How does one explain how to teach the writing of poetry? For all that poems are made of words, words can fail to catch the essence, not only of a particular poem, but of how the poem “appeared” in the poet’s mind. Is it even certain that a poem is a product of the mind? Most poems seem to contain so much emotion, or music or play (a hopscotch game? chess board? “Let’s pretend…”?).
Writing about how to teach poetry is challenging for me because my teaching method is rooted in intuition, hard to pin down, of the moment, always becoming. Writing my own poetry is an intuitive process. I don’t say it’s the only way in to creativity, but it has always been my way.
Writing poetry is like being in the ferment of wine-making. It’s the buzz of transformation and the headiness of “spirits.” The wine that’s produced can be bad or fail to mature correctly, but the fermentation process itself partakes, undeniably, of transformation. It is the creation of something new. So, in poetry, the end-result poem may be banal or unsatisfying, but it’s the creative process that a writer or teacher wants to facilitate.
For this reason, I realized that while, in school settings, I must have a time-structure to my lessons (I only have an hour and want to get everyone to write, and hopefully, to share), I need to promote, in the students, a sense of timelessness, of being in a moment of ferment, of total possibility. Within their imaginations, anything could happen. I have to create a mood, of expectation, curiosity, discovery.
“A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs….
A poem should not mean
I want to turn the table on their expectations, open up what they’ve become accustomed to happening in a classroom. I clearly recall a lesson from my first year of teaching poetry. I walked into a third grade class for the first session and went to the board without saying anything. I picked up a piece of chalk, placed my left hand on the chalkboard and began outlining my hand. When I finished, I said, “Raise your hand if you want to tell me a word that goes with the word ‘hand.’” As they told me the words, I wrote them inside the fingers and palm of the hand. Lesson: a poem is not a story. It wants to do it in a new way. The assignment was to draw the outline of anything on their papers and write, inside the outline, all the words they could think of that went with what they’d drawn.
I had that class “in the palm of my hand.” To a child, they wanted to write that day.
For many years, before schools pretty much did away with easily-accessible chalkboards, I used the ploy (again speechlessly) of beginning the session by walking to the board and starting to write the model poem on the board. As I wrote, kids turned their attention to the words that were revealing to them something, they soon learned, worth reading.
In a sense, this is performance. As is the reading of the poem. I give a dramatic reading of the poems I bring in, and then the kids read them, again, with me. Poetry, when presented evocatively, mesmerizes. It’s the heart of language. It’s supposed to transport its listeners into timelessness. A well-chosen poem will entrance, it will emanate the creative spirit.
“I am the magical mouse.
I don’t fear cats
I do as I please…”
“Look how my song
bends down over the earth
In the house of butterflies
my song is born”
2 Rabbit 7 Wind, Aztec
When I first began guiding kids to write poetry, I instinctively knew that I couldn’t get them to write “real” poems by using methods I’d used as a high school English teacher, teaching from lesson plans that were calculated to fasten certain “facts” about language and literature in young people’s minds. In my English classes, though I wanted to teach my students how to think, as well as to remember the “lessons” and “plot” of The Scarlet Letter or Huckleberry Finn, the thinking skills were the same reasoned, logical, step-wise skills I’d been conditioned to use by my university education.
Generally speaking most people think of mental activity as “figuring things out,” a rational, step by step process. That’s the way it’s taught in school. Beginning, middle, end.
There are poems that express that structure; think of Elizabethan or Petrarchan sonnets, which set up a dilemma to “begin” the poem, and in the final two or six lines, either resolve/answer the problem, or introduce a different way to view the situation. There are poems that tell a story, sometimes a very long one: John Milton’s “Paradise Lost” or Homer’s “Iliad” and “Odyssey.”
But most modern poems seek to express a present moment or experience, an inner state of being. Two of our great American poets, Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, are solid examples of this practice.
I’m nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody too?
Then there’s a pair of us – don’t tell!
I am of old and young, of the foolish as much as the wise,
Regardless of others, ever regardful of others,
Maternal as well as paternal, a child as well as a man…
The imagists in Europe, H D or Ezra Pound, concentrated on a single image, believing that to concentrate fully on one thing would evoke everything necessary to engender full appreciation of the world. Similarly, poetic traditions such as Haiku are solely fixed on the moment, with “Ah-ha!” thrown in.
Beside the road
Mallow flowers bloom –
Now eaten by my horse!
Much African and Native American poetry is principally rhythmical, from the oral tradition, and might easily be performed with drums.
You say there were no people.
Smoke was spreading over the earth.
You say there were no people.
Smoke was spreading.
For young readers and writers, I have observed that these more immediate-experience practices are their gateway into poetry. Following such a practice, their poems can happen “right now.” Few accoutrement, no “research,” not even much education is necessary for a child to make up an “immediate” poem. However, the poem doesn’t usually arise out of a vacuum. For the “immediate” poem to occur, a particular experience or stimulus serves to inspire. That’s where the teacher enters. I like to think of teaching as presenting a stimulus or opportunity to have an experience, to form a question, access a memory, discover an idea, a feeling, or describe the way a spider spins its web.
Poetry, along with other arts, feeds on the tension between restriction (form) and the heady sense of discovery and potential that engenders inspiration. Inspiration is a flood of emotion-charged insight. A sense of giddy excitement impels/compels the poet to grasp for words that not only express his or her “heady” realization but, as well, create a reciprocal realization in the reader or listener.
That’s where form comes in. It’s fine to jump up and down shouting “Hurray! I’ve got it! Love can make me forgive my enemy.” Repeating it over and over might be infectious but also might only leave a listener mildly sympathetic, “Well, that’s a nice thought. I hope it works out for you in the clinch.” Or even arouse energetic disagreement, “Sometimes love can create enemies. Maybe you better calm down and think about it some more.”
But when we read,
Naett, her name has the sweetness of cinnamon…
the sugared whiteness of coffee trees in bloom…
Naett coin of gold coal of light my night and my sun
Leopold Sedar Senghor
Come live with me and be my love…
And I will make thee beds of roses
And a thousand fragrant posies
it’s likely we are moved by the beauty of the words and our feelings open to the sentiment. We may even be ready to write about love ourselves.
When our passion or inspiration finds the heightened form that will express the intensity we feel, or the comprehension we’ve just reached, or the crazy impossible idea we’ve just had, it enhances the possibility that our poem will be able to enter another’s heart and mind. This is the simple, best reason to “teach” poetic form, along with setting up opportunities for such exciting insights and feelings to occur.
Most children respond to form, and to the creation of a poem, as a game. This is very useful in teaching poetry because the sense of play is basic to creativity. Making a poem can be very like the games children make up; there are rules (“You be the horse and I’ll be the horse rider”) but they are very fluid, and really good game players are highly adaptable (“Now we’ll both be horses and those trees are the tigers we have to get past”).
Another advantage to teaching poetry to children (my specialty has been ages 6-11) is found in children’s vital hunger to learn. They are awhirl in the constant process of mastering skills and knowledge that will, literally, “save their lives” as they mature and take responsibility for themselves. Language, and problem solving, are uppermost in their pursuit of mastery.
Emotional development is essential to effective communication and adaptability. A human being must be able to appreciate and empathize with others (not only human being but animal and most other things in nature) in order to resolve differences and come out with everyone doing okay.
When a poetry teacher brings in model poems that present, in touching and dramatic language, issues such as child-parent conflict, feelings of loneliness, puzzlement, great joy, belonging/not belonging, or tough questions such as what happens after we die, why do we have to die, why do people want to kill each other, why are some peoples treated as inferior, etc., kids have the opportunity (1) to feel the effect of one of these issues on a real person (author of the poem); (2) vicariously experience it for themselves; (3) ask questions and discuss it; (4) express what it brings up for them, and (5) have others listen to what they feel about it. Just having the time to have feelings about whatever is being presented, then to write them down and be listened to – such activities feed and fertilize the growth of self-understanding, self-esteem and appreciation of others.
Vital to the success of the learning process described above is an atmosphere of openness, acceptance, flexibility and mutual respect. Choosing model poems that are exemplars of honesty, deep feeling, and craft is the first step. It’s okay to show kids poems where they might not understand everything the poet says. As long as there are parts of the poem they can “get,” even if it’s just how great the words sound when recited aloud, or that it ends with a question they’ll want to think about, it’ll work. Requisite to making it work is establishing the pattern of questioning and discussing the poem and poet’s choices. Teaching kids that communication and understanding involve investigation, is integral to education. If we want them to understand poetry (or anything else), it’s a process. And if we want them to learn to trust their own mental abilities to “figure something out,” we need to accept their floundering about. Poetry is excellent in illustrating that there are many “right” answers, and many avenues of exploration, to arrive at a way of understanding that is satisfactory to you.
Looking back over my thirty years of teaching poetry-writing, I understand more clearly now what my methods are for encouraging creative ferment.
I choose carefully which poems and other stimuli (such as music, art, a beloved object, a photo, nature walk, food) that I show them. Tuning in to the tastes and curiosity-triggers of different age groups is helpful to engendering a positive response. First graders are at a different developmental stage than fourth graders. It has also been important to me to select material, and give instructions, that allow a wide range of response. However, good poems don’t “talk down” or cutesify their subject matter. A fourth or fifth grader, or an adult, can love a simply-put or funny poem just as enthusiastically as can a first grader. And a fifth grader will still love to go outside to write a garden poem as much as will a second grader.
The most common method I employ to engage students’ interest, is questions. This encourages the opening-out atmosphere I mentioned earlier. I tell them to ask questions, and I ask them to tell me what they think, or can guess, about the model poem or whatever else we’re focusing on (a piece of art, for instance). In poetry (the writing of it, or the discussing of it), there are no Right Answers. We’re just exploring. “Why do you think the poet said the horse is blue?” “What is a ‘black water car’?” “How do the palm leaf roofs ‘sing’?” “What do you think the poet was feeling when he said, ’My father was with me on his head’?”
I even ask them to guess what I meant by certain phrases in my own poems. “Why do you think I wrote it this way_____________ instead of saying __________?” And, unless they specifically ask me to tell them why I chose what I chose, I let their guesses stand. It could have been any of them.
With very young children, after we share a poem, I often ask, “Is this true? Is this the way things really are?”
It’s useful to keep in mind, when teaching, or when writing for oneself, two important motivations for expressing oneself. A child (person) wants to be paid attention to, to have their true self recognized. Also, a child (person) wants to discover, and participate in, the life of The Other. This is the vital exchange, the source of understanding. So we give and take.
Via a poem, one can enter into being an eagle, a worm, a ripe pear, a rain cloud, one’s little brother. The poem becomes the expression of participation for a moment in another’s existence. A way of understanding while simultaneously maintaining one’s self.
I try to choose poems that appeal to both needs: to recognize one’s true self and to understand, listen to, an Other.
A wonderful example of such a model poem is N. Scott Momaday’s “Delight Song of Tsoai Talee.” I'll end with a couple of his lines.
I am the blue horse that runs in the plains…
I am an eagle, playing with the wind…
I am the evening light, the luster of meadows…
I am the whole dream of these things…