How Do You Read Poetry?

55º ~ on our way up to 70s for the next three days with stormy weather in the offing, for now the sun fights the gray, the breezes stir but do not rage, the rain holds off for a few more hours

How do you read poetry? This is an earnest question, as most of mine are.

Many of you know that I started teaching at the graduate level this past semester (for the low-residency program at the University of Arkansas Monticello). I taught a course in contemporary American poetry, assigning poets from the 1960s through today, and while teaching that course many things surprised me (for example, the vehemence with which several students took offense to Ginsberg). However, nothing surprised me more than how my students read the poems at the beginning of the semester.

As the courses in this low-res program are conducted online using the Blackboard LMS, I created weekly discussion boards where each student posted a response to one of the poets for that week, using one–three specific poems from our selection to illustrate the student’s response in terms of poetic elements used by the poet and how the poet fit into American poetry (or didn’t). I also required that each poet appear on the board before a student could repeat, which meant that sometimes, a student had to post about a poet with whom he/she might not be completely attuned.

After the first week of discussion, it became clear to me that my students were reading the poems in a completely different way than I intended, and this had everything to do with technology.

To go back in time to the late 80s and early 90s when I was an undergrad, for the most part, all we had was the poem on the page and a dictionary by our side. We were taught to read, at least at St. Ben’s/St. John’s, by reading out loud, by annotating (yes, writing in our books!), by looking up definitions and allusions, and by formulating our own personal response to the poem on the page. This, then, is how I’ve read poems ever since.

You see, back in the bad old days, we did not have the vast resources of the internet. To research a poet and/or a poem meant a trip to the library across campus (and remember CSB/SJU is in central Minnesota where the biting winds of winter knock a girl down from late Oct. through late March). Once we reached the library, there was a thick reference book to search for articles on the poet/poem, A Readers’ Guide to Periodical Literature (all hail, Michelle Holschuh Simmons for the reminder of the name) and then a set of stacks of print periodicals where we hoped to find the article itself. If not, then we had to inter-library loan the article (having it faxed from another library). If not looking for the most current articles, we could, of course, use the library catalog (which had just switched to a digital form) for books on the subject at hand and then go to the book stacks, perhaps stopping after all of this to copy a relevant chapter or article at the copier (10 cents a page) so we could annotate that as well.

And so, we could not access immediately the thoughts of critics and reviewers.

I confess that I am somewhat insular and often forget to think that others may have been taught differently, so imagine my surprise when the first week of discussion included references of what other people thought about the poets and poems rather than simply the student’s take on the poet/poems. Of course, there is nothing wrong with this type of scholarship, and I did require research essays and class presentations that used sources. I was simply flabbergasted because I assumed the students would know that I didn’t intend them to do research at the discussion level. (Yes, I am often beaten by my own assumptions!) I was also still thinking in terms of a face-to-face classroom at this point, where students don’t usually go into that much depth of research before coming to class to discuss the reading of the day (or at least I didn’t when I was an MFA student). So, two wrong assumptions in a row.

I quickly wrote a note to the class, explaining my expectations. I let them know that the reading should be time-consuming enough and that I didn’t intend them to have to research as well (until they focused on their research essays), but, more importantly, I wanted to hear how each student met the poems on the page without the clutter of other critics or reviewers. What seemed simple enough to me actually presented a problem for several students, not an intellectual problem, but a problem of habit. They were so used to turning to the internet and “the experts” that they didn’t trust their own instincts. It took us a few weeks to settle the line: feel free to look up definitions and allusion but do not read critics and reviewers until after you’ve formulated your own thoughts on the discussion board. After that, all was smooth sailing.

Now, I’m left to wonder, how do you read poetry? I simply can’t believe that we should skip directly to the critics & reviewers. It seems to take the joy out of the reading for me, but am I just an old fuddy-duddy, stuck in the last century? Or have students been so trained in research and scholarship that they forget to read the text one-on-one, so to speak? Is this the difference between reading as a scholar and reading as a writer? What do you all think?

Posted by Sandy Longhorn


Sandy, this is such a great question! I read like you when I'm reading for pleasure and inspiration, but when I'm reading for a class (especially if I'm expected to write a response) I do tend to look at what others have said about a poem. It's a bad habit, akin to checking the back of the book for answers, but would definitely be hard to break.

Sandy Longhorn

Sara, thanks. I confess, I have no idea if I would check the internet if I were a student today. I suppose I would for the reason you state.

Jason Bradford

Hmm. I guess this makes me a fuddy-duddy at 26. The only time I turn to research is when I have to write a research paper. Otherwise I try to let the work speak for itself. If a work is particularly difficult to enter, I'll do two things: meditate about what exactly is making the text seem difficult to enter, and if that doesn't open any doors or windows, I'll look for an interview with the poet discussing their intentions. I can more easily leave intentions behind once I get going…but that might be an acquired skill I've developed from writing poems.

Sandy – This is a really fascinating shift, and it seems to me a generational change. Like you, I attended college in the era in which research was a grueling, time-consuming task. It did not occur to me, then, to research critical response to literature unless I was in the throes of writing a research paper.

I came to poetry naively, and, in many ways, I still approach poems with the same sort of innocence; I read to myself, I read aloud, and then if I am moved by the poem I Google the writer for background and additional work.

Until your comments now, another method never occurred to me.

Thanks for the new perspective.

Sandy Longhorn

Jason and Drew, thanks for adding to the conversation!

Wonderful question, dilemma, and discussion. I read poetry assuming each poem contains everything I need to understand it. (And I WISH people would read my own poems that way!) If I don't know a word, I look up its definition and origins. If there's a cultural or historical reference, I probably look that up, too. But mostly I look at the words, line breaks, stanza breaks, and any basic sentence structure or grammar, expecting it to guide me. I take the poem at face value. I believe what it tells me…or, as in a story, wonder about the reliability of the narrator. Etc.

Wow — I'm right there with you with my pencil and my dictionary (and also my etymology dictionary). And although I'll sometimes google an allusion I'm not familiar with, it never would've occurred to me either to search the web for what critics say. No, I want the poem to speak for itself first.

BTW, I used to work in the periodicals room at my college library (also a cold winter climate) and did some time at the reserve desk, too. Thanks for bringing back memories 🙂

Sandy Longhorn

Thanks, Kathleen and Molly. I'm wondering, too, if some of this doesn't have to do with how poetry is taught by non-poet and non-poetry-lovers. However, I know numerous English teachers have talked to me about their hesitation in teaching poetry because they don't want to be "wrong." When they do teach it, they rely, heavily, on what others have to say. More pieces to the puzzle, perhaps.

Yes, I do think it is the way poetry is taught (or not taught)–so often depending on the critics & scholars, rather than on the works themselves, what the poets actually said. I like to apply the Great Books method of shared inquiry to poems–looking only at the poem, asking an interpretive question, and finding "answers" based on evidence IN the poem (not elsewhere). Readers care about meaning. Teaching about form can happen during or after a discussion about meaning.

Sandy Longhorn

Kathleen, thanks! And now I'm wondering about how fiction is taught. Do those non-fiction writing teachers rely on critics and scholars first? Or is it just "easier" to approach the text of fiction b/c we "understand" narrative?

I was an undergrad from 89-93 and completely relied on my own close reading (and fairly strong knowledge of allusions). I did as little research as possible. As a graduate student in the 2000s, I still tended toward close reading and gravitated to a specialty that allowed that (though the internet made me much more willing to check out journals. The couple times I have taught lit classes, one of my critical comments in evaluations has been that I do too much close reading and reading of the text and not enough reading of criticism and theory.

Sandy Longhorn

Wendy, thanks for the comment. From your dates and experiences, we could be twins! (Except for the PhD/MFA difference.)

Glad to meet you here.