A Little World Made Cunningly

April, with with his shoures soote, is National Poetry Month, and in this increasingly complicated world that’s as good an excuse as any to spend some time away from the prose of contemporary events in the company of a little verse.

Whether it’s Donne’s Holy Sonnets, Ginsberg’s Howl, or Dickinson’s Final Harvest, there is room for everyone in the house of poetry, Plath and Hughes, Bishop, Pope, and even some Leonard Cohen.


That 18th century philosopher (that some kids today know only as Mary Shelley’s mom) Mary Wollstonecraft wrote: “The generality of people cannot see or feel poetically.”

How I hope that isn’t true.

…but if it is, how nice that April, to some the cruelest month, has arrived with the inspiration to pick up a sonnet or ballad, a daring sestina or bit of free verse.

Across the US, librarians are sharing poems this month, English teachers are reciting poetry aloud, and a few of us who no longer fit either of these categories are making the time to dip into volumes of Stafford, Sexton, Rumi, and Walker. Some of us are looking for a new quotation from Mary Oliver, hoping for a little inspiration, or allowing ourselves an afternoon with old friends like Keats, Atwood, or Borges.

IMG_6437As a fellow who has made a professional life out of working with young people, I know the possibilities that exist if we can get past the prosaic hang ups of everyday life and, to steal a line from Blake, break free of our mind-forged manacles to see the world as it is, infinite. Young students can do this, particularly before they’ve been conditioned to “do school” adeptly, leaving learning as a kind of bonus.

So as April encourages each of us to wander lonely as a cloud, I hope that in addition to finding some poetry we might enjoy reading (Leaves of Grass, Nine Horses, or Where the Sidewalk Ends), we might also try our own hands at jotting out some well chosen words on a page. This doesn’t have to be Paradise Lost or The Faerie Queen; maybe it’s a haiku, one of those little ditties just three lines long.

Just five-seven-five
a haiku is as easy
as tapping out words”

…at least a simple one.

Or if that isn’t your answer, I’d challenge anyone still reading this post about poetry to defy the marvelous Mary Wollstonecraft and choose to use this month when “proud-pied April dress’d in all his trim/ Hath put a spirit of youth in every thing” as a catalyst to see and feel poetically.

One of my favorite Oregonian poets (not born here, but damp and moss covered in spirit …in a good way!) Floyd Skloot wrote:

Without speaking, moving together,
we power ourselves out of the calmer dark
and stroke hard for the water’s bright center
where the spring tide will carry us back upriver.”

Like the kayakers in Skloot’s poem, many of us leave winter a little downstream of where we’d like to be, and it is with April’s emerging sun, celebrated in the chorus of poets from across the ages, that we can dip our proverbial paddles into the water and find that magical balance and sense of hope that so often comes with spring.

With Feathers

Teaching gives me hope. The smiles and interest of students, their energy and ability to surprise all make time in the classroom some of the richest imaginable.

As a middle school principal, I have lots of opportunities to see strong teaching and learning, though most of this is as an observer, visiting classrooms, staying to watch the great work, and going back to other responsibilities.

As April arrived this year, however, I took advantage of National Poetry Month and asked my kind English Department if they’d open their doors to me to teach a lesson to some of their classes. They were welcoming, as they had been in October when I taught a little Sherlock Holmes, and this week was my first of more than a half dozen opportunities to teach some Emily Dickinson, Emily Brontë, and two poems about hope.

photo 4 (4)Knowing I’d be working with a range of students, both 7th and 8th grade, college prep and honors, I started with the question: “What is poetry?” The ideas the kids presented were creative and honest, and as I asked them to clarify what they meant by “strong language” and “emotional response” they were able to use details to make their points.

Next we talked about language and the importance of choosing the right words, and they tried their hands at creating some found poems. Taking pages from Call of the Wild as their starting point, they came up with some pretty fantastic adventures into poetic language.

From there we got to the heart of the lesson, two very different poetic perspectives on hope.

Emily Brontë, the reclusive author of Wuthering Heights, called Hope a “false guard, false watch keeping,” likely in the toughest times to “turn her face away.” It took the kids some work to unpack what Brontë was saying, and when they did, I’m not sure that many were happy with what was strewn on the table.

photo 2 (6)Emily Dickinson brought a much more popular perspective on that “thing with feathers/that perches in the soul/ and sings the tune without the words/ and never stops at all.” The students had to do some work to define a few words in the poem (using phones, Chromebooks, and good, old fashioned dictionaries) and then talk through how those words were being used. As they did I saw more than a few nods of satisfaction as they figured out that they kind of liked what this 19th century New Englander was saying.

As I walked around the room listening to the students discussing the two poems, pulling textual evidence to support their close reading, and arguing to what poem spoke to them most, I found myself inspired by the engagement and thoughtfulness these young people brought to their interactions with the poems and each other.

Those who question education would have their minds changed if they saw the quality of learning that takes place in classrooms every day. I sometimes hear critics express fear about the future, or doubt about what happens in schools, but an hour watching these kids wrestle with poetry would turn their world on its head.

As one student, smiling as she explained why Emily Dickinson resonated more with her than Emily Brontë, said: “There’s always room for hope.”

And inspiration.