A Year Touched With Poetry

IT doesn't matter what the wall calendar says. By the immutable inner timetable of the student, June is the close of the year. And just as adults traditionally cross from the old year to the new accompanied by horns and squeals of celebration, so young people each June fly down the school steps hooting and cheering and scattering school work like confetti. In the mad rush toward some dreamed-of liberation, it's not easy to find a calm moment in June to look back, to gather up all the little surprises and accomplishments that amount to a year's transformation. A brief reflection is often all it takes to prompt a flood of memories and to raise the broad and elusive question: ``So who am I now?''

As my year in the schools closes, I begin to pack away all the books and displays and mountains of student poetry - photocopied samples from all my classes, work ranging from crayon scrawls to ballpoint script to computer-typeset epics.

To create that still place for recollection, and to bring our exploration to some culmination, I always try to arrange for a student publication, some printed offering that gives the kids a chance to share with others (and to confirm for themselves) what they've been able to make from the words and rhythms and charged silences of poems.

Months back, the poetry residency opened with an assembly for ``the visiting poet'' where I shared some of my poems and experiences, and posed some questions for us to examine together. Now, before we part company, I assemble two dozen student poets at the front of a packed auditorium so that, face to face, we can share their poetry, celebrate our achievement, and perhaps discover an insight into the year's changes.

Nervous as mayflies on a pond, the students fidget in their seats, waiting for me to call their names. As narrator, I recount the story of our workshop experiments, a sort of verbal frame for each group of poems. Then, one by one, I invite the students to the microphone.

I try to contain a bit of their anxiousness with a hand on the shoulder and a confidant's whisper in the ear: ``Slow and clear, now ... give them your best.'' It doesn't really matter what I say, as long as they feel I'm still with them.

And invariably, the students surpass all expectations. In confident voices, they offer up their memories, imaginations, fears, visions - and the air between us all is transformed by their speaking.

You would never describe this experience as ``listening to fourth-grade or eighth-grade poetry.'' What we have here, quite simply, is the mutual recognition of our humanity - people like ourselves using whatever skill and intuition they possess to make language carry the experience of our living. Though their technical ability is much greater, there are very few ``professional'' writers of children's literature that bring such honesty, directness, emotional daring, and integrity to their efforts.

The assembled classes listen intently with, by turns, laughter, longing, and appreciative silence. The teachers and parents in the audience are full of pride and admiration for how bravely the students' spirits rise from their poems. At moments, there are even tears. Though I've watched such gatherings many times before, I am always dazzled and just a bit stunned to witness what passes between us.

Some of the poems are surprisingly simple, others subtle and complex. One student writes about his mother's garden, another about running in new sneakers, and a third about a winning shot in a basketball game.

Then a girl stands and reads a poem about the death of her father, a boy describes the arrival of his newborn baby brother, a last one recaptures the memory of her grandmother first teaching her to sew. Perhaps that is the most important lesson the students have learned: There is no experience, great or small, that cannot ripen into a poem. And the greatest lesson they teach us in turn concerns the utter delight concealed within the simplest of moments - if we are awake enough to notice.

At the end, there is a torrent of applause - not only for the readers, I tell them, but for all the students and teachers who pushed aside their apprehensions and dove headlong into this experiment with poetry.

What follows next is, not surprisingly, the aspect of my work I like the least: goodbyes. After such an intense period of work together, it is always hard to leave a school.

As of tomorrow, what was the Poet's Studio - filled with books and posters and artwork - will go back to being the conference room or the book closet or whatever it was before I arrived. But it is satisfying somehow to look back and see how far we've come together - further, I'm sure, than any of the students or teachers would have ever predicted. And it is reassuring to imagine that, in the new year, there will be new moments, new poems to take pleasure in.

Often, I try to leave behind with my students one of the poems that I've written for or about them and their school. It is my way of repaying some portion of the gifts they've given.

TODAY I ask the students if they can remember the sign that's hung all this time on my office's door: a giant blue quarter moon with the words ``THE POET'S ROOM - Visitors Are Welcome'' printed in bold magic marker. This poem wears that sign as its title. Perhaps its desire is to stamp - invisibly but indelibly - the name of our work space onto the cold fact of the school. But more than that, I think it's like a marker, an arrow pointing back toward the inner and original place where our charged and musical words first appeared and challenged our conception of poets and poetry. The Poet's Room Visitors Are Welcome

Posters and bundled papers, book boxes packed and back in the car. Strange, to feel at home so quickly. Stranger still, to leave so soon.

This is the room where I'd find you after lunch - ``just to soak in the quiet.'' ``Poetry is like a new hat,'' you said, a twisting smile. ``I'll try it.''

This is the room where the pen moved, fox-like, across the snowy field, with you following in its footprints, cautiously.

This is the place where you heard your grandmother's voice, After all these years, whispering your name, secret, slow, from the petals of a rose.

This is where you found the Poet's Room, a quiet corner of the heart, clear windows with a long view, miles of paper, all the ink you can use. A place where you call and are called upon and even the wind will pause, listen.

When I am gone, please visit often.

This article is the second to last in the `Poet-in-the Classroom' series, which has run on the first Wednesday of each month during the school year. Due to the July 4 holiday, we will publish the last installment on Tuesday, July 3.

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