Poetry as aid to teaching vocation

“Poetry is having (its) moment,” claims Morgan Hines, in a recent USA Today feature. Her article reports the “moment” owes to the pandemic, to a racial reckoning, and to poets Amanda Gorman and Rupi Kaur. Joy Harjo, Poet Laureate of the United States, thinks poetry may be experiencing a renaissance “coming up from the char,” Hines writes.

I am grateful for a reported surge in popular interest for poetry because I have been using selected poems to teach vocation concepts for many years. Most students think they are poetry-averse, but the right poem, selected and presented as accessible entry to a vocation topic, can be an effective way to complement teaching about vocation.

While I am not accredited to teach literature in higher education, my undergraduate and graduate education included coursework in poetry. A little bit of training can help, but your lack of accredited expertise should not prevent you from including serious poetry in your teaching, if you are comfortable with the inclusion. In my experience, first-year-experiences students respond more to my enthusiasm for poetry than to my expertise and more to the poem’s unique way of accessing a truth than to its place in a scholarly canon.

In an essay on thinking-in-poetry, critic Eleanor Cook reminds us that good poems have a way of helping to “get things just right”—be it their use of language, their concentration of imagery, or their ability to fuse rational and emotional response. Cook prioritizes enjoyment of poems, and she would probably encourage us to choose poems that can be enjoyed for immediate appeals, such as humor. Cook’s poet of choice is Wallace Stevens. I have my own favorite poets, but I don’t usually use their poems; instead, I choose poems based on what they seem to be about, as a match to a particular idea about vocation.

The single poem I have used most often is Philip Levine’s “Coming Close,” from What Work Is, 1991. The short poem’s portrait of a woman who works a factory job, polishing brass tubes, gets things just right—it gets an incident of identity and empathy and dignity just right. I use “Coming Close” to ask students questions about their academic plans, as such plans promise (or not) social mobility and economic entitlement. The poem has an immediate way of placing its dirty hands on the clean sleeves of my students.

I have also used Elizabeth Alexander’s “Ars Poetica #100: I Believe,” from American Sublime, 2005. An ars poetica, of course, is a poem that explains the art of writing and experiencing poems, and in nine couplets Alexander does nice work of turning “poetry is” into a claim for humanity’s essential empathy for each other. I have used this poem to introduce a very practical exercise for students: they are to write one sentence that begins with “Somebody else should be interested in me because . . .” and they are to write another sentence that begins with “I should be interested in someone else because . . .” Their sentences usually afford me the opportunity to talk about the importance of humility and patience in one’s experience of vocation. I use Alexander’s poem to remind students that not every “I” is dramatic and that God is in the details.

I have also used Juan Ramón Jiménez’s “I Am Not I” to suggest that mindfulness and mystery are important aspects of vocation. The eight short lines of this poem are packed with truth about how we do and don’t understand ourselves. “I Am Not I” also provides me with a trailhead to talk about deeply spiritual aspects of vocation, in a non-threatening presentation.

These three poems are part of a group of about 10 poems I keep handy for occasional use. The group includes examples from Robert Frost and Mary Oliver, but also lesser-known poets such as Sandra Beasley and William E. Stafford, each of whom I found through a Google search for “poems about vocation” and each of whom has written a poem simply titled “Vocation.” Among the two most helpful and user-friendly sites for finding such poems are poetryfoundation.org and poets.org.

Permit me one final thought about using poetry as an aid to teaching vocation. The lurking danger to using poetry is that such use might present itself, intentionally or not, as making vocation more complicated or obscure than it is. The students in my first-year-experiences sections are not remarkably sophisticated or eager; they are 18-year-olds, simply trying to get their feet under themselves and to understand themselves.  What I’m hoping they see in my share of a poem is evidence for a welcoming academic community, where enthusiastic and intellectually diverse faculty make personalized efforts to help them discover their callings in their daily lives. A poem helps me and them step outside ourselves as we talk about getting these things right for ourselves.


Paul Burmeister is Professor of Art at Wisconsin Lutheran College, where he is also Assistant Dean of Advising. He was a member of the 2019 cohort of NetVUE’s Teaching Vocational Exploration seminar.

For more blog posts about poetry and vocation, see Jason Stevens’ recent post on Amanda Gorman’s word play and this post about imagination and vocation, drawing upon the poetry of Seamus Heaney; Stephanie Johnson on the call of lyric poetry; Erin VanLaningham on the “cartography of vocation,” inspired by the poet Eavan Boland; Jason Mahn on the tragedy of “the road not taken” (and how we mis-read Frost’s famous poem); Jeff Brown on Frost’s “Two Tramps in Mudtime”; and this original poem by Jocelyn McWhiter, professor of Religious Studies at Albion College, about Santa as an essential worker who takes his vocation seriously. If there is a poem you have used with students to prompt reflection on vocation, please mention it in the comments section below. If you would like to write about it for this blog, please email Hannah Schell at hschell@cic.nche.edu.

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