Ordering Experience: Poetry Powers
Over the summer, in an online educational leadership course I attended, we viewed a scene from the film Invictus. In it, Nelson Mandela (played by Morgan Freeman) explains to pro-Rugby player Pienaar (played by Matt Damon), what helped him survive imprisonment. Nelson relates that the poem, “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley gave him inspiration to endure. The poem motivated him to be more than he expected he could be. In his case, a survivor.
In reading through and responding to peer comments on Mandela’s inspirational confession, a few people replied that it didn’t occur to them that literature or reading others words could be a source of inspiration, or, for that matter, an affirmation of leadership. To them, Pienaar’s more relatable response to Mandela, namely that a song is what he and his teammates use to prepare for a big game, was the more intuitive and natural initiating motivator.
Either way really, Mandela’s poem or Pienaar’s song, the impetus is still the same. The singing, lyrical quality of poetry has a resonant and necessarily ordering quality for all of us.
To Gregory Orr, author of A Primer for Poetry and Readers of Poetry, “lyric poetry” works to “carve away excess” and it “seeks a center that is emotionally charged” through the ways it attends to spaces, pauses, meter, various forms of rhyme, syllable counts, economy of lines, lineation, and compression of content. It is an intensity of emotion distilled and presented rhythmically (Orr 84). To Orr’s mind, it was created by culture specifically to help us manage the internal or external disorder that destabilizes us and causes a self-crisis. While few of us can claim to be poets, there is an intuitive desire to and inclination toward the production of poetry. The point being raised by Orr is that, for many of us — for example, in our youth when crafting a love poem (or writing a love song?) — poetry is spontaneous. Why? Often, the object of our poem is so new and the feeling so unmooring that it needs to be processed externally and compactly to help us return to a sort of psychological or emotional homeostasis.
In other words, lyrical poetry just sort of materializes impulsively from each of us. Thankfully, too, when we put those words onto the page, arrange and order them, and let them sing, many leave feeling their inner world has been reordered. Like when Mandela read “Invictus,” he (and we whether we are reading or writing poetry) feel inspired. Indeed, poetry may make us feel motivated and in control of our present and hopeful for our destiny.
Since, over the last couple of years, the world has been rather disorienting for many of us, I think we need poetry more than ever. As an adult with a pretty contoured constructed identity at this point, I still find myself struggling to sense security. Everywhere we look there seems to be great, sweeping ideological, sociological, psychological, and ecological shifts that invisibly press upon and, as my friend says, as “bodies in this world,” physically disorient us. The denial of those stressors is a common coping mechanism; but art can be a genuine balm. Art has always been that essentially ahistorical and critical gaze at the world that cracks us open to new understandings. When I think of Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays,” for example, there are moments when I am dwarfed by the word “too” (as in “Sundays too my father got up early”). Reading that little word is just as awesome to me as standing in the shadow of blowing Zephyr in Botticelli’s La Primavera. I am shrunken, and in my smallness I can comprehend thoughts and feelings I had long-since buried or forgotten, or even ones I didn’t know I had. That’s the power or magic of “simultaneous” art forms. It compresses messages such that the immaterial becomes graspable; there is little unfolding and a lot of immediacy. Therefore, it directs, it orients, and it can heal.
Story-syntax used to always afford me some predictive powers when on unsteady ground. As a regular reader, I tend to know what comes next in the story of reality, but these last few years the lessons of the long-form narrative haven’t exactly helped us chart our path forward. I constantly question: What will the world bring us next? What does our future look like? I am not sure that these are even great meta-physical questions so much as desperate, practical ones in a time fraught with a shaded vaguery. Disorder looms and hangs bleakly over the future.
Instinctively, in my search for intuitional guidance, I turned to poetry.
It is for this reason, I think, we take Orr’s advice or Mandela’s sage council. When we consider the ways we should, as teachers of the humanities, instill a growth mindset, one way we can help order the destabilization we sense and lessen the pervasive anxiety we feel today is to have our students write poetry.
Poetry Assesses: Sitting Beside Them
As teachers, we see incongruities and angst appear in our classrooms everyday. While some of us have been reacclimating to the in-take of thousands of students into schools again (some with masks and some without), readjusting to another year with new protocols and distance requirements, returning to traditional instruction, recalling the bane of SGOs, quantified assessments of our abilities, proctoring, tracking, and grading national, state, and building-level high-stakes tests again, or returning to our hefty meeting and duty schedules, the undergirding sentiment of our student body is one of exhaustion at best and grief at worst. In other words, the diverted attention of the presentist’s world is back, and yet — even as adults — we might not be truly ready for it. So, the question is, what can we really offer our students to acknowledge that which they can feel but can’t yet orient?
The norms of the last two years have altered the way we live, how we feel, and our ability to and belief in our own unmitigated, interminable endurance. Last year, for example, students across the US were surveyed about their well-being with over 50% indicating that they were uncertain about their future. Other alarming and relevant statistics included that nearly 30% felt constantly under strain, while over 30% reported feeling unhappy and depressed. What’s more is that there has been little consistent direction from district, state, and national governance about how to proceed. Even proactive research and publication on the realities of re-entering schools or how successful schools are helping students and teachers bridge the chasm of 2020-to-2022 seems shockingly scarce. The public discourse as a flotation device hasn’t been adequately offered, and so it seems teachers and students have to find a way to wade into the water together.
To that, I keep revisiting the power of simultaneity; the dwarfing, cracking, space-creating goodness of art. What better activity is there to offer students than an agency-inducing creatively necessary poem?
We ELA educators gain a lot too from having our students write poetry.
- It reveals a great deal about how they are feeling (at present or throughout these last two years).
- It helps them practice precision in writing, and it opens them up to the artistry of language through their focus on sound, images, and form.
- It develops those deeper (connected learning) connections that help us really know our students, and then ultimately, teach them better throughout the year.
- It is a form of Socio-Emotional Learning (SEL) education, and it is culturally responsive and culturally competent teaching as well.
Mechanism in Form
In practical terms, the way we might engage students in this early writing task can be through playful composition; an approachable starting point even for those educators or students who tend to flee poetry like they hear the theme music from Jaws whilst in the water.
While poetry has that daunting and untouchable quality for many of us, it can be considered, as Zapruder writes in Why Poetry, a “little machine.” In this way, poetry composition might not be proprietorial and onerous. In fact, it isn’t meant to be threatening. Zapruper reflects, “The more poetry I read, and wrote, the more clearly I saw that there really is no such thing as “poetic language.” The words in poems are for the most part the same as those we find everywhere else” (9). Following Zapruder’s confidence, poetry draws from what we intuitively know and from our everyday lives and languages which reflect our specific realities. Thankfully, poetry has helpful forms and styles ready-made for imitation, too. With exposure, Zapruder counsels, a poem isn’t difficult to craft nor is it intentionally undecipherable for the reader; it is organized, mechanistic, and literal.
In the Shop: Using Tools to Create
There are several ways to accomplish the purposeful writing of poetry. One way I approached this activity last spring was through deconstructing Mark Doty’s Analysis of Display of the Mackerel.
In my Transitions 1 ESL class and in my Honors 10 English classes, and after a year of writing distantly “together,” I wanted to close the year with an assignment that allowed students to capture their experience in remote learning or throughout their social distancing days. Having some interest in constraint writing activities as generative writing tools, I turned to Doty and his essay, “Souls on Ice.” I bulleted these essentials of his poetry creation method for my class:
- “I almost always begin with description, as a way of focusing on that compelling image, the poem’s ‘given.’”
- “If I do my work of study and examination, and if I am lucky, the image which I’ve been intrigued by will become a metaphor, will yield depth and meaning, will lead me to insight.”
- “There’s something else, some gravity or charge to this image that makes me need to investigate it.”
- “There’s a terrific kind of exhilaration for me at this point in the unfolding of a poem, when a line of questioning has been launched, and the work has moved from evocation to meditation.”
- “The drama of the poem is its action of thinking through a question.”
First, it is best to tell them straight-away that they need to compare an image to something abstract. Then, have students write a series of “I remember” statements like I was instructed to do in a recent poetry course I took. The “I remember” statements help them conjure up the events of the last year in image and with precision, and those events become the basis of the abstraction. From there, students will develop the description of the most evocative memory. (*The “I Remember” activity comes from Joe Brainard’s book I Remember.)
I remember headsets and mics, and wires and plastic confining me and tethering me to machines.
I remember walking backwards against the one-way arrows and hoping security wouldn’t catch me.
I remember black boxes, blank faces, foreheads, ceilings, and red mics. How many times did I ask, “are you with me?”
Next, like Doty, that descriptive image of memory will become a metaphor. Once the metaphor and abstraction are compared in the poet’s mind, Doty rightly moves toward infusing the metaphor with gravity and meditating on it. This is predominantly, I think, the work of poetry. The meditation and expansion of the comparison develops something ordering and “fresh” (to quote Orr) that sings to and inspires us all. There are a few ways to counsel students through the expansion of the metaphor, but two simple ways are:
1) tell them to list all of the words related to the metaphor itself. That generative list becomes the key words that they will use to expand their metaphor throughout the poem.
(*From The Poet’s Companion Addonzio and Laux 97).
2) write beside them. In doing so, you model processes, and they think aloud with you. It is through the process where confidence is built. So praise the process!
I remember sitting around a crackling orange fire in my friend’s backyard, the October night chill seeping into my skin through my parka and my blanket.
The night was dark, the sky black. White stars twinkled overhead.
The fire crackled a foot or so away. I sat side-straddle on a couch, sharing a plush blanket with my closest friend. I was still cold.
Three other people sat on chairs, two on a couch to my left facing the fire, and one ahead of me. The fire basked everyone in an orange glow. They all talked and laughed. I didn’t know anyone that well. I just sat there and smiled and laughed and added when I could.
The movie played to the right, projected onto a sheet. No one paid attention to it. We’d subtly implied to her that we enjoyed the conversation more than the movie, that we appreciated her for having us and for wanting to share this movie with us, but that we wanted to talk and enjoy each other instead. Especially since I didn’t know anyone that well.
It doesn’t matter if students write a sonnet, villanelle, ode, or a singing free verse poem, but some may benefit from a goal, such as a few stanzas or substantive several lines. Then, too, suggest that they consider the number of syllables on each line since rhythm can be realized through syllabic equity and lineation starts to become purposeful that way as well. In the end, every poem has a “turn,” a “volta” or an “epode” that seeks to resolve the dramatic tension (action) of the poem. As Doty writes, once he understands “the poem’s subject-beneath-the-subject, the final stanzas of the poem [open] swiftly.”
In the end, have them title their poem. Poem titles, like all titles, orient the reader, and I always suggest titling a work at the end because it offers that extra special quality of closure for the writer, too. That elusive feeling in life — a known and understood ending — can be satisfyingly experienced in a well-chosen title.
This is not an activity that needs to take many days, but it is one that works essential skills while allowing for some immediate flexibility and healing to occur. As I said to my students recently, “what is something I can do to make life a little easier for you in the next couple of months?” The overwhelming responses were about processing, not progressing (i.e. “more time in class to write,” “more time in class to read,” “less deadlines,” “we’ve been away from each other for so long, just more time to talk and share with each other.”) These shared truths speak to the nature of teaching to the “whole-child,” and why the less curriculum-directed poetry writing experience has merit; in essence, we are responding to the ways in which trauma distracts learners from retention, engagement, and work completion. In allowing them space to construct meaning and craft order out of the feelings they sense impacting them, we impart resilience; we offer them a path forward.
All at Once: Experience in a Single Moment
Art isn’t for art’s sake. It isn’t about being perfect in this context or space, it isn’t about accolades or the hand print marked on a wall for all eternity to recollect our existence, and it isn’t about publishing or sharing far and wide digitally; art can, and the poetic form does, in particular, communicate and correct our own inner crises.
It is in that spirit that I offer a poem my student wrote in class last year. She, like we all aimed to do, made manifest on the page that which we bury deep when we deny the senses we have for the sake of the status quo, “normalcy,” or expediency.
Sitting quiet, I am able to observe
the glances, the whispers, the hidden reserve.
Glancing at the others, I know everyone else can too.
We ignore it; what else are we to do?
The night air is cold, sharp, sweeping.
Though our orange fire lives, I feel its weeping
For though it may try to gift us its heat,
With the night it cannot compete.
A forgotten movie plays, cast onto a bedsheet,
The limpid projector settled between my feet.
The characters laugh, talk, scream, and cry,
But we ignore them, no matter how they try.
Closing is an Opening
On The Point’s, What is X?, a sophisticated conversation ensued in regards to the question: What is poetry? Since listening to that conversation, two words about the “simultaneity” of poetry have circled through my mind, and I think they speak to the tensions in the exercise above as much as they reflect the nature of what the poetic form can do for us — especially in times of trauma.
The two words, “paradox arrests,” are strangely decontextualized from the conversation now, but they linger for me because the phrase itself strikes me as a paradox, and a justifying one at that. Poetry is paradox. Poetry also arrests. And that description, that poetry is both limitless and liminal, makes poetry powerful.
When Maxine Hong Kingston wrote in Woman Warrior’s “White Tigers” that her Fa Mu Lan wanted to “make her mind open to the paradoxes of the universe,” I immediately understood the paradox to be the most freeing and expansive of thoughts and experiences. A poem, because of its expressiveness, its agency and artfulness, its recollection of personal memory over time, and the ways it carries the comparisons that reflect the phenomenological experiences the author has with the world, is freeing; and yet, paradoxically, it is neatly crafted under constraint. It “arrests” us in the final gaze, much like a painting, precisely because it can be controlled in its process. In other words, the source, the content, the feeling, and the meaning are unbridled and limitless, but the creation can be nurtured well through a series of expectations. Contradictory, perhaps, but nonetheless true. In that ironic zone between this and that, we shed inhibition, fear, doubt, worry and sit, if only briefly, a little more sure of where we were, where we are, and where we are going.
I am no poetry expert, and I still have much work to do as teacher and writer, but I think we can afford to make our minds open to the paradoxes of the universe for the sake of our students. Especially now. One way to do that is to accept that students are learning even as they are processing trauma. Another is to understand that parameters and personal experience are not at odds with one another, but rather a flowing channel through which individual expression can find the page.
We should give them that. And, we should give them this. We should give them poetry.
Additional Reading & Special Thanks
Special thanks to Kathleen Graber, Professor at FDU in the Creative Writing MA program.
Melissa Bryan is a high school English and ESL teacher in New Jersey. She holds an MA in Teaching English, a certification in ESL, and she is earning an MA in Creative Writing and Literature. She also is an adjunct professor at Union County College and at Drew University, and she is a teacher consultant with the National Writing Project at the Drew Writing Project/Digital Literacies Collaborative in Madison, NJ.
Peer reviewed through the Writers Who Care blind peer-review process.