Growing up as a budding young writer, it seemed anytime something difficult would happen to me my mother would say, “Look at the bright side, at least you’ll get a good poem out of it.” Granted, when I was crying my eyes out over my latest heartbreak, those words could be cold comfort. But of course, in the end, Mother was always right. So it is that when I teach my students, teen moms who can describe the variations in color of cockroaches the way some people can describe the nuances of a sunset, I from time to time like to assign poems about bugs. As much as they hate the crawly crunchy critters that plague their attempts at maintaining spotless kitchen floors, the poems they write about cockroaches … or insects in general … are almost always gems. Here are some suggested poems to get the creative juices rolling. (Who knew there was such a wealth of poetry about the humble, confounding roach!)
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
The other day I was reading a love poem a student was working on and came upon an ambiguous line. “You need to give your reader a little more information here,” I told her. “No I don’t,” she said, “the poem is to my boyfriend and he’ll know what I’m talking about.”“Whoa! Hold on.” I thumped the palm of my hand down on her desk. “You need to think bigger than that!” She looked up at me confused. Now what does this crazy poetry teacher want from me? her heavily mascara-ed eyes seemed to plead.“This poem could be published in a book! Think bestseller! Think Oprah!” I said.
Okay, so, as my students so often point out, I was getting carried away. But at the very least, within ten minutes she’d be reading the poem to the class and we wanted to know why tears were falling on the pillow in the second stanza.
Getting students to think about audience … that is the readers outside their own head, is crucial to making meaningful poems rather than just heartfelt journal entries. (Not that I have anything against heartfelt journal entries, mind you … )
I’ve found that reading and writing poems in the form of letters is a great way to drive this lesson home. After all, you can’t write a letter if you don’t know who it’s addressed to. So for the past month I’ve been doing a unit on writing poems in the form of letters.
Here are some poems I’ve used in this month’s unit:
- “This is My Letter to the World” by Emily Dickinson
- “Suicide Note from a Cockroach in a Low Income Housing Project” by Pedro Pietri
- “Undelivered Mail” by Rhina P. Espaillat (You and your students will have a lot of fun with this one!)
- “Theme for English B” by Langston Hughes (Not exactly a letter, but it really drives home the idea of audience … and my students – teens whose reading levels ranged from 3rd grade and up – were extremely inspired by it … )
- “For My Daughter” by David Ignatow (Not technically a letter, but it works)
- “Dear Tia” by Caroline Hospital
Here are some poems I might add next time around:
- “Letter to NY” by Elizabeth Bishop
- “Letter from Buddy, Postmarked Heaven” by Lesléa Newman (STILL LIFE WITH BUDDY Pride Publications, 1997
If you have something to add to the list, let me know. I plan to repeat this unit at least once a year!