Kids can learn the power of poetry
In ninth grade, I declared to my English teacher, Mrs. Way, that I hated poetry. I wasn't crazy about Mrs. Way, either. She was grouchy and strict and forbade us from ever using "be" verbs in our writing assignments. (On the first day of class we had to write a paper introducing ourselves; I thought, how do you say "My name is Scott" without "is"?)
In retrospect, I love Mrs. Way and I'm mortified to think I acted like a brat in her class. That year-long proscription against "be" verbs is one of the best gifts an English teacher ever gave me. Another is the note she scrawled on my essay on Robert Frost's poem "Fire and Ice": "For someone who hates poetry, you're pretty good at writing about it." The paper is long lost, but the comment lives in my head.
When I was in tenth grade, a poet-in-residence visited my school. Her name was Terry Blackhawk, and she met with groups of students for an hour a week for several weeks. I signed up because I thought it might help me write awesome heavy metal lyrics. It didn't. But I did produce one poem I was proud of, and got to read it along with 3 or 4 kids at a tiny event in the school library.
In twelfth grade I saw the movie "Dead Poets Society," in which poetry comes to life outside of school, and grows into a force of resistance against the stultifying classroom. This came as a revelation to me, because (like most people) I had come to understand poetry as a chore. Apart from my brief time with Terry Blackhawk, every experience of poetry I could remember presented a poem as a maze of obscure terms and obtuse meanings which the reader was hopelessly tasked to decode. When Robin Williams instructed his students to tear out the introductions to their poetry textbooks, I began to see that poetry could rollick and rebel. That it wasn't just for teachers and tests; it could be for me.
This past year I had the fortune to serve as Dzanc Writer-in-Residence at Ann Arbor Open School, leading weekly poetry exercises with a class of 53 fifth and sixth graders. Whenever I get to teach poetry to kids, I think of it as an opportunity to correct the drift of my own poetry education. Through all our discussions of metaphor and slant rhyme, Wallace Stevens and Gwendolyn Brooks, I try to emphasize the reasons anyone would read and write poems in the first place -- what poetry offers in our lives.
I want students to experience the joy of playing with language, the pleasure of saying, for instance, "a fat fresh rutabaga bashing through / a big building wearing a cape," to quote one early poem written in my class this year. Poets write because it's fun. But also, I want them to experience the power of language. There has never in the world been a superhero rutabaga. But when the poet writes "a rutabaga ... wearing a cape," it becomes a real thing, even if only in the reader's mind. The poet has made something that was never there before -- an image, an idea. That's a kind of magic. It has amazing potential. I want the kids to understand that poetry puts a power in their hands like no other power on earth.
To finish the year, Dzanc Books published a collection of the kids' poems in which that power appears in full force. Reading their work, one finds sharp observations and gorgeous turns of phrase. One confronts deeper sorrows and joys than adults often give kids credit for. Sometimes when people hear these poems, they tell me I'm doing a great job, but I don't know how to teach anyone to write a poem. What makes the poems remarkable is what the kids have in them -- their own sparks, their own imaginations and insights, their own gifts for words. They are capable of surprising things when we give them space and show them faith.
My debt to my old poet-in-residence, Terry Blackhawk, goes further than I've mentioned. After that early stint at Brighton High School, she went on to found the InsideOut Literary Arts Project, a poets-in-schools program in Detroit which serves thousands of youth each year. That outstanding program was one of the models for the Dzanc Writer-in-Residence Program. So in a way, I have come full circle. That positive early experience I had with poetry in tenth grade is a seed I have carried with me. I'd like to think this year in turn has handed a seed to the 53 amazing kids I've worked with this year. I'll be keeping my eyes and ears open in hopes of seeing them all again and hearing what they go on to say.