Poetry has served as a light to shine upon atrocities, victories of perseverance, the beauties of the natural world, and discoveries of self. Poetry, throughout the ages, has served to bear witness to the human experience in all of its forms. For this reason, poetry deserves to be celebrated and practiced for all ages, by all ages. To usher in and honor National Poetry Month this April, why not have students explore the functions of poetry on the largest of scales? To really understand the limitless frontiers of poetry, one needs to invest equal time in the writing and reading of poems.
Poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko declared, Poetry is like a bird, it ignores all frontiers, and Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
Both statements address the inherent limitlessness in the act of expression. In every oppressive circumstance imaginable—from natural disasters to genocide—the human spirit finds ways to triumph. People have often used poetry not only to illuminate issues where human rights are in peril but also to celebrate various victories during such times.
Poetry has served as a light to shine upon atrocities, victories of perseverance, the beauties of the natural world, and discoveries of self. Poetry, throughout the ages, has served to bear witness to the human experience in all of its forms. For this reason, poetry deserves to be celebrated and practiced for all ages, by all ages.
To usher in and honor National Poetry Month this April, why not have students explore the functions of poetry on the largest of scales? To really understand the limitless frontiers of poetry, one needs to invest equal time in the writing and reading of poems. A great place to begin, especially for reluctant readers and writers, is Billy Collins’ poem, “Introduction to Poetry”. Here, Collins gives validation to students who are repelled by the act of overanalyzing poetry. A rejection of this traditional academic practice establishes new frontiers for all involved. See Collins read “Introduction to Poetry”:
Featuring the poems that don’t shy away from the horrors or difficulties of life is critical when revealing to students the power of poetry. “The Colonel,” a prose poem by Carolyn Forché, is an excellent piece to share in the secondary classroom for content and form; it deals with bearing witness to a tyrannical leader in El Salvador.
Nobel Prize-winning poet Nelly Sachs explored effects of the Holocaust; students may very well be drawn to her stark honesty about such a complex time in history: “O world/it’s you we accuse,” she writes in her poem, “We Orphans.”
Nelly Sachs image: nobelprize.org
Poems about immigration abound. Visit poets.org and select the category “Immigration” in “Themes” to read a wonderful selection of work on this topic, such as “Borderbus” by U.S. Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera.
Juan Felipe Herrara image: poets.org
Reading poetry that takes on difficult subject matter often emboldens young readers to write their own. And, of course, young adult poetry need not be about global events. In fact, an awareness of self can be the gateway to an awareness of others. Being able to examine one’s own existence with reverence and irreverence invites students to become aware of commonalities they previously didn’t know they shared with their peers.
Check out Frank O’Hara’s poem “Ave Maria” for a whimsical but also emotional gleaning of adolescence.
Honeybee is a beautiful collection by Naomi Shihab Nye that is filled with a delightful intersection of poems showcasing subjects light, heavy, whimsical and political. This is a must-have for any classroom library.
Naomi Shihab Nye image: poets.org
TELLING IT LIKE IT IS
A great way for students to begin to investigate their own poetic sensibilities is to invite them to imitate a poem that has been discussed in class. For example, students might begin with something readily accessible such as the poem “This Is Just to Say” by William Carlos Williams
After reading “This Is Just to Say,” students can imitate the poem based on whatever they believe they need to make a mock apology for. Jess’ students have written “This Is Just to Say” poems about not doing homework, opting to wait to apply to college, breaking up with a significant other, sneaking the car out for a ride with friends, and sleeping past noon on weekends.
EXTRA! EXTRA! READ ALL ABOUT IT!
We want students to see poetry as an invitation: an invitation to engage as readers and as writers, to play with words and experiment with meaning, to consider big ideas through small texts, to grapple with and respond to the world.
In his poem “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower,” William Carlos William wrote, “It is difficult to get the news from poems yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” This line, coupled with a stack of newspapers and some interesting mentor texts, makes for a compelling invitation for students to compose.
June Jordan, inspired by the tile of this New York Times article, responded to the question it posed with her poem, “What Great Grief Has Made the Empress Mute.” She appropriated the title of the article, turned the question into a statement, and following the speculative nature of the article, proposed a litany of possible sources for the empress’s grief. After reading and discussing Jordan’s poem, students can search for their own inspiration from headlines and article titles. This empowers students to use poetry as a form of response to and participation in the world around them.
June Jordon image: poets.org
Add a Sharpie to that stack of newspapers, and you have another way for students to respond and participate. The creation of Newspaper Blackout Poetry involves redacting words from an article to create a new text. What a provocative invitation this form provides: Take this thing. Destroy it. Create something new.
Sometimes these new creations capture the essence of the article. Other times, they throw a spin on the original ideas. And oftentimes, the newly created poem presents a complete departure from the original article’s ideas and intentions.
Poetry can sustain students who are trying to make sense of the world and respond to issues that matter to them. Students can feel overwhelmed and unsure about their agency when confronted with these real-world problems, wondering what can I do? Marian Wright Edelman’s poem “I Care and I’m Willing to Serve” repeats the rally cry of its title, illustrating whom one does not have to be in order to create meaningful change. What matters above all is the authenticity of intention on the part of the person committed to taking action.
Watch Edelman read an adapted version of this poem here.
Marge Piercy’s poem “The Low Road” illustrates the necessity of individuals taking a stand in the face of injustice. Pair this poem with these words from Robert Kennedy: “Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance." Have students consider the power of one as well as the force of collective action.
Marge Piercy image: poets.org
What poems most inspire you and your students? Be sure to comment below!
There are endless frontiers of ideas for how to incorporate poetry into your classroom in April and year round.
Why not celebrate student work by hosting a school community Poetry Night in April? The evening can feature student readers but also include student musicians and artists. An open mic could be part of the celebration for members of the community to share their work as well. Pablo Neruda wrote that “poetry is an act of peace.” It can certainly be an act of community that leads to deeper understanding of one another and, indeed, peace.
Poetry Night Decorations/Invitations/Activities created by Jess’ Creative Writing classes.
The Dear Poet Project: Students in grades 5-12 write letters in response to poems written and read by some of the award-winning poets who serve on the Academy of American Poets board of chancellors. Ultimately, reading and writing poetry enables students of all ages to make sense of their world on their own terms; that in itself is worth celebrating.
Participate in this year’s Poem in Your Pocket Day on April 27. Poets.org describes this annual event, saying, “people celebrate by selecting a poem, carrying it with them, and sharing it with others throughout the day at schools, bookstores, libraries, parks, workplaces, and on Twitter using the hashtag #pocketpoem.”
We invite you to send Kindred Spirits your poetry or pictures of your work in progress. We’re excited to feature our readers and their work!
Forward Thinking with Kindred Spirits:
Kindred Spirits will gather with you here twice a month to explore current human rights issues, to highlight useful resources, and to feature teachers and leaders who are pioneers of this important work. We aim to provide spark after spark of information and inspiration around this collaborative campfire in the hope that your participation will keep the spirit glowing.
Our next post will be earthbound in honor of Earth Day!
Tricia Baldes earned a master’s in English from Lehman College and has been a middle level educator since 2001. Her passion for human rights education has led to her writing curriculum and consulting with nonprofit organizations like Creative Visions, Speak Truth to Power and KidsRights. She co-authored the Rock Your World curriculum and currently works with the team as a program coordinator. In addition to presenting at national conferences for NCTE and ACSD, Baldes has led various teacher trainings and programs for students. She teaches eighth-grade English in Westchester County, N.Y.
Jess Burnquist earned her MFA in Creative Writing from Arizona State University. Her writing has appeared in the Washington Post, Time.com, NPR.org, and various online and print journals. She is a recipient of the Joan Frazier Memorial Award for the Arts at ASU and has been honored with a Sylvan Silver Apple Award. She teaches high school English, creative writing and AP Literature in the greater Phoenix metropolitan area and is a program coordinator for Rock Your World. Her poetry chapbook You May Feel Your Way Past Me is forthcoming from Dancing Girl Press in spring 2017.
Kindred Spirits offers an opportunity for educators and school staff to gather in the exchange of ideas, resources, stories and lessons pertaining to human rights education and students’ social and emotional growth. Please join us and contribute your voice to a chorus of kindred spirits.
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