Monday, March 10, 2003

It’s been 20 years at least since I last did a day as a poet in a school, so when I was asked to participate in a special one-day program at my sons’ middle school, it was a return to an experience I hadn’t had in some time. Each year the schools in the Tredyffrin-Easttown (TE) district put on some variation of the same program, intermingling concepts of arts, culture and character. This year, the program for this school was Imagine That: Lives Well Lived, focusing on people who had passions that took them out of the usual run-of-the-mill career paths. There’s an assembly one day with a theme speaker for the week: Robb Armstrong, the cartoonist behind Jump Start. Then, on another day, the middle school is flooded with various sorts of odd ducks & the classes literally trooped from room to room during the day, getting presentations about whatever. There was a former NFL player who quite football to sing opera, several members of People’s Light & Theatre Company, playwright Tom Gibbons, an architectural photographer, the chef from the General Warren Inn, an investment banker who did alabaster sculptures, another fellow who carved owls out of tree stumps, a quilt maker, myself & several others. Over the course of the day, I had four fifth-grade classes & two seventh-grade ones.

Considering the disputations here of late concerning poetic difficulty & ant-war readings*, it’s worth noting here that I built my own little 30-minute presentation around a reading of the opening section of Ketjak, a text significantly more difficult than anything Noah Eli Gordon was proposing for the UMass reading. I’m happy to report that the poem didn’t prove at all difficult for fifth or seventh graders, which only reinforces my thesis about the community at UMass being crippled as literates by the university itself.

I started each class by asking students to define poetry. No single definition showed up in all six classes, but a few did turn up in five of the six:

<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>“Words put together”
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Writing that expresses emotion or feelings
<![if !supportLists]>§         <![endif]>Writing that can rhyme

At least one fifth-grade class also offered “writing that doesn’t have to rhyme” as a definition. A student in one class suggested that it was “what you think,” which I rather like. The persistence of that first definition, which I heard in exactly that formulation at least three of the five times it appeared, made me suspect that this is what students had retained from whatever formal training in poetry the TE district has given them in the past.**

Ketjak of course does use rhyme, albeit not in the vulgar sense so popular among the new formalists. In at least two of the classes, I put up one of Robert Grenier’s scrawl works from r h y m m s*** that demonstrates how rhyme itself can exist even without the presence of words.

In the Q&A time that rounded out each class, there were a number of questions about process – how long did a poem take, how long does it take to write a book+, where do I get my inspiration, do my kids ever figure into my work (yes!) – but the one question that showed up in every single class was “which book (or poem) is your favorite”? I’d passed around a dozen or so books as I’d read, everything from In the American Tree to Toner to Demo to Ink as well as both the Salt and Figures editions of Tjanting. It’s an interesting question, in part because it’s so very difficult to respond, but also because it suggests a relationship between poetry & desire or poetry & passion that these kids absolutely get, but for which they don’t exactly have the words. I always respond to this inquiry in the same way, saying that I can’t pick among my poems any more than I could among my children – I have intense personal relationships with every one – so that when asked to sort through this conundrum, I invariably turn to something with which I have had relatively little involvement, the actual design & printing of the book itself. Unless the cover itself is actually botched, as was the case with the first edition of In the American Tree, I tend to like all of them likewise. But if I look at the cover of What, I can literally see the neighborhood in which I grew up in John Moore’s painting, right down to where my mother now lives on the back cover. That’s as good a reason as any.

* About which more later this week.

** I know that Marj Hahne did a day in one of the elementary schools here a year or two ago & this is the same school district in which Ange Mlinko once matriculated.

*** Albeit I realize now that I inverted the lines. How, I wonder, did that change the poem?

+ I’m a funny person to ask that particular question, since it’s been easier for me to “write a book” than to “finish a poem” – The Alphabet at this point consists of ten published books, but not yet a completed poem.