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?


2 thoughts on “For a Student Sleeping in a Poetry Workshop

  1. I especially like the latter half of the poem:

    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…
    Awake, recollects himself, brings back/
    His hands from aboriginal outposts/
    Takes in new light…

    That will keep me going today – that is ‘poetry’! 😀

    I have had the occasional student fall asleep – mostly because they are working and studying – juggling parenting and caring and being students… I have others who tell me that the only time they have for reading is at 3 am when they are doing the washing! So – if they are the ones that are sleeping, I so hope that they are escaping into that world painted here – and not just worrying where their next essay is coming from.

    My best sleep event: two brothers sitting together in a Literature evening class – and we were reading poetry. One brother drifted off – so the other (I hope in a misguided attempt to wake him) – set fire to the poem in the sleeping brother’s hand…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Love the story Sandra and doubt if anyone can better it – can they?

      It’s good to think of a poem keeping you going through the day. You also chose my favorite line which is …the songs/
      Of shamans whistled through bird bones…

      How beautiful is that?

      Liked by 1 person

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