Five Ways of Looking at a Poetry Class

I.

I bring in two poems: Langston Hughes’ Dream Variations, and He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven by William Butler Yeats. It’s too much material for an hour-long class. Especially since I also want to touch on Dream Deferred and MLK’s I Have a Dream speech.  

The night before class I dreamed that I saw Barack and Michelle Obama pulled over on the side of Route 9 and I stopped my car and ran over to wish Barack luck with his campaign and then he started to dance with me right there on the shoulder of Route 9 in front of the driving range and the little shack where you can buy ice cream in the spring.

So when I woke up of course I was thinking about Barack Obama, and my mind wandered to how he had stood tall after the Iowa caucus saying, “They said this day would never come,” and I wondered what MLK would say about this moment in history, and then a poetry assignment started to coalesce in my mind and Langston Hughes would have to be part of it, and I just love that poem by Yeats, which also plays with shades of light and dark … 

So we have a lot to cover this morning, but J. and R. are sitting in a corner gossiping and I think I see that R. has her cellphone in her lap underneath her desk. And I’m sure she is texting. I’m famous for my anti-cellphone tirades in class but today I just want to teach the girls who want to learn and ignore the girls who don’t.  Like E., who is sitting silent, as always, in her seat along the wall with the coat hooks and calendar behind her. Sitting next to her is a new girl who said she’d never written a poem before.  Then there is M. who wants to know how to spell every word that pops into her head, and K. who wants to do whatever I want her to do without drawing any attention to herself, and just a few other girls.

Every one of them is a story. But first I want to write about E. 

II.

Finally the room is quiet. At least quieter. And the girls are writing poems about dreams. Making my rounds I come across this line on E’s page: “I dream that my brother murder gets justice.” I stare for a moment, trying to make sense of the line. I put an ‘apostrophe s’ after brother and an ‘er’ after murder.

“Is this what you are saying?” I ask. She nods.

I look at the line I just edited. “I dream my brother’s murderer gets justice.” I liked it better before it made sense.

“Your brother?” I ask helplessly. She nods. “I am so sorry,” I say, looking straight into her quiet face, her screaming eyes. I pack a lot of faith onto those syllables. Faith that those words, spoken quietly amidst the sounds of the other students’ bochinche and calls of “Miss, Miss,” and “How do you spell … ?” will carry everything I want to express; every un-sayable thing. Like the wordless well of grief and the crazy faith of dreaming and the easy choice of not daring to dream – and how much I care about E. even though she will never know it – and how much her loss scares me. Because I don’t want it to be true. I don’t want these things to happen to people I know, or to people that people I know love. I don’t want these things to happen. That’s all.  

“I am so sorry.” I try to float all of it on those words … and a little flag of hope, too.  

I let myself dream that the wide still waters in E’s eyes will carry my message inside, all the way in and down to her heart.  

III.

And what about J? What is up with her these days? Before her maternity leave J. had had a breakthrough in poetry class. J. with her anger management issues; J. with her “don’t mess with me” facade. J. came to me and said, “Poetry helps. Poetry is teaching me a new way.” She was my convert! She was the poster child for Poetry Changing Lives! She was writing her anger instead of throwing it at the walls and at everyone who tried to help her.

Then she went off to have her baby and now she’s back.

And so is her attitude.  

“How are you doing?” I asked before class started. “Horrible!” she said. “I’m having the worst f#&@ing day. It was only 10:20 in the morning. She was eating cereal out of an individual serving bowl. “I hate these raisins,” she sputtered. “And the milk is too f#&@ing sweet.” Then she started laughing like the schoolgirl she is supposed to be. 

Five minutes later she tried to pick a fight with me; did that ghetto thing- trying to scare me back. Finally she put her head on her desk and her winter scarf over her head and checked out.  

During writing time she didn’t pick up her pencil — except for a moment to scrawl a few words across one entire piece of loose-leaf paper. “I’m done!” she said, slamming pencil and paper back down on the desk, returning her head to its hiding place beneath her scarf.  

“I dream of going home and everything being good,” she had written. I told her that was certainly a big enough dream to fill a page with, and she said, “Yeah! Like it will ever happen.”  

IV.

Meanwhile, J, and M, and K and maybe E and the new girl, love the poems I brought in.

“That’s a phat poem,” M. says reverently after J. reads Dream Variations aloud.  “It feels like there’s a child spinning around in it,” someone adds. E. and the new girl nod their approval.  I tell them how much Hughes loved music and how he tried to make his poems sound like songs. Which prompts M. to ask what the lines music are written on are called. I drew a staff and a G-clef on the board and label the parts. M sets about writing a beautiful poem that borrows Yeats’ rhythm and in which dreams unfurl on a musical staff while her paralyzed body sleeps on …  

V.

Today during this same poetry class the new girl wrote her first ever poem, for which we all applaud her. J. says she should give herself three POBs (Pats on the Back). I agree. She deserves at least three! It’s a momentous day, after all.

Poems on the theme of dreams:

These are some of the poems I use with my students to spark ideas for writing about dreams (read my previous post for more details!): 

  •  “Last Night I Dreamed of Chickens,” Jack Prelutsky 
  •  “A Dream Deferred,” Langston Hughes
  • “Stars,” Langston Hughes
  • “Let America Be America,” Langston Hughes
  • “Still I Rise,” (especially the last stanza) Maya Angelou
  • “City That Does Not Sleep” Federico Garcia Lorca
  • “Romance Sonambulo,” Federico Garcia Lorca 
  • “My Dream of Being White,” Lucille Clifton

One student, Kiki, was inspired by these lines from Maya Angelou’s poem, “Still I Rise”:

Out of the huts of history's shame
I rise
Up from a past that's rooted in pain
I rise
I'm a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that's wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.

 In response Kiki wrote this: 

I am the dream

a poor man’s daughter

strong, black and beautiful.

I am a poor man’s daughter,

his one great joy.

I am the child

the child of a poor man.

Ah, but I am the rich one.   

Poems my Students* (*mostly Puerto Rican teen moms who’ve dropped out of school) Love

My students have seriously influenced my taste in poetry. After years of teaching the subject to teen mothers who’ve dropped out of high school, I’ve started to see poems through their eyes.

If you’ve never spent time with my students, you might think there’s a danger that my tastes have been dumbed down; that I now shy away from poems with multi-syllabic words or literary allusions. But that would be assuming that my students lack intelligence — which is definitely not the case. I recently read something that said “Beginning readers are not beginning thinkers.” Well said. I might add another level to that: “Low education level doesn’t mean low intelligence.” My students may not be able to spell the word allusion (spell check caught me on that one, too, by the way) but they can smell B.S. a mile a way. Meanwhile, when confronted with a convoluted poem that’s heavy on style and pretense and light on meaning or insight, those of us with MFAs often get lost in circles of doubt about our own intelligence rather than say what needs to be said: which would be, much of the time … as my students say with such eloquence: “This s@&$% is whack!”

I’m all for challenging my students; pushing them to stretch their vocabularies, their imaginations and their confidence in their intelligence. At the same time, they have a point when they get impatient with a poem that’s more about posturing than powerful imagery and emotion.

One of my favorite exercises is to drop a stack of poetry books (anthologies work well) on a desk in the middle of the classroom and pass out sticky notes and pens. The assignment: Read around in these books. Find something you love or or something that makes you think or feel … and put a sticky note on that poem. Write one line about why you like it, and keep reading. When everyone’s tagged at least one poem we go around the room and read our new favorite poems out loud, along with the reasons why we chose them. One group gave these reasons for liking poems:

  • it’s sad
  • it rhymes
  • it’s romantic
  • I can feel it
  • I’ve lived that
  • the word choices are good

As for the poems they chose … a recent round (using the anthology “America’s Favorite Poems” edited by Robert Pinsky) netted the following list of favorites:

  •  “I’m Nobody Who Are You?” by Emily Dickinson
  • “Song of Myself” by Walt Whitman
  • “Sonnet 29” by William Shakespeare
  • “Minstrel Man” by Langston Hughes
  • “Mother to Son” by Langston Hughes
  • “We Real Cool” by Gwendolyn Brooks
  • “Ay, Ay, Ay de la Grifa Negra” by Julia de Burgos
  • “Facing It” by Yusef Komunyakaa
  • “The Sentence” by Anna Ahkmatova