Some Brief Thoughts on Teaching Poetry


Recently, in my post “The Grip of Nonchalance,” I described teaching Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” A reader commented:

Your last paragraph regarding Frost’s poem: allowing your learners to see the poem through their personal life filters – your learners are experiencing the true meaning of “educate”, to draw out of the person so the child/youth/adult is able to figure out who she/he is and who they are in this world. Intensity is framed in these discoveries.

That comment surprised me, since I do not think of my teaching, especially of poetry, that way. I am not of the persuasion that every interpretation is valid, or that the poem is all about the reader–but on further reflection I realized that this was not what Susan, the commenter, meant. Rather, a poem has many undertones and overtones, and at different times in our lives we hear certain tones over others. But if we keep on listening to the poem, we will come to hear them all, or at least more of them than before.

So in that sense, yes, my students were reading and hearing the poem through their personal filters, but what they heard was there. The poem does hint at death, or at least sleep; to me the hint is so gentle, so practical, that it does not overwhelm the poem. For some students, the hint looms larger, but this is a question of proportion.

Reuben Brower writes about this poem:

The dark nowhere of the woods, the seen and heard movement of things, and the lullaby of inner speech are an invitation to sleep—and winter sleep is again close to easeful death. (‘Dark’ and ‘deep’ are typical Romantic adjectives.) All of these poetic suggestions are in the purest sense symbolic: we cannot say in other terms what they are ‘of,’ though we feel their power. There are critics who have gone much further in defining what Frost ‘meant’; but perhaps sleep is mystery enough. Frost’s poem is symbolic in the manner of Keats’s ‘To Autumn,’ where the over-meaning is equally vivid and equally unnameable. In contrast to ‘The Oven Bird’ and ‘Come In,’ the question of putting the mystery in words is not raised; indeed the invitation has been expressed more by song than speech. The rejection though outspoken is as instinctive as the felt attraction to the alluring darkness. From this and similar lyrics, Frost might be described as a poet of rejected invitations to voyage in the ‘definitely imagined regions’ that Keats and Yeats more readily enter.

Yes, there is something instinctive about the poem, something that does not put itself in words–and this “lullaby of inner speech” brings out our own. But as Brower points out, Frost is responding not only to the mystery itself, but to certain Romantic tropes, which he comes close to embracing but then gently rejects.

So is it good to read poems through our own filters, or should we resist doing so, trying instead to hear what is there, and how it responds to other poems? Both are necessary. We have personal relationships to poems; without them, poems become just exercises in form, or abstract specimens of beauty. Some schools–and some schools of thought–frown on such intimacy and thereby ruin poetry for students and teachers alike (not to mention writers). On the other hand, as with another person, there’s more to a poem than our own feelings and perspectives (otherwise there would be no need to read it; we could just read our own diaries instead). Coming to know it requires hearing beyond ourselves.

There is discipline to reading poetry, but there is also personal roaming. If a poetry class brings out both, even briefly, and does this well, it has not gone wrong.

I took the photo in November 2017.


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  • “To know that you can do better next time, unrecognizably better, and that there is no next time, and that it is a blessing there is not, there is a thought to be going on with.”

    —Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies

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    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In February 2022, Deep Vellum will publish her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.


    On April 26, 2016, Diana Senechal delivered her talk "Take Away the Takeaway (Including This One)" at TEDx Upper West Side.

    Here is a video from the Dallas Institute's 2015 Education Forum.  Also see the video "Hiett Prize Winners Discuss the Future of the Humanities." 

    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

    On February 22, 2013, Diana Senechal was interviewed by Leah Wescott, editor-in-chief of The Cronk of Higher Education. Here is the podcast.


    All blog contents are copyright © Diana Senechal. Anything on this blog may be quoted with proper attribution. Comments are welcome.

    On this blog, Take Away the Takeaway, I discuss literature, music, education, and other things. Some of the pieces are satirical and assigned (for clarity) to the satire category.

    When I revise a piece substantially after posting it, I note this at the end. Minor corrections (e.g., of punctuation and spelling) may go unannounced.

    Speaking of imperfection, my other blog, Megfogalmazások, abounds with imperfect Hungarian.

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