The wind whispers though the branches of my magnolia trees. It taunts me to overcome the writer’s block that’s uncharacteristically imposed itself on my evening. For the first time in fifty-eight weeks, I’ve backspaced over five false starts. Yet still, I am determined to uncover some novel insight before the clock strikes ten.
Knee deep in our poetry unit at school, it’s surprising to me that I’m so uninspired. There’s nothing more pleasing to an English teacher’s heart than studying two dozen teenagers while they’re lost in heavy books of poetry searching for four perfect poems to include in their own projects. This far into the school year, I know my kids; I know whether to put a book in their hands that’s filled with modern poetry or classic, poetry about war or love or music. I get excited when one discovers a poem he didn’t know existed before, but he connects with it and asks me to make a photocopy.
There’s a little of the mundane in everything. I must have copied a hundred poems over the last week as I steered my unwitting protégés into a positive experience with poetry. It’s not until they thumb through the pages of a poetry collection that even the toughest critics of the unit stumble across a poem that makes them rethink their dislike of poetry.
In a documentary that I filmed at my old school, my former principal said that reading poetry outside under a tree on a spring day was about as good as it gets. Maybe that explains my hindered train of thought. Tonight, typing on my porch in a light nightgown (in sharp contrast to hoodies and blankets of recent months gone by), I’m tempted to simply sit and read, to let the crickets accompany me on a journey into a newly checked out collection of sonnets from our school library.
Why should poetic discovery be limited to my teen audience? I am not a saleswoman in any other arena. But my classroom is an advertising playground. I’m selling them poetry. I’m reeling them in with the strategic combination of relevance and surprises to pique their curiosity. I’m setting that curiosity free in sea of poetic potential, titles and authors that many would have otherwise foregone in their life spans. I’m taking their budding knowledge and setting the stage for the next Act where they’ll contribute to the world’s narrative with their own original poetry.
For this project, each student creates a book that includes poems by other others, analyses, and original poetry. The book opens with his or her definition of poetry. I introduce the project with my own definition: Poetry is an utterly indefinable, immeasurably infinite, and inexplicably unique form of writing in which ultimate freedom resides. Writers communicate and often expel feelings and perceptions into combinations of words that solidify and express meaning. It is nothing and everything, meaning it has no boundaries, owes no apologies, and necessitates no prefaces, and yet carries all value, meaning, worth, and possibilities.
In marketing to them, I somehow always seem to sell myself again on the often underrated craft. With the structured organization and syntactical, grammatical persuasive essay end of course test behind us, I sense that this month is the ideal time to campaign for poetry. We’ve belabored the rules of writing to the point where the freedom of poetic expression practically sells itself.
While visiting the book fair during my last class today, I had an opportunity to catch up with one of my young bloggers. Since teachers don’t play favorites, I’ll just say that she lights up my classroom every time she enters. She has a servant heart, constantly making thoughtful gestures and serving her friends and even me. If I had to put her in a fairy tale, she’d be Snow White, taking care of the dwarfs and making their lives better simply by being there.
I confessed to her that I wasn’t feeling inspired and worried I might not come up with anything to say. Snow replied, “I can tell you what’s been going on in my life, but it might not be inspiring.” She went on to describe the flurry of activities preparing for prom on Friday night… the dress, the nails, the make-up. As she reeled me into the dangerous comfort of teen’s responsibilities, I could only conjure up the unoriginal sentiment of envy.
Then Snow halted my adult-responsibility-neverending-to-do-list inspired jealousy by confiding in me about a terrible, heart-breaking situation affecting one of her friends. I was reminded not that the grass isn’t greener on the other side, but that the experiences that make us discover who we really are aren’t limited by age or role in the school building.
Back in the classroom after the book fair, noses stuck in e.e. cumming’s “since feeling is first” (I mean, come on, what sixteen-year-old isn’t going to like a poet who spells his name lowercase), mind still wandering back to my conversation with Snow White, I discovered inspiration in a poem I’ve taught for a decade.
since feeling is first
who pays any attention
to the syntax of things
will never wholly kiss you;
wholly to be a fool
while Spring is in the world
my blood approves,
and kisses are better fate
lady i swear by all flowers. Don’t cry
—the best gesture of my brain is less than
your eyelids’ flutter which says
we are for each other: then
laugh, leaning back in my arms
for life’s not a paragraph
And death i think is no parenthesis
While coaxing explanations of the extended metaphors out of my kids, Cummings moved me. Syntax. It’s that systematic orderly arrangement of words and phrases. I think he’s suggesting that feelings are more significant than structure and rules, that love is better than knowledge. If life is not a paragraph, it is not organized and structured. If death is not a parenthesis, then it is a part of our experience.
It’s the right time to do this poetry unit while spring is in the world and natural inspiration abounds. I’ve been drilling order and structure and knowledge into their eager brains for seven months. But writing, like life, is about more than rules and reasoning. While the art of persuasion is necessary, the ability to express emotions, thoughts, and desires is equally as critical in their development.
As we analyzed Cumming’s poem together, I watched Snow White buy what I was selling her. She’s told me that she isn’t any good at writing poetry; I believe she’s going to surprise herself during this unit. It’s in conversations like ours between the learning that my kids let me know what’s going on in their lives. Snow’s empathy will find itself a cunning blank slate when her expression of feeling is no longer restricted by rules or structure.
Order dominates life, yes. I keep waiting for shoots of green to pop up in my garden beds, but as I watered this afternoon, there was no sign of new life. Then as I pulled into my driveway to settle in for writing night, I thought I saw a flash of red. In the dim twilight, I got on my knees and searched. Sure enough, mostly hidden by leafy boughs, my first rose of the year smiled up at me.
I didn’t have the emotional room to register the pricks on my fingers in the process. The blossom was perfect, illuminated only by a tiny solar lantern in the garden. This is the feeling I hope my students get when they flip through a hundred pages and finally discover that one colorful poem that speaks to them.
It’s not unlike navigating through my own writer’s block tonight. I tell my students to persevere, that it might take them a while to find just the right poem. An hour and a half ago, I didn’t want to write, didn’t want to face the abundance of thoughts and words and sift through them until I discovered something of value.
When I sat down tonight, the wind whispered. And because of our current studies, I thought about how I had just personified the wind, that using my words, I had given the wind the power to tempt me to write. And having personified it so convincingly, I rose to its challenge. I abandoned syntax and started writing from feeling.
That feeling was prompted by Snow White; though she believes herself to be uninspiring, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Her empathy and compassion for me as she reversed roles and encouraged me in my writing and for her friend as she painfully recounted recent events in our conversation. Like me, she needs an outlet that honors free expression of thoughts and feelings.
Poetry has no boundaries, owes no apologies, necessitates no prefaces, yet carries all value, meaning, worth, and possibilities. It’s where we discover the first roses of the year.