By your students you’ll be taught, Part II

It happens this way …

HV LibraryLast Wednesday we completed our third poetry class at Happy Valley Library. These classes were an experiment to see if any one in the local community would be interested in learning how to appreciate the beauty and intensity of poetic language.

To say I was jazzed by the students’ responses to the model poems we looked at would be an understatement. Then, add to all the poetic ground we covered, three wonderfully unexpected things happened:

  1. Three students emailed me poems based on the prompts I gave in class. Homework was not mandatory, but these folks were serious about upcycling their writing skills. Two were even brave enough to read their poems to the class.
  2. At the end of this final session, we did a 15-minute writing exercise. When I asked for volunteers to read, my 8th grade boy raised his hand. This was the first time in three weeks the class heard his voice and were blown away by what he wrote. (I found out later that he had never signed up for this class; he just showed up! What gutsiness in one so young!) Then an adult who said she has never read anything she’s written out loud astonished the group with her detailed description of a journey she took. Everyone agreed she had the basis for a very fine travel poem.
  3. Finally, I understood for the first time what T S. Eliot meant when he said, Genuine poetry can communicate before it is understood. Left-brained folks want to understand what the poet intended and try to wring the meaning out of a piece. That’s fine; but in intellectualizing a poem, we might miss what hits the heart before it hits the mind. As we experiences in class, some lines in some poems are just too astonishing to try to translate. We agreed with Robert Frost who said, Poetry is what gets lost in translation. Thanks to this class, I get that!

The group unanimously recommended we continue to meet if the Library will give us the space. They didn’t want to stop! Needless to say, this experiment was a success!

By your students you’ll be taught

It happens this way …

Last Wednesday night, I taught the first of three poetry workshops at the beautiful Happy Valley Library. I had expected ten adults to show up, but, to my surprise, in walked an eighth grade boy and a high school sophomore girl.

The lad was sweet and shy and so brave to come to this class. The girl, originally from Romania, has only been in this country for three years. She spoke impeccable English and astonished all of us older folk with her insights into poetry. In fact, she was one of the most astute readers of the poems we discussed and made comments that I’d expect from grad students.

She reminded me of my only close encounter with writing poetry when I was a high school senior. Although we studied the genre, we were never asked to write it –except once. A là Charles Dickens, I wrote a short narrative poem about a poor boy finding a penny in the snow. When I got it back, the English teacher had red-inked it “Extremely maudlin.”

I had no idea what “maudlin” meant, but, after I looked it up, I never attempted to write a poem again until I was in my late 20s. The teacher was right, of course – the poem was over-the-top sentimental – but the lack of any positive encouragement sent me the message that I would never be a poet.

I have to keep reminding myself that the smallest word of encouragement or discouragement can make all the difference to anyone beginning a new venture –whether it’s writing, gardening, parenting, speaking in public, painting, whatever. Whether it’s an adult or youngster starting something new, everyone needs the affirmation that it’s all right to dabble, to splash around, to experiment, to find what works and doesn’t work for them. I need to remember that when I get the first poems from this class. I resolve not to be like my English teacher. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thinking it forward

It happens this way …

You’ve heard of that lovely concept of paying it forward? This week I discovered it’s mate: thinking it forward. I’ve been listening to You-Tube clips of one of my favorites: the American Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön. In an interview with Bill Moyer,  she explains that after her second husband admitted to an affair and asked for a divorce, she was thrown into a tailspin of anger, and then terror at the depth of violence of her anger.  She explains to Bill how she finally dispelled her darkness, but the punch line for me was her embrace of the thought forward of becoming a Buddhist. When nothing else worked — no therapy, no dabbling in other spiritual disciplines, none of the typical escape routes –  she was seized by the passion to learn how to use the energy of her life  — even the negative energy of her painful experience — to wake up.

Wake up to what? How our minds — often closed and afraid — effect not only ourselves but the world; how, if we could open and soften our hearts, we could move toward de-escalating violence and aggression and escalate loving- kindness. That passionate thought moved her forward into a life-long quest of learning how to open and soften and into sharing what’s she’s learned with millions of people.

pema

Pema Chödrön

Call it what you will – grace, inspiration, the thought forward – but how many times have we heard an urgent voice within nudging us to do something, but we mute it because it would take us out of our comfort zone? Pema talks a lot about living with uncertainty, groundlessness, ambiguity, and insecurity both as individuals and as a society. It’s the fear of these realities of life on this planet that freezes us in our tracks and stops us from doing good things for ourselves and others.

I was talking to a friend at a poetry reading recently who has resolved to invest more time connecting with people she loves and admires. She had a dear friend from her past who lived in North Carolina, and she often thought about contacting her. Before she took action, however, the friend died. Now her thought forward is not to miss other opportunities to spend time with those who can enrich her life as well as those she will enrich.

Personally, I’ve been blissfully living in a cave for the last few years – enjoying my solitude, shaping days to fit my rhythms, dabbling in all kinds of creative activities – by myself. However, a thought forward has been nagging at me lately and I’ve actually begun to take some risks to act on it.

I’ve known for decades that my essence contains being a teacher. For the first time in 35 years, I taught a poetry class in 2017 for the Writers’ Mill, a group of prose writers and poets who meet monthly at the Cedar Mill Library in Portland.

On April 28 I’ll be presenting my fourth program to them and have subsequently risked contacting Happy Valley Library to set up some classes nearer home. In June, I’ll return to Watchung, New Jersey to do a fund-raising poetry workshop for my dear Sisters of Mercy on the 29th. In the audience will be students I taught at Mt. St. Mary Academy back in the ‘70s. Coming full circle seems so right. Listening to that thought forward has become a passion. I am a teacher and it’s time to embrace – and act – on that.

Think about all the thoughts forward that have been nudging you: the book you keep saying you want to publish, the trip you want to take, the people you’ve thought about recently and need to contact, the classes you’d love to sign up for. Whatever. What’s holding you back? If it’s lack of confidence or uncertainty, that’s fine. Acknowledge it and move forward anyway. Learning to break the bonds of fear is part of a life-long process that will wake you up to the essence of who you really are. Undoubtedly, it will pay itself forward in ways you can’t begin to imagine – yet.