Q&A: Poetry Belongs in All Classrooms, UVA’s Spaar Says

Lisa Russ Spaar poetry class
October 20, 2015

Coming from a family of mostly scientists, University of Virginia English professor Lisa Russ Spaar, who has taught poetry for more than 30 years, said she often thinks about how the imaginative aspects of different disciplines mesh or intersect.

This fall, she’s had an opportunity to dwell on how teaching poetry can make a positive, inspiring and long-lasting impact on students in any classroom.

As one of three finalists for Baylor University’s national $250,000 Cherry Award for Great Teaching, Spaar is preparing to present a lecture intended for a general audience to include the importance of teaching.

Spaar will give a talk on “The Golden Laboratory” – about using poetry in the classroom across all disciplines – on Thursday, from 5 to 6 p.m., in Nau Hall, room 101.

She recently answered a few questions related to the topic of her talk.

Q. Why is it important for students in other disciplines to study poetry?

A. Poetry more broadly and deeply is not simply verse, but a way of engaging actively and discerningly with the world/word connection and the attendant wonder, responsibilities, risks and mysteries involved in that connection. 

I think that the experience of studying poetry in a classroom, in real time, with other people – whether one’s primary interests are in systems engineering, marketing, cuisine, ophthalmology, eco-feminism or transnational literatures – offers an inimitable way of exploring language, the use of which is one of our uniquely human capacities.

It’s easy to be duped by words; the kind of “work” that closely reading (and writing) poetry requires can make us more sensitive and aware of the ways in which the “devices” we associate with poetry – music, tone and especially figures of speech, like metaphor – are actually integral to all thinking.

Q. What else can studying poetry teach today’s students?

A. The study of poetry also helps us develop skills in paying attention over time, and it can make us wary of the ways in which metaphors – like “the web,” “the cloud” – can sometimes over-simplify complex processes or linger in our thinking after their accuracy has changed or even been disproven.

Finally, all of us, but perhaps especially “digital natives,” may need assistance cultivating levels of focus and concentration that once came more naturally to us because of fewer, or different, distractions. 

Q. How else does poetic language cross disciplines?

A. In an afterword to “Metaphors We Live By,” George Lakoff and Mark Johnson assert that we “don’t have a choice as to whether to think metaphorically. Because metaphorical maps are part of our brains, we will think and speak metaphorically whether we want to or not.”

Scientists, like most of us, constantly make use of analogies, metaphorical devices and similes to help shape or articulate an intuition for a problem, by relating it to something else.

Poetry sometimes scares people because of its figuration, its “double-vision” or stereoscopy, its subjectivity. But an awareness of what the study of poetry affords – our human experience and fallibility – is essential to making not only meaning, but also to apprehending meaningfulness: in language, thought and our humanity.

Q. What is the Golden Laboratory?

A. Come to the talk and see.

A poet who publishes anthologies and essays as well as seven collections of her own poems, Spaar received a Jefferson Scholars Foundation Faculty Award for 2013-15, the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia’s Outstanding Faculty Award in 2010 and a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2009, among other honors.

The Cherry Award for Great Teaching, created by Texas lawyer Robert Foster Cherry, is designed to stimulate discussion in the academy about the value of teaching. Spaar will visit Baylor from Oct. 25 to 29 give a version of the same lecture and teach two classes there, as well as meet with the Cherry Award selection committee and Baylor’s English department.

The eventual Cherry Award winner, to be chosen next spring, will receive $250,000 and an additional $25,000 for her home department and will teach in residence at Baylor during fall 2016 or spring 2017.