How to Teach a Poem

Friday is a day for teachers and the topic of teaching poetry, and our first session was with former poet laureate Robert Hass.

Hass started his discussion on haiku. He talked about traditional haiku and how the form has seasonal topics, but only in the first and third position. He also recited several haiku from memory and made connections to projects with children writing haiku today.

Then the discussion evolved into what are we teaching and how do we teach. Hass has primarily taught at the college level. He said “I have never not been interested in poetry.” So for teacher, difficulty becomes how to translate that passion in a meaningful to students at any age. In other words:

How do you teach a poem?

“To some extent,” Hass said, “I think we have wrecked poetry because we want students to learn how to analyze.”

After sharing some of his teaching experiences from teaching kindergartners (imagine!) to the upper levels, he went on to say, “…to convey complex forms of joy and sorrow, that’s what we do as teachers, find ways to make poetry live and not deaden it through rigor.” Teachers must emphasize rigor to expand imagination, and then they must “teach imagination.”

Hass offers two suggestions for teaching poetry.

Teaching poems you love rather than teaching the ones that are less interesting but deemed required. You’ll probably get a better response teaching something you’re interested in.
Have student recite poems. Get them invested in the poem, and offer little insights about the author or conditions under which the poem was written.

After taking questions from the audience, and there we many thoughtful questions asked, Hass read some of his newer, unpublished poems. I felt lucky to that he wanted to test them out on us. Many were about his younger brother, who passes away recently.

Lastly, Hass spoke about a concept I want to know more about: The Gift Economy. I believe the idea is that poetry and the arts offer the recipient something that can’t be bought or sold. Poetry gives us insight through individualism, freeing you into yourself.

I’m fascinated by that. I hope to run into Hass today so he can further explain the concept.


Rethabile said…
Teaching poems you love. Agreed.
susan said…
Very cool. I hope you write about as much as about your experiences at Dodge as possible. Lovin' this. Thank you.
~ said…
Thanks for this.

have you read that book The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World (1983) by Lewis Hyde. It's about what Hass was speaking about.
odessa said…
oh, i love robert haas! i hope to one day listen to him read in person since he lives in the bay area. thanks so much for sharing.
Catherine said…
1) If there's several thousand people there, how do you manage to have personal conversations with such great poets? Are you very bold, or does that mean you have "arrived" as a poet?
2) On teaching poetry - I always found Kenneth Koch's books on teaching poetry to children inspirational. "Rose, Where Did You Get that Red?" is one, and I think "Wishes, Lies and Dreams"
January said…
Hi Catherine. Great question/comments. Hope you don't mind but I think I will expand on my comments and answer as a post.

Also, the Koch books are on my book shelves, too. They are wonderful resources for teachers at all levels.
January said…
Odessa, Hass is a wonderful poet and very generous with his poetry audiences. Hope you do get a chance to hear him read, and then tell us about it.

Kelli, it would be great to have you read at Dodge. Hmmmm ... 2010?

Susan, wish you were here.

Rethabile, I do think teachers get stuck teaching the works that are required reading rather than the ones they enjoy. That's how it was when I was in high school. Maybe the tide is turning because there are so many great poems and pieces of literature available through the Internet (meaning you don't have to buy the book to have access).
~ said…
I would just love to *attend* the dodge festival!

You know, I have family back East(NJ, MA, & VT) I should probably just fly back and go!

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