If Poetry were a person, she’d probably be Hillary Clinton. You either love her . . .
Or you really, really don’t love her.
For that matter, I suppose Poetry could also be something like oysters or coconut or mustaches. Ballroom dancing. 100 -degree weather. NASCAR. Really anything that conjures strong feelings for or against. POetry POlarizes. Which is why they both start with PO, “po” being the Greek and Latin root for “Just like Hillary Clinton.”
Recently, Husbandio was gone for eight days in Tel Aviv, doing the final week of a leadership program, one that, frankly, sounded a whole lot more like touchy-feely therapy stuff (plus a field trip to the Dead Sea AND the very bad decision to eat a tuna sandwich purchased in the Tel Aviv airport) than something Rockefeller or Trump would ever deign attend.
On the second-to-last night, Husbandio Skyped me at 11:00 p.m. (his time) with bad news. “Bossie,” he said, his face ashen. “I have to write a poem. For the final assignment. About something that’s important to me.”
I giggled. His face really was so pale. “A poem? What do you mean, a poem?”
“I mean a poem. Fifteen lines. It doesn’t have to rhyme. It can be about anything, as long as it’s important to me.” Husbandio shook his head. “Of all the things, poetry.”
But I was giddy. A POEM! FOR THE FINAL PROJECT!
Of course, I do not believe friends should do friends’ homework. That’s cheating. And cheating is wrong. But this was not for a grade. And I was not husbandio’s friend. I was his wife, and just like a wife doesn’t have to rat on her husband if he tells her he has committed a crime, a wife also can’t get in trouble for assisting her husband with a poem for his leadership training. It’s the law.
But the real issue is not the legal loopholes of plagiarism. The real issue is this: Why does poetry fill so many with such dread?
Maybe it comes from the horrors of high school English, where, as Mrs. Deluca taught us, there was a Right way and a Not-right way to interpret a poem. Did I do that when I was a teacher? Gosh, I hope not. I know I did a LOT of really bad stuff as a teacher, especially my first year when I had very little clue what I was doing . . . to the point where I often wish I could go back and re-do my years time at NNHS. Or at least write Apology Letters. So here: My deepest apologies, to Jonathan P., Julie B., Mike B., Surjeet P., Pankaj S., Krissy B., Jonas B. (Actually, Jonas, I think you and I are even. And I know you know what I mean, mister.) I also don’t apologize to Alex R. who was always late and once, when I asked him why he was so late, responded, “Why don’t you sit in my lap, Ms. Reed (my maiden name) and I’ll tell you all about it.”
To all of my former students, (except for Alex R.) I’m sorry I was such a lame teacher AND I’m even sorrier if I made you hate poetry. If I did, it was only because my own high school English teachers taught poetry as if there were ONE right way to understand and appreciate and study a poem. I guess it’s kind of like the Cycle of Violence that occurs in families where abuse is present. If you were abused, you’re more likely to abuse your own children. If you were taught poetry crappily, then you tend to teach poetry crappily. And the cycle continues.
But. All is not lost. A few months ago, I was thumbing through Pablo Neruda’s The Book of Questions, a gem of a collection made up entirely of two-line poems in the form of questions . . . questions that just barely don’t make sense. Buddy and Sweetie, who were sitting near where I was thumbing, asked what I was reading. So I read aloud to them:
How many questions does a cat have?
Is the sun the same as yesterday’s or is this fire different from that fire?
How old is November anyway?
What does autumn go on paying for with so much yellow money?
Why in the darkest ages do they write with invisible ink?
Who shouted with glee when the color blue was born?
How did the abandoned bicycle win its freedom?
What do they call a flower that flies from bird to bird?
Am I allowed to ask my book whether it’s true I wrote it?
Is 4 the same 4 for everybody? Are all sevens equal?
What did the tree learn from the earth to be able to talk with the sky?
Seriously, people. I know I tend to adore and obsess over words more than the average Jane, but are those questions not beautiful? And you know what? THOSE questions are poetry.
One of my most favorite memories from teaching was when I forced my first-day-of-school students to dig deep into their mushy, summer-soggy brains to write Neruda-esque poem-questions. And they did it, and I’m not kidding, their poems were beautiful. Beautiful.
Over the next two weeks (due, in part, to a cool grant from 4Culture,), I get to teach this same lessons to 5th graders at Buddy’s and Sweetie’s school. From this workshop, the students will generate poem-questions that the art teacher and I will then turn into the first Poetree Project, a tree-esque piece of art where each of the kids’ poem-questions is a leaf of the tree. This first Poetree will be temporary, but we’re working to secure the approval and the funding to create a permanent Poetree in the school’s community garden, a Poetree made of metal, with each kid’s poem-question engraved onto a copper leaf. It’s my hope that I’ll be able to work in other schools with other kids and other Seattle artists to create other Poetrees around Seattle. How cool would that be, for kids to write poem-questions that become part of a permanent piece of art? Because this is one thing I do know:
- if kids learn early on that poetry is cool and fun and accessible, they might actually be excited to get a poetry assignment as an adult
- kids need to see their art and their writing out in the world
- writing is power; seeing one’s writing in the world makes kids feel powerful
So, what happened with Husbandio’s assignment? I’ll never tell.
But I will say that the following day, I was very, very curious to talk to him. “So?” I asked. “How did it go?”
“Good,” he said.
“Good? Good meaning ‘it was the best one in the group’?”
He laughed. “Definitely one of the best.”
“Only ONE of the best? Well, the reason it wasn’t THE best was because I wrote that son-of-a-gun in 17 minutes. It could have been better if I had had more time. Or, if you had agreed to go with ‘ruby’ instead of just plain old ‘red.’ I paused. “Did anyone suspect anything?”
Again, he laughed. “Nope. One guy asked, ‘you gonna let your wife read your poem?’ I told him, ‘yeah, probably.'”
So what’s the moral of this story? Not sure. I think what I’m trying to say is all of this barely legal assignment-doing could have been avoided had Husbandio not developed such profound and massive discomfort around poetry.
It may be too late for Husbandio to ever love poetry. But it’s NOT too late for kids. Maybe not too late for you. Your assignment? Please, please, please write your own Pablo Neruda poem-question. There are no wrongs or rights. No goods or bads. Just post a question about moving clouds or meatballs or the redness of beets or that cobweb that been up there for ages, and voila, you’re a poet!
Here’s one from me, just to start the ball rolling:
How many colors fill the twilight of a summer evening?
Does a moth ever envy the ball gown of the butterfly?
See? I’m a poet too! Now it’s your turn . . . get to work, people!