Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Poetry Helps

What poems do you still remember? What lines speak to the secret spaces in your heart? When I think about my answers to those questions, my mind wanders to the poets I Iove. Poets who write for children. Poets who write for adults. Poets who write for nature or the world or who write of grace and the color of light coming in a winter window. When I think about what poems I still remember, I think about what the poems connect me to in terms of feeling or mood or moment that they explore.

Poetry speaks.

It's tough to choose a favorite, but it's easy to choose a poem to share. I learned this week that my Dad had a favorite poem, "Little Boy Blue" by Eugene Field. Mom said he wanted it read at his memorial reception. She thinks he liked it because he memorized it in grade school . Through his adult life it was something he could recall and recite. I will bring it printed this afternoon, but I am not the one to read this poem for him.

Sometimes we use poetry to remember our best or most innocent selves. Perhaps that what Dad did with "Little Boy Blue." My feelings today, about living in a world without him are layered and nuanced. I have not found a poem that speaks to all of the fathers I had in the one man who raised and loved me, but I've found him in some poets-- Gregory Orr or  Sharon Olds and Chris Forhan or Dylan Thomas. There is such complexity in fatherhood and fathers and feelings. Still, what love I have for mine.

Poetry strengthens.

Sometimes we use poetry to strengthen ourselves. I did that with "Invictus" by William Henley when I struggled as a teenager. That poem gave me strength to see the hard times through. The Unibomber and my own faith changed that poem for me because I eventually grew up and  realized, "I [really] am not the master of my fate" or "the captain of my soul." Thank God for that! And I did that with "Tula [Books are door shaped]" by Margarita Engle too--that  poem reminds my teacher self about the importance of nurturing readers and thinkers and not letting the twin monsters of testing and grades swallow children whole.

Poetry informs.

Sometimes we use poetry to show us what is happening in the world. Martin Espada's "Letter to My Father" does that brilliantly. His images make me want to cheer on his father, back from the grave to snatch those paper towels out of a man's hand. Sara Holbrook and Michael Salinger are my go-to for teaching kids how to use poetry to see the world.

Poetry gives.

Sometimes poetry is a gift to give.  I send a poem to a friend as a pick me up like a pressed flower made of words.  A friend of mine used to give people poems on their birthdays. She and her teaching partner would gift their students with special birthday poems (illustrated, printed on nice paper). They would read the poems to the birthday student in class. Nancy said it got to the point that if a student had to be absent on the day he or she knew they'd be getting the birthday poem, the student's parents would often call or email to insure that the birthday poem wouldn't be missed. I love everything about that community ritual and I don't even know what it sounds like. But it must be yellow and gold and clear and blue, like perfect skies on a crisp day--fresh with innocence and love.

Poem in Your Pocket day is April 26th this year. I think I will ask my students how they would like to celebrate it. We can certainly make and print poems to share with one another. Perhaps they'd like to do more though--share poems with our staff or their other teachers? Perhaps they'd like to connect with another class. Would you?

Many thanks to the writing team at Two Writing Teachers for
hosting the annual Slice of Life Story Challenge!


  1. I love poetry, as you probably know, and I love reading about your connection with poetry. Poetry is healing to the soul. I am a huge Mary Oliver fan. Her poem "Wild Geese" saved me at a crossroads in my life. The first line, "You do not have to be good" echoes in my head over and over to keep my inner critic quiet.
    I've been writing poems and printing them on photo cards to send to a list of 6 friends with cancer. Small gesture, but something. Here's one for you:
    In this moment
    beauty holds hands with frightful
    inviting hope in

    God bless you as you process your loss and muddle through grief.

  2. Thinking of you today and this past week. It is a tough time - keep writing, keep remembering, keep connecting. I love the birthday ritual you described and all the ways you describe using poetry. Poetry is a genre I struggle with. I love reading it and I play with writing it - it is just not natural. I can do it if I plan to do it - it just doesn't isn't something I am called to do. Your reasons may help me. Thank you -- sending strength and moments of shared loved today.

  3. What a wonderful reflection on poetry in the midst of your grief. I appreciate the links, the poems, the thoughts. For today, I offer you Adrienne Rich's poem Song. It is about loneliness and the pure longing in the poem sustains me sometimes. Here is the final stanza, then the link:

    If I’m lonely
    it’s with the rowboat ice-fast on the shore
    in the last red light of the year
    that knows what it is, that knows it’s neither
    ice nor mud nor winter light
    but wood, with a gift for burning

  4. Thank you for such a rich slice; I will return to it. You wrote "poetry gives" and shared a wonderful classroom BD idea. It reminded me of Caroline Kennedy's "A Family of Poems" in which she shares that her mother had John and her write poems (copied favorites or composed originals) to make birthday cards for family members. They were not allowed to buy a card. May God comfort you in your loss.

  5. What a beautiful reflection on the power of poetry. This poem, by Irish poet John O'Donohue, always comforts me.

    From "Beannacht"
    May the nourishment of the earth be yours,
    May the clarity of light be yours,
    May the fluency of the ocean be yours,
    May the protection of the ancestors be yours.
    And so may a slow
    Wind work these words
    Of love around you,
    An invisible cloak
    To mind your life.
    Thinking of you on this difficult day, Lee Ann.

  6. I love poetry and have reached a point in my teaching life in which I'd love to teach a class of only poetry. Thinking about my own father, his short life, and the struggles that accompany it, leads me to poems about the parent-child relationship: "My Father's Waltz," "Those Winter Sundays," some Kevin Smith poetry, "Digging" by Seamus Heaney, and of course Dylan Thomas's "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night." There are so many poems and poets I love. I've been reading more poetry collections, too, and one of my favorites is "Counting Dissent" by Clint Smith.

  7. Poem in Your Pocket Day is a fav because I get to share poems I love with students and staff!