Students Don’t Like Poetry? Teach Turns

26 04 2009




In “Why Students Don’t Like Poetry,” a Chronicle of Higher Education blog post from April 19, 2009, Mark Bauerlein argues that students don’t like poetry largely because they are introduced to the wrong kind of poetry: difficult poetry by the likes of John Ashbery, the kind of poetry it’s hard to understand “the basic meaning” of, poetry to which students “can’t relate.”


According to Bauerlein, when he “tried a different kind of verse, this one with rhyme and regularity and narrative,” the students took to the poetry.  The poem Bauerlein uses as an example of more student-friendly work is Dana Gioia’s “Summer Storm.”  According to Bauerlein, Gioia’s poem worked in the classroom because it “had rhyme and music,” and because it “had a subject they [the students] all could understand…”


While Bauerlein’s post gave rise to many interesting comments (especially by teachers telling about what they’ve done in the classroom to convey to students the pleasures and the discipline of poetry), many of the comments also are predictably polemical.  Some say Bauerlein is right on: poetry should be accessible.  Others argue that he is dumbing-down the real demand of difficult poetry merely to appeal to a generally uninformed audience.


Now, I don’t want to say that applying the turn to this conversation would offer a kind of cure-all for teaching poetry, but I do think that some judicious thinking about the turn can offer some helpful insights and ideas about and for pedagogy.


Thinking about the turn is called for in this case.  While Gioia’s “Summer Storm” does have “rhyme and regularity and narrative” it also has a clear and distinct turn: at the beginning of the third-to-last stanza, the poem turns from a memory to a consideration of the meaning of memory and the past.  However, as so often occurs in poems with turns, the turn goes by unrecognized as a significant feature in the poem.  (In fact, though he includes a link to the full text of Gioia’s poem, Bauerlein’s citations and summary of the poem include nothing of the poem after the turn.)


But, of course, I think the turn should have been mentioned.  Mentioning the turn is simply descriptively accurate: the poem in fact has a turn.  And the turn could have been one of the things the students liked and “got” about Gioia’s poem: Gioia’s poem offers something accessible to many 19 year olds: a story with a moral.


But focusing more attention on the turn could have offered even more to the conversation.  If not a cure-all, the turn at least could build bridges, including:


1) from the student’s own language to the poem’s maneuvering (students use turns in their own language; they easily can be shown how poems employ turns);


2) from a focus on a poem’s meaning to its being—showing students that poems are things that turn is one of the clearest and most succinct ways to show students that poems are more enactments and less easily-paraphrased statements; and


3) from accessible to more difficult poetry—aware that one of the key things that poems do is turn, students become better readers of all kinds of poems.  (The turn is at the heart of not only so many of the poems in Billy Collins’s Poetry 180: A Turning Back to Poetry but also the poetics of Rae Armantrout and Jorie Graham.  (For a glance at the turn’s presence in Armantrout and Graham, click here.  Scroll down to read the quotations from Jorie Graham and Hank Lazer on Rae Armantrout.))


While Bauerlein’s choice of Gioia as an alternative to Ashbery is polemically fraught, raising specters of the ol’ American poetry wars, and in fact might depend on those old dichotomies (intentionally or not, it pits New Formalism against the Post Avant, and suggests that one way you figure out if a poem is accessible is if it rhymes), focusing on the turn could help to erase those dichotomies: what about teaching some (accessible?) poems that have clear and distinct, easily spotted and discussed turns and then teaching some (difficult?) poems that incorporate more complex movements, twists and turns that the students could work to map out and work through?  In this way, the turn can be used to link seemingly different kinds of poetry rather than contribute once again to problematic and predictable binaries.




12 responses

27 04 2009
Caroline @ Coastcard

A fascinating post. How do you see the ‘turn’ in relation to the antistrophe of an ode? The Gioa poem is most memorable.

27 04 2009
Mike Theune

Hello, Caroline,

I think the turn clearly is related to the ode’s antistrophe. However, one thing I’m trying to do through Structure & Surprise (the book and the blog) is to more carefully differentiate poetic form (meter, stanza-form, etc) and poetic structure (the pattern of a poem’s turning). The strophe-antistrophe relationship is sometimes considered primarily formal: strophe and antistrophe share formal characteristics from which the epode breaks. However, in certain poems (I’m thinking primarily of Jonson’s Cary-Morison Ode) the turn-counterturn-stand formal pattern also indicates the presence of a deep structural pattern of turning– That is, the different stanzas very often (though not always) signal a shift in the rhetoric and the drama of the poem (for example, the first three stanzas seem to have a kind of “story-with-a-moral” structure–THAT (specifically) is the kind of poetic motion/maneuvering/twisting I’m interested in paying more attention to in poems.

There’s more information on this over at “The Structure-Form Distinction,” which can be found under “Theory & Criticism.” I hope you might glance at that, and explore the blog, and let me know if you agree…!

Thank you for this comment–

All best,

27 04 2009

Hi Mike,

One of the first places I now go with Intro to Lit and Intro to CW classes is the Turn, at least as regards poetry (I try to not put poetry into a “unit” in Intro Lit, but do so in Intro to CW when it’s multi-genre). It doesn’t mean that everybody immediately grabs onto, say, Anne Carson the way I do, but I can reasonably put her into an Intro class full of freshman side by side with Shakespeare or Eliot or Diane di Prima. I suppose that there’s even a victory in tossing The Waste Land at their feet and having them scrounge up the knowledge that this poem is battering them every stage of the way, turning them on a spit, as it were, which is a different and somewhat more refined revelation than “this is confusing.” I particularly like the way in which it easily lets me talk about a poem as a process more than an object (my version of your being more than meaning).

NB: I don’t usually use The Waste Land in a CW class, but I do use it in Intro to Lit (have been able to theme that course “literature that pushes the boundaries” several times). I don’t usually use Carson or Shakespeare or di Prima in Intro to Lit, but do use them in CW.

27 04 2009
Mike Theune

Terrific, JeFF! I’m glad you’ve found the turn such a useful concept/tool.

“Side by side”: that’s the way to do it, right? And offer the turn (along with many other features/elements of the poems) as ways “into” the work, to think more deeply about the work’s “process”/”being”…

“Literature that pushes the boundaries”–great theme…I want to take that class!

Many thanks,

27 04 2009

I think you’d like the class – Aristophanes’s The Frogs gets us going, through a bit of the Arabian Nights, Marie de France, Romeo & Juliet (which becomes our intro to Marxist theory), Lyrical Ballads, the Declaration of Independence, letters of Abigail Adams, Whitman, Zitkala-Sa’s “Why I Am A Pagan” (an essay), Eliot, Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, Dada, stand-up comedy of the 60s through 80s, children’s picture books like Where the Wild Things Are and The Stinky Cheese Man, and ending with the film Fight Club. We can’t go deep into any one of these, but since it’s an Intro class, I teach it as a real intro to eras and genres.

I’ll admit to never considering the Turn as such a great way into poems until I sat in on your informal lecture at Tongue & Ink a few years ago. Just being in that one “class” offered me an excellent model for both beginning and advanced, serious and casual students.

28 04 2009
Mike Theune

Lyrical Ballads AND stand-up AND Fight Club…?!?! I DO want to take this class!!

Interestingly, in some other comment streams, another teacher, Ashley, and I have mentioned using Fight Club as a good popular example of some big, clear turns for students.

(Hey, do you know the cartoons of this guy named, I think, Nick Gurevitch (or Gurewitch)– He has a book out called The Trial of Colonel Sweeto. I think, given your reading list above, you’d dig it.)

And thanks for your kind words about that Tongue & Ink class, JeFF–that’s really heartening–

All best,

28 04 2009

I’m not familair with Gurevitch or Gurewitch, but I’m putting him on my to-read list now…

All the best,

28 04 2009
Mike Theune


It is Nicholas Gurewitch, and you can get a good sense of his work over at his site:


28 04 2009

Oh, Perry Bible Fellowship. Yes, I know and love this guy’s work! Didn’t recognize the name, sadly.

28 04 2009
Mike Theune

Yes, that’s the one… Agreed: great stuff!

12 02 2012
Poetry? « Kelsey Mearkle

[…] we always had to read between the lines to be able to discuss what the author really meant. This blog, seems to think that the reasons that students dislike poetry is because of the way that poetry is […]

9 08 2017
Adam Sol on Jennifer L. Knox’s Leaps and Turns | Structure & Surprise

[…] discomfort.” Thus, in his writing on Knox it seems Sol is in agreement with this blog, which has made the case that familiarity with turns can be a key aspect of helping readers productively engage seemingly […]

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