April is National Poetry Month. Of course, to my mind, National Poetry Month, like Black History Month, is a bit of a redundancy, since every month is an occasion to revisit art and learning. But the calendar this April includes an exceptional number of poetry events. Please go and enjoy them if you should so happen upon them; I myself will spend a considerable portion of April “among schoolchildren.”
If you didn’t catch my reference, “Among School Children” is an early 20th century poem by William Butler Yeats in which he obligatorily visits an elementary learning institution. In the piece’s best-known line, Yeats calls himself, “a sixty-year-old smiling public man,” implying that he is feigning interest while amongst the youths. He appears to forget that he is even at a school halfway through the poem. Yeats, alas, is not a precursor of today’s interest in the intersection of poetry and public education.
In 1970, the American poet Kenneth Koch published the book Dreams, Wishes, and Lies, which recorded his successes at teaching children poetry. Koch’s book enhanced the demand for arts education, and, more specifically, poetry in schools, yet I suspect some poets are shyer than others, or stodgier than others. For some—like the esteemed Yeats—introducing poetry to schoolchildren isn’t going to be their cup of tea. Teaching children, however, is a specialized task that deserves much respect, and I earn wisdom and delight out of visits to fourth, fifth and sixth grade classrooms in Santa Fe.
I enjoy introducing myself to children still scrawling with No. 2 pencils, still learning to pronounce words and only now making their first forays into using language tools. Past 50 years old, I have re-entered a world of intercoms, pencil sharpeners, recess periods, class bells and hordes of students scurrying down the halls. It’s energizing, and nowhere else in Santa Fe could be so pregnant with possibility.
On an obvious level, classrooms are a fount of cute stories. Yes, you’ll find those kinds of “kids say the darndest things” narratives that make adults laugh. I have my own favorite, which is the fifth grader who asked me to repeat my initial lesson.
“Hmm,” he asked. “You told us to imagine a picture, and put pieces of it in a poem?”
“Yes,” I answered.
“And you say if we’re honest, there will always be a part of ourselves in our poem?”
Later, when I projected one of my own poems in front of the class, he made a quizzical face and asked, “What part of you is in that poem?”
I couldn’t give him a direct answer. I can’t even give a direct answer to adults who ask me questions about where creativity comes from, but the child is already asking sophisticated questions.
I am ostensibly “teaching” poetry, but the process hinges on enticing the children into conversations. I tend to think of myself as fostering aesthetic experiences using texts directed at pupils so young they haven’t previously attached much meaning to concepts like aesthetics. For example, I once showed a group of school children a little ditty of a poem by e.e. cummings called “Seeker of Truth.”
“seeker of truth
follow no path
all paths lead where
truth is here”
Then I hit the children with the question: What are you a seeker of? Of truth? Of success? Of wealth? Or love? Where and how have you been seeking your goals? I ask them to find metaphors describing their search. The answers subsequently become the titles and the content of their own poems. OK—teachers have commented that I may risk going a bit far above the children’s heads. I accept the criticism. However, teachers, administrators and I agree on the rewards. The administrators and educators expect poetry lessons to reinforce traditional educational goals; the lessons increase vocabularies, train children to recognize nouns, verbs and adjectives, and write complete sentences. While I am happy to be a tool to enhance the children’s performance on tests, I tend to view myself less like a bringer of knowledge than a presenter of mirrors. My mission is to instill a lasting memory of a day in school during which they created something.
I present children with poems they have probably never seen before. The poems are like mirrors because the children see in them their own struggles, interests and their intrinsic potential reflected. If the poems let them glimpse a special, emotional and empathetic part of themselves, they usually loosen up.
The children often begin by asking me, “How do you write a poem?”
“I don’t know how to write a poem,” they sigh.
Adults often suffer the same fears and make the same protestations. My treat comes if they proceed to eventually write their own—if they craft mirrors based upon their own experiences.
For National Poetry Month, I’ll leave you with an observation that I’ve already implied: Teaching children isn’t necessarily different than teaching adults. The results may be paltry or passable, but they may also be brilliant. For practiced poets, or children, poetry depends a lot on sudden inspiration, spontaneity and catharsis, or an intense relationship with a subject. Poetry involves practice. It helps develop language skills. What remains strangely fascinating is that poetry doesn’t entail a physically demonstrable skill that can be easily tested.
Poetry is a reflection of consciousness.