Approaching poetry as an explorer and grasping its greatness

by Mr. Sheehy

I have read much of the following post as an entrance to a lesson for my students. You can hear it here.


More than any other unit in language arts, poetry has for students the trouble that math and science have – a question of relevance. Of course, I have protested the relevance of my discipline before (it is actually what got me started on a blog), but even then I did not attempt to justify poetry. Not that I am scared – I have done it in conversation and am convinced I could do it persuasively in writing (it involves my conviction that poetry is one of the only forms that forces students to slow down and examine the minute details of a text), but when it comes to arguing this question of relevance with students, I have found that sometimes the best way to battle it is from the flanks.

Thus, I do not attempt to convince my 9th graders that poetry is important for their lives. Instead, I put a quest before them – a valuable and legitimate question, which, if they can answer it, may trick them into justifying the relevance of poetry without my saying a thing.

What, I want to know, is great poetry? The entire unit is built around this question, and to answer it, we ask five additional questions:

Tomorrow we tackle the fourth question, concerning the depth of meaning, and this may be the most difficult one for me to address.

Poetry is “Perfection of form united with a significance of meaning.”

– T.S. Eliot

Meaning does make poetry great, but you cannot rush to it, like the students portrayed in Billy Collins’s poem, Introduction to Poetry:

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

These students are like those of us who hate riddles. We may like to hear a riddle, but we are not interested in working through it and coming to a conclusion on our own.

Just tell us! These are the folks who hear the Puzzler every week on Car Talk but don’t like hearing the week’s new puzzler. Give them the puzzler from last week, because then they hear the answer right away.

“A poem is a close relative of the riddle – a curiosity that invites us to unravel its mystery.”

– Leland Ryken

The lovers of the riddle, however, want the week to figure the puzzle out. They want a solid chance to “unravel its mystery” and discover it on their own. Eventually, they may give in and ask for the answer, but they want to pick it apart with tweezers and a needle first.

Thus, the approach is everything.

If we take the wrong approach to meaning in a poem, we might know what it means – and be able to scratch it out on a unit exam – but we don’t know in a way that matters to poetry. You may be able to tell me what John Keats’s Nightingale could symbolize, but have you felt what it means to love its lot so much you would want to “fade away into the forest dim”?

The first understanding of meaning – where you beat it out with a hose, or, better yet, have a henchman beat it out with a hose for you – will not help anyone answer the question of my students’ quest. It cannot build an appreciation for poetry’s greatness, for the reader of this style has abused the poetry in an attempt to make it speak another language – the language of prose.

Poetry is “The art of doing by means of words what the painter does by means of colors.”

– Thomas Macaulay

There is a reason this question of meaning is the fourth question we pose in our pursuit of great poetry. It cannot be approached until the other three have been considered. How can you consider meaning unless you have considered, appreciated, and tasted a poem’s pictures, sounds, and form? You can’t, at least if you honestly want to experience great poetry.

Poems do not become great because people say they’re great. They may become famous from what people say, but not great. Poems become great because people experience them, because the poem has a way of holding on to the reader’s imagination somehow, whether through the vivid image of a red wheelbarrow or a residual emotional power of a Lady Lazarus.

“A poem begins in delight and ends in wisdom.”

– Robert Frost

When we explore the poem, access it by probing rather than blasting, the details can penetrate us, so that when we discover the meaning, those details are so entrenched in our own minds that we seem to arrive at the Ah-ha – the wisdom – at the same moment as the poet.

“Poetry . . . should strike the reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost as a remembrance.”

– John Keats

That’s when a poem’s depth of meaning is an attribute of its greatness. When it is approached with respect, by an explorer rather than a conquerer.


  • Click on pictures for source.
  • Music: Duncan Beattie: “Nice E