Campus & Community

‘To instruct and delight’

6 min read

Vendler teaches teachers about the uses of poetry

Hyacinth M. Young, a Jamaica native with a flair for cool sunglasses and flashy blouses, teaches high school English in California. She’s at Harvard for three weeks (July 2-21) to study poetry in a summer seminar sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). Joining her are 14 other teachers from around the country.

The surprise so far, she said, is that her peers — wearing jeans to class and lugging backpacks — seem so much like the teenagers they teach. Some don’t do their homework, and there are even class clowns.

But every one of them loves poetry, said Young, who teaches at the Crossroads School for Arts and Sciences in Santa Monica.

And they get to study what they love in the best of company, she said. The daily three-hour seminars on the second floor of Barker Hall are directed by celebrated poetry scholar Helen Vendler, Harvard’s A. Kingsley Porter University Professor. “We’re sitting,” said Young, “at the feet of the goddess.”

Vendler, the author of almost 30 books and the first woman to be named a University Professor at Harvard, waved away the praise — then threw it back. “They’re giving up their vacations,” she said of the visiting teachers.

Still, the NEH program came with perks: a $2,400 stipend and class literary trips to Concord and Amherst, Mass., the Longfellow House, and Houghton Library.

Vendler was a chemistry major in college whose first postgraduate fellowship was in mathematics. But she grew up reading and memorizing poetry — spurred on by her father, who taught Romance languages in high school, and by her mother as well.

After getting her doctorate in English and American literature at Harvard, Vendler embarked on book-length forays into the poetry of Shakespeare, Keats, Yeats, Stevens, and many others. From the beginning she has shared her expertise. Her first seminar for high school teachers, sponsored by the National Defense Education Act, was in 1966.

Vendler learned then what she said is still true today: Most English teachers are forced to teach from inadequate textbooks. “I was shocked at the paucity of first-rate poems [in many textbooks],” she said, “and the proliferation of third-rate poems.”

Vendler has also learned that elementary and high schools need “a more coherent curriculum in poetry.” Studying poetry should include memorizing, reciting, and even singing, she has said — a constellation of language arts around the ideals of mastery, imagination, and pleasure.

In her Barker Hall office after one of the NEH seminars, Vendler averred that even English majors in college don’t get much formal study of poetry.

So her seminars for teachers include a grounding phase. In the first two weeks there’s required reading — up to four poems a day — along with lessons in poetic criticism, including lyric genres, meter, space, time, identity, and ways to describe art. “You can take pleasure out of the poems,” said Vendler, “by finding different ways into them.”

During the third week, her students focus on a single poet — this year Walt Whitman. The idea is that earlier lessons on how poems work will be sharpened by concentrating on one writer.

Vendler will do the poetry seminar again next year, and has already applied to the NEH. The number of applicants to the 2007 Harvard program, 121, was the highest among the NEH’s 11 seminars for high school teachers nationwide.

The experience “is intensely heady,” said seminar observer Daniel Conti, Ed.M. ’01, who teaches English at Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School. “Having an opportunity to sit with Professor Vendler is immensely enlightening. It gives you a toolbox with which to read a poem.”

He opened to a page in Vendler’s 1996 anthology, “Poems, Poets, Poetry.” On it was a list of “speech acts” — the points of rhetoric (apology, boast, command, plea) that help determine the emotional structure of a poem.

“We’re getting incredibly soaked in ideas and perspectives,” said Ryan R. Asmussen, who teaches AP English and the humanities in Elk Grove Village, Ill. “After the first week or so, we were all a little dazed by it — pleasantly so.”

Before college, poetry is given even shorter shrift than it is in literature programs. “Poetry is the stepchild of American culture,” said Vendler. Along with other arts, she said, it’s greeted skeptically in a practical, Puritan America.

That’s reflected in high school, where students think of poetry as “a secret language,” said Catherine M. “Kate” Stearns, who teaches English at Belmont Hill School near Boston. “And they don’t have a key to unlock it.”

Conti, who helped administer the NEH program, said poetry can be as intimidating to teachers as it is to students — but that the energizing time at Harvard will dispel that. “I’m going to do more, and do more diverse poetry,” he said of his plans for the fall. “I feel empowered. I have more in the toolbox.”

Young will take back to her California classroom “At the Fishhouses,” an Elizabeth Bishop poem she somehow missed all of these years. She will also take back the courage to teach Milton for the first time.

In the July 11 seminar, Vendler helped her students parse “L’Allegro,” the 17th century poet’s lengthy and (to the modern ear) dense riff on the necessity of mirth. As always, she prompted discussion by asking questions. Her first was, simply, “Structure?”

Vendler quickly uncovered the narrative within Milton’s poem. (To reach young students, she said, “Tell them a story” — reveal the whole of a poem before addressing its parts.) She called the old verse “a slide show” of sounds and pictures.

Conti, who in March helped select the seminar finalists, said Vendler works with the NEH students just as she would her doctoral scholars.

Classroom ease and collegiality were evident during friendly discussions of the Bishop poem and Seamus Heaney’s “Bogland” — both bell-clear and modern.

But during the hour devoted to Milton, open revolt erupted. One teacher was bored by the poem’s purportedly singsong meter. Another was frustrated. “I just thought he could have wrapped it up,” said East Boston teacher Christopher P. Leone, comparing Milton to the boring uncle at a family party. “You want the slide show to end.”

John Chaya, a teacher from East Brunswick, N.J., stared at the page with his face cupped in one hand. Of Milton, he said, obliquely, “My mom said if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.”

Vendler never surrendered, comparing the Milton poem to music, and turning over the soil of its narrative for evidence of playful mythology, intriguing characters, and even rustic allusions to sex and drinking. “Why do I think it’s so beautiful,” she said, “when no one else does?”

In the end, Vendler admitted, “It’s a problem, reading poems out of your own century.”

But whatever form it takes, poetry has a job to do: “To instruct and delight,” she said. “To instruct you about the vicissitudes of the nonfactual universe. It’s a vocation to strike inwards and downwards.”