Edmundson's January Term Class Offers the Gift of Poetry

January 9, 2009 — It takes only seven days to begin to learn to read poetry well, said University of Virginia English professor Mark Edmundson.

He is teaching the January Term course, "How to Read a Poem" for the second time, with the goal of introducing more students to the written art form.

"You can go from zero to 60 in that time," he said.

Most of the students in the previous class were not English majors, he said. For a scholar who regularly teaches the influence of Sigmund Freud in literary theory, the short course enables him to give something to students, whether they're in economics or engineering.

"The ability to read poetry is a gift. You get a pleasure that lasts a lifetime," said Edmundson, one of the select group of University Professors. "But it can be difficult to start by yourself."

Reading lyric poetry demands a different form of attention to the words. Although it's written in the same language we use every day — "the medium we swim in," as Edmundson put it — poetry uses language in a way that some people may find intimidating.

"It's very compressed and multiply signifying," or capable of conveying several meanings at once, he said.

Using the book, "Sound and Sense: An Introduction to Poetry," by Laurence Perrine and Thomas R. Arp, Edmundson is introducing students to the work of a range of English and American poets, including Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Robert Browning, William Butler Yeats, T.S. Eliot, Emily Dickinson and Elizabeth Bishop. While the students develop as readers, they're looking at Eliot's "Collected Poems" to follow a poet's career over time.

He also is teaching the basic elements  that make poetry different from other genres of writing, such as the use of figurative language and poetic forms.

As another way to look at what goes into making a poem, students are writing poetry, too, sometimes in class. Edmundson gives them exercises, like adding a new last line to a poem, and they also have the chance to imitate and parody the poets they're reading.

Teachers in high school and college gave him the gift of reading poetry, Edmundson said. Now he's passing it on.

— Anne Bromley