The Poet's Coat

WHEN I was young and first reading poetry, I'd try to imagine the men and women who could build such strange and magical dreams out of the everyday stuff of words. My expectations were just a bit romantic. I pictured black velvet capes and broad-brimmed hats. I imagined dark eyes staring long out of candle-lit windows. When I was in high school in New York City, I was in one of the very first poet-in-the-school programs. And the first real poet I met was a man named Louis Simpson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet who came to talk to our class.

Mr. Simpson was a small balding man in a rumpled gray suit with chalk marks from the blackboard angled along the back. I could detect no poetry at all in this very ordinary being ... until he opened his mouth. He read poems to us about dark city streets and wars and chicken soup. As I listened, I suddenly found myself traveling outside myself - as if I were my own shadow, walking two steps ahead or behind. His words took me places I'd never expected to visit in a poem. I was quietly stunned, and more determined than ever to become a poet.

Now each year, I visit schools as a poet-in-residence. I've made it my job to help students and teachers discover where their own poems are hiding. There are places inside your memories, your dreams, your own voice where poems may appear if you let them. When a poem rises up inside you, two things almost always happen. First, you suddenly see even your everyday life as if it were a strange occurrence, a delightful surprise. And second, you feel such a curious excitement just thinking through your poem, you want poetry to happen again. Often. And then, in some way, you've taken on the poet's work: trying to figure out where the next poem will come from.

Some of your guesses about poetry will be right on target and they will lead you to a new poem. Some of your guesses will be errors, perhaps romantic errors like mine. And then you simply start again. But the wish to see your life clearly through the window of words - that is the hunger for poetry. It prompts you to keep your eyes sharp and your ears open.

Black velvet capes and hats, I've discovered, are optional.

The Poet's Coat Coming back early from class, peeking in: a second grade boy in my studio beside my desk. A quick glance back and he slips my gray Harris Tweed from the shoulders of my chair and drapes the coat, cloak-like, over his own. First the left, then the right arm dives down a commodious sleeve toward a cuff not one fingertip will reach. Rolling up, he dips one muffled hand into a side pocket and, strolling to the window, looks out at the spills of sunshine slipping their way between coarse gray clouds.

This is what the boy will remember about Poetry: it was made of wool, rough to the silk of a boy's skin. But, pockets! It had two you could lose your hands in, deep enough to hold anything. And this: he felt a bit lost beneath this capacious gray cape. But in time (he told himself) he would grow into it.

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