The News from Poems (Part 2)


Remember, we are on this theme from the last blog post of the power of poetry to lift our spirits when storm clouds rain on our school days.

Is all the testing getting you down? Try Gary Snyder’s “For the Children”. The opening stanza lays out the problem:


                   The rising hills, the slopes,

                    of statistics

                    lie before us.

                    the steep climb

                    of everything, going up,

                    up, as we all

                    go down.


At the end of the poem, Snyder delivers his advice:


                    stay together

                    learn the flowers

                    go light


Yeah, we’ll never make it alone. A veteran teacher at a struggling school of poverty showed up half sick to meet with her colleagues one day and said, “I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for my team.”

Sidebar: Snyder has an essay, “Language Goes Two Ways”, in which he argues for wildness of language as a self-organizing force of nature. Teachers weary of teaching the ever-shifting rules of grammar as if they were fossils would enjoy this essay. “Languages were not the intellectual inventions of archaic schoolteachers, but are naturally evolved wild systems whose complexity eludes the descriptive attempts of the rational mind.” My response: Poetry has the power to embody the mysterious relationship between the wildness of our thoughts and the discipline that makes art.

Step back in those moments of confusion and darkness, too. Read Nazim Hikmet’s poem “Things I didn’t know I loved”. Here are redemptive lines written with memories of prison in mind:


                    it’s 1962 March 28th

                    I’m sitting by the window on the Prague-Berlin train

                    night is falling

                    I never knew I liked

                     night descending like a tired bird on a smoky wet plain…


Hikmet goes on to list some of the other things he forgot that he loved:


                    I didn’t know I loved the earth


                     and here I’ve loved rivers all this time

                     whether motionless like this the curl skirting the hills…


                     I didn’t know I loved flowers

                    friends sent me three red carnations in prison…


                    I just remembered the stars

                    I love them too…


So, yeah, try making a list of those things you love, right around you in the classroom, like Hikmet did on his train. Maybe the magic markers or the little grooves in the desk tops or the wadded up paper in the waste-basket, those white carnations enshrouding ideas never to be read again.

Since we’re on the subject of paper wads: How many times have I unfolded one of those wads to show a student they were trying to be perfect and nothing is perfect, especially the first draft of a piece of writing? In her writing manual Bird by Bird Anne LaMott has a section called “Perfectionism”. “Perfectionism is the enemy of [bleepy] first drafts,” she says, those unruly drafts being, in fact, desirable. Let those wild thoughts spring forth before channeling them into elegant forms!

And so we have stirred up a major learning demon: perfectionism. How much misery has that disease caused? At every level of the system. Leaders who demand the impossible. Teachers who lose sleep pursuing the illusion of the seamless lesson plan. Students who freeze in examination headlights. Mary Oliver, where are you? In her poem “The Ponds” Oliver admires the seeming perfection of lilies before she bends a little closer and sees…


                    How this one is clearly lopsided –

                    and that one wears an orange blight –


and she goes on until she decides to “cast aside the weight of facts” and to believe…


                    …that the imperfections are nothing –

                    that the light is everything—that it is more than the sum

                    of each flawed blossom rising and fading. And I do.


She pulled it off! And so can we! Now we are free! As free as Rita Dove in her poem “Geometry”:


                    I prove a theorem and the house expands:

                    the windows jerk free to hover near the ceiling,

                    the ceiling floats away with a sigh.


I think there is more to be discovered on this theme of the redemptive power of poetry. We’ll see. Maybe my windmap will lead me to it.


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