Making poetry

''You could write a private poem,'' Steven Ratiner said gently. ''Writing is to free you, not cage you.''

One of several artists in residence this year in Massachusetts schools and community organizations such as senior centers, Mr. Ratiner knows many in his audiences have composed poems secretly already. Secretly, because the authors are shy, or because they fear being laughed at, or because they think poetry might be ''sissy,'' or because they're not sure their poem is ''good enough'' for public scrutiny.

He wants to help them describe meaningful experiences and insights with awe, humor, or honesty and to share their significance with others, out loud or in print. He wants the ''others'' to learn to listen or read carefully, to respect and enjoy what their fellow poets have written.

''There's a special vitality between a poet and the audience,'' Ratiner suggests. ''The poet's voice - the presence of the poet - conveys honesty, intimacy, use of the language they have in common. The poet wants to convey his mood or experience with clarity; to do that, he has to take care with language and use it expressively. These are all important things for people to learn.''

Ratiner is one of more than 120 artists sponsored by the Artists' Foundation in Cambridge, Mass., for residencies in public and private schools in Massachusetts. This group is made up of visual and performing artists, fiction writers, playwrights, folk artists, storytellers, dancers, and poets, all of whom have qualified by being winners or finalists in the annual competition of the Artists' Foundation, or have been screened by panels chosen by that foundation.

An artist's ''residency'' may be as short as two weeks or as long as three months. The purpose is to give young people actual workshop experience with professionals. The artist agrees to conduct workshops for a core group of serious students and to make his presence felt throughout the school community.

He may engage the children in a common experience and then ask them to describe it in a poem. He may give an opening line, a word, or an image, and urge them to complete an idea it suggests to them. He may show them something or ask them to touch something and use their impression as the kernel of a poem.He may recite one of his own poems to ''prime the pump'' of poemmaking.

''Poetry has so many values,'' he says. ''It teaches people about themselves; it attunes their ear to listening to what they feel and are. A poem is a spontaneous way to express yourself; it's a focusing tool, another way to look at the world.

''The best way to appreciate poetry is to try making it - imaging and language skills come about in the process.

''I'm not there to produce a Robert Frost,'' he confesses. ''But at the end of the time, I expect to see some improvement in every child's work.''

In conducting writing workshops, Ratiner calls first upon volunteers, and their willingness to read their poems aloud usually encourages others.

But he's also interested in links between poetry and the other subjects students pursue at school, so he may work in a history class or a science class.

The Massachusetts Funding Council on Arts and Humanities supplies 40 percent of the cost of a residency the first time a school has one, and 50 percent the second time. The rest of the stipend is usually paid out of a school budget. At other times the balance is supplied by a parents' group. Ratiner usually does a public poetry reading at a time when parents can attend; his program may include conducting workshops for the school staff and sometimes for parent groups.

A poet residency may culminate in a poetry performance in which students share their poems, or it might result in a book of poems written by students.

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