Art Works Blog

Ten Things I've Learned from Poetry

As a young faculty member in the English department of Wichita State University, I worked occasionally as a poet-in-the-schools for the Kansas Arts Commission. For this program (funded in part by the NEA, I am proud to say), I traveled to small communities and met with teachers, administrators, students, and community groups to share poetry and promote its ongoing teaching as a valued part of the curriculum. Like many creative writing teachers, I was influenced by Kenneth Koch’s ground-breaking book, Wishes, Lies and Dreams, and so I was profoundly affected, in one little town, to recognize that what my students presented as their dreams were, in fact, the cartoons I had seen the previous Sunday morning in my motel room. I changed my methods, began to incorporate a lot of imaginative exercises demanding interplay between images and language, and have never stopped thinking about how our American life will be diminished if we don’t succeed in keeping every child’s full range of senses open, fresh, capable of observing and criticizing the enveloping world, and of developing its individual identity. This is why I was pleased to see state arts agencies share the vision of the NEA and the Poetry Foundation to create the Poetry Out Loud: National Recitation Contest and why I am not surprised to have seen participation grow rapidly to more than 365,000 students annually.

In Performing Poetry: An Audio Guide (produced by the NEA and the Poetry Foundation) former NEA Chairman Dana Gioia makes a statement that might startle educators who have not themselves studied and taught poetry: “Poetry, and especially the recitation of poetry, might be one of the most practical and important things you learn in school.” Drawing upon some of the ideas he goes on to present and adding some of my own, here are some of the practical lessons I’ve derived from reading, reciting, and writing poems--with some illustrative recommendations.

1. How to express powerful images in words, capturing the compelling detail that communicates the large idea, learning to recognize and verbalize a symbolic incident. Check out Robert Frost’s little gem, “Design.” 

2. How to speak well and clearly, how the voice is a tool to communicate what is intended and important; that tone, inflection, rhythm, and rhyme have impact and convey meaning. Young ears, especially, like Edgar Allan Poe’s moody rhyme and repetitive consonants. Is there a more soulful object than his “marvelous shrine/whose wreathed friezes intertwine/ the viol, the violet, and the vine?” Emily Dickinson opens eyes and ears to the subtlety of half-rhymes, ending lines with “abroad” and “head,” and with “crumb” and “home.” Isn’t Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem, “The Windhover,” depicting the “dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon” that is “rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing” the most beautiful and one of the most meaningful in the English language?   

3. Understanding that words have both literal and emotional dimensions, denotations, and implications; getting a sense of when adding, limiting, or removing words would result in the desired effect. See Ezra Pound’s adaptation of Li Po’s “The River-Merchant’s Wife for the restrained passion of understatement. Or the chill of the duke’s terse summary in the midst of a flood of narcissistic dialogue while showing a portrait in Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess”:  “This grew, I gave commands;/Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands/As if alive.”

4. Learning how words create humor.  I like almost anything by Lewis Carroll (how about “You are Old, Father William"?). Ogden Nash’s poems are full of fun--and good advice: “if called by a panther,/ Don’t anther.” Generations have been entertained by the lyrics of W. S. Gilbert lampooning the upper class.  

5. Experiencing the emotional as well as historical meaning of events. So many powerful examples here: Langston Hughes “Harlem,”  where he asks, “Does it dry up/Like a raisin in the sun …. Or does it explode?” W. B. Yeats’ “Easter, 1916,” during which bloody Irish season “a terrible beauty is born.” Or the best known poem of the First World War, Wilfred Owen’s searing soldier’s narrative, “Dulce et Decorum Est.” 

6. Understanding how perception works and is influenced by artifacts and their placement. Great examples include Wallace Stevens’ “Anecdote of the Jar,” where he “placed a jar in Tennessee” and W. H. Auden’s “Musee des Beaux Arts,” where tragedy and torture are hardly noticed. The ultimate “imagist” poem is William Carlos Williams’ “So much dependsand there is a wonderful video of master teacher Eric Booth concisely presenting multiple approaches to considering what it means and how to teach it.

7. Engaging the human condition. All art is an attempt to create meaning in face of the fact that we all die. Through poetry, one can explore multiple approaches to and feelings about meaning in that context. Dylan Thomas preaches defiance in “Do not go gentle into that good night,” John Donne rings triumphant in “Death be not Proud,” Shakespeare offers immortality through poetry in Sonnet 18, and John Milton invites you along as he takes on a most ambitious task in the opening lines of Paradise Lost: to “assert eternal providence,/And justify the ways of God to men.”

8. Learning more ways to communicate love. Can we ever learn enough? Edna St. Vincent Millay’s sonnets are sensual, imperious and helpless all at once. Adrienne Rich’s Twenty-One Love Poems broaden anyone’s vocabulary. No one has ever expressed better how adorable are the foibles of one’s beloved than John Frederick Nims in his “Love Poem” that begins “My clumsiest dear....” A.B. Spellman’s tender “The Truth about Karen” in his excellent collection, Things I Must Have Known, puts deftly in words an emotion many readers will recognize.   

9. Exploring one’s own values and voice.  Adrienne Rich’s “Diving into the Wreckexplains as well as anything what poetry’s universal purpose is and how it works:

I came to explore the wreck.
The words are purposes.
The words are maps.
I came to see the damage that was done
and the treasures that prevail….

10. Mastering persona, the practice of empathy. This is the dramatic dimension of reading and performing the words of another or the words one has written for another to say. From this experience comes respect and concern for the intense mystery of any individual’s life. It is no wonder research shows that literary participation correlates with responsible civic behaviors--volunteering, charitable giving, voting. Most of us read Edwin Arlington Robinson’s “Richard Cory” and “Miniver Cheevy” in grade school; try his “Eros Turannos”--it’s up there with anything on LMN cable. Poets teach us to acknowledge contrary desires in others and in ourselves (see W. C. Williams’ “Danse Russe”) and to acknowledge the desires we share across divides of geography and tradition (see Naomi Shihab Nye’s “Two Countries” and “Sewing, Knitting, Crocheting”). 

Poetry is more accessible now than ever and there are numerous excellently edited daily poem sites. I’m fortunate that my community, Takoma Park, Maryland, has a rich poetic life. We have a city poet laureate, the District of Columbia has an excellent and active poet laureate, and so does the state of Maryland. Our city arts commission schedules Third Thursday readings every month by several local poets in our civic center auditorium. In October, I’ll be one of them.

Want to explore more poetry? Visit the Poetry Out Loud website where you can find poems, poets, and recitations by students who have participated in the program. 






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