A very real problem for a writer can be finding oneself caught under a suffocating influence of colleagues, critics, tiresome attitudes, overused images. My recent experience as guest poet to two sixth-grade classes at the Frank Porter Graham School proved to be a successful and enjoyable learning experience for the students as well as a fresh poetic breath for me.
My primary goal was a simple one: for the students to have fun. I wanted them to remember this experience with poetry as one of enjoyment. In my program I used Martin Steingesser’s format for writing a collaborative class poem, a technique he had learned from watching David Rosenberg’s “Poetry in the Schools” program. (American Poetry Review: March/April, 1976. “Poetry in the Schools.”) Like Steingesser, I stressed the correlation between self-expression and the use of rules. In poetry (or on the basketball court or on the highway), rules (form) help to shape expression (meaning). Emotion can be logically rendered through certain arrangements of words. Then I again emphasized self-expression, attempting to break through some of the self-censorship children learn; to encourage the free flow of ideas. I used Steingesser’s following three questions as openers to the collaborative poem project:
“Do you like being silly?”
Predictably the children answered, “Yes!” to this question.
“Do silly things make sense?”
“Are silly things good?”
There was some hesitation as to what the “correct” answer should be to the last two questions. In what way was being silly good? Hadn’t their teacher told them to settle down and be on their best behavior? Was I really giving them the go-ahead to be silly (to speak out; that anything they said was good, even if it meant saying something silly)?
I supported the “silliness is good” approach by reading from Kenneth Patchen’s book of poetry and pictures, Because It Is. “Because A Cow Chewed Off the Trainwheels” ends:
“And the improbably wonderful hippopotamus Went on smiling into its plate of cheese.”
Patchen gives us exciting musical use of the language and “improbably wonderful” characters. Though the students could not explain why his “silliness” delighted them, they approved anyway.
Then a more conventional poetic form, “First Fig” by Edna St. Vincent Millay:
“My candle burns at both ends; It will not last the night; But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends — It gives a lovely light!”
“Have you ever seen a candle burning at both ends?” I asked.
“No,” a few answered.
“Tell me, was the poet only talking about a candle?” I asked.
One boy answered, “It would be hard to put a candle that was burning at both ends down on the table, so she must be talking about something else.”
Okay! We discussed the use of metaphor in poetry.
I read another funny poem about a hippopotamus written by a sixth-grader and published in “An Anthology of Student Poems” (APR: September/October, 1975) and then one of my poems about my dog that dreams of chasing a cat, and “gulp/it melted in his mouth like a mars candy bar/and he burped a single meow.” The idea here is that poets, as individuals, write about their own everyday experiences. Again, words can take on a broader or a different meaning but we can enjoy poems just for the way they make us feel.
Nikki Giovanni in the title poem of her book, My House, uses understatement to pour through her poem great feelings of her need to love and her need for being loved;
“english isn’t a good language to express emotion through mostly i imagine because people try to speak english instead of trying to speak through it i don’t know maybe it is a silly poem”
The class seemed to like all of these poems and were often making comments without raising their hands. (There were a few words I censored throughout the readings, hoping that any disturbance to the impact of the poems would be minimal. I censored mostly because of my own lack of confidence in handling a situation should a student pursue a word not condoned by the school system.)
For the writing of the class poem the students chose one from ten of their suggestions of objects “to become.” They were simply “to be,” in every way they could think of, this object. They were not to worry about spelling, grammar, or the placement of words in a line. We would let the poem unfold on its own accord. On the blackboard I wrote “If I were . . .” and fresh ideas began to explode, rough ideas were refined. The poem moved with little prodding and much laughter. Some students still clung to the routine of raising hands, but most of them were yelling out, excited and uninhibited. When ideas began to be repeated I asked for a winding-up. The capitalization, a few word arrangements and line breaks are mine. The following poem is, however, the creation of the students:
The Life And Times Of A Bumpersticker If I were a bumpersticker I’d have claustrophobia from a tailgater Poison from a car untuned Be insulted on an Edsel I’d say “Go Heels!” Would not advertise elections or have a raincoat My smog-burn would be so bad I’d peel Feel sticky, need a car wash I’d only stick to high performers like a new Rolls Royce Then the engine would rev up And I’d be gone gone gone By the Sixth Graders of Frank Porter Graham Elementary School
This was an exercise of the imagination; a release of tension. The students created a free verse poem effectively learning from their own experience poetic tools such as internal rhyme, alliteration and line breaks. Imagery is substantial and consistent throughout the poem. It is alive. It is fun.
I congratulate these young poets, who offered me the vitality of this experience, on their energy and spontaneity. Thanks for being silly and free enough to create poetry.