Reading Poetry (With Your Whole Self)

Often, when we read poetry, we set ourselves up for failure. We read with our minds — the intellect — scanning the words, already analyzing. “I don’t get it!” the intellect whines.

But poetry is not akin to a news story or encyclopedic article, and we don’t “get it” just by reading on an intellectual level. Poetry is art, more like a painting, a sculpture. When you take in art or even something beautiful like a sunset, you stand back and let it wash over your senses; you enjoy it. Poetry requires the same sort of whole-self sensing not only to be enjoyable, but to be understood.

I’m a poet myself, and I can say that at least this poet writes with her whole self. I feel poetry, listen to the sounds of it. I often don’t understand what I’m writing but just go with what feels right. When I’m writing it, often mulling over a line or idea on a walk or while cooking or taking a shower, I’m mostly listening. Many times I’m overcome with the urge to write, and I set down a stream of words that I can’t quite claim as “mine.” As Leonard Cohen has famously said, “If I knew where the great songs came from, I’d go there more often.” My most true poems come from that mysterious realm. And even when I have the raw words on paper, most of the time there’s a line that I hear, like a melody that gets stuck in your head, that prompts the poem to take shape. Then, somehow, line by line the poem starts to form.

So you’ll notice — I’m giving a lot of agency to the poem as almost writing itself, to the mystery working. It’s not just “me,” or the “me” of my intellect that’s writing, though it is very much involved, especially in the later stages of writing, the polishing and firming up. It was this experience as a poet that made me rethink how I was teaching poetry. The teaching methods I learned — based on analysis and critical thinking, the methods used in most any classrooms I’ve been in (and I’ve been in a lot of classrooms) — just didn’t seem to capture poetry’s art, the resonance of mind, heart, and body that I feel when I’m writing. And so many students struggled with and didn’t enjoy poetry when they knew they’d have to answer a multiple choice question on the “correct” interpretation of a metaphor. Teaching them to find and talk about metaphors just seemed empty.

So the question became: How can I teach people to read poetry and tune into all of the ways it works and communicates, not just by annotating its black and white words? I began teaching practices of listening, absorbing, noticing, practices more characteristic of mindfulness or meditation than analysis. I teach students to read and read again and read aloud again and listen and sit with a poem, hearing and sensing until something resonates. I hope students respond not only to what thoughts enter their minds but what sensations enter their whole selves. I hope they can wade into the mystery of meaning the poem evokes for them, more in the dream realm than the analytical one.

This whole-self approach is especially beneficial to English language learners. In poetry, as opposed to other texts, so much meaning — maybe even most meaning — is communicated through sound and rhythm. I will never forget my years attending the International Poetry Festival in Granada, Nicaragua. Poets from around the world would read their poems in their native language first, and then another reader would read the translated poem in Spanish (my second langauge). So I’d sit there listening to the sounds and the inflections and rhythms of Swedish or Polish or Japanese — and then vaguely understand some words of the Spanish translation. But it was an incredible experience: With this hazy understanding of the actual words, I could still feel so much of what the poem was when I could only listen to its sounds. It was sort of like watching a conversation and only understanding the body langauge, watching facial expressions, hearing the tone. I thought, maybe I can actually appreciate the sound of this poem more than a native speaker of the langauge, knowing none of the dictionary meaning of its words. There is so much value for language learners realizing, as they fret over how many words they don’t know or thinking they can’t understand until they look up each word in the dictionary, how much they can understand through listening and watching and sensing all the other ways communication takes place. There is so much more to understanding language, communication, and each other, than just through our words.

And then we always come back to the problem of the classroom, where we must quiz and test and evaluate on the level of words and intellect-only understanding. Well, there are always ways to cope with those realities, but, I’ve realized, just because I’m teaching within a system and culture that has chosen to value those metrics doesn’t mean that I can’t teach the whole of what this art form is. Bringing in a more complete reading of poetry into the classroom will only help students better analyze and articulate their understanding through the intellect, or learn new vocabulary. Ultimately, I’m teaching poetry because I hope people read poetry as whole people, in their lives, long after they leave the classroom. I won’t let them miss the opportunity to really see what it can offer, to find connections to this art that will resonate throughout a lifetime.


I’ve developed an online course: How to Read Poetry (With Your Whole Self) and a professional development session for teachers who want to introduce the mind – heart – body approach to poetry in their classrooms. I started ELLiterature to help make literature accessible to English learners and to all readers. Please check it out and feel free to contact me to continue the conversation!