National Writing Project

Poetry for Left-Brainers

By: Judy Willis
Publication: The Quarterly, Vol. 26, No. 4
Date: 2004

Summary: Self-proclaimed "left-brainer" Judy Willis has always avoided poetry. Then she participates in summer institute for the South Coast Writing Project (SCWriP), in sessions conducted by author Sheridan Blau. He provides a model for interpreting a difficult text, and Willis learns not only to interpret poetry but to appreciate its value in helping us be more present to our experience. "Through poetry, we notice it better."


In college, I never took a course in the English department. I was pre-med and didn't want to risk a class where the grade was determined subjectively. At least that was my rationalization. My real burden was a four-letter word that evoked my fear and loathing during my high school English classes: poem. I did make sure that my college transcript had a well-rounded look by including the class "The History of the Hydrogen Atom—Physics for Poets," but only after a consultation with the professor assured me that there were no actual poems in the course.

I came to teaching as a second career, following twenty years of successfully avoiding poetry, except when it was inescapable in a song. I knew that if I wanted to teach in elementary and middle school, I would need to make inroads to iambic pentameter. However, I toasted my good fortune with a fine glass of syrah, when I was informed that the tradition at my first school was that the poetry unit would be taught by a master poet.

As you have probably inferred, I am the stereotypic (albeit not completely validated by research) left-brain-dominant person. My proficiencies are verbal and analytical, and I am deficient in so-called right-brain talents such as art. I'm also the last person to understand a joke and the first to get lost on a hike. I can tell you the genus and species of a ground squirrel, but first someone needs to point out that there is one under the tree a few feet away. I lack easy access to the big picture—to see both the forest and the trees.

In the summer of 2003, I participated in a summer institute at the South Coast Writing Project (SCWriP), the National Writing Project's site at the University of California, Santa Barbara. There the format of seventy-five-minute presentations by participating teachers is highly interactive. As we are unlikely to write a novel in that time frame, there was one obvious favorite format to demonstrate the technique of the day: The Poem. Not only that, but one of the earliest presentations was conducted by none other than the founder and director of the SCWriP program himself, Sheridan Blau. It was one thing to use his excellent text, The Writer's Craft, in my classroom, but quite another to sit beside him at a table and deconstruct a poem.

By taking part in the institute, I had joined twenty outstanding teachers of writing, from all disciplines and all levels of instruction (kindergarten through college), from Santa Barbara, Ventura, Oxnard, and northern Los Angeles counties, as participants in the teaching of writing. We worked, wrote, and studied as colleagues, with resident project staff and a number of distinguished visiting consultants, in a community of writers and readers. We met four full days a week for five weeks, to demonstrate our own approaches to the teaching of writing, examine current theory and research in the teaching of writing, write extensively, and join regularly in small groups to share and respond to each other's writing. I knew poetry would be part of the mix, but did it have to be the first week?

Blau was my interview partner during our first day of the summer institute, before the dreaded poetry session. Gesturing enthusiastically, smiling, making eye contact that encouraged me in my interview, he explained, "My heart flutters with anticipation before the summer program. No longer is it from anxiety about potential glitches, but from the excitement of days to come, when relative strangers become colleagues and friends. The elementary teachers will write pieces that will knock me over. They bring freshness, without pretension or self-consciousness. Their writings, like their classrooms, are charged with images and metaphors. Then, the college teachers will experience being appreciated by the group here in a way they may not otherwise be by their college students." I hung on his words (or they hung like weights on my pen) "The teachers will write pieces." He didn't say poetry and that was my glimmer of hope.

Blau's first presentation was entitled "Disciplined Literacy." (The complete description of his lesson can be found in his book The Literature Workshop: Teaching Texts and Their Readers.) So far, so good. I liked the word disciplined, as it was certainly not part of poetry rhetoric. My relief was short-lived. When Blau began his presentation by explaining that we would be given passages to read, I could no longer delude myself; I knew that passage was a code word for poetry.

I found that I understood more of the poem each time I read it. The process of underlining focused my attention on the phrases I would have skipped as "too hard."

He discussed a commonly held student notion that "good writing is easy to understand." Maybe there was hope after all. Alas, Blau proceeded to challenge that concept by proclaiming, "Good writing is hard to understand." He reflected that the typical classroom student response is "It is above my reading level, it's too hard, and I can't understand it," and many students give up. Oh, yes, he was describing me expertly.

He felt the notion that good writing must be easy to understand leads to a limited and unsustainable definition of good writing. He explained that the California curriculum structure conspires to reinforce this view: "Some of the most widely adopted and politically touted reading programs tend to move literary texts to the margins and place a premium on speed and fluency over the careful reading that might be required by a more thoughtful attention to meaning."

Blau continued, "Strong readers and teachers have a greater tolerance for difficulty or failure. Confusion represents a high state of literary understanding. The act of interpretation doesn't occur in reading unless you feel something is wrong—something makes you uncomfortable. From there you seek and reach a new perspective and the richest parts of the literature.

"Overinstruction or giving predigested interpretations to students results in a limited conception of reading and of what competent readers go through to produce literary meanings. Most student readers function largely as welfare recipients in the economy of literary interpretation and instruction. We want to give students the experience of successfully interpreting difficult text, and that is what this lesson is about, liberating students from interpretive welfare."

He said he was now going to demonstrate this point utilizing good but challenging writing samples. I understood his rationale but still prayed, "Please, Sheridan, overinstruct away; I won't mind a bit."

The passage he started with was one of poetic prose from Henry David Thoreau: "Sometimes we are inclined to class those who are once-and-a-half-witted with the half-witted, because we appreciate only a third part of their wit."

Blau breezily commented that this passage was not easy to understand. (Now, there's an understatement!) But he pushed us to raise our hands as soon as we felt we had interpreted the passage satisfactorily. He called out the seconds. "Not too much pressure, is it?" he wondered. Then he announced, "Time," before all hands were up. He told us to share with our partners, but neither my partner nor I felt we understood the passage. And we were not alone. People indicated they had read the passage more than four times.

This exercise, said Blau, was a means of giving us the visceral and intellectual reaction most students have when they engage in transactions with difficult literary texts in most school settings. If that was his objective, it worked.

Then we tried again, with a real poem:

For Julia, in Deep Water

The instructor we hire
because she does not love you
Leads you into the deep water,
The deep end
Where the water is darker—
Her open, encouraging arms
That never get nearer
Are merciless for your sake.

You will dream this water always
Where nothing draws nearer,
Wasting your valuable breath
You will scream for your mother—
Only your mother is drowning
Forever in the thin air
Down at the deep end.
She is doing nothing,
She never did anything harder.
And I am beside her.

I am beside her in this imagination.
We are waiting
Where the water is darker.
You are over your head,
Screaming, you are learning
Your way toward us,
You are learning how
In the helpless water
It is with our skill
We live in what kills us.

—John N. Morris

At the end of my fourth reading, I figured out that there was a child being taught to swim by an instructor in a pool while her parents looked on. I caught on that every participant in this tableau, except perhaps the swim instructor, was pretty bummed out. But I just kept thinking, so what? I've been there, done that, watched my girls cry and beg during their first swim lessons.

After that interpretation of the first part of the poem, I got to the end and was confused and miffed. Here I'd been dragged back to the unpleasant reminder of those swim lessons that make parents feel like child abusers, and what is my reward for making this connection? A poem with an ending that I didn't feel good reading and didn't understand after four revisits. What fun; now I was a bad parent and a failure at poetry interpretation.

Then Blau stepped in. He provided a model for helping me—and, by extension, my future students—understand how a competent reader proceeds in moving haltingly and recursively toward a satisfactory reading and interpretation of a difficult text. In an effort to liberate us from interpretive welfare, Blau demonstrated how we should use three colored markers, read the poem three times, and each time, using a different marker underline anything we didn't understand. He suggested that strong readers think about what they don't know; they pay more attention. They think that what they notice is worth thinking about.

O me of little faith. During the ensuing hour, I discovered that these summer institute days would be filled with epiphanies for me. I found I understood more of the poem each time I read it. The process of underlining focused my attention on the phrases I would have skipped as "too hard." I persevered because I was obliged to return to these lines and found myself enjoying the feel of the markers, the stimulus of collegial competition, the chance to "perform for the teacher," and, most important, the challenge of solving a puzzle for myself. Maybe not all poetry was too hard to understand, because with this process I made the breakthrough. I think I glowed, so pleased was I with my understanding. Blau had succeeded in teaching us a set of self-management skills—concentration, persistence, and courage in the face of intellectual difficulties—that I would surely use myself and hopefully pass along to my students.

During the break I was able to have another "aha moment," as I asked Dovas, a participant at my table with poetry expertise, about poetry in general. The poem analysis process we had just completed was the first time I had succeeded in interpreting a poem. But I was still left with a "So what?" about poetry. Why don't poets just write what they want to say in more accessible prose, instead of having me work at, or more likely give up on, interpreting or rereading their poems?

In an example of how we help our peers in SCWriP activities, Dovas, encouraged me to see that a poem delivers its message not necessarily in the least words but in the most intense words. I revisited phrases such as "merciless for your sake," "mother is drowning forever in the thin air down at the deep end," and "Screaming, you are learning your way."

I saw how using this style of language could be more powerful, because of the strength imbued in the carefully selected words. I realized that I had a visceral response to the literal interpretation of the poem, vivid recall of my pain during my daughters' earliest swim lessons, and that this poem pummeled me with more meaning and emotion per word than any other kind of writing, and I made a personal connection.

But there was more—the dreaded "deeper meaning" of the poem. I was always stopped cold when high school literature teachers asked for the metaphorical interpretation of a captain's white whale or an ancient mariner's albatross. I whined that this search for the greater meaning was another frustrating, inefficient use of time. If the poet wants me to understand a greater concept, he had better be explicit or that albatross will forever be just a bird.

Dovas knew that I wrote a wine column and appreciated the levels of complexity and flavor that I perceived in the wines I enjoy. Why not see the poem in that way—created by the poet/winemaker but offered to the consumer for personal interpretation? It is fun to discover for myself the innuendos in a wine, so I realized that a good poet could carefully select combinations of intense words to elicit explosions of emotion or memories in the reader, who can then choose to make a personal connection or see a universality through a metaphorical interpretation of the poem.

Julia's swim lesson helped me give meaning to the pain associated with my parental conflicts of pulling in and pushing out, setting boundaries and letting go. What began as a poem about a swim lesson became a vehicle, an emotional probe, to show me a new way to relate to and connect separate child-raising experiences of the past under a greater umbrella. From the passage through the birth canal to the first swim lesson and the waves of good-bye at airports, the pains I experienced as a parent seemed validated because the poet clearly had felt them also, and poignantly enough to write this poem.

[My colleague] encouraged me to see that a poem delivers its message not necessarily in the least words but in the most intense words.

After the break I was ready to revisit the final hurdle, the last line of the poem. I had reached a point where I appreciated the poem's confirmation that parenting at times requires us to be "merciless for your sake." I reread the poem's concluding lines, and instead of seeing them as referring to life's futility, I found them an affirmation of my parenting.

You are learning how
In the helpless water
It is with our skill
We live in what kills us.

A few days and, I'm proud to say, a few personally constructed poems after this presentation, Blau shed further light on my query about why writers didn't just write what they wanted to say as prose. If they wanted to say something, why obscure it? He repeated a story told by the Russian literary theorist Viktor Shklovsky about Tolstoy. The great author had just dusted his study and asked himself, "Did I dust yet?" Insofar as he couldn't remember if he had done it, did that mean he was not present during the activity? He postulated that the function of poetry is to make us aware of what we're living through while we're living through it or, when poetry is recursive, reflecting on that life moment.

Poetry, Blau explained, literally defamiliarizes experiences, so we can't take them for granted. In putting an experience into a poem, we are compelled to pay greater attention, because we lengthen the time devoted to the experience. Blau summed it up for me: "Through poetry, we notice it better."

I took Blau's words on a hike by myself. Usually when I hike it is with friends and it is more of a moving conversation than an appreciation of nature. I never notice the trees or vistas, never hear the bird song or smile at the play of the light through the leaves. On my lone hike I stopped and pretended I was a coyote on the trail, feeling her thoughts and seeing through her eyes, vigilant for predators, prey, and other pack members. I wrote in a notebook I carried about smells, fears, previous experiences brought to my coyote memory of hiding places in the brush. For the time I thought and wrote, I was a wild coyote.

Now when I hike in the woods or drive on a freeway, I remember to take time to turn off my busy mind, always so full of "to do" lists. I see spilled milk on a tablecloth and hear the rush of a river. I let in images of creeks I passed, seemingly unnoticed on those prior hikes so obscured by my chatter. They were in my memory all along, and as I reclaim them I can bring to mind the sounds of the flowing water and the sparkling dance of light on the ripples. Finally, I slow down after connecting with the past and return to the moment, but this time I stay in the moment, without my mind going into future-planning mode. The gift I received from the lesson of the poem is that I can be in the moment and, rather than analyze and look for objective relevance, I can give myself permission to absorb the present just because it is where I am now. I am not only "more aware of what I am living through," but more appreciative of and responsive to what I am living in.

In the year following my writing fellowship, I have continued to write poems, sharing them in a continuing post-SCWriP writing group with several of my former fellows. I even purchased my first book of poetry (Billy Collins). I am no longer poetry-challenged, and I boldly go where this former scientist had previously feared to tread; I teach poetry in my classroom.


Blau, S. 2003. The Literature Workshop: Teaching Texts and Their Readers. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

About the Author Judy Willis, a teacher-consultant with the South Coast Writing Project, California, teaches math and writing (including poetry) at Santa Barbara Middle School. Her text for teachers, explaining the neurology of learning, will be published next year by Corwin Press.

"For Julia, in Deep Water," by John N. Morris, is reprinted here with permission from the author's estate. The poem was previously published as part of a collection of Morris's poems found in The Glass Houses (Atheneum, 1980).

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