and teachers—see how poems work their magic on readers is by asking students to think about how a poem is different than a greeting card, such as this birthday card for a mom: Mom Birthday Card And this poem by Judith Ortiz Cofer:The Way My Mother Walker Judith Ortiz Cofer Many students can readily see that the poem on the card is broader and more general—even, we might say, generic—and it more or less hits one emotional note. Cofer’s poem, on the other hand, is highly specific. She writes about a particular mother who we can picture and hear and who is much more complicated than the every mom of the card. Because Cofer’s mother is so complicated, she and the poem seem more real to me than the ‘always’ mom of the card. And while my mom never wore an amulet or lived in a second-floor walk-up, the poem gets me thinking about all the complicated and confusing messages she sent me through the way she put on her lipstick or clutched my white-gloved hand in hers as we hurried through Grand Central Station.

In this way the poem does exactly for me what Simic says poetry does. I see myself in the specifics of Cofer’s poem, despite the fact that all those specifics are quite foreign to me. And this is the magic of poetry—and, I think, of all literature: the more specific and particular it is, the more it taps into universals that enrich, deepen and move us.

The poem, though, is harder to understand than the card, which is why some students say initially say that they like the card better. But focusing on feelings can help us here, too. As a strategy for accessing poems that feel hard, we can ask students to think about what feeling the poem evokes for them—even if they’re not sure why—and to locate lines where they think they feel it. This also works as the kind of rich task I wrote about the other week, as different Anchorstudents pick up whiffs of different feelings arising from different lines. In this poem, for instance, many students pick up fear, which they feel in various lines, though some also feel safety or relief in the last few lines or a sense of the daughter’s pride in the line about the “gypsy queen.”

Anchoring themselves in the poem through these lines, students can then begin to think how these lines and feelings are connected with others by wrestling with the sort of open-ended questions I shared in January. This will ultimately allow them to interpret the poem and then—and only then—to hit Reading Standards 4 and 5. Or put another way, before students can analyze how a poet’s specific choice of words, structure and figurative language shape meaning, they have to feel the affects of those choices on themselves as readers first.

Of course the words ‘feel’, ‘feelings’ and ‘pleasure’ are nowhere to be found in the  Standards. But if we hold on to what the Standards do say—that they “define what all students are expected to know and be able to do, not how teachers should teach.”—it seems we’re in the all clear. Or we could just keep it our little secret to share with our colleagues and friends.

Sharing Secrets

19 thoughts on “The Secret to Teaching Poetry: Focusing on Feelings

  1. Love this line Vicki: And this is the magic of poetry—and, I think, of all literature: the more specific and particular it is, the more it taps into universals that enrich, deepen and move us. This is why I save a bit of every Thursday for poetry – and what I hope for every time we as a class begin reading and experiencing a poem together.

    • I pretty much knew that many of the teachers who read this blog have figured out ways of keeping poetry alive in their rooms. And a Thursday poetry ritual is wonderful. And that word you put in your last sentence—not but reading, but experiencing—says it all. We shouldn’t just read, we should experience.

  2. Back in the dark ages, a hundred years ago, I really did teach / use genres by the month. Now I encourage teachers to seek out fiction, informational, and poetry to be an integral text for each and every reading and writing unit. Sometimes it still ends up on the cutting room floor because there just “isn’t time” but without a “plan” poetry will never be included.

    I love “before students can analyze how a poet’s specific choice of words, structure and figurative language shape meaning, they have to feel the affects of those choices on themselves as readers first.” Teachers need to hold those feelings closely!

    • I’ve made that same switch from genre-based to more theme-based units in many schools, but I worry that something gets lost when we don’t hunker down—at least for a while, if not 6-8 weeks—with genres, especially poetry. Though I like Tara’s idea of devoting a set time in the week to read—and experience—poems. But, yes, I was happy with that line, too, where I think I captured something that’s so important but so invisible in the CCS—we can’t analyze why a writer chose this or that unless we’ve considered how those choices affect us as readers, which often means feeling them.

      Also, have fun tomorrow night! At this point, I feel like the book belongs to you & the other WRRD readers as much as it does to me. But I’ll be there with you in spirit!

  3. PSA: Janet Wong and Sylvia Vardell’s Poetry Friday Anthologies (especially the newest one that’s the PFA for SCIENCE) go a long way towards the integration of poetry into the school week and the content areas.


    • Thanks for the reminder. I loved the work you shared your class doing with that last year at IRA and it’s clearly time for me to pull it back out of my shelf.

  4. I love the idea of focusing on the feelings. That’s excellent advice for us to use as we move forward with instruction. But even more than when we work with kids on poetry, we need to allow ourselves to focus on the feelings poems create when we read them ourselves. If we get used to doing this kind of work, then we’ll be able to think-aloud about it in front of kids (and get them to do the same kind of smart thinking about poems).

    • So true, Stacey. I, myself, was a Johnny-come-lately to poetry, having thought it was something beyond my understanding from too many poems in high school, like The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, that I simply couldn’t seem to penetrate (nor was interested in). The trick was finding a handful of poets whose poems I could really feel. For me it was Sharon Olds and Mary Oliver, but just like we need to be teachers who write (or writers who teach), we need to be teachers who read—and are moved by—poetry.

  5. Oh Vicki you always say it so precise. I truly enjoy poetry for the reason that one needs a heart & a desire to empathize with others! Many standards, in fact all of them, seem to almost erase the need for understanding, acceptance & humanity. So much “feeling” & joy has been pushed to the side for data & accountability. It’s quite disheartening that “feeling with your heart” is not the most important standard every human being should learn at an early age. As I dusted off my poem bin of books, I found one you helped me work on … You continue to inspire me & when u speak what is so earning in my heart to be said, I feel not alone but in great company! I miss working along side you 😉 Daniella

    • Oh, Daniella! I still have your stapler poem and my Crayola crayon poem from all those years ago and remember sending your kids on a hunt around your classrooms to find our where poems hide. But . . . I’m keeping my fingers crossed that with Carmen Farina at the helm, we’ll do just what you recommend, bring back feeling with your heart as one of the most important things every human being—and every student—needs to learn. (And I’ll also keep my fingers crossed that sometime down the line, we’ll get a chance to work together again!)

  6. I love these strategies – succinct and simple – focus on what you feel then look for what made you feel it. Makes it so much more accessible – less fear of being wrong perhaps? This year, I for the first time in a long time, I have uncovered poetry books and read poetry four days a week with students. I committed to it so students might focus on how writers use language to make readers react. And … I’ve found the short focused (sometimes confusing) nature of poetry requires multiple reads- seems like the perfect place to practice close reading! Plus it gives us the excuse to feel out loud.

    • As I said to Fran, my hunch was that many readers here have found ways to weave poetry into their rooms in wonderful ways—and of course that focus on how readers react is exactly what I was talking about. We’re supposed to moved; that’s why poets spend so much time on each word, line and image in their poems. And it’s the poem that invites us to read closely, not some mandate from above. And we need to grab those excuses to feel out loud whenever we have the chance!

  7. For two years now my students and I have enjoyed “poetry Fridays”! Reading, watching, listening to and creating poetry all year gives my students confidence, pride and voice. I love what I learn about them and what they learn about themselves. You are so right when you say that poetry invites up to read closely…poetry has allowed us to develop into close and careful readers not to mention passionate!

    • Hello Jen! It’s so very nice to see the words “close” and “careful” right next to the word “passionate”—especially when it comes to reading! And poetry often opens the door wide enough for kids to show us all sorts of thinking, which sounds like what’s happening for both you & the kids. Give my best to everyone in Aurora!

  8. Pingback: Promoting Literacy in the Classroom | Reflections on Technology in Literature

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