taking a break

click image from pixabay

Sad to say #poetryfeedHE is taking a break this semester.

We’ve found ourselves in that unwelcome situation of having to reduce commitments – but only as a temporary measure  –  #poetryfeedHE will be back later in the year.

In the meantime, if you have any suggestions for poems to share please do let us know and we’ll post them here. Poems must be copyright free or with permission for public access.

We hope you’ve enjoyed your lunch times and hope to be back feeding you poems again before too long.

clock image  https://pixabay.com/en/time-time-indicating-agreement-date-430625/ 


Mrs Schofield’s GCSE

You must prepare your bosom for his knife,
said Portia to Antonio in which
of Shakespeare’s Comedies? Who killed his wife,
insane with jealousy? And which Scots witch
knew Something wicked this way comes? Who said
Is this a dagger which I see? Which Tragedy?
Whose blade was drawn which led to Tybalt’s death?
To whom did dying Caesar say Et tu? And why?
Something is rotten in the state of Denmark – do you
know what this means? Explain how poetry
pursues the human like the smitten moon
above the weeping, laughing earth; how we
make prayers of it. Nothing will come of nothing:
speak again. Said by which King? You may begin.

Carol Ann Duffy
Printed in The Guardian, 6 September 2008

On December 7, the lunchtime poem was Education for Leisure by Carol Ann Duffy. In 2008, the poem was withdrawn from the school curriculum on the grounds it incited knife violence. Today’s poem is the poet’s response.

Duffy points out the instances of violence in the plays of Shakespeare, many of which are still studied at school.  How effective is the argument Duffy makes?   Is the  education  curriculum the best place for dealing with complex issues like knife crime?  Is poetry the right format for difficult subjects? Share your thoughts by using the comment feature.

This is the last lunchtime poem for 2016.  We’ll be back in January with more poetry for your mid-week consumption. In the meantime, seasonal greetings and the very best  of wishes for a peaceful new year.

holly leaves with red berries

For a Student Sleeping in a Poetry Workshop

I’ve watched his eyelids sag, spring open

Vaguely and gradually go sliding

Shut again, fly up

With a kind of drunken surprise, then wobble

Peacefully together to send him

Home from one school early. Soon his lashes

Flutter in REM sleep. I suppose he’s dreaming

What all of us kings and poets and peasants

Have dreamed: of not making the grade,

Of draining the inexhaustible horn cup

Of the cerebral cortex where ganglions

Are ganging up on us with more connections

Than atoms in heaven, but coming up once more

Empty. I see a clear stillness

Settle over his face, a calming of the surface

Of water when the wind dies. Somewhere

Down there, he’s taking another course

Whose resonance (let’s hope) resembles

The muttered thunder, the gutter bowling, the lightning

Of minor minions of Thor, the groans and gurgling

Of feral lovers and preliterate Mowglis, the songs

Of shamans whistled through bird bones. A worried neighbor

Gives him the elbow, and he shudders

Awake, recollects himself, brings back

His hands from aboriginal outposts,

Takes in new light, reorganizes his shoes,

Stands up in them at the buzzer, barely recalls

His books and notebooks, meets my eyes

And wonders what to say and whether to say it,

Then keeps it to himself as today’s lesson.


David Wagoner, “For a Student Sleeping in a Poetry Workshop” from the October 2002 issue of Poetry magazine. Copyright © 2002 by David Wagoner.

This poem was written by the American poet David Wagoner, who as well as being an extremely successful poet and novelist has also taught at the University of Washington since 1954, where he is now an Emeritus Professor.


A student sleeping, location and opinion of poetry both unknown (Photo Credit: Love Krittaya).

This poem resonates with me, because there are times when I have given lectures and certain members of the audience have drifted off. Normally I consider myself to be quite an empathetic speaker, and I put a lot of time and effort into preparing these sessions, so it hurts when I see that I am so boring that I have sent some of my students to sleep!

However, I know that sometimes I am being overly harsh on myself, and that several factors have probably contributed to the students’ retreat into dream: a late night, an early morning, a lack of caffeine, a warm room, etc. I also know that I have been guilty myself on more than one occasion of falling asleep in even the most fascinating of talks.

What I love about Wagoner’s poem is how gentle it is; it doesn’t admonish it simply observes and reflects. You can imagine that when the student’s eyes meet those of the teacher in this poem (who I take to be Wagoner himself) they are not met with anger or annoyance, but a gentle disappointment.  I used to have a teacher at secondary school who would send us out of the classroom for yawning, no matter how much we protested that it was simply an involuntary reaction to oxygenate our brains! Such admonishments left me feeling worried about yawning, but they didn’t leave me feeling guilty about it.  The gentle disappointment of Wagoner however would have made me want to stay awake, especially if I could hear lines like “Of feral lovers and preliterate Mowglis” on a regular basis.

– Sam Illingworth

What do you think of the poem? Did you enjoy it? Have any students ever fallen asleep in your class? How did this make you feel?

Education for Leisure 


Today I am going to kill something. Anything.
I have had enough of being ignored and today
I am going to play God. It is an ordinary day,
a sort of grey with boredom stirring in the streets.

I squash a fly against the window with my thumb.
We did that at school. Shakespeare. It was in
another language and now the fly is in another language.
I breathe out talent on the glass to write my name.

I am a genius. I could be anything at all, with half
the chance. But today I am going to change the world.
Something’s world. The cat avoids me. The cat
knows I am a genius, and has hidden itself.

I pour the goldfish down the bog. I pull the chain.
I see that it is good. The budgie is panicking.
Once a fortnight, I walk the two miles into town
for signing on. They don’t appreciate my autograph.

There is nothing left to kill. I dial the radio
and tell the man he’s talking to a superstar.
He cuts me off. I get our bread-knife and go out.
The pavements glitter suddenly. I touch your arm.

Carol Ann Duffy
from the 1985 collection, Standing Female Nude

Education for Leisure by Carol Ann Duffy caused controversy in 2008. It had been studied on the GCSE curriculum for many years when the exam board AQA ordered its removal because it supposedly glorified knife crime.  In the furore which followed, arguments were put forward on both sides. In the end, teachers could choose whether or not the include the poem in their classrooms but it was no longer set in the GCSE English exam.

What do you think?

Is the role of poetry to touch on sensitive issues and stimulate both private and public debate – or should poets play it safe and avoid controversy?

Leave your comments here.

 image from https://www.flickr.com/photos/ajc1/6059012398

When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,

When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,

When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,

When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,

How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,

Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,

In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,

Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.


This poem is in the public domain

This poem was written in 1865 by the American poet Walt Whitman, and as a university lecturer I find that it challenges me. The language that is used in this poem is incredibly eloquent, but it is also merciless. Whitman is having absolutely none of it as the astronomer in questions stands in his pulpit and preaches at his audience about the mysteries of the Universe and how to measure them. Whitman is not at all impressed by the expert’s language, his knowledge, or his methods of communicating. So much so that he takes it upon himself to leave the classroom and teach himself. This poem could also be read as an attack on science itself, on the brashness of the discipline in trying to describe the indescribable. However, as a lecturer I choose to focus on the method of delivery rather than the subject itself, and find it to be a stark reminder that no matter how interesting or fascinating the topic, a lack of empathy for the audience can result in boredom, disinterest and disengagement.  And yet, it also serves as a reminder of what can be achieved in the hands of a skilled teacher…


Not impressed; Walt Whitman (Photo Credit: Mathew Brady [public domain], via Wikimedia Commons).

My career as a scientist began under the tutelage of the two exceptional A-level Physics teachers that I had at St. Aidan’s C of E High School, Harrogate. Both Mr Cross and Mr Crane managed to achieve what the lecturer in Whitman’s piece failed so spectacularly to accomplish: they brought the mysteries of physics (in particular that of space time, relativity and black holes) into the classroom. Any question that we had they could provide an informed and accessible answer for, and I have incredibly fond memories of them discussing the properties of quarks using nothing more than a blackboard and three pieces of coloured chalk. Those lessons were an absolute blessing to me, and it is no overstatement to say that they helped to shape the whole of my academic career to date. Now that I am a teacher myself, I strive to replicate those A-level Physics classes, and hope that I succeed in bringing the magic of the night sky into my lecture-room.

By Sam Illingworth

What do you think of the poem? Did you enjoy it? Does this make you think of any of the lectures that you have attended? Does it make you think of any of the lectures that you have given?

Introduction to Poetry

black and white photo of piles of books

Introduction to Poetry

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

by Billy Collins 

black and white image of an open book

It’s Week 4 already!

Each Friday Sam or I will post a poem and pose some questions to reflect on while eating your lunch.

Today the poem itself is about poetry. Billy Collins has twice been Poet Laureate in the US. His poetry is popular and accessible. seemingly light but often with a kick or a claw which reaches out and grabs you unexpectedly.

What did you think of this poem?

Does it make you want to read more by Billy Collins or not?

Why do you think this is?

Let us know how you approach a poem when reading it for the first time.

Sue Watling

images from https://pixabay.com

Randall Jarrell Office Hours 10-11

Dear Mr. Jarrell:
It seems that the twenty-fourth floor is complaining of lost students who are hunting you. Could you put your name and office hours on the door?
Thank you.
The English Office
[University of Texas, at Austin]


Mr Jarrell:
Come back and you will find me just the same
Hunters, hunters–but why should I go on?
Learn for yourself (if you are made to learn)
That you must haunt an hourless, nameless door
Before you find–not me, but anything.

Lost Students:
It never seemed to me that I was lost.
You were, perhaps; at least, no one was there.
I missed you; why should I go back?
I am no hunter, I say. I was sent
And asked to find–not you, not anything.

English Office:
Each of them is lost, and neither hunting;
And they stand still around a crazy door
That tells a truth, or lie, that no one learns.
Here is a name, an hour for you to use:
But name, or come, or come not, as you choose.

Randall Jarrell, “Office Hours 10-11” from The Complete Poems. Copyright © 1981 by Randall Jarrell. 

This poem was written by Randall Jarrell in a response to the memo at the top of the piece, which he received from the English Office at the University of Texas, where he taught as a literary critic from 1939 – 1942. It was fixed to his office door and was only ever published in his Complete Poems.


Randall Jarrell: honoured by another sign, this one outside Hume-Fogg High School, Nashville,  where he attended high school (Photo Credit: Michael Rivera).

For me this poem sums up two issues that I encounter in higher education, and which have a negative effect on the teaching staff, the students and ultimately everyone at the institute:

  1. Overzealous bureaucracy
  2. A lack of desire for independent learning

I am sure that anyone who is reading this post and who works in higher education will have fallen foul of these two issues themselves. In relation to overzealous bureaucracy, I think that the incredible number of hoops that have to be jumped through on a daily basis in terms of marking matrices, moodle/blackboard submissions, programme committee meetings, transferral forms etc. can mean that many academics don’t have enough time to actually focus on the development and delivery of effective and inspirational teaching. Given the advent of the Teaching Excellence Framework, it will be interesting to see if this administrative burden is acknowledged and accounted for, or if the new regulations result in an even more Byzantine approach to pedagogic housekeeping.

With regards to the desire for independent learning, given the incredible tuition fees that students in the UK now have to pay for their education, there is occasionally an assumption by the students that after paying these fees, they simply have to turn up and do what they are told, and that at the end of three/four years of spoon-feeding they will leave with a complete education and a top degree. However, unless students put the work in themselves they will not leave with a ‘top degree’, and they will also miss out on an incredible opportunity to learn, research deduce, analyse and question. Independent and autonomous learning, alongside suitable facilitation and support from members of staff, is critical for the development of our students, not just in terms of their education but also in terms of how they are shaped as people by the experience of going to university.

I love the playfulness of Jarrell’s poem, and I respect its message and his commitment to it. However, I also acknowledge that taken out of context and without a liberal amount of tongue in cheek, this might be seen to be stand-offish or even derogatory. That is why I continue to list my office hours at the bottom of my email signature, rather than posting a beautifully crafted piece of satire on my office door; that and the fact that there was a recent memo banning the use of blue-tac on wooden surfaces…

By Sam Illingworth

What do you think of the poem? Did you enjoy it? Do you think this is a fair response to the administrative staff? Is it a suitable manner with which to treat the students?

He tells her

Flammarion is a black and white engraved image showing medieval astronomer looking out from the earth's atmosphere

He tells her

He tells her that the Earth is flat—
He knows the facts, and that is that.
In altercations fierce and long
She tries her best to prove him wrong.
But he has learned to argue well.
He calls her arguments unsound
And often asks her not to yell.
She cannot win. He stands his ground.

The planet goes on being round.

by Wendy Cope

  • What do you think this poem is telling us?

I chose it for several reasons. It’s short, written by a female, has rhythm and rhyme and tells us something fundamentally important. Only one of these characteristics is – I think – essential for an effective poem.

  • What is an essential characteristic of a poem for you?

School nearly killed poetry for me. I struggled through Matthew Arnold’s Sorab and Rustum  with Rape of the Lock by Alexander Pope and Wordworth’s Michael.  Now I remember them for all the wrong reasons! The curriculum today includes Carol Ann Duffy, Simon Armitage and Benjamin Zephiniah and I think the best way to approach poetry is through contemporary poems. This isn’t to say the ‘classics’ don’t matter but they’re culturally specific which doesn’t always translate well across the centuries.

I returned to poetry but on my own terms. At the moment I’m reading Homer’s Iliad and am amazed at the power of its words. They date back millennia yet much of it could have been written yesterday.  For me this is what poetry is all about; that tingly kick in the heart which signifies resonance.

  • What is your experience of poetry?

Share your comments. Let’s feed each other poetics.

image from Camille Flammarion’s L’atmosphère: météorologie populaire (1888) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Camille_Flammarion#/media/File:Flammarion.jpg 

At The California Institute of Technology


I don’t care how God-damn smart
these guys are: I’m bored.

It’s been raining like hell all day long
and there’s nothing to do.


Richard Brautigan, “At the California Institute of Technology” from The Pill Versus the Springhill Mine Disaster. Copyright © 1968 by Richard Brautigan. 

This short poem was written by Richard Brautigan when he was poet-in-residence at the California Institute of Technology in 1967, and it is one of my favourite poems because it completely shatters the illusions of what both science and poetry should be.


Richard Brautigan: Last of the Beats (Photo Credit: Oliver Dalmon).

When I talk to students (especially undergraduates) about poetry and science they have such preconceived notions about what they should and shouldn’t be, that it can be disheartening. Poetry has to rhyme. Science is really difficult. Poets are fops and dandies in tie-dyed T-shirts and berets. Scientists work in laboratories and all have white coats and lab specs.

I am a scientist and I haven’t done any laboratory work for over a decade, since my undergraduate days. Likewise, as a poet I have never owned a tie-dyed T-shirt. Although to be fair I do own a couple of berets…

Berets aside, the preconceptions of what scientists and poets look like and what science and poetry can and cannot do is extremely limiting, especially to those people who are still finding their way in their world. Brautigan’s poem is only four lines long and yet it is so effective; you can really imagine Brautigan sat in the back of a lecture hall or seminar room falling asleep as one of the ‘brilliant’ Caltech scientists holds court on their latest research findings.

To Brautigan science is not the be-all-and-end-all, it is the modern equivalent of the Emperor’s New Clothes, and he is not afraid to say so. Not even to the people who are sponsoring his residency. Science can be really exciting, but it can also be utterly tedious. Poetry can rhyme, but it doesn’t have to. These four lines read like a two-fingered salute to the establishment, and remind me why I fell in love with both science and poetry in the first instance, and for that reason I will be forever grateful to Caltech’s 1967 poet-in-resident.

Sam Illingworth

What do you think of the poem? Did you enjoy it? Could you identify with it? Do you think that my own appreciation of Brautigan is reminiscent of the Emperor’s New Clothes?