Ink runs from the corners of my mouth.
There is no happiness like mine.
I have been eating poetry.
Mark Strand’s character ate poems. I like that metaphor, as do most folks who read this poem. My relationship to poems is a bit different but also bears a stamp of physicality. I breathe poems, in and out. They keep me alive to the world around me and beyond. Alive to other people, to the deepest sounds in the heart that connect us one to another.
As teachers we can’t predict what poem, if any, a student might connect with in the way that Emily Dickinson described: “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” A poem can do that. But I find that more poems come in on “little cat feet,” like Carl Sandburg’s “Fog.” The important thing, to my mind, is to build up a friendship with poems.
Once we find pleasure in some poems, something that moves from the outside in, then we can stay awhile. Perhaps we read widely and wildly, giving ourselves up to the many voices and shapes and messages, until something resonates and we trust it to stay. Or we might find a poet or two to hold close, and drink deeply of the magic of their images, their music, their mystery. Whatever way we enter the world of poems, the journey is a cumulative process, a building.
In Sidney Cox’s A Swinger of Birches: A Portrait of Robert Frost, the beloved poet describes the beliefs that guided him in teaching young people. “Poetry is . . . the purest kind of reading. And what you do, in reading more and more rich and inclusive poetry, is not advancing: it is spreading; it is circulating. You circulate through literature. You spread from a limited range of reference to a wider and wider range. You start, say, with a jingle from Mother Goose. It helps you, later, to read poem number two. Poem number two helps you to read poem number three. Poem number three helps you to read poem number four. And poem number four helps you to read poem number five. Then number five helps you to read number two. You read this time with much fuller identification and delight. And so you go, spreading, keeping up a circulation. But it must be, must always be, pleasure.”
National Poetry Month is coming up in April. I think of this month as a kind of Thanksgiving. We come together with our poetry relatives across the country to remember and celebrate what we hold dear. For those who are fortunate enough to have the habit of poems in their lives all year-round, it’s a time to reach out, to join a wider circle in a river of words, to strengthen the bonds of poetic friendship. For others, it may be a time of awareness, the first stirrings of what a poem can be, what it can do—the time when a spark is ignited. What grows out of this focus on poems during one month will depend, in part, on opportunities students have to choose poems to explore and talk about with others; to revisit poems they love; to give voice by reading aloud individually and in performance with others; to read and hear poems by different authors; to collect poems they connect with for various reasons. And the best of all scenarios, to write their own poems in the wake of those poems that have moved them.
With the above thoughts in mind, here are a few resources I’ve found helpful for creating a world of poetry in the classroom all year long. And for National Poetry Month.
Co-sponsored by Boston College and the Library of Congress, this project is dedicated to celebrating, documenting, and encouraging poetry’s role in Americans’ lives. Watch and listen to a wide variety of citizens read poems they love, poems that have affected their lives, that guide them and give them strength and courage. Their personal stories around these poems inspire and show how poems can actually save lives. An example: Yesterday, I watched a video of Pov Chin, a student in California, telling about her parents’ terrifying escape from Pol Pot’s Cambodia in the 1970s. After a grueling journey, they made it to America, where they believed their children would have a chance at life. Pov has found Langston Hughes’s poem “Minstrel Man.” Finally, she found someone who understood what she felt inside while “wearing the mask” each day. She reads it aloud.
This site is produced by the Academy of American Poets. Since 1996, it has been the original online resource for poems, poets’ biographies, essays about poetry, and resources for K-12 teachers. It’s a one-stop shop for NPM. You’ll find pages for educators, links to events, information about Poem in Your Pocket Day (April 30), and videos of classic poets reading their poems. The “Dear Poet” Project invites students in grades 5-12 to write letters in response to poems written and read by award-winning poets. And you can sign up for “Poem-a-Day,” a gift delivered to your in-box.
This project connects young people to their local environment and their imaginations through poetry and art. There are samples of projects and poem contests. This is the best example of poems arising from deeply felt experience.
A site for teacher resources, readings of poems, interaction with poets, poetry archives, NPM posters, webcasts, lessons, books, anthologies, and prompts from well-known poets to inspire.
Developed by the Poetry Foundation (poetryfoundation.org), multimedia educational resources include annotations, reading guides, audio and video recordings, discussion questions, writing ideas, teaching tips, and podcasts. Students experiment with different ways of reading poems—as text, sound, and visual artifacts. The site includes articles about poets and poetry, bibliographies, a thorough glossary of literary terms, and a large selection of essays on poetics.
This program encourages students to learn about great poetry through memorization and recitation. Created by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Poetry Foundation, it helps students learn public speaking skills, build self-confidence, and learn about literary history and contemporary life. Since 2005, Poetry Out Loud has grown to reach more than three million students and 50,000 teachers from 10,000 schools in every state, Washington, DC, the US Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico.
• Poem Central: Word Journeys with Readers and Writers (Grades 5-12) Shirley McPhillips
This book is divided into three main parts: “Coming into a World of Poetry”; “Reading a Poem: An Immense Intimacy”; and “Finding Poems, Making Poems.” Each section has a specific focus, provides background knowledge, and shows poets at work. Each highlights information on crafting, defines poetic terms, features finished work, includes classroom examples, and lists additional resources.
In The Life of Poetry, poet Muriel Rukeyser writes, “Facing and communicating, that will be our life, in the world and in poetry . . . all we can show to people is themselves; show them what passion they possess, and we will all have come to the poetry.” Poems help us find that meeting place where false barriers go down. That is the gift of art. I can’t think of a better gift to have, and to give away.