on teaching poetry

How I Teach Poetry in the Schools

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The focal point of the school, organizationally and mood-wise, is the principal. School principals, I find, may be helpful or not particularly, or may delegate helpfulness, but seldom trouble the poetry program as long as one is on time and seems confident. There's little, however, the visiting poet can do about the mood of the whole school. One operates class by class, where the teachers are supremely important. The teacher is the bellwether of the class, of its developed attention. When the teacher writes along with the student, or simply listens alertly, this participation catalyzes the whole room.

On a more practical note, the teacher can exert authority, which the visiting poet doesn't have, when it's needed for the proper degree of order. For me, quietness is important when poems are being read aloud, and it's an eternal little battle to bring classes "down" after the hurly-burly of creation. Essentials are learned in each state, the listening state and the composing state, that can't be fully absorbed in the other. When the students are writing, however, it's amazing how a fair to great degree of noisiness, when it's mostly about the matter at hand, can not only fail to dim the concentration but actually enhance it, act as a matrix of energy.

My first visit I jump right into things by telling the kids what we're going to do: talk about poems (not much) and read poems aloud (adults', children's), all building up to the main thing--having them write (using a different basic idea each class session, explained, with plenty of examples). Then I'll collect pieces, read them aloud (anonymously) with top-of-the-head comments, take home and type some ("Don't feel bad if yours isn't chosen--one or more'll probably show up along the way"), hand out copies next time I come if the rexo machines are working, and put together an anthology at the end. Any questions? At this point I read two poems aloud, often using "Too Blue" by Langston Hughes and "Crossing" by Philip Booth, discuss them briefly in down-to-earth ways, which these works by their nature encourage. Then, as first exercise, I prescribe I Remember poems, reading aloud one of mine first, then a bunch from kids, and emphasizing detail ("Don't just write 'I remember going to the movies with my friend Yvonne,' period, end of memory; tell whatever there was about it that made it stick in your mind; make a picture of the scene out of words"). The students write for fourteen minutes or so; I walk around, answering questions, talking or not talking as seems appropriate. Then I collect the papers and read them aloud, praising the "hits" I perceive in each poem, timing this feedback for the last ten minutes of class. Then out. Next free period I mark the ones I'm going to type. Later at home I type them up, which honors the kids, makes palpable what they've done, and preserves it. Then bring 'em back alive.

In subsequent sessions I try to keep a balance going between content-oriented exercises (writing about places, for example) and devices, such as acrostics and lunes that tend to give the students a technical lead from line to line and to leave content free.

ACROSTIC POEMS

The acrostic is an admirable form for student use. There's only one letter of requirement per line, which gives enough to go on (kids are often at sea without something leading on) but doesn't over-dictate. The form's lightness tends to stimulate surreal juxtapositions and other originalities. Also, the requirement comes at the line beginning (not at the end, as with rhyme), so once the letter is worded the rhythm is free. Acrostics encourage interesting line-breaks, show the kids that lines are not just sentences, or thought, but also sound units and fragmentation devises. The form abets the development of subtle, surprising, "off" connections between spine word and text, as well as the economy of lists and near-lists (elimination of connectives). In presenting the acrostic, I tell the students something like the following.

Write a word vertically, down the paper, and use its letters to begin the lines of a poem that you then make up. The poem should have something to do with the spine word, but it can be some weird or hard-to-see connection; don't make it just an explanation of the word. You don't have to rhyme. Lines can be as long or short as you like, and you can break your lines right in the middle of a thought or phrase. This sometimes makes the words stand out in a new and interesting way, like cracking open a rock and finding a little blue cave in it. Skip a line going down for each letter of your spine word in case you come up with a long poem-line that won't fit on one line of paper. Use your imaginations; don't be afraid to sound crazy; it often means you've come up with new ideas; try things out.

I show them a good acrostic (by a student) on the board, then write the spine words for about twelve or fifteen more and read off the poems, pointing to the beginning letters as I go. Naturally I choose an assortment that will display a big range of acrostic possibilities.

PLACE POEMS

Sometimes I begin by showing the students "Nantucket" by William Carlos Williams, and point out how all the physical things mentioned add up to a light-colored, quiet mood. I say that one way to express the feeling of a place is to pick out one thing or one little view, one part of the place, express it, and let it stand for the whole.

I talk up places, how we have such strong feelings for them early on (even Mother's cradling arm is a "place" to a new baby) and ask them to write about a place they know well, could be their room, the block they walk and play on every day, etc., or a place they've seen once or rarely but that made a vivid impression. I read them a bunch of kids' pieces on place, drawing attention to the epiphanies, good parts, accumulations. I urge them to write with the effort of recalling detail, maybe close their eyes and picture the place first. Think of it as a one-minute travelogue in words, don't leave out anything that may help recreate the live scene. I ask for "poems" (line-breaks, metaphors, possible swift changes of image, going by feel); often the pieces come out prose anyway, which can also be fine.

LUNES

The lune is a simplification of formal haiku. Instead of counting syllables in the three lines, which might make kids overly concerned with the mere mechanics, one counts words: three/five/three, and subject, any mood. With lots of good examples given and discussed, the students do abundantly demonstrate a fine apprehension of the power of tiny, non-expositional, word-by-word effects, plus the necessity of balanced rhythm, which looms large in a short piece. Thus there's a push toward the knowledge that ideas do not exist without their expressive articulations, and the importance of language "per se" is brought home.

When the sun's
rays hit the shades, it
lights up lines.

This piece (dashed off by a Nebraska 5th grader years ago) excellently illustrates the possibility of poetry being plain talk of the immediate environment (sun striking venetian blinds on classroom window). It is also a deceptively complex maze of sound correspondences and play: simple rhythms in lines one and three contrasting with syncopation of line two (differing syllable lengths, comma pause, consonantal percussion), n's around soft "the" in line 1 forming a sound-swing, "rays-shades" assonance and "hit-it" rhyme, soft central "the" repeated, five terminal s's, "lights-lines," "sun's-up," n again in "lines," t in "lights"--until "lights up lines" carries more import that the physical window pattern alone. The lines of the poem are lit up too. I advise students that the author probably didn't calculate all this but that a careful, though nonspecific, concentration can let the musical phrases come.

Surprise in the short, third line (especially) is a common vivifier of lunes. A change of "voice" and/or rhythm can help the change of meaning snap to, or be the change in meaning.

Go to Heaven.
If it's nice, call me.
I'll be there.

Rhyme can sometimes work well in lunes, but it's like loading a heavy rock into a small boat. I tell them lunes are like Crackerjacks, the more you. . ., etc. That I once wrote 100 in an evening and by the end of everything I saw or thought registered in my brain three/five/three, and that I told a junior high class this and a girl came back the next day with 120, and solid little word-pieces from what was around her, especially at home. Sometimes I tell them lunes are like looking through a crack; even the plainest sight may look interesting, due to the focus.

Again, reading aloud many good examples by kids--with admonitions not to copy their wordings or ideas--helps the students see their own possibilities. It is amazing what variety may evolve and what compression is possible in these eleven-word poems.

WILLIAM CARLOS WILLIAMS IMITATIONS

On the black board I show the kids the poems "This Is Just to Say" and "The Red Wheelbarrow" by Dr. Williams.

I ask them first to write a poem apologizing for something "bad" they have done, imaginary or real. I point out how the s sounds in the last three lines of the first poem help bring out the mouth-watering goodness of the plums, making the poem a sorry-not-sorry balancing act. I urge them not to "copy" too closely.

Then I discuss the second poem, how it gently spotlights neglected thing of everyday life, and ask then to write a similar piece out of their own experience, like a snapshot in words.

In both cases I read them a variety of children's poems along these lines. The "apologies" tend to be funny, and the "wheelbarrow" pieces tend to be delicate. The kids usually divide things into short lines without prompting (or I'll tell them it helps display the rhythms of speech.). Both exercises can be done in a single class period.

THING POEMS

I talk up the wonders of common but relatively unnoticed objects--hand, egg, floor, sky, hair, river, piece of bread--and ask them to write in prose or poetry about one of them. I urge them to get beyond the expectable sentiments that gather about familiar things ("Don't write, 'The beautiful egg contains growing life'"). Sometimes I read then Gary Snyder's "Hay for the Horses" or Denise Levertov's "Pleasures"--and always some examples by kids--to build up a thingy mood.

"REAL-LIFE" WRITINGS

I ask the students to think of some event, big or small ("It could be about a floating speck of dust"), that they saw, did, or had happen to them lately enough that they remember a lot of details, and to write about it. I try for something more like a snapshot than a narrative, in the sense that it's a moment with many details of the scene visible. I advise them to recreate a little world/instant in words and, when they have made it real and solid, to, as it were, float it off via simile or metaphor, throw out line or lines to the rest of reality. Something like "When the blue car bumped into the brown bakery truck on 181st St., the car doors flew open like the wings of a gull trying to take off from the harbor waters." As always, I read them plenty of examples first and, in this case, I make up spontaneously an example of "painting a scene" (rather than just mentioning the salient action), with use of specific terms, colors, names, weather, corner-of-the-eye stuff, etc.

The results often violate my prescription but work anyway, when empathy has been activated.

ABOUT POETRY

Reserved for the last day. I ask them to write about poetry or about the process of writing, not in general terms ("poetry is nice," "poetry is boring"), but something palpable, something that moves, or to make a little myth of it, experiment, show not tell, find wild thoughts somehow felt even if the mind can't explain the connection, try anything out. I invite them to include negative thoughts, difficulties: poetry is not peaches and cream, can be frustrating, tiresome, disturbing, whatever. The pieces can be in a variety of forms. This exercise has resulted in a great number of the most amazing catches, thought, and images I've seen.

Poetry is a
slow flash
of light
because it comes
to you piece by
piece.

I think of my general approach as organic, inductive, building from the children's familiars up, rather than teaching them intricate forms to master, or attempting to initiate them into a sophisticated sensibility. Time enough for that, and to avoid its pitfalls, when and if they have written personally for some while, and of course writing personally in some strong sense is what the most developed poetry still is. Heavy programming from me at this point would draw out less of their particular gifts.

This part of the school curriculum is different from most of the rest, in that it is more a matter of learning from the inside out. On the other hand, ask a kid to write something expressing his soul and he'll be lost. People this young need a guide, albeit a light guide. So I use devices, even gimmicks, which tend to balance between requesting and allowing poems, between spontaneity and concentration, until the two merge.

I try to get things across to the students by example, not by concept. On the other hand, the simple exhortation "be original" can slam things open. I tell them papers can be messy, this is a workshop, no time to rewrite for beauty's sake, scratchouts show you're thinking. Well make 'em pretty later. I also find that down-to-earth explanation, in detail, or sound nuances and, within the kids' experience, other fine points as well go over readily with them. Matters such as the vowel progressions in the "Red Wheelbarrow" piece, or say, the connotative values in Denise Levertov's poem of things found on the beach.

Being in a class is a peculiar combination, for me, of formal and informal. Given the formal situation of standing in the front of a classroom with a specific, quasi-teacher role, I "try" to be quite informal and natural (and still get things done fast). I always stand or walk around rather than sit. I toss bits of chalk, stutter, scratch, cross my feet, glance out the window, talk as I would talk to a trusted friend (but limiting vocabulary and referential scope), never smile unless it pops up, use humor freely, don't pretend to be hip but let my colloquial self come out, don't praise falsely (they "know"), try to be aware of the room energy. Each workshop leader will find his or her most workable way of being there.

In this very human, though structured, situation known as the classroom, energy counts for more than ideas. And the energy must be transferable. It can be low-key as long as it's felt. Speechifying about one's passions for and even concepts of poetry is self-indulgence. Isolated opinions vaporize, the loftier the quicker. One is a communicator in this situation, not pushing things and convictions into the students' faces but getting workable ideas within reach, or into the fuzzy area just outside normal reach, which is also "reach," in the right light.

In longer residencies and/or with older kids I may ask for out-of-class poems. Especially when the assignment's left open, they usually turn out poorly. The kids, with leisure and without the hot hullabaloo of the classroom common endeavor, tend to revert to sentimental cloudiness specific only in being derivative. Post-puberty is a time of overblown soul (and its flip side, cynicism). Here, however, with older kids, revision may enter (in my "Pied Piper" residency experience, elementary school kids have little patience for perspective for extensive revision). Gently, one can ask for particulars. Gently, one can focus on rhythm and sound, consistency of thought (if appropriate), even on originality of expression.

The purpose of having a poet in a given class is not to produce thirty full-blown lifelong poets but to touch the kids with poetry, with a feeling for art that may grow from specifics outward for many years and affect many of their responses to daily things, that their lives may be open a touch more to inner and outer vividness. I ask them at the end simply to keep writing--journals, poems, anything. I ask them to do it sometimes, when they can, when they feel like it, for the rest of their lives, as they might, sometimes, dance.

No one person includes all viewpoints. That is, we each have taste. My taste is in part only personal, and I'm sure this affects the way the kids I visit write. And how I like what they write. This is true of every writing teacher. The solution is not to devitalize one's presentation in a vain urge for perfect objectivity but simply to examine rigorously one's preferences in poetry and, if they still seem worthy, to act on them without apology (and still close no doors).