Poetry Story

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?

About Annie Campbell

Annie Campbell is a National Board Certified teacher and loves her work. After a forty year career in the classroom, she continues to support teachers. Annie enjoys cooking for family and friends; she likes to lose herself in a good book; she loves discovering new ideas, restaurants, perfect picnic places, and movies with her husband, Ben.
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18 Responses to Poetry Story

  1. Jen says:

    I remember, so clearly, the morning when you asked me how long I had known I was a poet. The answer was for about 1 minute… and forever. Thank you for unlocking that gift in me.

  2. Bruce Yoder says:

    Xavier University. Spring 1972. Father Thomas Savage in collar and black garb, a big cigar in his hand. The windows open and a spring wind blowing the papers that had been stacked on his disk across the floor. Oblivious to the swirling sheets, he recited Dylan Thomas’s After the Funeral. With a broad gesture of cigar arcing to his right, his voice raised, we heard,
    And sculptured Ann is seventy years of stone.
    These cloud-sopped, marble hands, this monumental
    Argument of the hewn voice, gesture and psalm
    Storm me forever over her grave until
    The stuffed lung of the fox twitch and cry Love.

  3. Del says:

    wish I could remember

  4. Micol says:

    My third year Russian class in college was centered around the memorization of poetry. Professor Yurevich, an old school emigre from Astrakhan, fully subscribed to the Russian reliance on poetry to learn about pretty much anything: language, culture, nature, philosophy, romance…

    The final exam in his class was simple and terrifying: a 20-minute one-on-one oral exam in which we would have to recite the poems we’d memorized. Yurevich was notoriously difficult and stern, and the prospect of sitting in the small wooden chair in his office while he pelted us with questions, brought fear to the best and worst of his students.

    It also motivated us all, and I discovered that I memorized best while moving. I would pace around the park near my apartment, doing countless loops on the track, a creased, greasy, mimeographed paper in hand (The department was the last to get a Xerox, and those blue-inked copies were made well into the mid-90’s; it added a distinctly Russian flavor to Oregon’s Slavic department); Every day I walked until that day’s poem had been committed to memory.

    Somehow imposing and intimidating at barely five feet tall, Yurevich was a looming figure, and when I arrived to his office for my exam I felt tiny. He gestured and I sat. He commanded and I recited.

    “Pushkin,” he ordered.

    “It’s Time, My Friend, by Alexander Pushkin,” I responded. He nodded curtly and I began.

    “Pora, moi droog, pora. Pokoye serdtse prosit…” As I spoke, my voice getting just a little bigger, he watched intently. The moment I said the last lines, he was ready with the next order. We continued this rally until, after 22 poems, I had no more to offer.

    “Not bad,” he said, as he opened the door and waved me out. From Yurevich, this was high praise, and I basked in the glow of it for days.

    My own teaching reflects very little of his style, though I do appreciate the peculiar passion he had for his students, and his intense desire to make us learn. His pedagogy, though stern, was brilliantly effective: to this day, I can recite most of his classic Russian poems. They taught me not only vocabulary and syntax, but also about Russian culture, nature and romance.

    And I do applaud the fact that Annie has her students memorize poetry, even if she’s kind and loving about it.

  5. Libby says:

    Ah, Micol, I learned poetry by walking with it, too! In my case it was for my master’s exams, and they were written–but I felt I would be able to impress better if I could quote exactly. And I could and did. Mostly sonnets by Sidney, as I recall (which I only barely do).

    But when poetry first hit me–that was whenever I first read a Hopkins poem, I think. Probably “Spring,” which has the simplest first line ever– “Nothing is so beautiful as spring”–but which goes on to expand on it so gorgeously that I just wallow in it. Still. I don’t read much poetry, or study it, but I do absolutely adore teaching it, especially my much-maligned Victorians.

  6. W. Sledge says:

    Poetry is simply wonderful ! It allows me to express the way I see feel….it does’nt have to have complete sentences or logic. I can be free and funny, seriously to the point or just WILLY NILLY. Poetry is the best thing since cake !

  7. Stacey says:

    I didn’t enjoy poetry whatsoever until I started teaching it. My first literacy coach made me realize that I didn’t have to teach rhyming poems to kids, which intimidated me as a seven year-old. As soon as I got over that, poetry became a favorite genre to teach!

  8. mag says:

    Wow! What an incredible post. Your lucky student poets! I fell, of course, for e.e. cummings
    in Just-
    spring when the world is mud-
    luscious the little
    lame balloonman
    whistles far and wee

  9. Mrs. V says:

    I remember some earlier experiences with poetry, but I remember being amazed (and still am) with novels written in verse when I first started reading them within the last couple of years. They always leave me speechless. It has been so nice to see my students have similar reactions.

  10. melissa oliver says:

    I often think of the last line of The Summer Day, by Mary Oliver:

    Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

  11. Alyssa Murray says:

    Memorizing Robert Frost’s “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening” in 2nd grade was my first experiencing with poetry. Since then I have tried to fill my life with poems!

    I am still amazed how although made from words, poetry transcends language!

  12. Jay Parker says:

    I never liked poetry in elementary school. In high school I started to come around when I read some Robert Frost. Finally, in college it was Shakespeare that did it for me. I even survived a class on deconstructionism, which almost killed my love of poetry, but not quite. Shakespeare is stronger than even that. Now I enjoy writing and reading all kinds of poetry.

  13. Faithe says:

    Annie you know Dunbar “Lias, Lias” and Kipling “If” and Longfellow “An Arrow and A Song” were regulars at dinner in our house. As you would beg for a story from your dad, I would beg my daddy to recite in dialect. I still win most Jeopardy questions on poetry because the writers of Coleridge; as much as I hated learning “The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner,” I never forgot it. Ella helped me rock my fretful babies with “Did You Feed My Cow?” and also helped bridge the language gap with my Hispanic kindergarten children in Los Angeles. But the most fun I have had with poetry recently was working with you on ‘Oratorical Contest.’ I so miss it.

  14. Theresa says:

    I fell in love with poetry when I discovered the power this genre has with students. We work with poems all year – reading heaps of wonderful selections and creating many of our own. I would like to thank all the bloggers for enriching my teaching and writing life.

  15. Pingback: Celebrating National Poetry Month as a Mom « Utah Mama

  16. Lindsey S. says:

    “I am not a dart that you can throw.
    I am not a breeze through your window.

    I am not a star at night.
    I am not a christmas tree with lights.

    I am something pretty, you know,
    Like a flower or a mistletoe.”

    That was my very first poem I ever wrote in the second grade. I still remember it to this day.

  17. Jazzmine says:

    Poetry is a wonderful way to express one’s feelings. My poetry story started in my Freshman year of high school. My compositon notebook was first filled with titles of troubles in life I wanted to write about. All of which myself or my peers where going through at the time. They included things as simple as “F on test” to serious matters like “pregnacy at a young age.”

    As i look back now at all of my completed poems, I no longer feel the sadness that came when i composed them. I smile at the fact that they are no longer a problem in me or my friend’s life and that we were able to get over each and every hurdle.

    The poems that i write now are on a more positve road because I am at a wonderful place in my life.

  18. Lisa Benson says:

    My 7th grade teacher wanted us to write a poem and present it in front of the class. My creative thought process was moving as fast as a snail and, to make matters more challenging, I was the shy girl. I wanted to create this persona of an intellectual artistic poet that wore all black and sat on a bar stool while I spoke to an audience of nonchalant coffee drinkers. So, I wrote something dark and mysterious.
    My teacher then said that we should write as many as we can come up with. Great, I thought. Lucky for me, that morning when I was walking to school, a fog had set upon the miniature pine trees rooted on a hillside. I looked out and over them to see little specks of jewels. The morning dew was still fresh on the leaves. Light-bulb.
    As my teacher looked over my poems, he told me to read that one. In fact, he said he was really impressed by it. For some reason though, I thought it was too personal. I think it’s because I didn’t want the other students to know I walked to school. No one else did.
    So, I read the dark and mysterious one. My classmates gave me a round of applause, just like what everyone else got, and I sat down at my desk. I still wonder what would’ve happened if I read the other poem.

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