Another teacher and I sponsor an after school club for middle school students who enjoy writing. They hammer out the occasional short story, but it’s mostly poetry that the kids produce. We sometimes read or recite famous poets. The youngsters applaud each other after a reading and critique each other’s work. They laugh a lot, tell stories, and share some intimate and intensely serious ideas. At the end of the year we publish their poetry in our annual anthology. They’ve somehow been fooled into thinking that poetry and re-writing and communicating clearly the deepest emotions and ideas is actually fun.
I asked a few why poetry was important.
An 8th grader: “Poetry lets kids break into a whole new level of deep thought, leading them to be more open-minded, thoughtful, creative and expressive. Kids conveying emotion can help then through life, hurt, pain and love without being literal.”
A 7th grader: “Sometimes I feel that if I didn’t have poetry I would explode with my thoughts and ideas.”
A 6th grader: “With expository writing I feel a little … choked … and the teacher has us all revise in the same cookie-cutter fashion. With poetry there is no pressure, no right or wrong way. This can bring out a lot of things that may not be shown otherwise because kids are scared they will fail. In poetry, they can’t.”
An 8th grader: “Poetry allows us to express our feelings without feeling too ‘different’ and, together, that made us one.”
As a child a favorite memory was to sit nearby and listen to my uncles and the parish priests as they played poker at family parties. Inevitably, someone would start to recite a poem. They declared the lines with emotion and passion and they never failed to entertain. They laughed or hailed each other. Than an uncle would begin another set of lines. I was astonished at the pure power of their memories. Some of the poems lasted minutes, and felt like days. How could anyone commit such perfect lines and own them like they owned their address or their phone number? It was manly and strong and respected and smart. They clapped each other on the back and I sensed that there was a fraternity forged through the shared spoken word. How many people today can do that? Who can call on the words of a poet to deliver just the right sentiment when our own words are simply inadequate?
Children need to know that the spoken word, in its most beautiful cadence and form is one of our greatest gifts. They need to know that a poem written a hundred and fifty years ago from a reclusive bedroom window in Amherst, Massachusetts can still speak to us today. They need to feel the joy of spring in an e.e.cummings spray of words. They need to realize that a Shakespeare sonnet may actually speak the words of love that they feel, but can’t quite find. They need to understand that poetry can open the ineffable and point them toward the senses and experiences that simply cannot truly be explained in common words. Even as youngsters, and as my student pointed out, they know that there are emotions that words fail. But poetry doesn’t. They need these and thousands of other poems because it frees them to be complete.
Teach math and reading and writing and social studies and science to our children.
And breathe poetry.
Read poetry by kids in this series.
—Photo credit: Editor B/Flickr