The Frost Conference on Poetry and Teaching is over. Those who didn’t leave yesterday left today after the Teachers as Writers workshops. The hugs good-bye were those of life-long friends, sad to part, but a little eager to get on the way. The small community grew so quickly. Sharing a love of language will do that to people.
I pull into the Kinsman Inn where I have shared a roof and a home-sized breakfast every day this week with, as Margaret said, “The kindest people I have ever met;” and the gravel lot is full with the cars of total strangers. I walk inside and even Sue the innkeeper says it is not the same. We feel it. The magic of the week is over.
I never cared for poetry. Looking back I know that attitude stems from the way I was taught. I never experienced the simplicity of words that I’ve experienced here. Even when I’ve taught poetry in class, especially those two years with my G/T students, I tortured them with bad teaching. I’m embarrassed to say I gave them a packet, and we read through the poems ‘analyzing’ as we went, never stopping to just listen. Listening is the secret I learned this week, but the secret was never meant to be locked a way so no English teacher could find it. It’s not even a secret really. Poetry is art; art has to be experienced. A packet doesn’t offer that to anyone. I’ll argue no matter the content, but that is an topic for another day.
Imagine this scenario: Each morning you walk into the small Frost barn. You pull out your pen and wait
for the morning’s dictation. Alyssa slowly reads a poem in her soft con-alto, stopping every so often to state a word that is capitalized or where to place a comma or period. You listen, and you write. You focus on the voice, the words, the phrases — the silence created by the pauses. You fill the page with this focused thinking.
After everyone arrives, you welcome the morning, and Teresa opens Robert Frost’s notebook and shares a significant line. “I don’t change my watch every time I see a watch it differs from.” We talk about living in the discipline — not in the product. Dave with a voice to rival God himself finally speaks out: “We do not live in a culture that embraces silences.” We all nod.
We talk about poetry and teaching and teaching poetry. Then we share presentations filled with classroom practice or philosophy. Again we discuss — “civil engagement,” as Dawn coined it. Our notebooks filled with ideas we can use to give our students similar experiences.
The most impressive thing? We talk to each other like poets.
And that is what needs to happen in the classroom. So often we teach poetry and reading and writing when we should be teaching poets and readers and writers. Of everything I’ve absorbed this week, and this is saying a lot, I believe this simple thing will make the most change in mine, and anyone’s, classroom.
Today several of us sat around in a circle and shared original poems that we’d composed yesterday. The only instruction for feedback: What are the possibilities? No critiques. No corrections. Just suggestions on how the poet could play with words.
“If you do not play, you will never know,” Dawn reminds us. Isn’t that the best revision strategy ever? Just play with words, phrases, stanzas, rhythm, structure.
I want my students to play. I want them to have a tiny bit of the silence I’ve experienced this week. I will have them practice dictation — a sure way to quiet the mind and prepare for inspiration. I will continue to allow choice in reading and writing topics, and we will play.
Nicholas told me he never read a book on his own until college, but now he has an MFA and a knack for words. I can’t help but wonder if his gift might have come quicker — not the long sidetrack he took to get here — if in all his English classes he had been spoken to like the poet he is. That is worth a thought. Or two.
Today when I left The Frost Place for the last time, I turned the opposite direction on the road. I’d not gone this way all week. The lane was longer, but the view quite the same. But God must have been the one to turn the wheel because as I came to the T in the road, there stood the stop sign telling me “Don’t STOP believing.”
I won’t. I found the seat of my soul, and it is steeped in poetry.
Here’s my poem from the writing time today. I imitated the structure of Hayden Carruth’s poem “Twilight Comes.”
Twilight comes to the busy town
As season’s start. The tree tops
brown with leaves, which colored
And began falling during the heat,
Are moving again, and crack
under the wind’s breath. The buildings
from their place across the highway
crowd close again, as if for a
threatening glare, and with malice
An exposition as the sun slips
low. It is my fiftieth year. Horns
blare out one by one with a clashing
dullness, like the unfelt prayer
in church. I hear the dogs barking
pushing their noises into my peace —
I touch — and clearly — I am quite certain —
tightening muscles; perhaps hot iron
on the right side under my shoulder
or unusable rope on a sea-stuck ship.
It’s true. My man is on the phone,
there inside the living room. Clients
will close soon. I crack my paining neck
And bow my eyes to study the dead
root-bound pot on the patio
in the shadows. I sigh. Then
sigh again, just because it’s true.
I am going to be old. Too soon.