Students often cringe at the idea of studying poetry. In our experience, they do so for two main reasons. Either they fear that studying something meant for pleasure goes against its nature (students sometimes tell us that poems, like songs, are simply meant to be enjoyed, so why not just leave it at that?) or they fear that they’ll never be able understand poetry. It’s a foreign language. They have been exposed to poetry in middle school and high school—a little Shakespeare, a little Emily Dickinson, a little Robert Frost—and they could never figure out how the teacher got from the words of the poems to the meaning the teacher ascribed to them. And why did it matter anyway? If a poem had anything to say why not just say it? Why dress it up with convoluted sentences and archaic words and rhymes?
An Introduction to Poetry starts off where so many of our students start off, with the very misunderstandings they bring with them to the course. Having taught and tested the material in this course for more than ten years, we have accrued ample evidence that students—whether excited or dreadful about being in our class—almost always come to class with misconceptions that impede their understanding.
The two attitudes mentioned above can also be characterized this way.
“I hate poetry (and I don’t know why they’re making me study it).”
“I love poetry (and don’t want you to ruin it for me).”
To these statements, we respond: “Why do you love (or hate) poetry?” “What do you think poetry is?” And, “How do you know that the thing you love or hate is a poem?”
As for the lovers of poetry, very often these are students who confess that they write poems themselves, or that they used to write poems. They use poetry to express their emotions. Poetry is perhaps the art form people are most likely to feel entitled or equipped to practice without ever studying. But do these students who come to class loving poetry really know what it is they love—are they sure that what they really love is poetry. Often these students who love poetry don’t love any actual poems.
When they tell us they you shouldn’t have to study something meant for pleasure, we let them know they are right. You certainly can leave poetry at pleasure; there’s nothing wrong with that. You can eat food without studying nutrition, just on the basis of enjoyment. However if you take a nutrition class, you aren’t going to be able to get away with deciding what foods are good or bad based solely on taste. And if you take a class on nutrition you will get more out of eating food. Nor is it suitable in a college class merely to read poems and not also to study them. You wouldn’t take a class in music and expect merely to listen to songs for three hours a week or a class in auto mechanics and expect just to drive a lot of cool cars. And you won’t expect in a poetry class to read poem after poem without thinking in various ways, including technical ways, about what you are doing, why you are doing it, and how the poems you are studying work.
Poetry is perhaps the world’s oldest science as well as the world’s oldest art (yes, we tell them, poetry is also a science—a form of knowledge, a way of knowing). You don’t have to enjoy a poem to study it; you don’t have to study a poem to enjoy it. But if you enjoy poems, you will be motivated to study them, and if you study them, you will improve your enjoyment.
As for the haters, we tell them we don’t believe it’s possible to hate poetry. They may hate the fact that poems sometimes make them “feel dumb.” Of course they are not dumb. But it’s hard not to feel that way when, it seems, everyone around you is sharing a deep, meaningful experience of a poem while you’re scratching your head and praying no one will ask you what you think. If a student feels that way—and everybody does from time to time when learning something new and foreign, whether it’s poetry or French or cooking or car repair—we show them that it’s not poetry that is the problem, nor is it their intelligence. We assure them that once they learn how to read poems, they’ll see that they can’t hate them. Human beings cannot hate poetry any more than they can hate music. No one hates music. There are people who are indifferent to it. And you can be indifferent to poetry, we suppose. And nearly everyone dislikes particular styles of music or particular songs. And you can certainly dislike some styles of poetry, and if you don’t dislike some poems, you are not a very careful reader. But to the best of our knowledge all human beings respond to rhythm and—unless they are deaf—sound. And even deaf people respond to music.
So our complete course is designed first to get students over their impeding prejudices. Thus we spend the first two weeks mainly reading poems, listening to poets talk about what they do, and letting students react however they like. We respond to their comments with guiding questions that point them always back to the poems: “Why do you think the poem says that?” “What words are you looking at?” “What do you do with these other words?” We ask them to think first about what a poem says, not what it means: we ask them to read, not to interpret. (Student often get into trouble when the jump to interpretation without carefully reading the lines and the sentences of a poem.) Because this text has been designed for an online class, each chapter includes a video in which we invite students to watch us read poems in ways that respond to the theme of the particular unit or chapter.
After exploring for two chapters various ways of thinking of what a poem is, we draw students more deeply into the process of reading in our third chapter. We ask them to forget for a while that poems are historical documents created by human beings. Instead, we tell them to read poems without any help but a dictionary. We ask them to read ahistorically, the way the New Critics asked us all to read 70 or so years ago. We say, before you bring into the poem any apparatus that may lead you to feel comfortable with half understanding a poem, learn all that you can from the words alone.
Each following week is devoted to a theme or an issue. The earlier of these chapters explore in greater depth the things that often make it hard to understand poems. We devote a week for example to exploring how poems reference other poems in ways only someone deeply read in poetry is likely to recognize and another on ways that poetry reflects on itself and the question of what it is and what it’s for. We spend yet another week on figurative language and another on poetics. After this, we devote an entire week to the sonnet, as an example of how form works in poetry, and then we include in the next week a number of other forms—odes, elegies, villanelles, ballads, epics, and sestinas. (We don’t ask them to read entire epics.)
Having devoted the first half of the course mainly to reading and formal topics, we spend a week exploring the topic of the representation of women in poetry, from medieval lyrics to the late twentieth century, revealing a narrative that develops like a novel through time, as men represent women and women’s (mostly sexual) power and as women, first quietly and then much more vigorously, write back to that representation.
Having traced one topic over centuries, we look more closely at those centuries in the final weeks of the course. We start with the English Renaissance, the earliest period whose poems students can be expected to read without straining, before moving, in large hunks, through the Enlightenment, Romanticism and into the twentieth century, where the course ends. Here we can only manage to give a taste to the broad evolution of poetry through time. But by now the knowledge we’ve been accruing all term about what poetry is and how it works are placed in historical contexts that allow them to make better sense of what has been happening all along.
Although the text comes out of an online Introduction to Poetry, we have followed it closely in face-to-face classes as well. We have worked to develop a text that is easily adaptable. There is a theme to each chapter that makes it possible to consider it as a stand-alone unit. At the same time each may serve to build on what came before.
Acknowledgements: in addition to the hundreds of students whose experiences and reactions have shaped this text and the colleagues whose suggestions through the years have influenced our teaching of this material, including David Edward, Paula Delbonis-Platt, Kristina Lucas, Lynn Kilchenstein, and Cathy Eaton, we would like to acknowledge the help of a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Community College System of New Hampshire Humanities Collaborative in the development of this course. We also would like to express our special thanks to former New Hampshire Poet Laureate Alice B. Fogel for her kind permission to allow us to include recordings of her work made especially for this text.