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Children Take Poems to Heart

I ACCEPTED an invitation to be a writer-in-residence with trembling palms and a sweaty heart. I would be working with ``learning disabled'' students in an inner-city elementary school - sharing poetry with them and getting them to write their own poems. I had no idea how to prepare, how to light a spark in students whose reading and writing skills were minimal. I spent hours in libraries and harvested a stack of books on teaching poetry. All the books fell into two camps: those that served children a poem, rather like a turkey, and then had them pick it clean with discussion questions - and those that threw children into the water without showing them how to swim, e.g., ``Look at the snow outside and write how you feel about it.''

But then I found Kenneth Koch's ``Rose, Where Did You Get That Red?'' His book was my mainstay for the eight-week residency. I had felt all along, like Koch, that children can relate to ``adult'' poetry. Their poetry need not be restricted to rhymes about rainy days or playing in the sand. Koch's book holds an eclectic gathering of poets - from William Blake to Federico Garc'ia Lorca to William Carlos Williams to Marianne Moore. Koch organizes lessons in which, after the poem is read, children are instructed to use certain elements from the poem in making one of their own. The exercises assist children to be creative by giving them guidelines.

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I tried some of William Carlos Williams's poems. His ordinary subjects written about in elegant simplicity and slim format appealed to the children. I told them that Williams had been a doctor in Rutherford, New Jersey, and often wrote his poems between house calls.

One gray afternoon I was in a class of 10- and 11-year-olds. I began by reading Williams's ``This Is Just to Say.'' The poem is a note, I said, similar to notes they may have left on the kitchen table. The poem is also an apology. The boys and girls agreed that sometimes it's necessary to apologize even if you don't feel ``really sorry.''

When it was time for them to write their own poems, I walked among the desks, writing down words they wanted to use in their poems. I had found that an idea could grow cold, even die, while a student agonized over spelling. They were encouraged to try to spell on their own, but if they were stuck I would write the word on a slip of paper placed on the corner of each desk.

Though most of the children had difficulty reading aloud, several volunteered to read their poems. The teacher urged the more reluctant students to share their poems.

The poems apologized for borrowing sweaters, without permission, from an older sister; for eating the last piece of pizza; for playing in forbidden places.

My time was over when a solemn boy raised his hand and said he wanted to read his ``pology.'' His poem began by addressing another boy in the class. He said he was sorry for hitting his friend on the playground during lunch break. ``You are my best friend, and I love you. Best friends shouldn't hit each other.'' The poem went on for several lines to ask for the friend's forgiveness.

The children were still. There was no giggling or fidgeting. This was a real apology, a note that expressed true sorrow for an action. As I stood beside this brave student, my eyes bright with tears, I saw that the teacher and the aide were touched by the unfiltered emotion of the boy's poem. The recipient of the apology sat quietly looking at his hands.

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As was often the case during that residency, I left the class with another level of appreciation for poetry. The children were quick to grab onto the immediacy and utility of poetry as communication. And that afternoon, I'd been reminded of how close to the heart poetry lives.

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