Opinion
Reading & Literacy Commentary

Rhyme and Reason

By Davi Walders — April 28, 1999 5 min read

A hot morning in April. Students are dozing during a discussion of World War II, or drifting in French 4. Try this: Pass out Lucien Stryk’s poem “Letter to Jean Paul Boudot, Christmas.” Ask for a reader. Let the class share the harrowing experience of a young Frenchman, trapped, trying to survive.

Friend, on this sunny day, snow sparkling everywhere, I think of you once more, how many years ago, a child Resistance fighter trapped by Nazis in a cave with fifteen others, left to die, you became a cannibal. Saved by Americans ...

A cold afternoon in winter. “Ugh,” from students, “not another phys.-ed. lecture.” Pull out “Rink Keeper’s Sestina: Hockey, hockey,” by George Draper. Have students read aloud as the winter solstice closes in:

Call me Zamboni. Nights, my job is hockey. I make the ice and watch the kids take slapshots At each other. They act like Esposito. As tough in the slot as, Phil, as wild with fury In fights. Their coaches tell me this is pleasure. But it isn't pleasure. What it is, is Hockey. Now let me tell you what I mean by Hockey. I mean the fights. I mean young kids in fury And all those coaches yelling for more slapshots ...

See what happens. “Rink Keeper’s Sestina: Hockey, hockey,” is, at once, a humorous and very serious commentary on sports and violence in American culture today. And it is more. Written from the point of view of the large, lumbering Zamboni machine, it is also a graceful mathematical form of six-line stanzas with repeating end words in different arrangements, called a “sestina.” Within these few lines, the poet forges words, form, and humor into a powerful statement.

For a break in a math class, or just to open a discussion on how each of us learns, why not try Rita Dove’s “Flash Cards":

In math I was the whiz kid, keeper of oranges and apples. What you don't understand, master, my father said: the faster I answered, the faster they came ...

I give you these examples because I believe in the power of poetry. I believe poems can and should have a place in any discipline--to awaken students (literally and figuratively), to stir the imagination, to open a window and let the light of learning in.

How could I not? I am a poet and former teacher who has had the great pleasure of looking out at audiences during readings, watching words form a magical bridge that connects in nods, smiles, and tears. I have watched new awareness and new space in a listener’s heart being created through the power of a poem. After readings, people line up to talk about their own experiences, to share their own memories evoked by something I wrote. Sometimes I have been thanked for writing what listeners say they have long felt, but could not express. A poem has helped them, just as it can help students, know more about their own experience. And I, myself, have often felt that same shock of recognition, of emotional pull, of insight when reading a good poem.

But even more importantly, long before I wrote my own poems, I used others’ poetry in my classroom. I have taught French, history, English, and English as a second language. Whatever the subject, I still run into students who say they remember nothing else but a poem and the boy (or girl) in the next row. I kept a file of poems and a few anthologies next to the dictionary on my desk. And I used them.

Maybe you’re thinking about how much you disliked poetry, how intimidated you felt, how you never “got it”? I didn’t much like it as a student either. Because of the way it had been taught, I had rarely been allowed to experience the power of the poem, taste its richness, let its texture really touch me before I had to begin analyzing, dissecting, pulling apart. I had to wait many years before coming back to poetry. As I slowly began to rediscover it, I also began reading contemporary work, adding to the old classics I remembered from high school. Today’s poetry is accessible, real, funny, shocking, disturbing. Poems may be written in vernacular or rap, all caps or lower case, but a good poem is always serious and substantial, teaching us about ourselves and the world.

When a poem works for someone, its power carries into learning that is never forgotten. Across the disciplines, poems can be an aid to learning. Metaphors intensify and clarify meaning. Let them do their work. Poetry can turn on the light, deepen meaning as nothing else can. Which carries more meaning: “That’s a difficult class,” or “I feel like shattered glass after that class”?

Here are just a few of the other things poetry can do in any classroom. A good poem can change the rhythm of a class. It is the pause that shakes and wakes. Listen to a poem, taste it, repeat it, wonder about it, share what it evokes. Then move on. Five minutes may be enough. A poem that catches the class’s interest may come up over and over in discussion, be referred to again and again throughout the year as a shared experience by which other moments may be measured.

Poems open doors that get jammed, doors to the heart, the brain, to another’s world, and to our own. What can’t be seen or understood by more didactic methods of teaching may suddenly be clarified by a poem. Poems touch us at deep levels, levels we don’t or can’t always articulate. Meaning carried by metaphor and the condensed tight language of a poem may penetrate faster for learning-disabled students. Poems also may appeal to gifted students because of their many layers and the worlds contained (but not necessarily voiced). In their richness, poems can often be the source of “Aha,” or “Now I get it.”

Just as all classrooms should have dictionaries to which students have access, why not add a poetry anthology within reach?

Poems can make another’s journey real to us as nothing else can. We identify with another and then we begin to see and feel. A world opens up to us, and we ride along for the journey. Poems shift points of view. If we always see things one way, suddenly a poem may turn another light on, shift the focus to see another facet of an issue or subject.

Poems braid curricular areas. They break through boundaries and separations, weaving things back together, fractions to feelings, historical events to this moment, tears to joy. Poems contain values and voice, time and place, past and present. They carry within their spare space the currents of rivers, the horizon, and the scent of loamy soil.

Here’s an excerpt that bridges biology with truth about the human condition--from Margaret Atwood’s “The Woman Who Could Not Live With Her Faulty Heart":

I do not mean the symbol of love, a candy shape to decorate cakes with, the heart that is supposed to belong or break; I mean this lump of muscle that contracts like a flayed biceps, purple-blue, with its skin of suet, its skin of gristle, this isolate, this caved hermit, unshelled turtle, this one lungful of blood, no happy plateful. All hearts float in their own deep oceans of no light, wetblack and glimmering, their four mouths gulping like fish ...

For this poet, the heart of this poem is more complicated as the last line conveys:

One night I will say to it: Heart, be still, and it will.

Or here, from Charles Simic, is a piece called “My Weariness of Epic Proportions” to stir up a sleepy class on Greek gods, goddesses, or just plain English:

I like it when Achilles Gets killed And even his buddy Patroclus-- And that hothead Hector-- ... So there's finally Peace and quiet ...

Just as all classrooms should have dictionaries to which students have access, why not add a poetry anthology within reach? Or, over time, build a file of poems that you like. Let them be a ready resource to pull out when young minds have slipped off elsewhere.

A poem at the right moment can let in a breeze, warm and balmy, evoking memory and sensations, or chilly, cold, and invigorating, leading to spirited discussions. Poems mesh subject matter and facts that matter to the human condition, to society’s values and problems. Poets raise the important human questions and undertake the struggle to answer them. There are poems that can add spice and depth to classes across the entire span of the curriculum. Why not invite a poem into your class and see what happens.

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A version of this article appeared in the April 28, 1999 edition of Education Week as Rhyme and Reason

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