Work as a poet-in-residence, traveling each year to different schools around Massachusetts, helping young people and their teachers to uncover the poetry that is simmering inside them. Countless times, I will stand before a brand-new class, staring at the students' faces, and I'll tell you what I see: panic. Of course, I see more than that as well. I see two boys seated near the window, jealously watching the crows dart across the baseball diamond. I notice a girl in the front row anxiously laying out six sharpened pencils - just in case. I spot a few faces simply overflowing with boredom: Oh no, anything but poetry!
But the expression that crosses most faces is a curious form of fear. Not the sort you sometimes feel when you're alone on a dark night. This is a fear of disappointment, of reaching down deep and coming up short. And it is magnified because right beside it, I catch the signs of an exuberant hopefulness. The eyes seem to say: Of course I wish I could write a poem. A real poem, one that is exciting or sad or scary or beautiful. A poem that sounds like, feels like that truest of voices you sometimes hear speaking inside.
My job as a teaching-poet is to help my students set aside those worries and to take a running leap into poetry. I try to answer, as best I can, some of the most basic questions each of my students is burning to ask. What is poetry, anyway? How do I make it happen? Could it really make a difference in my life - something as simple as words on a piece of paper?
Question No. 1 is the hardest to answer. Every culture that has ever existed on this planet has had its own form of poetry, each with its own version of what is beautiful and true. Even in a single country, a single time, you will find a huge range of differences from one writer to the next in the ways a poem is created. So I can tell you this: If I'm looking at a class of 25 students, there are 25 right ways for a poem to be made.
Aren't poems strings of rhyming lines? Once it was true that most poets used rhyme and a set meter as a way of shaping their verse. But that hasn't been so for most of this century! People change, style changes. Why are the boys of this class wearing high-top sneakers and baggy jeans instead of knickers and hard-soled shoes? Why are none of the girls wearing ankle-length dresses with ribboned waists? The style of a poem is an expression of the thinking and speaking of the one who created it. Your writing must have the feel of your voice, your mind, if a reader is to believe in what it says.
Then how do you make a poem happen? Most often, poems appear on their own terms, when least expected. But there are ways you can become more receptive to a poem's inspiration. In my workshop, first we practice quiet. I try to teach my students to be so calm, so quiet on the inside, they are able to focus intensely on what is around them in the world. Sometimes they notice small, precious details that were right before them all along but somehow they'd never noticed.
With practice, you can guide your attention, outward to examine your surroundings, and deep within in order to recapture a memory or a dream. Suddenly you'll notice that quiet voice that speaks within your mind, the one that reaches out and gently, confidently touches the world. At that very moment, the pencil should be in your hand and the notebook wide open.
And what good would it do to shape a bit of your life into something like a poem? I can only speak from my own experience or tell you what some of my students have said. "It was actually fun!" one boy gushed after our workshop. "I thought it would be silly or dumb, but it surprised me." One girl described how "The poem just came to me, out of nowhere. I wrote the first line, and all of a sudden I had two more, and after a minute or two I could barely make my pencil go quick enough to keep up with the words inside."
As for me, I'll say this: When I've written a poem that really matters to me - when it comes speeding through me, as if I were a window and it was a beam of light - I've never felt so clearly that I was feeling my life in my hands.
The Home Forum is inviting you to write a poem for its first children's poetry page. This might be the perfect excuse for you or your class to discover where the poems have been hiding inside your life.
In fact, "home" is the theme of this first gathering of poems. What images come to mind when you hear that single-syllable word? Can you capture a glimpse of the one room, the one spot on earth where you feel most at-home? Do you remember what it felt like that time you had to leave home? How about coming back after being away for a while; what did you do first? Have you ever felt suddenly at-home in a place where you'd never been before?
This is the challenge: Examine the places that surround you. Search in your mind for those important memories. If you were to use words to paint a picture of that idea, home, show us what we'd see.
Perhaps I ought to tell you what the faces look like when the poetry workshop is complete. There is a bubbling-over of energy in some, as they anxiously read their first drafts and squeeze new words into the margins. In others, there is a delightful calm on their faces as they stare down at the page.
But my favorite look of all is worn by those students who were 100-percent convinced they'd never be able to write a poem. There they sit, gazing at their notebooks, their eyes following the wild swirls of script that run down the blue lines. And the only word I can think of for the expressions on their faces: wonder! That's the look I envy the most, the one that quickly sends me back to my own notebook and pen, homing in on the opening line.
HOW TO GET STARTED
There is no formula for writing a poem. But here are five important ideas to keep in mind, ways you can be opened to the lure of a poem.
1. Be calm. You cannot squeeze poetry from your mind like water from a sponge. Sit quietly. Let your thoughts wander a bit. Be ready for an opening line.
2. Be open. Don't try to figure out in advance exactly what your poem should say or where it should end up. As the first images become clear in your mind, follow them, let them grow. If you're surprised by what appears, chances are your reader will be as well.
4. Be clear. You can see your imagination, we cannot. Use detailed images, word-pictures, so we too can share your experience. Sometimes choosing the perfect word will pinpoint a vision or hint at a world of possibilities.
4. Don't be blocked by rhyme. So many young writers believe rhyme is poetry. Remember, some TV commercials are sung in rhyme - but they are worlds away from poetry. Pay attention to the words that just seem to rise up in your imagination. The way they start and stop will become the rhythm of your lines. And whether you choose to write in rhyme or free verse, somehow that imagination must be honest and strong.
5. Be ready for delight. The wonderful poet Robert Frost once wrote that a poem "begins in delight and ends in wisdom." If you start out with a moment - a person, place, memory in your life - that is honest, vivid, and full of heart, those same feelings will pour into your poem. Your challenge is to discover something vital about your own experience. And then, as that feeling takes root on the page, we will share the delight of your discovery.