Vocabulary Lesson II

A teacher in my school, hearing about my latest efforts to increase our students’ vocabularies, shared with me how she is trying to crack down on swearing in her classroom. She told her students they can’t use the word B**ch anymore.

 “That’s great,” I told her.

 “Except now they’re all just calling each other female dogs,” she replied.

 Well, you know what they say, one step forward …


Vocabulary Lesson

As I was introducing a poetry lesson this week, S. was calling across the aisle to C., who was removing the foil from the shish kabob she’d bought (but not eaten) during her lunch break. Another student was working on an assignment for her next class, and still others were passing notes and whispering loudly.

“Ladies, could you please conduct yourselves with a bit more decorum!” I shouted above the din.

This caught S.’s attention. “Why you always have to use such fancy words? It gives me a headache.”

“Good question,” I said. “Why do I use such fancy words?” I wrote the word decorum on the board. “But first,” I asked, “what does it mean?”

“How should we know?” R. muttered.

“Because even though you may never have seen this word before, you know what I was asking you to do just now. What does decorum mean?”

“Acting respectful,” S. offered.

“And being polite,” C. added.

“Good behavior,” someone else added.

“See, you know what the word means.” I said. “Don’t worry if a word looks unfamiliar, you can still figure out its meaning.”

“But why should we use big words?” S. persisted. “I don’t like all those big words.”

“Because that way you can tell someone off and they don’t even know what you were saying,” one young woman suggested.

Fair enough. “Also, the more words you know, the more thoughts you can think. The more thoughts you can think, the more possibilities you have for what you can do with your life,” I offered.

Thus, this week during poetry class I’ve been focusing on vocabulary. For many of my students, who, shall we say, have not exactly felt welcomed into the hallowed halls of academia, new words sting, slap and burn. They’re evidence of what they don’t know. They are like signs that say, “No Trespassing.” “Do Not Enter.”

But for the poet, I told them, words are like treasures. They offer new ways of saying old things. They are new tastes. New experiences. Each one is a doorway into a new world.

I read somewhere that the late, great, poet Stanley Kunitz had the first hint of his calling when, as a child, he would skip through the woods repeating a new word again and again because he loved the sound it made in his ears.

When I took a poetry class with Lucille Clifton, she insisted we all stand up, hold hands, and each share one word we love the sound of.

Meanwhile, as my poetry class with S., C., R. and the rest continued, we added words to our list: gnash, unperturbed and ambiguous among them. I invited students to try to use at least two new words in their poems. C. wrote:

Inside the forest …

leaves gnash against each other

they feel like war

is coming toward them …

S., however, remained unconvinced. She didn’t finish her poem that day, and kept crumpling one piece of paper after another. But she did write the word “ambiguous” in big blue letters across the top of her page. Perhaps that was her way of having the last word on the subject. At least it was a brand new, multisyllabic one.


Poetry Diet

Today was my first day of poetry class with a new group of students. As I always do, I started by asking the class to brainstorm possible benefits of writing poetry. Usually we come up with the usual suspects: Telling their stories in their own words, stress relief, practice reading and writing which will help when they take their GED exams, etc. But today’s group came up with something novel: Weight loss.


“Weight loss?” I asked. I wasn’t following.


“You know, you hold your stress in your stomach, so if poetry helps to relieve stress, you get it out of your stomach.”


That was a stretch, but hey, I’m willing to stretch. Stretching is part of any good work-out plan, so maybe that would be part of the Poetry-for-Weight-Loss program, after all. 


So while students wrote their poems, I played with the idea. Here’s what I came up with:



Jenny Craig has endorsed it.

It’s the reason behind Oprah’s new svelte silhouette.

Try it!

Put an end to stress eating, by instead putting your pencil to the page.

Release that rage!

Watch the ounces melt away

as you let go

the pain of your first heartbreak.

Sweat away pounds as you lift verbs, press nouns into service.

Lose those ugly pounds of bitter regret.

Say goodbye to the weight of sadness –

the confounding poundage

of a heavy heart.

A Poetry Moment

Photo by Aja Riggs

Today I was in a meeting with a colleague when H. burst through the door clutching a piece of looseleaf paper. We stopped our conversation to see what she wanted, and for her part, H. looked momentarily stricken. Realizing she’d just interrupted a meeting in progress she sheepishly backed out of the room and into the hall. She then raised her fist, knocked on the doorpost and waited.

“Come on in,” I said, smiling at her attempt to make a new, more dignified entrance.

H., for those who haven’t been keeping up with my last few entries, is one of my students; a young mom who has struggled with school and struggled to keep her self-esteem up despite her struggles in school … and who has discovered poetry as an outlet, or rather an inlet to her soul … Lately she has just been brimming over with verse.

“Sorry,” she said, “I didn’t mean to interrupt, but I just wrote a poem and I wanted to show it to someone.”

Of course my colleague and I stopped our discussion and took turns reading H’s poem. We each gave her feedback about what we liked, and then I asked her what class she was supposed to be in.
“Oh,” H. said, flustered. “I guess I’m late now. But I couldn’t help it. I had a poetry moment …” she was still explaining over her shoulder as she rushed back to class.

A poetry moment! The phrase echoed in my head for the rest of the day. When was the last time I was late to a class or a meeting or work because I’d had a poetry moment? Frankly, it’s been too long.

Better Than “Thank You”

Walking from my car to the front door of the school where I teach, I saw my student, H. standing on the corner, smoking a cigarette and talking to one of her friends. Nothing unusual about that; there was time before the start of our first period, and smoking policy restricts their habit to certain outdoor locations, including the smoking corner. I said good morning as I walked past, then remembered I had a question about one of H’s poems, which will be published in our annual poetry journal. The manuscript was about to go to the printer, and I wanted to make sure I had everything right. I called out to H., asked her to clarify whether she wanted the word ‘blink’ or ‘blank’ in the stanza in question. She told me and I thanked her. “Thank you, teacher,” she replied. Even that isn’t unusual these days, though receiving appreciation from teenage students is nothing to be taken for granted. And a year ago it would have been shocking coming from H. A year ago I’d have called H. oppositional defiant. These days she says things like, “Thank you, Teacher.” It used to be I had to send H. out of the classroom from time to time for refusing to participate or talking on her cellphone. Now she’s a model student.

I’m tempted to give poetry all the credit for her transformation. But that wouldn’t be fair, because H. has lots of great classes and amazing teachers. But I’ll take my share. The truth of the matter is, when H. is frustrated by her slow progress in other classes, she now finds refuge in poetry. These days when she comes into my office to show me her latest poem I’ve learned to ask, “When did you write that?” If she gets a sheepish look in her eye I know it was during math class, her toughest subject, and I’m obliged to tell her that she really should pay attention in her other classes. “You might even learn something you could put into a poem,” I offer, by way of encouraging her to take broaden her academic horizons.

So, back to this morning; back to the smoking corner. After H. and I exchanged information about her poem, I continued on my way. “One more thing,” H. called after me. I turned around. “I decided I want to be a poetry teacher,” she said. Some moments last a good long while. I turned back to see her stubbing out her cigarette. Her friend was tugging her arm in the direction of the convenience store down the street. “You’ll be a great one,” I said, and headed inside.

All This Poetry is Messing Up My Mascara!

My students are threatening to re-name our poetry class “Crying Class.”

Last week we graduated from subtle swiping of tears to all out sobbing. The girls make a big show afterward of complaining about how they hate to cry, especially in public.

I, of course, launch into a lecture about how cryng is good and strong and how we have to learn to love our tears.

“Yeah, yeah,” one girl complains. “But the real problem is it’s messing up my mascara.”

That, my dear, is the price we poets pay.

Skip Hallmark this Mothers Day

Mothers Day is around the corner – and if you haven’t bought a card yet, don’t bother. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not adverse to honoring our mothers. I’m all for it. (Ask my daughter, she’ll tell you.) But let’s face it, Hallmark just doesn’t cut it. The Poetry Lady, of course, is a bit biased. She believes a poem written from the heart beats a sappy card any day. Here’s a quick and easy assignment:

  • Take a moment to get an image of  your mother’s hands in your mind. Picture her fingers, her fingernails, her hands holding you, her hands at work, her hands lying still. 
  • Now, write a poem in which each line begins with the words: “These hands … ” 
  • As always, call on all five senses: think of how her hands smell, what they look like, the sound of her hands in motion, tapping her nails, clapping, snapping her fingers … 

Happy Mothers Day! 

And keep writing  🙂

The Wild Iris

It is time to venture into the garden again. Each spring I try. I plant, I weed, I prune, I water … well, okay, sometimes I water. Not nearly enough, I admit.  The point is, I can’t grow anything. And when things do bloom, they die prematurely. Like the lovely white and yellow tulips that popped up a week or so ago, and stood tall and elegant — for a few days — before they wearily dropped their petals. As if all that beauty was just too much work.

Despite my failures, I love to spend time with my plants. And while I don’t end up with much by way of flowers, I do end up with poems. I come into the house tired, dirt streaked across my forehead and caked in the treads of my sneakers. I drop onto the couch and I sense a poem sneaking up beside me.

Meanwhile, at the top of my garden to-do list is transplanting irises. Irises are the one plant species that is proliferating in my garden. Since they are about the only thing I can grow, I figure I should welcome them, celebrate them, invite them to spread out.

Besides being a beautiful flower, iris is a richly resonant word. Arco iris in Spanish means rainbow. The iris is the colorful halo surrounding  the eye (the ‘I’). Layered with meaning, irises are perfect for planting in poems and dreams as well.

Last night I dreamed there were rows and rows of young people standing on my lawn. Each was holding a glass vase, and each vase contained a single iris. The effect was stunning.

I woke up and had to re-read Louise GlÜck’s consciousness-blasting poem “The Wild Iris”, which ends with the astonishing lines:

from the center of my life came
a great fountain, deep blue
shadows on azure seawater.

But today it is raining. The irises will have to wait.