Reading & Literacy

Foundation Nourishes Soul With Poetry Grants

By Catherine Gewertz — October 24, 2001 6 min read

The connection happened in an instant, a bright bolt of understanding linking a class of high school seniors to their teacher. It happened the moment Marta Rivara reached a bittersweet stanza in a poem she was sharing with her class, and the teenagers saw her eyes brimming with tears.

It happened again, miles away, when another teacher infused the spirit into her 11th graders, drawing them into a spontaneous, chanting poetry composition so rhythmic, so infectious, that she boogied along as she scribbled it on the board. One of her students would later recall it as the moment when the class started to matter.

“I think we all bonded that day and believed we could be poets. Bards, even,” the boy wrote. “This exercise cracked us open to each other. We learned what ecstasy meant.”

It’s that joy that drives the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation’s poetry program. Believing that verse nourishes the soul and the intellect, its aim is to show teachers and students how to make a passionate connection to poetry. And in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Dodge Foundation officials are expanding the program, believing that if ever there was a time when people need the redeeming power of such an art form, that time is now.

“When people try to talk about this event, language fails them,” said Martin Farawell, the poetry coordinator for the Morristown, N.J.-based foundation. “That is where poetry begins. It helps us express the inexpressible. It touches the deepest human elements in people and offers a connection to our common humanity. It helps us find what is essential and beautiful and life-affirming.

“And that is essential for survival in a crisis.”

Eliminating Fears

The Dodge Foundation is not one of the biggest in the country, and its $445,000, two-year grant-making budget is allotted largely to the arts, education, animal welfare, and local issues. Only a tiny portion of its assets is used for the poetry-in-the-schools program, but its devotion to poetry is fierce and enduring.

Surveying arts funding in the mid-1980s, the foundation discovered that less than 2 percent of all such money went to literature, and only a fraction of that supported poetry.

In 1986, that finding led to the first of what was to become a widely attended and esteemed biennial poetry festival in Waterloo Village, N.J. The programs for students and teachers, offered at no charge, formally began the following year.

The linchpin of the Dodge Foundation model is the group of about 50 poets that breathes life into verse in sessions for more than 200 New Jersey high school teachers and 2,500 to 5,000 students each year. Participating teachers attend a retreat called “Clearing the Spring, Tending the Fountain,” in which groups of a dozen gather each spring at 18 sites around the state for six sessions of immersion in verse.

In response to the events of Sept. 11, the foundation has provided extra funding to the program, which will enable it to reach hundreds more students and teachers in November and December.

In the student sessions, “Dodge poets” visit schools for one or more days, reading poetry aloud with students, drawing out their thoughts and feelings about it. In both the teacher and student workshops, the aim is not to dissect poetry to produce a “correct” interpretation, but simply to dwell in its beauty.

“Too often, a teacher assumes a position of superiority to the poem, of having the answers, and then it becomes error and humiliation, wrong answers,” said Jim Haba, Dodge’s poetry director. “The main thing is to get the poem off the page, and to get it to come alive. We want teachers to engage with their students in an open conversation of joy, puzzlement, grief—the whole range of feelings of human utterance.

“What we hope for is a collaborative exploration that will eliminate the fear of poetry,” he said. “We want to help students and teachers find ways to enter poems and stay inside poems with pleasure and even, sometimes, wonder.”

Waking the Passion

Ms. Rivara, an English teacher at the 800-student Lenape Valley Regional High School in Stanhope, N.J., found that attending the “Spring and Fountain” sessions, as they are nicknamed, reinvigorated her power to convey the excitement of poetry to her students.

“It’s a very intense experience, and it energizes you,” she said of the retreats. “It’s not the typical analytical discussion. We talk about what connects us to the poetry, and what connects us to each other. And if I get excited and energized again, how much more can I wake my students up to that passion?”

Just last week, Ms. Rivara was talking to a class of seniors about forgetting and forgiveness. They read a poem by the contemporary poet Marge Piercy about the things escaping her memory. A few stanzas in, Ms. Piercy writes of her feelings upon realizing that she is starting to forget cherished details about her dead mother. That sparked vivid feelings in Ms. Rivara, and she turned to her students with obvious emotion.

“My eyes filled up, and I stopped and told the students I had lost my mom. I asked them about if they had lost someone, and if they had experienced that moment of panic when you can’t remember their face. Suddenly, everyone started talking,” she said. “Here in our school, we are dealing with September 11. One student in our building lost his father. And in that poem, there was that human connection: that loss, grief.”

The experience can open a student’s eyes. A football player in her class last year, an average student in general, made a cautious foray into verse with poems about his favorite sport. Emboldened by good feedback, he began producing passionate love poems and serious reflections about his future.

Impressed, Ms. Rivara invited him into the annual literary magazine. Worried what his peers would think, he asked: “Who sees it?” But once his poems were published to peer praise, he brought big groups of his athlete friends to the magazine reception, Ms. Rivara said.

For Julie Schwartz, the weeks spent with poetry in Ms. Rivara’s class last year had a lasting value.

“Poetry makes me look at things in a different way now,” said Ms. Schwartz, 18, and now a freshman at Wagner College in New York City. “I try and find the beauty in things, or the lack of beauty in things, and portray them through poetry. And writing poetry about what happened on September 11 made it easier to live with somehow.”

The Power of Language

Its greatest proponents will say that poetry offers rich rewards not only as comfort in tough times, but in linking readers to the range of universal human experience.

“It connects us to the sacredness of the everyday,” said Billy Collins, the current U.S. poet laureate. “It shouldn’t be brought out just when we face a spectacular crisis.”

Recalling that the novelist and editor Ford Madox Ford wrote sonnets in Latin while sitting in the trenches during World War I, Mr. Collins said: “Poetry reminds us of civilization in a time of horror, that there is a sense of reason and form and care and logic in making something out of language, that language is power.”

It was that power that students fed right back to the teacher who danced along as they chanted their spontaneously composed poem a few years back at the Princeton Day School in Princeton, N.J.

After asking her students to close their eyes and listen to her read aloud from sensuous, dramatic poetry, Judith Michaels had drawn them into the group composition, and then they wrote poems of their own, about being men and women.

“I’m a woman with the wind behind her eyes/I’m a woman who sees colors in the air/I’m an oyster-shell woman, I’m a leaf-eared woman/I’m a falling woman/I’m a woman afraid of the light/I’m a woman lost in the dark,” wrote one 11th grade girl.

That weekend, Ms. Michaels later wrote, “I found myself jazzing quietly through Penn Station to my own groove: ‘I’m the musk woman, I’m the sub-fusc woman, I’m the woman with the mask, I’m the woman who just can’t ask, I’m the outerbanks woman, I’m the Weetabisk woman ...’”

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