By Georgia Heard, CCIRA 2021 Featured Speaker
A good friend emailed me recently about joining my online poetry writing workshop. He said, “I need to be part of something, Georgia. I feel so disconnected and invisible.” My friend was brave enough to express what many of us have been feeling during the past several months. The need to be part of something. The need to connect with people in community. The need to feel like more than a small image on a Zoom meeting screen. Many of the children who look out from their separate thumbnail screens in virtual classrooms have been feeling this way too — disconnected and invisible — despite all the positive ways teachers are working to help students feel engaged and part of a community.
Those of us who teach writing and reading, and also love poetry, know that poetry has always been an antidote for feeling separate and unseen. Poetry can connect us. Poetry can shake the dust off of the stale and the stereotyped. Poetry can inspire empathy for others. Poetry can inspire change. Poetry can beckon us to look in the mirror and see the truth inside.
Elizabeth Alexander wrote:
Do you want to know each other? [Poetry reaches]…across what can be a huge void between human beings.
That void has grown more cavernous since the beginning of the pandemic.
In the past decade, the prominence of high-stakes, high-stress testing has swept poetry further into the corner of the classroom. But since the start of the pandemic, the emergence of “soft skills” such as building empathy, “social and emotional learning,” and “trauma informed teaching” have emerged as essential for educating the whole child. Why did it take a pandemic for us to realize that without attending to children’s hearts and humanity — education can be a dehumanizing experience for some children as we pour more and more content into a vessel called learning?
Joy Harjo the current United States poet laureate says, “Poetry tends to hang out at points of transformation.”
At some point in our lives, whether curled up quietly on a couch, or gathered with friends and family at a wedding, or attending a funeral most of us have had the experience of reading or listening to a poem that touches our being, takes our breathe away, brings tears to our eyes, and affects us in some way that’s deep and, almost, inexplicable. How does a poem do this?
When we read a poem that stirs us it is a convergence of words humming the same tune as our hearts. The poem whispers I know you. It recognizes us. And in this recognition we also recognize something forgotten in ourselves. Our circle gets wider and connects us to others whom we have never met. It awakens something that may have been frozen inside us. It helps us remember the sky we were born under as Joy Harjo writes in her poem “Remember.”
Poetry is not something you find only in April. Poetry is not a phonics’ worksheet exercise where children circle the double ee and long o sounds. Like a wild horse, poetry resists being corralled in reading test questions: What does the speaker doubt in lines 14-15?
Poetry is what is present in the voices of people to whom it would hardly occur that this could be so. The way all speak in unselfconscious moments is the very stuff of poetry. The way we speak to our loved ones every day and night: when you tuck your children into bed; the first things you say to your spouse or partner when you wake up in the morning. When we speak in a voice that’s exclusively ours, that’s natural, when we’re not trying to be anything other than ourselves, that’s the stuff of poetry.
In a virtual poetry workshop, right after schools closed in April, fifth grade poets looked around their worlds with poet’s eyes to try to find poetry. Seeing the world with poet’s eyes is more than just trying to find a topic for a haiku or another kind of poem — it’s about polishing the film of familiarity and approaching life with a wide-awakeness, as Maxine Greene says.
“I use the term wide-awakeness,” Greene states. “Without the ability to think about yourself, to reflect on your life, there’s really no awareness, no consciousness. Consciousness doesn’t come automatically; it comes through being alive, awake, curious, and often furious.”
Poetry shimmered all around fifth graders’ worlds. They found poetry in:
Things that sing a deeper history
Doorknobs are like poems. They’ve been touched by so many hands.
Puzzles because there are so many different ways that things connected
but you don’t know until you look at the picture.
After they lived and wrote poetry for three weeks, I asked students if they had any advice for other poets who were embarking on a poetry journey. Here are a few words of wisdom:
My advice to other poets would be that everything holds poetry. You just have to take the time to realize it. You should write from your heart and think about the reason for your poem, and the meaning it has to you.
Poetry helped me during this hard time as it helped me stay calm, and jot down feelings. I wholeheartedly recommend this for anyone feeling stressed. My piece of advice to anyone would be to NOT RUSH A POEM. Let the words come from your heart, not from your hand.
Wise words indeed!
If you’re wondering how to begin with poetry one doorway is to find a poem you love, or have loved through the years. An aha poem. Invite your students to do the same – to find a self-portrait poem, an identity poem, a poem that speaks to how you’re feeling. Carry it around in your pocket, in your head, in your heart as you go about your day. Paste it on your computer screen so when you need a break your poem can refresh you. Place it by your nightstand and let it be the last thing you read before you sleep. Reflect on it, and write alongside it as Teshager, a student of mine, did with Langston Hughes’ poem “Final Curve:”
When you turn the corner
And you run into yourself
Then you know that you have turned
All the corners that are left
“Final Curve” awakened this realization, this truth, in Tesagher :
You too might find that poetry is an antidote for feeling disconnected and invisible during this challenging and sad time. A scientific vaccine for COVID-19 will come, hopefully, soon but poetry can offer a different kind of cure — as the last line of Julia Alvarez’s poem “How Will This Pandemic Affect Poetry” asks, What if this poem is the vaccine already working inside you?
Georgia Heard is a founding member of the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project in New York City. She received her MFA in Poetry from Columbia University. Currently, she is a frequent keynote speaker at conferences and in schools around the United States and the world.
She is the author of numerous books on writing including: Awakening the Heart: Exploring Poetry in Elementary and Middle School which was cited by Instructor Magazine as one of the “10 Books Every Teacher Should Read,” Finding the Heart of Nonfiction: Teaching 7 Essential Craft Tools with Mentor Texts, Heart Maps: Helping Students Create and Craft Authentic Student Writing and Poetry Every Day (forthcoming). In addition, she has published several children’s poetry books including Boom! Bellow! Bleat! Animal Sounds for Two Or More Voices and My Thoughts Are Clouds: Poems for Mindfulness (forthcoming).website: www.georgiaheard.com Follow her on Twitter:@georgiaheard1