Whose Lives Will You Enrich with Poetry This April?
Poetry can be wondrous, mysterious, mystical, beautiful, breathtaking, provoking, distressing, funny, and surprising—even startling.
It can also be confusing.
I have a school-aged child. She recently read Emily Dickinson’s “A Bird Came Down the Walk” for homework, and had to answer a few questions. It’s a pretty straightforward poem about a bird out for a meal, happily hopping along the path until he sees the narrator, who offers him a crumb.
“Hey Mom, what does ‘And he unrolled his feathers/And rowed him softer home’ mean?”
It’s an integral part of the poem—the narrator offers the bird a crumb, which startles the bird, and thus the bird flies away.
But she’s in elementary school, and she can read poetry, but she doesn’t always get it.
I started thinking about the inclusion of poetry in school curricula these days, especially in the upper grades. What sort of poetry exposure will she get in high school? As a student and fan of poetry myself, I hope she gets a lot.
But I also hope that she simply doesn’t discover poetry as a timeless literary form and learn the art of absorbing and then dissecting a poem. I hope she meets the poets and understands how their lives and times influenced and inspired their works.
I want her to know that Walt Whitman cared for injured soldiers during the Civil War and wrote beautiful poetry honoring their suffering. I want her to know that he was alive when President Lincoln was assassinated, and that Whitman memorialized him in a poem. I want her to know that he bared his soul in his collection Leaves of Grass, in which he admits his humanity in “Song of Myself”:
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
And he even acknowledges his inevitable passing: I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love.
I want her to dig deep into the blues poetics of Gwendolyn Brooks, who meditated on the struggles and aftermath of the Montgomery bus boycott of the Civil Rights movement, and who called for leaders and strength among the many:
We who are weak and wonderful, wicked,
bewildered, wistful and wild
Are saying direct Good mornings through the fever.
It is the giant-hour.
Nothing, less than gianthood will do.
I also want her to know Brooks’ familial history and the extent of her literary talents: granddaughter of a runaway slave, daughter of a supportive schoolteacher, participant in the Great Migration, regular contributor to the Chicago Defender newspaper’s poetry column at age sixteen, the first African-American to win the Pulitzer Prize, Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress in 1985.
I want her to know Robert Frost as a brilliant man who struggled and suffered and ultimately captivated the nation with his words and imagery. I want her to read his well-known”The Road Not Taken” and go beyond seeing the poem’s last lines as simply oft-quoted verse and instead integrate them as words to live by:
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I–
I took the one less travelled by,
And that has made all the difference.
April is National Poetry Month. How are you celebrating in your classroom? Reading selected poems? Listening to poetry readings? Writing haiku, free verse, or limericks? Perhaps you will introduce students to the works of notable poets and discuss how their lives impacted their poetry. You can get some help from SIRS Knowledge Source. Visit the April SKS Spotlight of the Month for articles and Web sites on poets and poetry, and a quiz on poetry collectives. SKS is the perfect resource for helping students research and learn about poets from across the centuries and from around the world, and is a great way to bring them into your classroom. Who will you inspire with poetry this April?
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