What is your poetry story? You have one. You know… the moment when you decided you loved poetry. Or hated it. Someone gave it to you. Or took it away. Someone forced you to memorize a poem and you felt exhilarated. Or scared. Or free. Or like you were going to throw up.
I was a freshman at Mary Washington College and somehow got permission to take an upper level poetry course. We had class outside on that first day. I’d always loved poetry, but that first class discussion was held in an academic dialect I barely recognized. That didn’t stop me from participating (but it should have). I don’t remember what I said, but I remember the moment that followed: the air grew very still. One girl blew smoke rings. Another exchanged a meaningful look with the girl that sat across the grass from her. And rolled her eyes. The professor gave me a sympathetic look. A girl swathed in a dark shawl glared at him and said, “See? This is why they should not let freshmen in here.” I bit my lip and fought back the tears. My face was hot with embarrassment. I was an outsider.
It all turned out fine. I learned to read, speak, and write in that dialect of meter and form (when I had to). I did fine in the class. The girls became my friends. I declared English as my major. Lucky for me, that was not my first poetry story. Otherwise it might have been my last.
My poetry story started with my mother. And yours did, too. A mother’s heartbeat is the metronome that sets us up for life. We lean towards that beat in nursery rhymes and in jump rope chants; in picture books and poetry; in the bible or Torah or Koran; and in storybooks made sacred with the cadence of a parent’s voice.
Favorite picture books are often poetry or prose studded with poetic elements. Jane Yolen, Maurice Sendak, Margaret Wise Brown, Cynthia Rylant, Eve Bunting, Vera Williams, Faith Ringgold, and (more obviously) Dr. Seuss are all poets.
All through the year, I gently lead my children towards poetry with picture books. With these books I teach that not all good writing is poetry, but most good writing has poetry tucked in—like berries in a thicket. A writer of a science text might use metaphor. Or alliteration. Or personification. Or simile. These words are old friends by the time we celebrate April as National Poetry Month.
In honor of Poetry Month, we cast our regular homework aside. Each week in April, every child works on a poem of his or her choosing. Poems are memorized and illustrated. Copies are made for classmates. Friday comes. We gather in a poetry circle. One by one, each child takes his or her place in the center of the circle and recites a poem. A moment of quiet follows while the student passes a copy of the poem to each child in the class. In this quiet the poems are read silently. Twice. And placed in the individual poetry folders: each a growing anthology built child-by-child; heartbeat-by-heartbeat; poem-by-poem. A poetry story begins.
What is your poetry story? Can you share a sentence or two?