Joy and a blank notebook
ROBERT Frost wrote that poetry ``begins in delight and ends in wisdom.'' I want to pass this same joy to my students. When I meet a poetry class for the first time, some come with typed copies, pass photocopies ready for workshopping, read their poems aloud in a full voice. Others bring diaries or journals with bright-colored covers and handwritten poems. They are hesitant about sharing and may read with a small voice. A second reading by a volunteer helps them hear the lines and images that work. Some come with blank note-books and a pen.
I begin by discussing the sound of words. ``What pair of words do you think the French people selected as the most beautiful set of English sounds?''
If they cannot guess, I say ``cellar door'' and the room fills with laughter. I follow up with an exercise in sound. As they write original tongue twisters, a new awareness of sound in language results. They hear the effect of alliteration. In future lessons we also attempt assonance. In focusing on sound they may discover the added pleasure of a surprising juxtaposition of images. Hands of students new to writing poetry go up eager to share. Praised for fresh use of language, they are on their way to writing their first poem.
Next, we concentrate on the image, including a lesson on haiku. I encourage my students to learn the names of plants, animals, and minerals, such as ginseng, tourmaline, and tanager. In a poem instead of using the general ``tree,'' I urge them to use the specific, ``pine,'' ``maple,'' or ``oak.''
Assignments include writing observations, comparisons, memories, dreams. I read a memory poem of my own such as ``Blue Watermelon,'' on my mother leaving Moscow to join my father in Tabriz.
In contrast to the snow outside the members of the class write their childhood memories of an extremely hot day. I walk up to an English teacher. Her paper is blank. Impressed by works of Coleridge, Shelley, and Wordsworth, she says, ``The masters have done it all. What can I write?''
I answer, ``They have not seen man rocket into space or step on the moon. Write your unique 20th-century experience. Write from your landscape, the United States, the Eastern seaboard.''
I bring poetry books, magazines, newspapers, records, and anthologies including living poets, such as A. Poulin Jr.'s ``Contemporary American Poetry.'' The English teacher falls in love with e. e. cummings and shares ``anyone lived in a pretty how town'' with the class.
I announce local poetry readings at nearby colleges -- Marge Piercy, Robert Bly, Galway Kinnell -- and add human details such as Kinnell cooking fish at the beach at Martha's Vineyard, then encouraging each of us to recite a poem of our own around the fire. I read aloud a favorite poem of the visiting poet.
A teen-age student comes up to me before class and says, ``I was dreaming of horses on the beach when a real one galloped by. In an instant it was gone.''
I let her know she is speaking the line of a possible poem and should write it down, then close her eyes and see what else comes.
On the day of our class trip we talk about observation poems and accompanying leaps. I read ``Le Marche Ouvert,'' my poem on seeing Boulevard Grenelle transformed as I watched from my hotel window in Paris. We examine the image leap in James Wright's poem ``A Blessing,'' describing Indian ponies. My students bring papers and pens as an artist brings canvas and paints to the lake. A swan establishing territory flies around the lake, swoops down, huge wings splashing as they close, then skims across the water. Vibrant verbs fill the students' poems.
Observing a heavy rainstorm, an Indian woman remembers an old man in a monsoon with his umbrella trying to catch his only possession, a cooking pot. She writes her first poem.
Inspired by music or a painting, students write. Some cross out the first line they write, and the flow of images stops. I encourage them to try again and trust the images that come, keep from editing before the heart of the poem surfaces.
An ex-marine who is a private detective writes his first poem. He talks about the importance of mental concentration in tae kwon do. We encourage the teacher to concentrate on the images, not on editing, and, let go as in the ocean, the waves will come.
The detective gets hooked on poetry. In a TV demonstration of tae kwon do, we watch him with his bare hand cut through 10 boards on fire. Then he reads his poems.
The English teacher writes her first poem, ``The Shady Spot.'' When she shares it, her face shines with the same joy as one cutting through 10 boards in a firebreak.