Where a Poem Belongs is Here (Guest Post)
by Paul Janezcko
I didn’t start out to be a poet. I started out as a kid in New Jersey, who had two major goals in life: 1) to survive one more year of delivering newspapers without being attacked by Wink, the one-eyed, slobbering, crazed cur that lurked in the forsythia bushes at the top of the hill; and 2) to become more than a weak-hitting, third-string catcher on our sorry Little League team. I failed at both.
I didn’t do much better in school, where I played the part of an affable kid who endured uncountable hours in a desk that was designed, I was convinced, in a 15th-centry Spanish dungeon. Poetry meant no more to me than 1066, George Washington’s wooden teeth, or the chief export of the Belgian Congo, which was, I still recall, flax. The only times I was gifted was on Christmas and my birthday.
Despite my lackluster performance in school, I was a reader. As I tell the students I visit, reading saved me. When you are reader, the world changes. Mine did. It eventually became a world teeming with poetry. I became a poetry junkie. I feel safe confessing that to you. I read poetry the way some people watch soap operas, work in their gardens, or follow the Red Sox: irrationally, compulsively, endlessly. I read poems nearly every day whenever I find myself with a few unfilled minutes. In fact, I’ve found some wonderful poems while waiting to have my car repaired, eating breakfast, and sitting out an early April blizzard.
I’ve come to understand that if we value poetry, we must first of all, become poetry readers ourselves. James Dickey said it best: “What you have to realize . . . is that poetry is just naturally the greatest goddamn thing that ever was in the whole universe. If you love it, there’s no substitute for it.” I love it. Poetry’s important. Vital. It must be part of the lives of young people. And it is up to us to share our love of poetry with students and to help them hear the music. It is up to us to allow young people opportunities to experience the possibilities of poetry. To feel what Robert Francis meant when he said, “One word cannot strike spark from itself; it takes at least two for that. It takes words lying side by side to breed wonders.”
I want young readers to see that poetry has functions other than to puzzle, intimidate, and infuriate. Poetry can mesmerize, mock, and mimic. Poetry can celebrate. Poetry can narrate the stories of our lives. Poetry can memorialize. Poetry is “not made out of thoughts and casual fancies,” Ted Hughes wrote. “It is made out of experiences which change our bodies, and spirits, whether momentarily or for good.”
But at times I share Anatole Broyard’s fear that, as a society, we, do not read enough poetry. Writing in the New York Times Book Review, Broyard asked, “Where will our flair come from, our hyperbole, our mots justes? Unless we read poetry we’ll never have our hearts broken by language, which is an indispensable preliminary to a civilized life.” This answer drives me to shape the very best, accessible poems into a personal offering that will speak to young readers.
By reading more poems, we will see that good poetry is alive with the possibilities of form, language, images, structure, rhythm, voice, sound, feeling. The right poems show young readers how poetry can describe, confess, and lament. With our help, young readers need to find the poems that speak to them in a voice they cannot resist. Molly Peacock was right when she said that we become attracted to a poem because “it makes us feel as if someone is listening to us…the voice of the poem allows us to hear ourselves.”
The title of this essay—“Where a Poem Belongs is Here”—comes from Rumi, a 13th-century mystic and poet. For me, the “here” is not just language arts class or literacy class or the library. Rather, “here” is wherever we are. Read a poem a bedtime. Keep a poem in your pocket or purse to read when you have a spare minute. Share a poem with someone.
Regardless of the “here” of a poem, the best poems ask questions we all ask. The best poems are like life itself: they celebrate the grace of little things. The best poems are alive with intense, inventive language. Mark Twain said that the difference between the right word and the almost right word is like the difference between lightning and lightning bug. Nowhere is that more crucial than in poetry that captures the moments in life, and that it communicates with language wild and marvelous. I want kids to know that poems can narrate, provoke, console, and even commemorate,
As a poet and an anthologist, I know readers who lose themselves in a good anthology or in a good poem will quickly learn that the best poems are rich with the textures of life. Maine poet Philip Booth wrote that a good poem “makes the world more habitable.” Any good poem, he went on to say, “changes the world. It changes the world slightly in favor of being alive and being human.” I can think of no better reason why poetry should be a vital part of our lives and the lives of our young people.
When I am touched by a good poem, as I hope all young readers are touched, as I hope you are touched, I recall the words of Stanley Kunitz, who said that if we listen hard enough to poets, “who knows–we too may break into dance, perhaps for grief, perhaps for joy.”
Paul Janezcko is a poet and writer who currently resides in midcoast Maine. His latest book, The Death of the Hat: A Brief History of Poetry in 50 Objects, was chosen as a Notable Book by NCTE’s Excellence in Poetry for Children Award Committee. Learn more about Paul at his website, www.paulbjaneczko.com.