05/03/2013 10:10 am ET Updated Jul 03, 2013

Going to Oz

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The poem is being difficult. My seniors stumble through Matthew Arnold's "Dover Beach." It's not a light poem -- it opens with a peaceful ocean view, shifts to the turmoil and misery lurking under the calm, and then crescendos with a plea to hold each other close in the face of a terrifying world. But I know why I want my students to grapple with it. It's good stuff. The juice is worth the squeeze. But how to get them... to squeeze? We stride through the poem. Like a tour guide, I point out its features. Arnold was on his honeymoon! Dover is in southern England and has white cliffs!

I'm lost, a student says. Who was Sophocles again? asks another. This guy is depressed, says another. Why don't you give us happy poems, Liz?

In the month between an epic Odyssey study and Julius Caesar, my 105 seniors and I are "doing" poetry. It's three months before graduation. This is a unit some have been looking forward to eagerly (their elegies of lost love, paeans to best friends waiting to burst free) and others with apprehension (but what does it mean, and why can't the poem just say that?). Students argue about "The Road Not Taken," fit their mouths around "The Jabberwocky" and choose poems by Rita Dove, Langston Hughes, Pablo Neruda, and William Carlos Williams for deeper study. Was Williams really sorry about those plums? They write, too: senryu, haiku, bio-poems, free verse, sonnets.

But at "Dover Beach," we hit a wall. They can't find their way in, and none of my usual keys seem to fit.

Enter my last-minute invitation from The Academy for Teachers: Would I join fifteen teachers in a Master Class with Poet Laureate Billy Collins at Lehman College? I had taught Collins' "Introduction to Poetry" two days before. My students can't believe I'll meet the guy we were just talking about. Neither can I.

The next Tuesday I take the train to the Bronx. The other teachers attending also love poetry and we are full of questions. This is a rare opportunity for us to be students and take part in a discussion we won't have to assess or mediate. We are there to learn from each other. The conference room explodes with ideas. I share my anxieties about "Dover Beach."

Mr. Collins is generous, knowledgeable and beautifully articulate. He says a poem should travel on the page the way we read an eye chart. Like the big E, the poem should start clearly to give a reader a solid footing, and then as things get smaller and smaller, the reader should have to squint and figure things out. "Good poems begin in Kansas, and end in Oz," Collins told us. Give a reader a concrete place to begin: a walk in the neighborhood, a classroom, an image, and then that reader will follow you into the sky, into the dark, anywhere.

I am dazzled by Collins and by my peers and come away full of strategies, lists, resources and email addresses.

On the subway home, I begin to re-write my poetry unit. After hearing how teachers brought their students' work to a bigger audience, I now know a public reading is an essential place to end. I also have to change how I help my students enter a poem. I have not shown them the joy of watching a poet build a world, line by line. Rather, I marched them through the verses as we all held our breath. I never let them just stop for a minute in the poem and look around. I want to bring in some collaborative and solitary wandering.

When we return to "Dover Beach," I don't play tour guide. Instead, I ask my students to read it aloud to each other. I tell them not to race to figure out what Arnold means, but instead just observe how the poem travels through itself. What is revealed? While they're at it, they wonder about the poems they have started to create: how do they travel? What is revealed? The door opens, bit by bit.

A student says, what happened to him? Another asks, When Arnold says, 'oh love, let us be true to one another!' are we supposed to think love will keep us safe? This ignites a conversation, probably connected to the anxiety that has simmered alongside our work all semester. My students are facing the unknown as they hurtle towards June and graduation. What can one hold onto as one goes forward into the mysterious Next Thing?

They discuss. They retrace the lines of the poem. They disagree about existential doom and the salvation of connection. The bell rings, and they start packing up. But they keep talking. Two students tell me they want to write a response to Arnold's words. You know, they say, poet to poet.