We all know those first few words of The Waste Land: I don’t think T. S. Eliot had in mind that what may make April—National Poetry Month—“the cruellest month” for teachers is the struggle to keep things fresh. I teach high school juniors; by the time they reach my American Literature course, National Poetry Month is no surprise. As elementary students, they listened to teachers read from illustrated books of accessible poetry. As middle schoolers, they wrote simple rhymes, carrying them around on Poem-in-Your-Pocket Day.
Students are often eager to write poems—but writing, feeling-through and feeling part of poetry are not the same.
Nowhere are possibilities of poetry clearer than when pen is physically pressed to paper (or finger to keyboard) while the mind roves over a startling combination of images, headlines, and phrases. The aforementioned childhood exposures to poetry are simply a preamble, a whetting of the cleaver-like intellect, as Henry David Thoreau calls the mind.
For Emily Dickinson, poetry was a chance to “dwell in Possibility.” So, as I refresh my National Poetry Month assignments, I’ve considered the potential of allowing students not just to write or read but to dwell in the possibilities of poetry, to use their words not as a direct line to an audience but as a series of lines thrust large and widely into a world, into spaces, times, and ideologies beyond them. I want students to understand that poetry is a constantly living organism, an ongoing conversation—and they are very much an essential part of it.
For my high schoolers, I’ve found the most edifying possibilities include being able to find one’s self in a poem—particularly one that is playful, unexpected, and a puzzle-piecing together of sundry parts. I like to think of a poem as a Frankensteinian creature that isn’t quite sure what it wants to be yet and, thus, a very adequate reflection of the young writer. And it’s okay: students, like poems, are works-in-progress, not final pieces. People are this.
Therefore, one of the most effective National Poetry Month writing assignments I’ve created involves words, images, and history (personal and national or global). It is an assignment designed to engage students with themselves and their world alike. It is also an essential practice at lateral thinking, a key method of nontraditional problem-solving used by scientists, technicians, and poets, among others, to force the mind to make connections where, on first appearance, there are none to be made.
We start with a few timed exercises, as well as some at-home preparations. In advance of the in-class writing, I ask students the class before to bring next time:
- a newspaper headline, from the current week, that caught their attention
- an image from their birth year (note: this is not a baby picture but, rather, an image from a work of art, a screen-capture from a film, or a photograph that was significant and/or in the news the year they were born)
Then, in class, I time out five minutes of free-associative writing. First, they have to write anything that comes to mind when they see their selected headline (even better if they’ve never actually read the story attached to it). Then, I time them for another five minutes and they have to write a response to their selected image.
Next, I go around the room and distribute, at random, a line from a famous poem, something we’ve read in class that year. It could be a line from Anne Bradstreet, Langston Hughes, or Tony Hoagland. For another five minutes, I ask them to write freely—the only caveat that they have to start with the line they were given.
By now, we will have discussed Gertrude Stein and free-association; they will understand the value of “messy,” Cubist-style work more disassembled than assembled. They will see the value of poetry not as answer but as a point of departure.
After these exercises (about 15 minutes of writing without overthinking or intervention), I ask students to reread what they’ve written. Can they identify any surprising links among their three separates exercise responses? Does a particular word or theme keep emerging? Does something surprise them?
Now, using these ideas, assemble a poem. Revise freely (or not), but combine the three task responses.
This work vitally force students to find timeless connections, recurring patterns of human behavior, interests, desires, and tendencies throughout their lifetimes and beyond. They are given a week to keep working, at home, on their poem. It is not long before I have students remarking, “I never knew I felt so lonely until I picked this image and saw how it fit with the line from Georgia Douglas Johnson,” or “how strange I keep talking about the color ‘orange,’ as if that means something to me. Maybe it does.”
The best part of this exercise? I do it, too. It gives me space to write and the students enjoy when I share my work alongside theirs. It makes them feel like we are all in this moment of assimilation together, all backstroking our way through some beautiful yet unpredictable waters, part of a growing conversation about human experience. And there’s nothing cruel about that.