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Can you teach poetry?

An elf of a girl is clutching both edges of her writing paper, getting ready to read her sentence to the rest of Mrs. Hall’s grade two class. In a tiny voice she reads:

Blue is mountains

quiet in the air.

My heart gives a skip. Grade Two, and listen to that lovely little line of poetry.

She doesn’t even know she’s written a poem. She was just asked to write a sentence that begins “Blue is,” and to make sure it had a sound and a place in it. I have to unpack it for the class so the kids notice the pattern of long vowels – oo, ow, I, ay – that runs through it, along with the small repeated tick of ‘t.’  I ask them to think of the picture these sounds create.

I don’t know how often I’ve heard people say, “Oh, you can’t teach someone to write poetry. It’s a gift.”  As though your fairy godmother gave you a thwack on the head with her pointy wand and left you seeing stars for the duration.

I beg to differ. I can teach people to write poetry – mainly because the heavy lifting has been done already. It happened back when you were in your high chair, banging a spoon, shouting “Buh! Buh! Buh” and getting feedback from your mom. “That’s RIGHT, Brady. Bay-be. Say Bay-be.”  And you learned to tune in the amazingly precise sounds and rhythms that belong to your own language.

I just do that kind of thing again so students recognize (re-cognize, know again) something their brains already know well. “Let’s say that line all together. BLUE is MOUNtains…. Isn’t ‘blue’ a wonderful word? Buh. LLL. OOO.”

The other big part of poetry is how it makes meaningful connections. But once again, that’s something the brain does all the time. I don’t have to teach kids how to do it – just to notice the connections they do make.

It’s true we tend to make the same easy links. When I ask kids to write a sentence that starts “Black is…,” I get a lot of haunted houses and hooting owls. But in just about every class, there’s something I haven’t heard before. In Mrs. McFayden’s grade four class, there was another skip in my heart, from

Black follows us like coffee,

how you carry it around

wherever you go.

 

Isn’t that an interesting connection between a colour we think of as somber or scary, and a routine habit we cling to?

There is one aspect of poetry I can’t ‘teach,’ of course. We go on doing things that we like to do, whether it’s soccer or sonnets. Most of us will try most things once or twice. A few will be willing to do something over and over until they can consistently make new patterns from the same basics.

I can’t whack anyone with my wand and make them want to spend their lives creating new poems. All I can do is try to make enough fun to try again. Honestly, it’s not nearly as hard as fractions.

 

Originally published in Avenue magazine, August ‘07

The exercise described in this column is thanks to Kenneth Koch, whose book “Wishes, Lies and Dreams” remains one of the most insightful tools for anyone who wants to teach poetry.

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