Friday, March 4, 2016

Proving it

            I had a terrific opportunity to embarrass my fourth-grader this week.
            My son Ernie’s teacher invited me in to her class to talk to students about poetry. She wanted the kids to meet a practicing poet, and she was open-ended about what I should cover.
            I knew that this teacher was covering a lot of very valuable information about poetic devices, such as rhyme and alliteration, and I also knew that she was was facing the usual problem of kids thinking that poetry can be defined merely as rhyming lines. That’s why I opted to focus on poetic thinking, rather than stylish writing during my half-hour of fame.
            A favorite exercise of mine, and one that even turns up in a poem, is to try to punch my way out of the paper bag of metaphor. (See what I did there?) I collect some good, juicy nouns—unexpected ones—and then I try to explain, one by one, why XXX is (like) that. Paperclip? Birdhouse? Coast of France? Love is like all of these things, and I can prove it.
            Proving it—that may be the best definition I can offer for poetry, or at least the sort of poetry I like to read and write. I don’t like to generalize, but this statement feels generally or frequently true: Every poem is its own little argument.
            I had stuffed my pockets with a few items to show to the class—maracas, children’s alphabet blocks, lipstick, car keys, a Minecraft zombie toy. Mostly the students were impressed with the size of my pockets. (They were kind of big pants—ergo, big pockets. I take praise where I can find it, though!) I asked the students to think of someone they loved (they chose their teacher, Ms. Kelley, who is, objectively speaking, very lovable), and they had to think how their feelings for that person were like each of the items in turn.
            This exercise is much juicier with older kids and adults—people who know exactly why love is a zombie, or a set of maracas. But any person from school-age on up can make these little arguments, and thus they have what it takes to be a poet. They can throw in a little rhyme if they feel so inclined.
            A half-hour is not a long time for a poetry lesson, but we closed it out with a group poem that included everyone in the room—including me and the teacher and a student teacher. (With poetry, it just feels good to be all in. No one likes to put herself on the line, only to find that others in the room are avoiding the chance of embarrassment.)
            I had the students fill out a modified questionnaire that a poet friend, the most excellent Molly Spencer, had provided. It asked them, “If you were a ___, what kind of ___ would you be?” They had to declare themselves to be specific vehicles, or buildings, or animals, or things from their desk. After they’d come up with a good list, I asked them to choose the weirdest and most interesting one, since poetry is about being different—“making it new.” They each wrote a sentence—neatly, I implored them—explaining why they were that thing.
            At the end, I collected all of the papers and read the poem to the class. We titled it “I Am,” and it included my line: “I am a cockroach. You think you squashed me, but there I come, right on out from under your sole.” I don’t want to betray the sanctity of the poetry class by offering other lines, but at the end, we had about twenty-five attributes, explaining why we were baklava, or Costa Rica, or crusty bread, or a Lamborghini, or the Burj Khalifa (the tallest building in the world), or a lot of other cool things.

            I hope I was helpful in encouraging the kids to think like poets. Ernie informed me that I wasn’t that embarrassing after all, so I count the activity as a success. I left the class with my pockets bulging with the same random stuff, plus a whole lot of hope for the poets of tomorrow.


  1. "Every poem is its own little argument." So great. Loved this post. I'd love to have been a fly on the wall at the kids' family dinner tables that evening!

  2. That's a lovely thought! If even one kiddo busted out a metaphor, my life has meaning. :)

  3. I love this! And I have long admired the size of your pockets. And your poet's heart.