What Can Poetry Teach Us?

Zach Savich
August 18, 2011
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Poetry classes aren’t about producing poems. That’s one view Dan Rosenberg considers in his KROnline review of Poets on Teaching, an anthology of ninety-nine short essays on teaching by contemporary poets, edited by Joshua Marie Wilkinson. Don’t worry about mastering meters; the point is how poetic experiences offer “a kind of damage control, an attempt to undo the harm that years of American education does to students’ poetic sensibilities.”

For such teachers, interested in “restoring students to a more natural relationship with language,” technique is out; experiential learning and vision are in. Rosenberg writes, “Jenny Boully offers a manifesto-like definition of poetry as ???an instant in which transcendence is achieved, where a miracle occurs, and knowledge, experience, and memory are obliterated and transformed into awe.’” This pedagogical approach, like others the review considers, doesn’t depend on latent genius or dogged apprenticeship. It assumes that poetry offers a unique way of learning.

Poems connect to wider experience? That’s nothing new–W.H. Auden suggested that, in his “daydream College for Bards,” every student “would be required to look after a domestic animal and cultivate a garden plot.” But in that case, poems result from experience. Boully emphasizes experiences that result from poems. Poetry becomes less an effect, or consequence, than a cause. (For discussion of how this approach can spark large-scale investigation, check out Rosenberg’s review of Christian Hawkey’s Ventrakl and Hannah Brooks-Motl’s review of Lisa Robertson’s R’s Boat.)

In his review of Poets on Teaching, Rosenberg looks at how these assumptions, while useful, might ignore “the tension between teaching and entertaining.” He also discusses the many juxtapositions, aesthetics, and agendas that emerge from essays by Hadara Bar-Nadav, John Gallaher, Fred Moten, Lisa Jarnot, and others. Can poetry be taught? As creative writing becomes increasingly integrated into higher education, I’m more curious about what only poetry can teach students.

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