Poetry can be intimidating to many people. Lesley Wheeler *94, a professor and head of the English department at Washington and Lee University, aims to break down that fear in her students and show them that poetry can be accessible and fun. A specialist in 20th- and 21st-century American and British poetry, Wheeler has written two collections of poems, including Heterotopia, which won the 2009 Barrow Street Poetry Book Prize (in manuscript) and will be published this year.
(Note: The following text has been revised from the version published in the Feb. 3, 2010, issue.)
What do your students think of poetry when they come to your introductory poetry class?
The main preconception that they bring is that poems are puzzles, poems always have double meanings, and that they’re not clever enough to figure out what the secret meaning of a poem is. To some extent this is true for English majors as well. A lot of bright juniors and seniors come into my upper-level courses with the same fears even though they are very astute readers of novels, short stories, and plays, and they know exactly what to do with language in those genres.
How did poetry get that fear factor?
From the modernists. One of the things that the modernists — meaning 20th-century poets such as T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and Marianne Moore — did is they complicated poetry. In the 19th century, poetry was something that you read with your family in the evening or that you would declaim at school. It wasn’t a foreign kind of language. It was something you owned and were comfortable with. In other words, it belonged to everybody. The modernists valued difficulty in a way that was useful for professors — it gave us puzzles to play with and problems to analyze in class. When modernists introduced the value of difficulty, whole English departments were built up on the fact that professors needed to explain it to people, that there had to be a mediator between you and the poem to explain the allusions.
I love the modernist poets. They were the poets who initially drew me to English as a field of study, but it’s not the only kind of poetry, and for most people it’s not a great entry point. The difficulty turned off many readers.
How do you bring poetry alive for your students and help them understand and enjoy it?
I have a range of strategies, and you need a range of strategies because people are afraid of poems for different reasons. One strategy is a straightforward academic one. I teach them basic tools, what rhyme is and how metaphor works, and how to do a metrical analysis of a poem. But it’s also important to give people a wide range of poems to read. For many students, reading contemporary poetry is really important because they recognize the situations and the language in the work. I also put a lot of emphasis on performance. If students are having trouble understanding a poem, I might send them off in a small group and tell them to figure out a way to perform it. You can’t voice difficult syntax without understanding it. If you learn how to say it, you’ve got it.
You’ve run “haiku death matches” in your contemporary American poetry class — what are they?
It’s a competitive performance event featuring haiku instead of the usual style of spoken-word poetry. I first saw one of these events at a National Poetry Slam. I decided to adapt it for my class because haiku is a really accessible form that doesn’t intimidate non-poets. My students write haiku and put them in a hat. Someone is an emcee, and three people are judges. Two at a time, students perform other students’ haiku. Wearing red and white headbands, the poets bow to each other when they begin a bout. Then they perform the haiku. They have three minutes. They quickly figure out that the poems that please the judges and the audience are surprising, or funny, or sexy, or have some unexpected element to them. The first time we did it in 2006, the students really loved it far more than I expected. I’ve repeated it every time I’ve taught the course because it’s so much fun.
What place does poetry hold today in our hectic world?
People still need it, and they need it more than they know that they do. Poetry slows you down. It makes you focus on small fragments of language for a little bit of time. I think we all need that desperately as a kind of meditation time that we don’t always make room for in our lives. People can get it from music, too, but I like poetry better.
— Interview conducted and condensed by Katherine Federici Greenwood
(For the record: This version corrects an error in transcribing Lesley Wheeler's response to the second question.)