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Poetry in School

September 2018

Most of us were introduced to poetry in school. As a teacher, I hope it was a kind introduction, but there are many people whose introduction to poetry in school seems to have been unpleasant.

Billy Collins' poem "Introduction to Poetry" is one that is often used to make a point about poetry in the classroom. The teacher asks the students to "take a poem / and hold it up to the light / like a color slide / or press an ear against its hive." Though the teacher wants the students to simply enjoy the poem - "to waterski / across the surface of a poem / waving at the author's name on the shore" - the students have been trained in school about how to read a poem, so they want to "tie the poem to a chair with rope / and torture a confession out of it. / They begin beating it with a hose / to find out what it really means."

You may have more pleasant memories of your introduction to poetry or a good classroom encounter with poetry in a classroom. I can recall how Mrs. Cavico read and spoke about Keats' "Ode to a Grecian Urn" with such love and appreciation - and how she recognized that I "got it" while most of the class looked out the window at kids in gym class.

Having met her and heard her read and talk about writing, I imagine poet Naomi Shihab Nye would be a great teacher to have for poetry. In one of her poems, "The Young Poets of Winnipeg,"

scurried around a classroom papered with poems.
Even the ceiling, pink and orange quilts of phrase…
they introduced one another, perched on a tiny stage
to read their work, blessed their teacher who
encouraged them to stretch, wouldn’t let their parents
attend the reading because parents might criticize

These very confident young poets had not been taught to tie down a poem or beat it.

They knew their poems
were glorious, that second-graders could write better
than third or fourth, because of what happened
on down the road, the measuring sticks
that came out of nowhere, poking and channeling
the view

For our September, back-to-school prompt, we asked for poems about poetry in school - positive and negative tales from our own experiences as students and teachers or from imagined classrooms.

For more on all our prompts and other things poetic, check out the Poets Online blog.


Our alternative high school, kids starting
every morning with a handicap.
The English classroom opens like a mouth
hungry for healing words. In the front row a boy
fidgets over a stranger’s poem that tries
to speak to him, but there’s a tough word
he fumbles every time. Beside him,
a girl sits quietly focused on the invisible
before her, a poem like imprint
of butterfly wings, dead petals announcing
that everything shines.
How can words inked on paper do this?
When her turn comes to stand up,
her voice cuts through gaps of time and happen-
stance, all the things already lost,
caught in syllables, image, rhyme; her face
serene, illumined with what saves her.

Taylor Graham


The poem I wrote for Mr. Reece
was about the world around us
that difficult freshman year

a difficult year for America
and for me and probably
not better for my classmates

I felt every word as I tapped
the keys on my Smith-Corona
contained part of my soul

I titled the poem "Future Past"
which Reece circled in red
and commented in the margin

"That's the present, so just say that."
But it was not"just" the present.
It was the future - our future -

and it was already sliding into
the past, like his comment, and
any poems I would write that year.

Kenneth Ronkowitz


School drafting
lesson plans cannot write
in the moment
the beauty of inner flight.
For when she was just a girl
curls that locked cuteness in,
September brought her hope
for someone to look past,
to give a platform
for her light within.

Dream awaits the year
since the age of four
marriage built her broken house
as she lost herself to pretend
ready to fly overhead
with the catchers at her beat
to find the heart in such a place
until the age of twelve she meets.
Disorder eats her layers,
starving to be heard, to be loved,
to be noticed
like the few that got it
in that fairytale kind of way
to have them love each other,
how she hoped to be loved one day.

Teachers from the home
To the ones that line the desks
They are just people
They are just vessels too
They are just souls, beating
to be used,
to shine through.
Broken and still they must smile,
as they teach
there are always just a few
or maybe many more
that hold their own tale within
like her two at home
where words fail to dive beyond the surface
impossible is just a lie
many others keep reciting
jealous of their own dreams they themselves were lies to too
beating to a beat that they could never reach.

But there were always just a few
placed in just the right spot
despite the war at home
like Miss Boyle’s beat to include all
never shaming the “too shy”
and Mrs. Carey’s mediations
her radiant eyes to see what was muted, but screaming inside.

I forgive the shattered laughter
I forgive the ones that tried to date
I forgive the ones trained by script
I forgive all the others too
Forgiveness is what better allows me;
and us all,
to be faithfully and innately equipped.
For what I bring to the table
from the very first to what the calendar
calls the very last,
the days that fly by to standards
but stick like glue to the core
that even when you feel your lowest
even when others doubt
and the war goes on at home
my battle may not be yours
it may not even be known
but battles stand apart
yet together, as they very own
So, I am a broken vessel too;
here to teach you
to believe in the you,
of so much more.
Who I needed back then
I promise to be
I promise to you
at the present time
your future’s
always just a few.

Jennifer Kosuda


She was like a dealer
pushing drugs
three first periods a week
at teens still half asleep
and bored
We started where the sidewalk ends
and then took roads
that bend a brain
this way and that
until it snaps
beneath the strain
explodes in iridescent
shrapnel shards of
haiku slivers
mixed with rusty odes
We shot up rhymes
between our toes
snorted lines
till we went blind
nearly overdosed
a dozen times
came close
to being swallowed
by epiphanies
and Wild Things
We picked our way
along the cliffs
fed ourselves on fantasy
and myths
She wouldn’t let us rest
until we didn’t want to stop
despite the overload
until we wanted more
than we could possibly
And then
She banished us
to Algebra, Phys. Ed., Chemistry
the vast untethered World outside
knowing we would not survive
without a Junkie’s daily dose -
a nickel bag
of poetry

Frank Kelly


He walks and talks,
striding down the hall
trailing clouds of students
stumbling to keep up.
Cradling books
with his left hand,
he uplifts his right,
one finger raised
to illustrate a point,
with his booming voice
scattering other, lesser
beings to each side,
like water from the bow
of some great ship at sea.

He then blasts through an
outer office, still lecturing,
making yet another point
as he passes his secretary’s
desk to reach his berth in
his paneled office. He flings
his books on his desk, turns,
and confronts the lone
student remaining at his door,
an adoring girl, pulled in his
wake like an errant dinghy.

“And so, Miss Pickerel,” he
says, looking down at her
bright, bespectacled eyes, “you
understand, do you not, why
Frost is such a dunce?”

“Yes Sir,” she says, holding
her text, clutched tightly between
locked fingers, up to her chin.

“Professor, I . . .” her voice trails
away as she looks up at him with
soft and widening eyes.

“Yes, yes,” he says, “Frost
braved the waves and made a
point or two; revered, of course,
but never led the way
nor charted a new path
for poetry today.” He
stopped, waved his hand
at the door, and ploughed
into his seat behind his dark
captain’s desk.

A moment passes, yet still she
stands, swaying slightly, like
foam on a retreating tide.

He looks up, pen in hand.
“Well, what is it?”

“I . . .” she can barely stammer
out a word.

“Miss Pickerel, class is over.
What is it that you want?”

And then, like water pouring
over the gunnels of a sinking
boat, the words spill out:

“I’ve always wanted, wanted
to be the way you make me
feel when you read Frost, like
I’m going to explode, like I’m
about to die, like I’m no longer
me but the very words themselves,
part of life itself, I am the birch,
I am the road, I am the wall, I am
the earth itself, I am—”

Suddenly, extending her arms,
her book flying halfway across
the room, she lets out a long,
passionate sound coming from
somewhere deep inside, like
the sound a ferry makes in a fog.

Speechless, gasping for breath,
like a fish thrown into the

bottom of a skiff, with both hands
clasping the sides of the door
she sinks slowly in a lump
to the floor.

“But Miss Pickerel,” the Professor
says, rising in horror from his
desk; “it’s only poetry!”

Robert Miller


remember cursive?
graded penmanship
the hope of praise

what kind of word
is penmanship?
the art of manliness

I wrote poems on napkins
stained with lipstick

a thing to aspire to
what color red
was its name?

bruised plums?
I carried the soiled squares
in my lunchbox

between apple slices
and soggy sandwiches
later traded for anything sweet

Patty Joslyn


By mid-September, my freshmen had learned
That unless one of them was prepared to distract me,
I would fall back on the dreaded syllabus
And bore everyone with things like metaphors and similes.

To keep that from happening,
I encouraged their spontaneous prose-poems,
Like the one a boy told of his Macedonian cousins:
How, at Christmas, they showed they had the bodies of saints
By diving into an icy river for the sacred cross their priest had thrown in;
Or, at Easter, how they proved they had the hearts of lions
By tackling horses in their parents’ fields..

But, by June,
When the best story-tellers had either quit or were suspended,
I was forced to review for finals.
On the board I chalked an example of a simile:
“The squirrel on the side of the road looked like a coffeepot,”
An image their parents understood when they sat in these seats,
But, to these kids, was as archaic as cash.
To breathe some life into the room, I turned to the new girl
Who was staring out the window at distant lightening.

“Kim, did you hear what I said about similes?
“Did you remember anything about poetry from your last school?”
She stopped chewing her gum.
“Not from school, no,
“But My Grandma did tell me there are times
“When poetry comes in handy.”

To me, the idea that a family in the Poconos discusses poetry
Was as outlandish as Macedonian rites of passage.
“And what did your grandmother say?”

“Well, you see, my mother’s brother is one of those artsy fellows
“That nobody but teachers like, a poet;
“And his mother, my Grandma, has a copy of his book in her house.”

“And have you read it?”

“O, I don’t think anybody has, and now we can’t.
“You see, with these hot days,
“Grandma uses it to steady her tall fan;
“Without it, the blades wobble and snarl
“Like the nut grinder she uses for holiday cookies.
“See, she lives in Scranton where there’s mine subsidence,
“And her floor slopes like a handicap ramp.
“Luckily, my uncle’s book is just the right thickness,
“Like a sandwich,
“And so it’s perfect for propping up the back leg.”

“How does your uncle feels about that?”

“Well, everybody likes Grandma,
“And we all think it’s high time
“He did something to make her happy.”

Ron Yazinski


Back in the day
I recited this poem
Every day, much the same way
Thinking not much about it
As I looked up at the flag
Jutting from the wall
Or the fact that it was
Even a poem at all
That it had been written in 1892
When Grover bested Cleveland
For term number two
It wasn’t Mother Goose,
Seuss or Sendak
Its history untold
Terse and on track
Recitation and regurgitation
At what point came resonation?
I do not recall
The protestation would come much later
Way past my being a young first grader
Its intent was celebration
Intonation not indoctrination
400 years previous to its own birth
About our nation
An explorer came upon a new world
A discovery later challenged
A story unfurled
A reputation soiled
And text books corrected
No historical assassination
Just a truer explanation
Sometimes history requites rewrites
Or rather not the history itself
But rather its telling
When things aren’t gelling
Reflection, introspection
New perception
But its words and ideals
Are still there for me
Perhaps not what is
But what should be
Should we not bear them in mind?
Words on rewind to remind
That liberty and justice
Is a commitment, a call
A reminder that the great too can fall
Lest there be unity in strength
And justice for all
Do demand
No need to reprimand
Those who take a stand
One way or another
Sisters and brothers
To protest is to pledge
So come down from the ledge
Rebellion brings change
In order to rearrange
Wrong to right
Is all our fight
This verse means more
Than it ever has before
Same country; different time
For these words that rhyme
No them and us
Our country - yours and mine

Terri J. Guttilla


My bruised heart was hiding in the classroom
behind my facade of "good-natured professor",
as always, jokey and light-hearted.
But words felt hollow -
I could no longer journal, either into the abyss
of feelings, or the quotidian
matters of the day-to-day.
But a haiku, a rondeau, a Sapphic ode, a sonnet;
time-tested vessels into which I poured carefully chosen words.
With trepidation, I pressed "send" on an e-mail - a poem
attached - to our school's literary magazine.
When I got the reply ("Good news"), I flinched,
anticipating judgement for revealing too much.
But the launch party brought some relief
as I saw faces I knew:
a counselor shared her anxiety
a favorite student shared her fear of not belonging.
"I enjoyed reading it" someone said
about my bereavement.
We'd externalized what felt too much
to keep inside, too
to keep inside.
We could be honest and revealing behind the scrim of art(ifice).
The iambs and slant rhymes could bear
the terrible ambivalence of content.
The ambiguity and difficulty of living
could be tolerated in community:
held in the safe space
of the pages of the magazine, which leveled us,
melded us
in the form and sound.

Gina A. Turner


Shall I compare thee to a summers day
While I wander lonely as a cloud
And rage, rage against the dying of the light
As the vorpel blade went snicker-snack?

In stunted classroom, taught to test,
Learn, out-loud, recite, discuss
What the long-dead poet really meant
When he wrote,
“Hold infinity in the palm of your hand”
In line three.

Oh yes, I guess we can guess
What any poet, now bones and worms
Was thinking about
A hundred and eighty three years ago
On a Tuesday afternoon.

But is your opinion really better than mine,
Or more valid,
Just because you’re my teacher today?

Damon Leigh