Finding Poems

A few years ago, I had the pleasure and honor of observing Robert Pinsky as he conducted a small class at the University where I was working. He was warm and smart and - unlike some poets - clearly invested in teaching. He mentioned a project he assigned wherein his students were expected to read lots of poems with the aim of collecting their favorites in a notebook. Just a simple binder, probably, and maybe there was more to it than that, but the idea struck me, even in its simplicity, as important. I have always read and written poetry (see the Friday and Tuesday First Drafts effort for more), but I didn't know many poems deeply. I didn't have any memorized, I didn't gather them, I had never attempted to curate a collection.

A few days later, I started my own Poetry Notebook, and today, I assigned one to my students. I asked them why they didn't read much (or any) poetry, and they said things like, "it just takes so much effort; when I read, I want a story to take me somewhere. I don't want to have to work to figure out what it means; I just never know what it's supposed to be about; I prefer stories because I can relate to the characters." I understand their hesitations all while I lament their unnecessary resistance. They don't yet know that poetry can be funny as well as "deep," that there isn't just one right answer to "what a poem means," and that the things requiring the most effort are often the most worthwhile.

Today, I began by freeing them to see poetry in more ways than one: in spoken word or google poems; in haiku or sonnet; in found poetry or song lyrics. I showed them the spinning action in the Poetry Foundation app and watched as many of them pulled out their devices and immediately began playing with it. I invited them into the books on my shelves and shared with them my Poetry Notebook. And perhaps most importantly, I read to them. In one class, I read "Bread" by Richard Levine and maybe didn't do it justice because I don't know it well enough. In the other, I read E. E. Cummings' poem that begins
i thank you God for most this amazing day
and that one, I know. I know it intimately, musically. It makes a loop somewhere around my ribcage and thrums in my fingertips. And I think they heard it. I can't wait to see what they find.


  1. I am so happy to hear that you are sharing poems with your students. I had not thought to create a binder of favorite poems, but perhaps I will...although I already have post-it tabs in almost all of my poetry books, marking the poems I love.

    1. The nice thing about the collecting aspect is that you can (and I do) flip through it and recall not only the poem you might have forgotten but the act of finding it as well. It has a tangible, concrete aspect to it that I like. If I'm not mistaken, Pinsky requires his students to type out the poems they find rather than merely printing or photocopying them. He sees it as a way for them to dwell more deeply inside each word of a poem. I'm not going that far yet, but it is an idea with merit.