Serious Play: Teaching Through Poetry

April 15, 2011

The logical faculty has infinitely more to do with Poetry than the Young and inexperienced, whether writer or critic, ever dreams of.

                        -William Wordsworth

[T]he evil of thinking as poetry is not the same thing as the good of thinking in poetry.

             -Wallace Stevens (The Necessary Angel: Essays on Reality and the Imagination)

Many teachers say they are avid readers of fiction, essay, and creative nonfiction, but few say they are readers of poetry. Some consider poetry to be esoteric and difficult—not something they would read unless asked to do so, and not something they teach except when required. Others read and even write poetry on their own, outside of their classroom responsibilities, but are hesitant to teach it. Poetry has long been an important component of IWT workshops because the attention to language that poetry demands makes us better at writing and thinking, and enriches our imagination.

Poetry belongs everywhere—in middle and high schools, in the college core curriculum, and in classes across the curriculum. Poetry is a form of thinking that requires the reader to puzzle out a logic that is only implied. It sharpens our understanding of the world, language, and ourselves. Poetry is, as Jorie Graham suggests in the introduction to The Best American Poetry 1990, “an act of mind” that connects the reader to the world through precision of seeing, feeling, and thinking.

This conference explores how we cultivate—in ourselves and our students—curiosity about and interest in reading and writing poetry, and writing about it. Participants learn innovative ways to enjoy and teach poetry, and explore, through experiential workshops and panel presentations, what poetry teaches us. The conference also considers why poetry belongs in the school curriculum.  

 Small-group workshops, led by IWT faculty:

  • Model writing-to-read and writing-to-learn practices for listening to, performing, and teaching poetry
  • Focus on major poets writing in English, including Shakespeare (Sonnets), Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, William Wordsworth, Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, paired with contemporary and experimental poets
  •  Explore the place of poetry across the curriculum, in social studies, science, and math

Plenary Session: Play and Pleasure in Poetry: Habits of Mind

Three panelists consider how serious play, in reading and writing poetry, deepens our appreciation for language, formal structure, and the lives of others. They also talk about the place that poetry deserves to have in the curriculum, and how it contributes to the making of meaning in history, science, and mathematics.

Joan Retallack, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Professor of Humanities, Bard College; director, Language and Thinking Program, 1999–2009; coeditor, with Juliana Spahr, of Poetry and Pedagogy: The Challenge of the Contemporary; author of Gertrude Stein: Selections (2008) and The Poethical Wager (2003), an exploration of the poetics of agency. Her most recent volume of poetry is Procedural Elegies / Western Civ Cont’d / (2010).

Derek Furr, faculty, Master of Arts in Teaching Program, Bard College; middle school teacher/reading specialist, Charlottesville, Virginia, City Schools; teacher educator, TEMPO Graduate Education Program; research assistant, Center for Improvement of Early Reading Achievement; English writing instructor, University of Virginia. Publications include Recorded Poetry and Poetic Reception from Edna Millay to the Circle of Robert Lowell (Palgrave 2010).

Benjamin Stevens, Assistant Professor of Classical Studies at Bard College, has published on poetry (including Lucretius and Ovid), sensorial anthropology, linguistics, comics, and philosophy of mind. He has also published poems, and maintains additional research and teaching interests in Biblical Hebrew, the Classical tradition, and science fiction. Stevens serves on the board of directors of the Contemporary A Cappella Society, directing its educational programs (including at events like SoJam and the Los Angeles A cappella Festival), coordinates the Recorded A Cappella Review Board, and judges international a cappella contests and awards. As a music educator, his specialties include collegiate a cappella groups, vocal percussion, and the history of 20th-century popular musics including rock, pop, and rap; in spring 2009 he taught a course at Bard on the poetics of rap, "Contemporary Urban Poetics".


Annanadale-on-Hudson, NY 12504

To register

The conference fee is $140; it does not include housing. For further information contact Teresa Vilardi at 845-758-7432 or