Reading & Writing Poetry as Contemplative Practice

Holly Hughes, Edmonds Community College
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This activity suggests several ways that contemplative practice is at the heart of both reading and writing poetry. It offers a handout using the process of Lectio Divina to teach students how to read poetry and provides a Poetry of Witness writing assignment that uses contemplative practice as one of its steps. It also provides examples of student poems and reflections written in response to this assignment.

I want to acknowledge Sue Sutherland-Hanson, who shared her assignments and provided a sounding board for these activities.

Learning Goals

1) Students will learn a step-by step process for actively reading poetry based on the time-honored Lectio Divina contemplative practice.

3) Students will understand the benefits of incorporating contemplative practice into their writing practice.

3) Students will learn that reading and writing poems engages both the mind and the heart.

Context for Use

These activities are appropriate for either college composition classes or introductory-level creative writing classes. I've taught the Lectio Divina exercise in composition classes with 25 students, though it would also work fine in larger classes if students could divide into groups. The reading assignment could be introduced in class, then completed individually at home. After they do, it works well to have the students discuss the poem together; two class periods would be best. The writing assignment would be introduced in class, then the students would need a week to complete it on their own time. I usually introduce the reading activity in the first few weeks of the quarter, with the writing activity coming later. These activities would be easily adapted to a variety of settings.

Description and Teaching Materials

Introduction/Context for Both Activities–provides an overview/context for both the reading (Lectio Divina) and writing (Poetry of Witness) activities.
Lectio Divina–handout with the steps listed for reading poems. An Adaptation of Lectio Divina (Microsoft Word 25kB Oct9 12)
Poetry of Witness–assignment sheet describing poetry of witness and the steps for writing a witness poem, including incorporating contemplative practice.
Sample Witness Poems –includes poems by Lucien Stryk and David Wagoner
Sample Student Poems –includes poems/reflections by students in response to the Poetry of Witness assignment. Introduction/Context (Microsoft Word 37kB Feb29 12)
Student Handout for Reading Poems (Microsoft Word 37kB Feb29 12)
Assignment for Writing Poetry of Witness (Microsoft Word 31kB Feb29 12)
Sample Witness Poems (Microsoft Word 26kB Feb29 12)
Sample Student Witness Poems/Reflections (Microsoft Word 40kB Feb29 12)

Teaching Notes and Tips

Lectio Divina: When we meet together in class, we'll work in small groups discussing the poem so students can share your response and questions with each other before discussing it as a class. My goal is for my students to fall in love with poetry, to view it as a contemplative activity they can participate in either as reader or writer. My hope is that they feel more comfortable bringing both their intellect and emotions into the classroom.
I've used a variety of poems over the years, but can recommend several that work well: Elizabeth Bishop's "The Fish" Maya Angelous's "A River, A Rock, a Tree" and Mary Oliver's "The Journey," "Wild Geese," and "The Summer Day." All employ vivid imagery in service of a clear message that students can relate to. There are, of course, many poems that would work well for this. (Please see the Bibliography for more poets/titles).

Poetry of Witness: I've found that the contemplative activity received a favorable response–see sample poems/reflections–and I intend to continue this activity.


Lectio Divina: Students receive up to 10 points for turning in their summary/response and participating in the group discussion.

Poetry of Witness: Students receive up to 10 points for writing a poem of witness that addresses all the criteria spelled out in the assignment sheet. They then have the opportunity to revise the poem based on my feedback and the feedback they receive in workshop for their final Portfolio.

References and Resources

The Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Program in the Schools website:

This website includes information on "The Power of the Word" series by Bill Moyers, as well as many other great resources for teaching/enjoying poetry in the classroom.

The Pen and the Bell: Mindful Writing in a Busy World, by Brenda Miller and Holly Hughes. Skinner, 2111. []

This includes a good bibliography of poetry titles with a contemplative slant.