18 May 2012

All the Great Poets of Our Time

I loved poetry after e.e. cummings. In tenth grade English class, we read that "Buffalo Bill's defunct" and about thanking God for "most this amazing day," and the words tangled around me in ways I'd never quite experienced before. Even though we were stuck composing only haikus and lame fill-in-the-blank poems by twelfth grade, it so happens that a college literary magazine stuffed with poetry was all it took to convince me to pour my savings into four years as an English major.

There was a frozen yogurt machine in the college cafeteria, and I think I gained my freshman fifteen in a lone semester thanks to that machine and its caress of my sweet tooth. I ate almost as many poems as I ate junk food during those years; I woke up with fairies whispering words in my ears; I scribbled them down in the midst of lectures. I never knew that poetry was everywhere or that it was so tasty, so all-consuming. I guess I hadn't even realized that people still wrote it, thinking maybe the market had already been cornered and killed off by the likes of Englishmen a few centuries before.

This chapter in my teacher's manual lit book is titled "Words of Prose and Poetry," and it gives me a birthday-party-type euphoria. Meanwhile, I know that my kids see "poetry" and think about how they'd rather kiss one of those callus-sucking fish that give foot massages at Plenilunio. (Foot-sucker fish: I'm serious. This exists.)

When I introduced the 9th graders to poetry last month, I spent hours after school looking up my old favorites, printing out beautiful supplemental poetry, the kind that grabs you by the neck and shakes you all the way down to the metatarsals, certain that I could find something that would affect my most "special" class.

My four classes don't get equal mention on the blog. It's partly logistical: the personality mix of the 7th and 8th graders provides more story fodder than my one-person 6th grade (which only recently graduated to a duo). And the mostly fantastic 9th graders sometimes get overshadowed by a few divas with attitudes that reek like salmon in the sun. It's harder to affirm wit and whimsy in such a large class without the whole thing degenerating into Lord of the Flies. (Ironically, they are the same class to argue that Lord of the Flies is completely implausible, but I know who'd be sharpening the first spear.)

Anyway, one of the 9th graders wrote a poem about not liking poetry. (Kids always think you'll get upset about this. Seriously? You not only wrote a poem, you did it with passion. Gotcha, kid! That's an old teacher trick I learned in 'Nam.) Two of the guys, enthralled by the rhythm of blank verse, paralleled it with the sound of a heart monitor. But even in a class brimming with writers, one summarized the class feelings best when she wrote into her final poem that she couldn't wait to be done with this, that she was "so over poetry." I refrained from telling them a few things I was so over.

Instead, I deflated and braced myself for the opposition from the middle schoolers that inevitably lay ahead.

And you know, there was some. Because "poetry" is, to a seventh grader, something cryptic from ten thousand years ago that rhymes. This time, I was too tired for all the print-outs and the flashy add-ons, and so we stuck to the book, which started the chapter with an Emily Dickinson poem, which seemed unfortunate because Emily Dickinson is one of my least favorite writers on the planet. But--they got it.

And they even kinda liked it.

And when I assigned them to write poems of their own, there was magic. I got this beautiful personification poem comparing horses to preachers, ending with the lines
the sermon is
good and
the whole group
is moved to
the next pasture.

What?! Totally brilliant! Then, as an echo of Langston Hughes' "Harlem Night Song," I got "Meco Night Song," which bids the reader to "let us escape / from all these nosy eyes" while the "moon shines bright with a smile." I even received one that interrupts its cliche rosebud metaphor to cry "This poem sucks! / I want to burn it up / to watch it sizzle in despair / of ever reaching smoke-free air." (He was so passionate about the suckiness of his poem that he memorized it, recited it for the class, and--I found out later--also spent the previous night reciting it to his family.) Yeah, it's no Shakespeare, but sometimes even Shakespeare is no Shakespeare.

I have heard them standing outside the lockers after school, saying, "Have you read mine? It's pretty bad!" or "Wanna read mine? She thought it was good." One asked if he could get extra credit by singing his poem. One composed an ode to his XBox; another, to the way her family was before her mom's cancer diagnosis.

I know there are a few who are just penning poems as fast as they can, shoving them into the homework tray and, later, the trash can. And that's normal. But my seventh graders, the kiddos who have struggled most overall with writing this year, are busting out all kinds of heart-prodding, thoughtful stuff. They're figuring out that poetry is perfect when you don't have enough to say about something--or when you have too much. They're not certain exactly how to formulate an essay or a research paper, but this they understand: the words that fit around their emotions, the grammatical rules that slide over to make room for meaning, language stacked together in a way that fits their ideas better than a 3-point paragraph or a book report or a responses paper ever could.

They might not become the next great poets of the age. But they are becoming poets. Perhaps that's enough.

But who am I to underestimate? The girl who wouldn't look at me in October, the one who panicked when I asked her to read aloud, who blushes and hides when people look at her, is leaping into the door each morning, asking if she can read her poem aloud. At the front of the class. In front of everyone.

She keeps telling me, "Next year, Niki will be back. Niki is the writer of our class. Niki will write pages and pages and pages for you."

I have started saying back, "Look at you. Look at the stuff you're doing. You are the writer!"

Look at them, my seventh graders. They do not capitalize, they put commas wherever they want, they struggle with sentences that go in the right order, but they are awake and learning to feel and to describe, to match words with the deepest parts of being human. They are writers.


Carra said...

During my short stint as a secondary English ed major, I did a placement in a seventh grade English class where I got to teach poetry. I was blown away by the creativity and passion that seemed to come from nowhere. You said it so well:
"...but this they understand: the words that fit around their emotions, the grammatical rules that slide over to make room for meaning, language stacked together in a way that fits their ideas better than a 3-point paragraph or a book report or a responses paper ever could."

I love this post; it's so fun to see new generations falling in love with words. :)

sharbear said...

Thanks, Carra! It has been so fun--and it gives me hope for humanity. :)