An Interview with Aaron Ozment on How to Teach Poetry

David McMurray

The Teaching Assistance Column Editor interviewed a graduate student, who majors in English education and is currently teaching foreign languages at Veritas English School.


Teaching Assistance: Please introduce yourself to our readers.

Aaron Ozment: I graduated from Oakland University, Michigan, with a degree in Japanese language and literature. I have taught English in Japan since 2015. During this time, I have also taught music, theater, and dance. I have given speeches on subjects such as rakugo, public speaking, and applied phonetics. I have been a Master’s student and a teaching assistant (TA) since 2020.

TA: Perhaps you have heard of Three Minute Thesis (3MT) competitions (McMurray, 2018)? If you had three minutes to introduce your MA thesis with the help of just one diagram to an eclectic audience, what would you say?

AO: To describe my thesis in three minutes, I would show Figure 1 and say this: The Meiji cultural exchange influenced poetry much more than is generally understood. Furthermore, the exchange impacted Japan and the Anglosphere in very different ways. Japanese poets used the models of Western poetry to create poetry that was more in line with the natural culture emerging in the Meiji era. Contrary to this, English speaking poets used Japanese models to create Western poetry that was more and more remote to the cultures emerging in their homelands. We can measure this by looking at key words, and their distribution over time. Western poetry had a long and storied history of death poetry, whether lamentations, elegies, or other forms. These poems tended to deal with death as a specific topic to be named. The Japanese tradition of death poetry refused to use specific words, preferring to use the imagery of nature to describe death. During the Meiji era (in Japan) and slightly after (in the West) this historical trend suddenly diverged, and the topics of poetry and the language used in it changed.

TA: How can the ideas presented in your MA thesis be practically taught to a group of foreign language learners in a university classroom in Japan?

AO: My thesis, The Effects of the Meiji Cultural Exchange on English and Japanese Poetry, can be a starting point for further studies of poetry within Japanese classrooms (Ozment, 2022). In the paper, I described how I identified culturally significant words, used them as markers, and tracked their distribution over time. Using this data, I theorized that there was a link between word distribution and cultural attitudes. Students of comparative culture can use the sources and methodology described in the paper in order to chart the progress and development of other ideas across time in the East and West. Students of language and literature can use these methods to research the development of language and the tendency of various words to rise and fall within poetic traditions. Furthermore, students can measure the gap between poetry and its culture and between poetry and its market to infer and to drive decisions regarding publishing and content creation.

TA: Since 2020, a pandemic has brought the topic of death to our classrooms. Borrowing from a poem by Emily Dickinson (1830–1886), “Because I could not stop for death He kindly stopped for me,” there seems to be little time for euphemism when death suddenly affects you, a loved one, or indeed someone you don’t know from among the six million who have so far succumbed to the disease. How are poets adapting to this sudden change? Do you think that death and dying will become common themes in Western and Japanese poetry? 

AO: Death certainly has been all around us since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Nearly everyone knows someone who has died or whose life has changed because of the disease. Within the world of English language poetry, I do not expect COVID-19 to be of lasting importance—at least not with respect to the ways in which a person describes death. What poetry I have read during these past two years about the pandemic was often political, rather than a poem trying to deal with the explicit nature of death. At other times, the poetry that made it into the front pages of Google appeared to be obsessed with the minutiae of the changes to the daily lives of the authors and poets. There is a pervasive trend in English poetry to make things personal and political. Death, though, is universal; while our own individual deaths are of course personal and politics may add years to your life the universality of death is something that appears to have vanished from the Western poetic world. Of course, a poem is capable of dealing with the personal, the political, and the universal at once. However, universalism is out of fashion and has been for some time. Vagueness and meticulous detail are in vogue. Although not especially good, here is an example of something I wrote, which perhaps deals with death on a few different levels, including not only the personal and the political, but also the universal. It attempts to find a balance between the overly vague and the needlessly specific.

My neighbor dragged his trees across the street

So that their burning wouldn’t singe his grass.

But now he is not even free to meet

His mother as she dies behind the glass.

TA: Which Western and Japanese poems best elucidate your arguments on how to teach poetry?

AO: A. E. Housman’s (1994) A Shropshire Lad, poem II, “Loveliest of Trees the cherry now,” is an excellent example of how to teach the impact of Japanese poetry on western poetry. This poem has been used, time and time again, to demonstrate the natural ways in which Japanese and Western cultures can harmonize around beautiful and elegant themes together. This poem appears to be a longer form English haiku, with its references to the seasons, with cherries used as a symbol for fleeting life, and with a general sense of melancholy in the midst of beauty and life. I have not uncovered any direct evidence of Housman being a fan of Japanese literature, but I think that I can argue that, as he wrote A Shropshire Lad, there was “something in the air,” so to speak. Within a few years of that book’s completion, a number of epoch-making translations of Japanese poetry would come to the fore. The poem is pleasing to the ear of Westerners, but also useful for teaching the elegant ebb and flow of English intonation to Japanese speakers. Altogether, as a poem for understanding aesthetics, cultural osmosis, or the simple beauty that English is capable of, few poems in the history of the language can honestly compare.

Nobuo Ayakawa’s Saigon 1943 is an excellent poem to show the culmination of western experience on Japanese poetry, and how the effects of westernization and modernization are not always benign (Graham, 1998). In it, we see a clash of culture manifest as Japanese soldiers enter into Saigon, victorious over the French. But at what cost? His friends are dead and dying. France is defeated, and Japan is victorious, yet their sons both cry out in agony from the same wounds. Saigon in defeat is viewed as somehow neither western nor eastern, but as some kind of nothing, which ought to have had a form. Nobuo’s writing is decidedly western, yet his sensitivity to detail—details that he expands on while leaving much to the reader’s imagination—are excellent ways to show how Japanese notions of suggestion and understatement can balance the western tendency towards grandiloquence. The poem clearly achieves a balance that his heart never could. This is the genius and tragedy of the poem.

TA:  If you were asked to pivot your studies toward the field of “poetry-for-performance,” how might that assist in the teaching of poetry in a university classroom in Japan?

AO: Teaching poetry-for-performance as opposed to lecturing on classical poetry allows for a kind of immediacy and memorability that literary poetry really isn’t capable of. Poetry that is performative by design contains mnemonic elements that can aid in memorization. It can also give itself a sense of immediacy that is impossible on the page. Poetry-for-performance, furthermore, requires less from the readers. Rather than requiring a high degree of language ability to determine the stress, the emphasis, and the focus of lines of syllables and ideas, a performed bit of poetry is structured in order to do that kind of mental heavy lifting for its listeners. A great poem or a bad poem can be easily misunderstood by a reader of any level. The errors come in from gaps in language on both sides. However, a great poem or a bad poem, if performed competently, can make its point clear without much of the listener’s participation. Poetry-for-performance is less a question of language and more a question of general communication. In what ways can methods outside of words be used to emphasize or heighten words themselves? In non-performative poetry, we have to depend on the reader to pick up the hints that the author included. Poetry-for-performance gives the performer a greater deal of control over the work’s reception.

If I were to shift my teaching to the realm of poetry-for-performance, it would be in teaching a holistic understanding of the English language. Students would need to understand the nuances in tone, in spacing, in ebb and flow, in volume, in body language, and in much more. It would also require less of a focus on vocabulary and language comprehension. There is a great deal of merit in doing so as a well performed poem is capable of teaching its performers how to reach the hearts of their audience in a way far more natural and casual than in the formal composition of a work.

TA: Do you think that English language and literature professors abandoned the classical forms of poetry in order to recruit more students? 

AO: I do not think that professors have abandoned more classical poetry because of any particular desire to recruit students. However, they are caught in a difficult position because while many people prefer the old ways, to admit so is to sabotage one’s own career. One of the most difficult aspects of my research was trying to gauge the popularity of poetry over time. While it is very difficult to say which traditional English poets are the most popular or famous, certainly the best-selling English poet of the 20th century was Dr. Seuss whose series of children’s books still outsell most modern poetry books decades after his death. Constant reprints of classic poems show that there is still a desire for these old poems, but the old styles are sitting dusty and unused on display shelves. Somebody really ought to take them down and use them again

TA: Thank you for sharing your fascinating views on how to teach poetry in English. I wish you the best of success in your teaching career.



Graham, D. (1998). Poetry of the Second World War: An international anthology. Pimlico.

Houseman, A.E. (1994). A Shropshire lad: 1896. Woodstock.

McMurray, D. (2018). “Tell us about your research in three minutes.” The Language Teacher, 42(4), 39–41.

Ozment, A. M. (2022). The effects of the Meiji cultural exchange on English and Japanese poetry [Unpublished master’s thesis]. The International University of Kagoshima.