What Poems Can Teach Us

If you’re a regular reader of Writerly Life, you’ve heard that this fall I’ll be teaching an undergrad creative writing class. It’s kept me busy, thinking about what reading materials will be most helpful to a roomful of budding writers, or perhaps a roomful of people who fear writing and are only here for a requirement (I hope I get a roomful of the former). Because the class must be half-composed of poetry discussions, I’m a little afraid of launching myself into that murky jungle. As a fiction writer, I often feel overwhelmed by poetry; I enjoy reading it, but I’m poorly equipped with the tools needed to discuss and analyze it. That’s why I want to hear from you.

What can poems teach us? And which poems are the best to learn from?

The first question to ask when assembling a reading list is, What do I want the readings to teach? For the poetry section of the syllabus, I want the chosen poems to teaching my students about voice, mystery, and detail, among other things. I’ve chosen a very wide range so far, from selections from Walt Whitman to excerpts from Rumi. For contemporary poetry, I’m a little more out of the loop. Some of my favorite poems that I’m including are Billy Collins’ “Workshop”, selected odes to ordinary household objects from Sharon Olds, and Tom Wayman’s “Did I Miss Anything?” These contemporary poems are memorable and teachable to me because they ask questions or capture singular, complex moments in modern life, including our love of workshop language, our regret at missing every opportunity for a realization, and our dependence on simple, ordinary objects. They’re good for teaching because their structures can be replicated, but filled with students’ original ideas.

But what do you think? Poetry lovers, give me poem suggestions to teach and tell me what you think they can teach new writers. I’ll certainly check ’em out. That leads me to that question of what poems can teach us. Why do we read a poem in a creative writing class? More than anything, I think the poem can teach us how the personal makes something universal. The more vague and cliched an idea is in a story or poem, strangely, the less universal it feels: it becomes alien from us, feeling unreal, something made up for a glossy magazine or a television commercial. If you rely on the personal details and experiences of your own life, however, it begins to feel as if everyone could identify and sympathy with it. Art lives in personal experience, and there’s no art form more personal than poetry.

What do you think poetry can teach us, and what poems will best show that lesson? Share your thoughts, and keep the poetry discussion going.


  1. mary brady says:

    Hey Blair,

    I hope you choose a poem of Kay Ryan’s from her book, “Niagra River.” She says more with less than any other poet ever–and with clever, unexpected rhymes.

    Please get the book. All the poems can be read in an hour. Any ONE of the poems can resonate, like a huge bell, forever…

    Another good poet for beginners is James Tate. He’ll broadside your students, for sure. His poems are actually short, hilarious prose stories. But, boy, do they force you to think.

    For James Tate, try the title with “White Donkey” in it, or the collection called “Ghost Soldiers.”

    Kay Ryan just finished being the US Poet Laureate, and James Tate has won the Pulitzer, plus every other possible award a poet can receive.

    As for Billy Collins, PLEASE use the poem, “Another Reason I Don’t Keep A Gun In the House.” It is about the dog who won’t stop barking, and Collins can hear the dog even under a Beethoven record at Mach 10. It is in “The Apple That Astonished Paris.”

  2. ashok says:

    Thanks for the link – have bookmarked the blog, will definitely be back.

    I dunno what you can use for the class. The thing is, there are lots of people that read a ton who don’t really care for any poetry at all. When explaining poetry, I always start from New Criticism – every work of literature is a self-contained world, one is trying to find and explain the dynamic between an internal speaker and internal audience – not because I actually hold New Criticism is the only way to read literature, but because if they lack enthusiasm, I need a fall back where something technical-sounding they can memorize and utilize is in play. I explain some of what I’m doing with New Criticism here:


    The contemporary poet I really like is Katia Kapovich. “Apartment 75” and “Painting a Room” are incredible.

  3. katyusha says:

    I don’t know all that much about poetry, because I don’t read so much of it– not the modern stuff, anyway. I do like Louise Bogan, however. Her poems are fairly short (one is two lines).
    “The Dragonfly” is good (2nd link), and “Medusa”, but I think my favourite is “Night” (also 2nd link).

    Also, as crazy as it may sound, Shel Silverstein is still one of my favourite poets of all time. Kids’ poetry that it may be, some of it’s pretty profound. And the lighter stuff is great too– I’ve never taught, but based on classes I’ve taken I’ve always gotten more from the ones that broke up the heavy stuff a bit.

  4. One of the things that poetry can teach us is how language can be used to create an effect. Victor Hugo’s “Les Djinns” illustrates this beautifully, starting with short lines and building up to longer and longer ones, then getting shorter and shorter.

    No English translation, in my opinion, can do complete justice to the French original, but the following is pretty darn good:

    Here is a link to the French version.

    Another thing that poetry can teach us is the importance of each and every word, and of each and every word choice, the use of imagery and language.

    Anyway, here is another of my favorite poems, Rita Dove’s “Flirtation”

  5. PS: I’d love to see you do a piece on any or all of poetry in translation, what makes a good translation, how to go about translating a poem. I really really don’t like to read poetry in translation, so there’s a good deal of poetry that I haven’t read — poetry in Spanish, for example. Also any pointers to any side-by-side editions of poetry (one side original language, one side translation) that you like …

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