The Art of Difficulty: Helping Students Approach Poetry with Confidence

By Amorak Huey

(A version of this essay was delivered as part of the panel “The Art of Difficulty: Challenging Poetry Students to Think Clearly, Read Smartly, Write Evocatively”at the 2014 AWP Conference in Seattle, Washington.)

Begin with the poem:


By Traci Brimhall

It happens as we set down one story

and take up another. We see it—the car,

the skid, the panic, the woman’s body, a stain

on snow like blood in a dancer’s shoe.

People bend over, afraid to touch her

in case she might rise, a bird startled to find

there wasn’t more light on the other side

of the window. The body in so much pain

the soul can no longer keep it. This is how

it happens—something asleep in the earth awakens

and summons us. You feel fingers on your neck

and say, Take me to the snow, and it takes you.

This is one of the first poems I teach every semester in the poetry unit of Introduction to Creative Writing, a multi-genre undergraduate course taken by wide range of students, from beginning writing majors to freshmen fulfilling their Arts Foundation Gen Ed requirement. In other words, students whose interest in poetry stretches from cautiously open to outright skeptical.

Brimhall’s poem is, by and large, a straightforward piece of writing. Except for the title, there’s no vocabulary likely to be the least bit unfamiliar to any student. The syntax is reasonably standard. The visual images are not obscure. And yet students find this poem very difficult to access.

At least, they think they do.

It turns out, when I gently pushmy students to tease out their reading of the poem’s narrative, they know exactly what’s going on. When I ask the student who says she doesn’t understand what’s happening in the piece to offer her best guess, it goes something like this: “Well, I think maybe there was a car accident? Maybe a woman was hit by a car? In the snow? And people are looking at her, afraid to touch her? And she’s in pain, and then, I guess, does she die at the end?”

Like that, with question marks at the end of every sentence. And when I say: “Yes, that reading of this poem makes a lot of sense,”I can see her sigh with relief and a little amazement. Students are not used to have their reactions to poetry affirmed. Then the class discussion can address the move at the end of the poem to addressing a “you”; the echo of the opening line in the penultimate stanza; and how the meaning of the whole thing shifts when you consider it as an arspoetica, a meditation on the nature of poetry. Many students need help getting to this level of reading, partly because they aren’t familiar with the term “arspoetica,” and partly because they have so little faith in their understanding of the narrative that they never even take the next steps toward interpretation and close reading.

For even familiar words like “panic” and “skid” and “car,” arranging them into lines and calling it a poem makes many students fear that those words no longer mean what they seem to, that they are now symbols, riddles, hieroglyphics. It is my theory that much of this has to do with the way we are taught poetry – the point Billy Collins makes in his well-known quip about torturing a confession out of a poem, “beating it with a hose / to find out what it really means.”

What it really means. Why can’t a poem mean exactly what it says? To find the meaning of a poem, I’d argue, we should look to the words it uses, the language on the page, not to some external authority. Yet too many students have learned they’re not supposed to consider the poem itself; they wait for the teacher to provide the answer to the poem’s riddle, the solution to its impenetrable equation. When a teacher asks, “What is this poem about?” students know it’s a trap, the teacher fishing for a particular answer; any attempt by the student might be wrong. So in the end, they learn not to trust themselves as readers, to assume that any mystery in a poem is due to their own lack of understanding instead of being just that – a mystery.

When I think about challenging my students to be better readers of poetry, then, I think of it as my job to teach them to trust themselves and to trust in the poem in front of them. And, perhaps most essentially, to accept the mystery that can manifest itself in any number of ways: in content or tone, diction or syntax, structure or sound.

Not everything in a poem can be easily explained. Accepting that truth can be a leap for beginning writers, and it’s counter to our standardized-test-based educational model that demands easy, reproducible answers. It’s incumbent on anyone who teaches poetry to challenge that model, to encourage in its place what Mark Doty calls “a sense of energized, liberating uncertainty.” As Kaelyn Riley writes in a blog post on this same topic, “poetry is not always meant for ease …not always meant for comfort.” Reading poetry can be hard. Probably should be hard.

Writing poems? Naturally, that’s hard, too. What I was saying about lack of trust affects students in their own writing as well:

  • It leads them to lean on cliché because they don’t trust themselves to be original.
  • It leads them to over-explain because they don’t trust their images.
  • It leads them to be deliberately obscure because they don’t trust that anyone will care about what they’re trying to say.
  • It leads them to be predictable because they don’t trust their own idiosyncratic associations.

As teachers, we must help beginning writers learn to trust themselves and to trust their readers. To help them gain confidence – not false confidence gained via sugar-coated overpraising, but true, lasting confidence gained through extensive reading and writing and honest feedback. 

In Triggering Town, Richard Hugo writes, “It is impossible to write meaningless sequences. … In the world of imagination, all things belong.” Students find this idea to be an amazing gift: permission to write what they want, to put the words and images in the order they choose, trusting that the reader will see the connection, or at least a connection.

Poet and translator Michelle Noteboom says she’d rather write a poem that is something than a poem that says something, and again, that is a transformative idea for student writers, the notion that they’re building a work of art, as opposed to merely telling a story or describing an image.

In The Art of Description, Mark Doty writes, “It’s the unsayability of what being is that drives the poet to speak and to speak. … Perhaps the dream of lyric poetry is not just to represent states of mind but to actually provoke them in the reader.” It’s key for students to internalize this as both readers and writers. As readers, they learn to leave themselves open to being provoked, to accept the poem as an experience rather than representation (which is alarmingly akin to riddle). As writers, they learn to consider how their language influences a reader’s experience as opposed to how it conveys a particular meaning.

Remember: Begin with the poem.

Let me go back to Traci Brimhall’s poem for a moment. I said originally that it was a pretty straightforward piece of writing. But I don’t really believe that. The narrative is reasonably direct, but the narrative is such a tiny part of this poem, and it’s imagined even within the poem itself. This poem challenges me on many levels. I could try to articulate for you what I think the poem says about death, or poetry, or why it’s an arspoetica in the first place, but if I did, I would sound like my student, a question mark at the end of every sentence.

I am certain about nothing when I read this poem so much as how I feel while doing so. Turning again to Doty in The Art of Description, he describes the experience of reading Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish” as being “brought into intimate proximity to the slipstream of her sensations” – a glimpse, in other words, at a mind on the page. Similarly, Mary Ruefle writes, “I believe the poem is an act of the mind. … The mind acts, the mind wills a poem, often against our own will.” We read poetry to witness the enacting of someone else’s mind; we write poems in hopes that someone else will bear sympathetic witness to the actions of our own. Helping students think of poetry this way is one of the most important gifts I can offer them.

Teaching a poetry class is not the waving of a wand whereby students enter as blank slates and leave as poets. Nor is poetry some collection of facts or formulas that I can hand over to them, a bundle of transferrable knowledge. I tell my students that my class is neither necessary nor sufficient for a them to, quote, “become a poet.” I’m not sure that “becoming a poet” is a real thing.  For some students, my class may be the only time they write poetry; others may write poetry for their whole lives. Some students enter the course already thinking of themselves as poets and loving poetry; others do not.

But as long as we’re all here, I tell them, there are some things I can help with.


Brimhall, Traci. “ArsPoetica.”Boxcar Poetry Review. Boxcar Poetry Review, Sept. 2009. Web. 18 March 2014.

Collins, Billy. “Introduction to Poetry.”Poetry 180. Library of Congress, n.d. Web. 18 March 2014.

Doty, Mark. The Art of Description: World into Word. Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf, 2010. Print.

Huey, Amorak. “Noteboom to Read Poetry Here.” The Grand Rapids Press, 19 Sept 2006: E2. Print.

Riley, Kaelyn. “Obscurity, Clarity, and Trying to Mean.” Creative Writing Blog. Colorado State U MFA Program, 12 Nov 2013. Web. 18 March 2014.

Ruefle, Mary. Madness, Rack, and Honey. Seattle, WA: Wave Books, 2012. Print.

Amorak Huey, a longtime newspaper editor and reporter, teaches writing at Grand Valley

State University in Michigan. His chapbook The Insomniac Circus is forthcoming from

Hyacinth Girl Press, and his poems can be found in The Best American Poetry 2012, Poet’s

Market 2014, The Southern Review, Poet Lore, The Collagist, and many other print and

online journals.