Poem Talk

April 25th, 2012

We wrap up our National Poetry Month series today with the final post from Shirley McPhillips. This time Shirley talks about how “poem talk” can help students find ways poetry relates to their own lives. “Does it move us? What is our connection to it, if any? What does it make us feel, remember, consider, muse about, rethink? What do we think we know or understand, having read and taken in this poem? Is this a keeper? A touchstone? Will I pass this one along? We won’t be connecting to every poem we read. But we can get better at becoming open to the possibilities,” Shirley writes.

We are glad you joined us this Poetry Month. Be sure to check out Shirley’s book A Note Slipped Under the Door, as well as her previous Poetry Month posts.

Poem Talk

I’m going out to clean the pasture spring;
I’ll only stop to rake the leaves away
(And wait to watch the water clear, I may):
I shan’t be gone long—You come too.

I’m going out to fetch the little calf
That’s standing by the mother. It’s so young
It totters when she licks it with her tongue.
I shan’t be gone long.—You come too.

—Robert Frost, “The Pasture”

Every year the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation sponsors a series of group sessions for New Jersey teachers who like, or even love, poetry. Under the name “Clearing the Spring, Tending the Fountain,” they meet all over the state to talk about poems. This title derives from the understanding that, like the spring in Robert Frost’s “The Pasture,” the spring of our inner creativity and imagination needs tending.

This year’s series, called “Giving Voice,” allows teachers to experience sharing poems aloud. A number of these teachers write already; some will be moved to write as a result of their deep reading and conversation. If they wish to write, they will be in a better place for having read. But writing is not a requirement for these sessions. They read poems and talk. For hours on end. Across months. What a gift.

We hope that our students will read poems. That they will write. The poets we love, the masters of their craft, are clear. Mary Oliver said, “To write well it is entirely necessary to read widely and deeply. Good poems are the best teachers. Perhaps they are the only teachers.”

Students Need to Spend Time with Poems

In my first blog post, “Coming into a World of Poetry,” I made a list of possible ways teachers can invite students to engage in poetry. There are many. Once we all begin “clearing the spring,” we’ll want to create places and times to “tend the fountain.” Together we will want to explore, and share, our thinking. Students, in particular, need the opportunity to do the following:

  • • Read some poems without an expectation to “do” anything, just take them in
  • • Choose their own poems to explore and talk with others about
  • • Type/write out poems in their notebooks that “speak to them”
  • • Write out lines they like (for sound; for a thought, an image, a memory they evoke)
  • • Read poems more than once; revisit poems they’re attracted to for different reasons
  • • Read different types of poems and authors—broaden the field
  • • Excuse themselves from the company of those who would beat a poem “with a hose to find out what it really means” (“Introduction to Poetry,” from Sailing Alone Around the Room by Billy Collins)

Students Need to Talk with Others About Poems

The following are not prompts or fill-in-the-blanks, but some ways we might expect thoughtful people to talk to one another. Students can be nurtured in thoughtfulness.

  • • When I read this poem . . .
  • • I notice . . .
  • • This makes me think . . .
  • • I’m wondering . . .
  • • I’d like to add to that . . .
  • • I see it another way . . .
  • • Or it could be that . . .
  • • That caught my attention too . . .
  • • I’m wondering if anyone else . . .
  • • I’m thinking the same thing . . .
  • • Listen to this part . . .
  • • When I read this part . . .
  • • This reminds me of . . .
  • • Another poet (poem) who does this is . . .
  • • What if we read it this way . . .
  • • Maybe I could try this in my poem . . .

Sixth Graders Talk About “The Pasture”

Space here doesn’t allow for a transcript that would show the progression of conversation or the interaction, but I’ll jot down some ways students shared “The Pasture” in a group I visited. They were used to talking as a class about poems—mostly contemporary—that the teacher had chosen. Poems they could “dig into.”

This time, Josh chose the poem for his group of five. He found the book You Come Too by Robert Frost on his father’s bookshelf. I thought, How great that the masters who came before us are not considered “out of date.” As Mary Oliver writes, “The truly contemporary creative force is something that is built out of the past, but with a difference.

Group members had read the poem on their own, reread it, and made some jottings on paper beforehand. Not pulling water from a dry well. Ready to talk. The group is self-directed.

– Josh tells why he chose the poem. What calls to him.

– He reads poem aloud. Another group member reads it aloud. Easing into the zone.

– Quiet. Someone speaks.

– Short. Two stanzas (using poetic terms).

– Rhyme, second/third lines.

– Repetition, same line, end of each stanza, persuasive.

– Could memorize it, because of rhythm, rhyme.

– Read aloud, voice has steady rhythm, both stanzas alike.

– Small moment. Hasn’t happened yet. Seems like familiar tasks. Pleasant.

– Tone. Feels like you’re author’s friend. Want to go with him when he says, “You come


– Uses dash, can picture him, trying to persuade, pausing, looking up, urging.

– A friendly invitation.

– “Fancy,” old-fashioned language: sha’n’t, fetch, totters, but we “get it.”

– Could sketch/draw the images.

Talk shifts . . .

– A lull. A “running out of steam” feeling. What else to mention? As if finding it difficult to tolerate silence, Josh, the Frost “expert” in the class, pulls another Frost poem, “A Patch of Old Snow,” from his folder. Reads aloud. Talks between the two. A couple talk about similarities.

– Two stanzas, small image, same kind of voice/tone. What is the voice? Like telling us his secrets.

– Is it a “he”? It’s Frost! So yes, a “he.” Well, somebody. A “she”? Doesn’t have be the author. Are poets always writing about themselves? Seems like it here, though. So personal (fodder for further talk about poem as a construction, and some research).

– Does Frost always write about the familiar (fodder for more reading? Research.)?

Often a beginning discussion is more literal, figuring out what this writing is before us. That’s necessary. But we can help students learn ways to expand or layer their thinking, to go deeper (if the poem or poet seems to need that). It may require another sitting, or two. Some poems lend themselves to several discussions to get past the mentioning stage. Some poems, like “The Red Wheelbarrow” by William Carlos Williams (possibly the most talked about poem in history), have been talked about for years. And still we wonder, and still we talk.

Eventually, we want to help students imagine how this, or any poem, might play out in our lives, where it matters. Does it move us? What is our connection to it, if any? What does it make us feel, remember, consider, muse about, rethink? What do we think we know or understand, having read and taken in this poem? Is this a keeper? A touchstone? Will I pass this one along? We won’t be connecting to every poem we read. But we can get better at becoming open to the possibilities.

Perhaps there are some larger themes suggested by the poem. Without reading into it, just my thought, this poem has a lot to do with setting. Maybe because I grew up in the country, I can feel again a little of the loneliness that sometimes accompanies those acts of duty and responsibility. The longing for company. I can also sense a deep pleasure in simple pastoral observations—watch the water clear; it totters when she licks it. How might that play out in an urban setting? How is it that simple things can have real staying power, give such satisfaction? We can talk about it.

I would want students to talk naturally about poems, perhaps with a tentative voice, open and thoughtful. Sometimes passionate. Enjoying the light coming through. After all, we respond in different ways, taking what we need. But whatever we’re doing with a poem, we’ll want to make sure the hose is wound up and stashed in the garage. Before the screaming begins.*

*“Introduction to Poetry” by Billy Collins, from Sailing Alone Around the Room,

Entry Filed under: Writing

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Linda Van Orden  |  April 27th, 2012 at 1:21 pm

    I like what Shirley says about “After all, we respond in different ways, taking what we need”. Unlike non-fiction which relies on facts, and novels which contain an author’s agenda, poetry presents the liberating aspect of allowing the reader to interpret the words in a personal way with no interference of right or wrong expectations.

    Congratulations on an enlightening and practical series.

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