Skip to content

Learning (to do) poetry, for example

June 5, 2022

David Baume

Doing poetry

I wake at 6:17, for no obvious reason.

Poetry comes into my conscious mind. Not any particular poem, but the idea of poetry. 

Then; because I am currently obsessed with the idea of learning; comes the idea of learning poetry. Then; because I’m currently also obsessed with the idea of doing and its problematic relationship with knowing; the idea of learning to do poetry. And it occurs to me that, as I know little or nothing about poetry, that will be a great topic for me to use to explore learning and supporting learning, for the planned book “please stop teaching!“

I am clearly thinking, but, half awake, it feels as if the ideas are floating into my mind. Let’s not worry about exactly what’s going on. Let’s try to capture and make sense of it. (To be clear, I am writing/dictating this half an hour or so after it happened, to capture the thought processes with some but of course not total accuracy)

I remember a conversation months, years ago with a friend, a poet and scholar of literature, about some impossibly complicated kind of poetry. It has very elaborate rules of construction. I cannot remember what it is called. I may email him and ask him. I realise a problem with emailing him and asking him – I do not even know what kind of a thing it is I am asking him about.  

(A note added a couple of hours later – I didn’t need to email him, because I accidentally found it whilst reading something else about poetry. Vilanelle.)

Back in the moment, Is this thing I can’t think of the name of a rhyme scheme? No, this is not just about rhyme, or even primarily about rhyme, I think this is about rhythm. I think back to the songs I wrote six or more years ago, and think about the evolving relationships, almost a negotiation, between wards and music, words and rhythm – T Tom, T Tom, T Tom, T Tom, or TT Tom, TT Tom, TT Tom, TT Tom,  TT Tom, or Tom Tom, Tom Tom, Tom Tom, and many others. Yes, rhythm. But I still don’t think that’s what they’re called in poetry, these structures, shapes, patterns. I could look it up, but I’m not prepared to connect with the world (through my iPhone, beyond what voice recognition requires) just yet. I want to stay in my head, in my memory, to see where I can get to. (If you already know that the concept I’m struggling towards is called meter, then this may be becoming uncomfortable, so I’ve decided to let you off the hook now). In fact I looked this up an hour or two later, after breakfast, after the word meter swim into my mind as possibly the right answer, and I checked online. Meter is is. 

I remembered from school that meters have weird incomprehensible names. The only name I can can remember is iambic pentameter. I haven’t got a clue what it means, because I have very little Greek, although pent suggests five. We shall see.  I have a vivid memory from school of not be able to learn what the meter was because I was too tangled up in trying to make sense of the name. 

The same happened later, when I was teaching engineering. ‘Moment of inertia’. For crying out loud. While I was teaching it, I figured that maybe I wasn’t the only person for whom the name was an obstacle to understanding. So I devised a way of teaching it in which I worked with the class to invent the concept, throwing in the name at the end, as an afterthought. It worked for me, anyway. and for a fair few of my students.

Knowing poetry

But, back in the early morning, I thought: Do I know any poetry? 

Two lines lept into my conscious mind:

  • “That’s my last Duchess, painted (or maybe hanging) on the wall.” 

I remember painted, but hanging maybe makes more sense. Wordsworth? I’ll check when I connect to the world. And:

  • “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” 

Shakespeare of course. A sonnet. I’ll check which one later. (18. Would I be a better person if I had known ?

And Hiawatha. I can remember the rhythms, but little beyond the first line:

  • “Should you ask me, whence these sto ries”. 

(We didn’t study Hiawatha at school. I remember, rather self-consciously, sitting down in the lounge at my parents’ (and my) home and deciding to Read Hiawatha. And being astonished and delighted and slightly hypnotised)

As, later, I check these, I reflect, as increasingly often these days, on the impact of search technology on the value of knowledge.  Knowing which sonnet the line came from was, and probably still is, taken as a sign of education. But all it needs these days is access to a search engine, and the ability to formulate the search term or question. Why do we still value the recall of the now so easily found?

These lines are memories from school English, and private reading, a long time ago, over 60 years, not often subsequently reinforced. 

I subvocalise the lines. And discover that the first two they have the same rhythm, whatever the word I was looking for was. T Tom, T Tom, T Tom, T Tom, T. Tom. 10 syllables. In five pairs. With the emphasis – do we call it the stress?- falling on the final syllable each time.

Hiawatha is relentlessly T T Tom T. 


The stress is Shakespeare and Duchess more obviously fall on the final syllable each time. Although other readings of both are possible. The Duchess line could be spoken a little differently – for example, – “That’s my last Duchess, painted on the wall.” (I checked. And, now of course, it’s Browning.) It’s much more spooky with the emphasis on last. And how alarming would “hanging” have been now?

Analysing poetry 

‘Doing poetry’ for me, even in these few half-awake minutes, already seems to mean far more than learning poems, let alone writing poems. It means at least suggesting a meter, maybe requiring it, and / or maybe providing a blank canvas (or wall), or maybe an outline, a sketch, onto which the reader can project their own rhythm, meter, emphasis, and to some extent even meaning. 

“.. summer’s (day)” suggests the same meter as “Duchess”, but somehow far less insists on the stress being where I have shown it. There are so many ways, so many rhythms, in which to read Sonnet 18. I found a valid reading of it which had a different number of beats in each bar, but I’ve lost it now. That may be as well.

I wonder – is Shakespeare more highly prized than Browning because, among a myriad of other reasons, he can be read in a greater variety of ways, meters? Is that one reason why actors and audiences love Shakespeare – every production can be original?

Students of literature, scholars of poetry, will probably have given up on me by now.   

Dong poetry again 

What I’m doing here is capturing a few minutes of thinking about poetry; of, I would claim, in some real senses, doing poetry. Asking my own questions, following my own connections, building my own lines of enquiry and investigation, using, playing with, what very little I know.

I don’t think I could do this for higher education. I know too much about it.  I think. I’ll have to try.

But, back to poetry: All of this, and a million times more, smarter, better, deeper, better organised, could be told, taught, written down. And no doubt has been, and is being, and will be, by generations of teachers and scholars and students.

If I had been taught all of this, read all of this, been examined on all of this, would I have known it? In what senses would I have known it? Following my particular current obsession – would I be able to do it?

If I have been taught it, or if I had read about it, I might have been able to recall it. I would certainly be able have been able to find it. 

Focusing again on meter; I could probably have remember RD definitions of some meters. If I had seen the point of remembering them, or if I had used them sufficiently often that I had, without trying to remember them, remembered  them. If remembering them proved more efficient than looking them up, which would be tough these days, because they would be at my fingertips. I would certainly have had ready access to a list of names, definitions, hopefully also examples and explanations of, many meters. 

I could, with practice, and if it got difficult with help and / or feedback, have identified some poems as adopting one or another particular named meter. 

With further practice, and feedback, and maybe the occasional conversation with others engaged on the same quest, I would hopefully have become able to identify and describe variants and combinations of meters, and also ambiguities and alternatives of meter within particular poems.

As I read, hopefully still enjoyed, and inevitably analysed, a wider range of poetry, I might have started to identify the limits of meter as a tool for analysing poems. I might have sought and found others.  Rhyme schemes are another obvious tool or framework. I am sure there are others.) Having thus found;  or; lm, locally and personally, and with no wider claim to originality; created; the idea of ‘tools for analysing poetry’, I would have look Ed out for other such. 

Or I might have given up the analysis quest entirely, more likely intermittently, and just read and enjoyed. Maybe even written.

Leaning and being taught 

This book is called Please Stop Teaching. I have described In the previous few paragraphs  how I might have used being taught about, in this case, poetry, to expand my ability, in simple and as yet largely undefined terms, to do poetry. 

I have contrasted this with, in the many previous paragraphs, an account of me doing poetry. 


Why my objection to being taught, and therefore to  teaching?

I would probably have been taught the what, and maybe the how – meanings and definitions, and methods for analysis, particular ways to do particular things. 

I might not have been taught the why. I am a pretty stubborn learner these days. I have re-learnt the importance of asking why, principally from my young grandchildren. The why can be tough to teach, and much tougher to learn, than the what and the how. 

Or maybe the why can’t be taught. Maybe you can only teach me your why, or the why’s of valued  others. Or, if some why’s  are taught, they may just become stuff, content. 

Maybe we always have to ask our own why question for it to be a real, productive, personal, motivational, driving of action, why?

That’s what small children do. Maybe it’s why they learn so fast. I wonder why education and parenting so effectively drive out young people’s asking of why? The less worthy  but often true answer is – we find it exhausting to deal with the barrage of why’s. 

But we need  not.  The barrage of why’s is only exhausting if we feel we have to answer them all. And I’ve suggested above that we can’t, maybe shouldn’t. Why is a very personal question.

“Why do you think?” or “ How could we find out?” or “What do you think (person X) would say?” can all take the question into useful new directions. Why do we, whether parent or teacher, so burden ourselves with the feeling that we really ought to be able to answer the question ourselves? That’s a sad, unnecessary load to take on. And we lose valuable opportunities to help our would-be learners to learn. Not to teach them. But to help them to learn. Which is a completely different thing.


The what is propositional knowledge; facts, stuff, which we are to varying extents good at remembering, and the remembering of which is very easily assessed., And, perhaps not coincidently, often very highly valued.

Returning to poetry: The definition of different meters is an example of propositional knowledge. You know it if you can define it; that is, probably, recall a definition of it that you have learnt, or produce your own version of that definition which means much the same thing. (You could do this either by consciously modifying an existing account, so to speak to avoid copyright infringement, or you could genuinely make up your own version. These are similar looking, but I suggest in practice very different, activities.)


The how is probably much more useful,  given both the accelerating obsolescence of particular pieces of propositional knowledge and also the greater ease of finding such knowledge. Although of course the how also changes. 

Problems with know-how

But we have to be careful with the how. The commonly used phrase “know-how” reveals the danger.  Being able to describe how to do it is often confused with being able to do it. They are not the same thing at all. I can remember a list of instructions. There is no guarantee at all that I could follow them. 

Sometimes, of course I can. Sometimes, knowing how translates directly into being able to. For example, taking a defined sequence of simple actions, with no feedback required on whether each action has been successfully accomplished before the next one is taken. If each task was within my intellectual/psychomotor capabilities, if the necessary tools and equipment were available, et cetera, yes, I could probably do it.

If feedback were required before taking the next step,  I should like to have practised once or twice, to know what the feedback actually looks like, and whether there are any complexities or judgements required that the (expert In doing but maybe not in briefing or in teaching) person who wrote the list forgot to mention.

But I would hope that very little high level learning was of this type. And even then it’s probably safer to look it up – because memory fails, and because procedures change. There may be circumstances when looking it up would be infeasible, or might damage the confidence of the client. These should probably be respected.  But they are probably few. Surgery and flying an aeroplane (not at the same time) spring to mind, although pilots and even surgeons increasingly use checklists.

Can do 

It is much safer to stick with “can do” rather than with “knows how to do”. 

Knowing how to doesn’t guarantee being able to. 

Nor does being able to guarantee knowing how to, in the sense of being able to describe how to. Occasionally asked for help with computing at home, I usually had to show rather than tell – I usually had to do it rather than describe how to do it. I could(sometimes) do it. But I couldn’t describe in advance how to do it. This is sometimes called unconscious competence. Or finger memory. Which is great for doing things, but terrible for teaching them.

Why again?

Why is something else again. The question why? Is often a search for explanation, or meaning.(You can memorise an explanation, but that can still just be propositional knowledge, no more.)

The real issues with why are our criteria for a satisfactory answer to the question why? We rarely articulate these criteria. We can rarely say ahead of time what a satisfactory answer to a why question would look like. We need to know why we are asking why. 

You can see how difficult this can get. The young child’s game of repeatedly asking why until a parent screams or leaves the room, preferably in most cases the latter, can indeed be a game. But it is also serious. The child is also exploring what a satisfactory explanation, what a satisfactory meaning, would be, for them, in the moment.

Studying poetry

The study of poetry that I began at 6.17 one morning  could go off in 100 directions or more.

I could develop my capability to identify meters in poems. 

I could explore any relations between metres and rhyme schemes. 

I could explore the uses, the effects, of different metres. 

How could I do the studying?

I could go to lectures or take courses on these things. And  I might thereby experience that dazzling excited glow of “oh yes! I understand!“ A glow which can fade.

I could read about them. 

I could continue asking my own questions, following my own enthusiasms, referring out to sources and maybe even to courses. I’m not suggesting a simple choice between do it yourself and let other people do it to you, with readings as a kind of halfway house between them. As ever, there is a spectrum of possibilities. But I don’t think it’s necessarily as simple as choosing a position on the spectrum of possible ways of learning. 

It can be that simple. If you choose to do a course – not just sign up for it, but do it – then you spend a lot of time doing what you’re told. The course may be excellent or awful for you. It may meet all or some or none of your needs and preferences. And you will act accordingly, continuing the course or adapting it to your preferences or abandoning it. 

I think the issue is, who is in charge of your learning? My prejudice, as you will have guessed by now, is to stay in charge of your own learning. 

That doesn’t mean doing everything yourself. There may be points in your study which you realise that you need considerable external help, support, challenge, whatever. If you need this, take it. But it is your decision, and your responsibility. In this importantsense, you stay in charge, even as you shift between entirely managing your own learning and subcontracting some teaching, some input, some feedback, to others.

I could do poetry in the sense of writing poetry using the various metres I had identified. This would give me a very different take on the nature of meters, the uses of meters, their technical intricacies, their impact. This isn’t about becoming a poet, although if you do want to become a poet, it will help, in that you will be writing poetry. But, even if your main aim is to understand, appreciate, analyse, make sense of, poetry, your capabilities in doing all of these things will be enhanced if you write some poetry. You will come to understand, to make sense of, to be able to explain, some of the mechanisms and techniques of poetry, so to speak from the inside, rather than from the outside, not just as a reader, nor even as a critic.

And this so far is all about the forms of poetry. Then there’s the content… 

The obvious suggestion to make is that you should decide why are you want to study poetry, what 

studying poetry means to you, what doing poetry means to you, before you start your studies. This sounds reasonable. If you can do it, great. 

But studying is very rarely this tidy. You start with a particular interest, question or goal. You discover new things, make a new sense, and your priorities change. That’s fine. It’s called learning. Learning necessarily involves change; changes of direction, changes of focus, quite probably changes to your own account of what it means for you to do poetry, changes in what you value. This is , again, fine. Untidy, and fine.

Whose studying?

A danger in allowing yourself to be taught, or indeed in allowing yourself to read lots of books about poetry, is that you can lose charge of the process. You can become disengaged from your own questions, swept along someone else’s river. You can learn the sense that other people have made of poetry, rather than making your own sense. You can learn other people’s accounts of what poetry means, rather than making your own accounts. 

Will their accounts not help you to form your own accounts? They may. But they may not. 


Worse, you may get dragged into simplistic accounts of doing and studying, learning about, poetry. Just now, when I checked Hiawatha, one of the top Google questions about Hiawatha was “What is the main meaning of Hiawatha?” That sounds to me like the kind of question a teacher would ask about Hiawatha. I’m not sure it’s a question a student would spontaneously ask. One epic poem, and simplistic question, one necessarily simplistic but readily marked answer. You can probably see why I’ve gone off teaching.

A closely related danger is that you may shift back from learning to do poetry to learning propositional knowledge about what other people think poetry is, means, does, how it works. The pull of propositional knowledge is strong. We still value propositional knowledge strangely highly. Knowing a lot can be reassuring, even pleasing. It brings a certain security. 

But knowing can pull us away from doing as well as inform our doing. Even as we listen, or read, or do assignments that we have let others set us, we need to keep our own questions, concerns, issues, enthusiasms, front and centre. That will keep alive what we are learning, and why we are learning it. It will redefine the nature of our learning, keep us away from just learning stuff, and keep us considering why, as well as keeping us learning things and also learning how to do things. 

I am not against knowing

Knowing things is not automatically bad. If we know a lot of things, we can roll them around in our mind, look for connections and relationships between them. 

And being able to do things is not automatically good. We can be able to do bad, useless, irrelevant, meaningless, even wrong or dangerous – things.

What matters is that we keep asking questions; about the status, the provenance, the utility, the values associated with, what we know or can do.

To put it as concisely as i can; knowing it doesn’t assure being able to do it. 

We will learn things on the way through, as we learn to do. We will learn stuff, propositional knowledge. We will learn it, through repetition and through use. But, when we remain critically and actively engaged in learning, we will also continue to ask questions about the status of the propositional knowledge we are hearing and reading; about the extent and limits of its truth and utility, about its sources,  about its implications. 

There are intimate and complex relations between knowing and doing. For example – we don’t just do things in empty air. We do things to and with knowledge, with content. bBut it doesn’t necessarily work the other way. We can know, but to be able to do nothing with or to what we know.

This account is focused on self-directed learning, although we have explored ways in which such a learner can use resources out there, even including courses, formal processes of study designed by someone else.

However, in focusing on learning, it also carries implications for those who would design and then teach formal courses of study. You will have your own views of what these implications are. Let me make mine explicit.

  1. We have to have conversations with learners about learning the subject, not just about the subject itself. 
  2. These conversations need to focus on what it means to do the subject, and what it means to learn to do the subject.
  3. The doing has to be mindful. It has to be critical, intelligent, selective, appropriate, scholarly, pleasurable, all the many virtues we look for in good academic work. For reasons that may be connected to class snobbery, “doing” may carry connotations of meniality. I’ll make a strong case for rating doing, in the way suggested above, over what I will confidently call ‘“mere knowing”.
  4. Good learners know and show that they are learning to do the subject, and then actually doing the subject, not just learning content that might (or equally might not) be used in doing the subject.
  5. Assessment has to require learners to show that they can do the subject, not just that they know things about the subject, nor even that just that have know-how about doing the subject, can describe how to do the subject. They have to show that they can do the subject in order to pass. 
  6. Learning to do the subject is mostly going to be an enquiring process, a process of investigation and discovery and sense making.
  7. Learning to do the subject is going to be an active process, supported by receiving and also giving feedback, and collaborating and conversing with other learners.
  8. Learning to do the subject is going to include learning why to do the subject, why to do each of the things they are learning to do. 
  9. Learning to do the subject means being able to do the subject in ways that are appropriate to context, values, and the shifting knowledge base.

There is not a lot of scope for teaching here. There is a lot of scope for designing and operating learning processes, and providing the necessary support and learning  resources, and then for conversations with learners.

Which is fine. 

It’s fine because we will all need to continue to learn way beyond the capacity and capability of teachers to teach us. 

It’s fine because we therefore need to be good at learning other than by being taught. And that capability takes time and support to develop.

It’s fine because, I strongly suspect, and in some respects from experience as both student and teacher know, that teaching can damage the ability to learn. It does this by reducing the need to learn. It also does it through the  insidious message the only valid way to learn is through being taught.  in this respect, good teachers can do more damage than bad. I have seen this used as a, hopefully playful, argument in favour of bad teaching. I think it is more persuasive as an argument for not teaching.

And it’s fine because, again, and with the best will in the world, that which is taught has a considerable tendency to degenerate into content, into stuff. And learning stuff now really isn’t enough. If it ever was.

Learning to do – to do critically, intelligently, thoughtfully, in ways informed by theory and evidence and values – this is what matters most. Whether we are learning to do poetry, or anything else.

From → Uncategorized

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: