Our in-depth interview with Joseph Hutchison, Colorado’s official ambassador for poetry and literacy, which started with Why Teach Poetry last week, continues. In this segment, Professor Hutchison talks specifically about his favorite poems and essential readings in poetry, and the texts, tools, and techniques he uses in teaching poetry.
What has been your experience with teachers or students when you have introduced poetry in places where the very idea of poetry is resisted?
Teachers are just grown-up students. If poetry was misrepresented to them as kids, they’ll resist it as adults, just the way some kids resist it.
Of course, there are people whose experience has taught them to avoid their feelings, to dismiss their own ideas and insights (which probably were dismissed by some influential adults along the way), and for these people, it’s natural to reject poetry. It’s especially true in America, where we have a long history of anti-intellectualism, a distrust of “eggheads.” Turn on talk radio and you’ll hear all sorts of ignoramuses sneering at “so-called experts, ” “ivory tower types, ” etc. Richard Hofstadter wrote about this in a wonderful history called Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. Some people are afraid that if they read poetry, they’ll be distracted from inventing the Next Big Thing or making a killing in the stock market.
People who are dead inside hate when people who are alive talk about how it feels to them, how intense and exciting and sad and terrifying it feels. That’s poetry. There will always be people who are frightened by it.
What do you consider or cite as some essential readings, in poetry or prose, for students?
This can only be subjective and, if we’re talking about poetry, it can only be poetry. All commentary on poetry is secondary stuff—interesting only if one is already interested. So the question becomes: anthologies or poets? I came to poetry through anthologies, so let me recommend some of those:
The Voice That is Great Within Us, Hayden Carruth
The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart, Robert Bly and James Hillman
Modern European Poetry, Willis Barstone
From the Country of Eight Islands, Hiroaki Sato and Burton Watson
Classical Chinese Poetry, David Hinton
What are your favorite poems to teach?
Robert Frost’s Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening
Denise Levertov’s The Mutes
Ted Kooser’s “Geronimo’s Mirror”
Linda Hogan’s “Indios”
Wallace Stevens’s Disillusionment at Ten O’Clock
Rita Dove’s Hattie McDaniel Arrives at the Coconut Grove
Do you advocate for memorization and recitation of poetry?
Speaking poems, yes; not necessarily memorization, though that happens naturally, if you speak enough [poems]!
You teach online and face-to-face. What are some of the particular pros or cons of these teaching approaches when poetry is the subject?
Online, you can’t hear the poet’s voice and online discussions aren’t so “sparkling” or open-ended. The advantage to online is that people who otherwise would not be able to share their poetry and learn from others can do so, and at least begin to enjoy the community of poets.
In a post at your blog*, you say, “I often tell students that they have to let go of what they mean to say and write toward what the poem means to say.” How do you explain that statement to your students?
It is misleading to present poems as “self-expression.” Good poems express something other than the self, something beyond one’s own ideas and attitudes. We write poems to discover what we can’t discover any other way, not to dress up our little opinions in an artsy outfit. Poetry as self-expression narrows the art and robs the poet of the opportunity to learn from his or her own imagination. Imagination is not fantasy; it is the fundamental ability to gain insight, to discover what we didn’t know until we wrote the poem.
Einstein, who was a kind of poet, wrote: “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”
When poets express themselves, they express what they know; the real aim, though, is to discover and express what we don’t know.
My approach is pretty basic: words on paper, words said out loud. I really don’t like prompts and exercises, though they do work for some people. To me, the only excuse for writing a poem is that you feel compelled to write it. I don’t like to encourage people to write just for the heck of it.
What particular teaching techniques are, in your experience, most effective in teaching students about the value of poetry?
Open-ended suggestions of subject or point-of-view or voice and occasional imitation of other poets. (Nothing reveals the genius of Frost like attempting to write like Frost, or the genius of e.e. cummings like attempting his style.)
Of course, I have drawn on seminal books like Kenneth Koch’s Wishes, Lies, and Dreams when working with children; but children are easy to teach. You toss out an idea and try to get out of the way. Most adults have suffered from “imaginal abuse”: They’ve acquired the American predilection for finding value in money, in job advancement, in being active consumers with the latest whatever device, the latest style of shoes, a jersey with the latest football hero’s name on it. It’s very difficult for adults to off-load all this and listen in a trusting way to their own imaginations. And the “Wishes, Lies, and Dreams” approach doesn’t work with them. So, I focus on technical experiments, with limits on what [adult students] can and can’t do. When we work with images, for example, my adult students are forbidden to write a metaphor. At the outset, I often force them to write in prose, because so many have been brutalized by poetry-as-form that they struggle terribly to write in meter and rhyme, [which] they think [is] “proper” for poetry.
For children, writing poems is a learning experience; for adults, it’s often an unlearning experience.
* Joseph Hutchison, “The Mysterious Presence, ” The Perpetual Bird, March 19, 2014
Joseph Hutchison’s Website
Joseph Hutchison blogs at The Perpetual Bird
Have you been “brutalized by poetry-as-form”? Maybe it’s time for you to explore poetry through the gentle guidance of NEA Fellow and published poet Tania Runyan.
How to Read a Poem offers delightful advice on how to explore poetry for enjoyment and meaning. Uses images like the mouse, the hive, the switch (from the Billy Collins poem)—to guide readers into new ways of understanding poems. Excellent teaching tool. Anthology included.