Since 1980, I’ve devoted much of my life to teaching at colleges and universities in Ohio, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Georgia. Lately, I mostly teach poetry workshops and seminars to juniors, seniors, and graduate students. But one of the greatest lessons I learned about teaching happened long ago in a seventh grade classroom.
It was 1989. I was working at a small college in Central Pennsylvania, driving thirty-five miles each day from my house in Altoona. I often veered away from the main route, instead following a country road that meandered along a river then rose up and crossed an Allegheny Mountain range. I’d have to gear down, slowed by switchbacks that looped around the mountainside. Few people lived up here. The woods were full of deer and wild turkey. Once, I saw a bear.
I’d recently met a woman who taught at a nearby Junior High School. The little town lay in the flat valley near the river road I followed on my morning drive. She confided to me that she dreaded teaching her poetry unit and asked me for help. “Sure,” I said, “I’d love to.” I didn’t tell her that I’d never tried teaching poetry to such young students. But I was up to the challenge. Besides, I wanted to impress this teacher and, perhaps, ease her anxiety about teaching poetry.
“Boys and girls,” the teacher announced, “I’d like to introduce you to Mr. Lammon. He’s a poet. He’s here to teach you poetry.” Twenty-two children fidgeted in their standard issue wooden desks, the kind where the right armrest wraps around a student’s torso and makes a small, flat writing table. Left-handed, I hated those desks when I was a student, my elbow dangling in mid-air while I wrote.
It was 2:00. I had about one hour to teach the class about poetry. Some students whispered, others shuffled their feet, but mostly they were quiet. My first task, I figured, was to wake them up.
“What do you think of when you hear the word poetry,” I asked.
“Boring,” one boy said.
“Love,” said a girl in the front row.
A cluster of boys let loose a collective expression of distaste, as if the word yuck filled up at least half a dictionary’s page of derogatory explanations and synonyms.
“She’s right,” I said, reaching for the girl who said “love,” as if she were my lifeline that afternoon. “Lots of poems are about love, but you’d be surprised what else poets write about. Some poems are even about sports.” I had the boys’ attention then, so I pressed my luck. “Today, I’m going to teach you about poetry,” I said. I paused, then finished. “Later, you’re all going to write a poem.”
“No way.” A boy in the front row, sitting aslant in his desk chair, gave me a long look. I’m not kidding, the look meant. But I wasn’t kidding either.
I spent the next 40 minutes reading poems, talking about rhyme and meter, and explaining how poems didn’t always have to rhyme. We played some word games, conjuring up verbs that could mean “to walk,” such as stroll, hike, and stumble. We searched for rhyming words, and I explained what “near-rhyme” was, how moon and bone might make a more interesting combination of sounds than “love” and “dove.” The students played along, but I knew that I was talking more than I should.
“All right,” I said, “it’s time to write your own poems.”
The boys groaned. But at least a couple of the girls seemed eager.
I’d invented a poetry writing exercise to help the students get started. On the blackboard, I wrote: “Like a ___________ my heart beats fast when I…” Then I explained what I wanted them to do.
“In the blank, I want you to write down an animal. Any animal you want. A hawk, a lion, a zebra, even a mouse.” I scanned the room. Even the boys seemed a little more intrigued. “But you need to become the animal you choose. You need to imagine what would make your heart beat fast. Are you afraid? Excited? Where are you? What do you see? What do you hear? What do you smell? Who—or what—is with you?”
I told them all to start writing. We had about 15 minutes left in the class, and I figured my work was done. The students could get started on their poems, mull them over, take them home and work on revisions. I thought I might be able to return later to see what my young poetry students had wrought.
Less than five minutes later, the boy who insisted he wouldn’t stoop so low as to write a poem raised his hand.”
“Can I read mine?” he asked.
He was polite, perhaps too polite. This cool boy surprised me—mostly, because he’d finished his poem so quickly, not so much because he’d actually written one.
“Sure, go ahead.” To my surprise, the boy actually stood up and faced the class. Then he began to read, a little too fast, but clear enough for everyone to hear.
“Like,” he read out loud, “a maggot, my heart beats fast when I eat out the eyeball of a dead deer. How sweet and soft the eyeball is, how I love to suck out the juice…”
And on he read. A few boys giggled. One girl squealed. In just 20 seconds, he finished and sat down. Grinning, he was obviously proud of grossing out his classmates. But the other boys and girls, not to mention the teacher, were motionless, no doubt waiting for me to scold this impudent kid who had no respect for poetry.
“Wow,” I said, and everyone was waiting to hear what I had to say. “Your poem is excellent. Full of vivid details and images. Good job!” The boy’s grin turned lopsided, as if he were still proud of himself, but for the wrong reason now. I’d praised him for actually writing a poem.
Another boy raised his hand.
“Can I read mine?” he asked. A little girl raised her hand, then another. In all, nine students stood up and formed a line, all of them waiting to read their poems out loud. The last boy in line, shorter than the others, was round-faced and plump in the waist. He wore thick-lensed glasses. He was the little boy in Lord of the Flies that the bigger, mean boys teased and called “Piggy.” But when his turn came, he read to the class, and as they had done after each classmate finished, all the students clapped their hands together, applauding this little boy’s poem.
The school bell rang, and the children began collecting their books and papers, preparing for the bus ride home. The teacher reminded them about their homework for tomorrow. Then, in less than a minute, the room was empty. Now that her students were gone, the teacher talked to me about the little boy who was last in line.
“Marty, that boy never volunteers for anything,” she said, “let alone stand up in front of everyone. How did you do that?”
She was asking for answers I didn’t really have. I was almost as surprised as she was, never expecting the students to finish so fast, then see so many of them want to read their poems out loud—to their classmates’ applause, no less. What these children had written was, of course, a little ragged and raw, but their sense of detail was more remarkable than I would have expected. Somehow, asked to write poems, the students had truly become the animals they claimed to be and discovered a language for what made that animal’s heart beat fast. Even a maggot’s heart.
Two years later, Dana Gioia’s essay “Can Poetry Matter?” appeared in The Atlantic Monthly. His essay was savvy and insightful, full of dire observations about how poetry didn’t matter to important people such as doctors, lawyers, and presidents. “American poetry now belongs to a subculture,” the essay begins. “No longer part of the mainstream of artistic and intellectual life, it has become the specialized occupation of a relatively small and isolated group.”
For Gioia, if books of poetry weren’t selling millions of copies, or if poets did not influence public life and opinion the way business and political leaders did, then poetry did not matter.
But I’d learned a different lesson, a lesson I’ve continued to learn not only teaching in colleges but also working with both children and adults in various kinds of workshops. In 2006, I joined other colleagues and students at Georgia College to establish a Creative Writing program for 7th Grade Students enrolled in the GC/Early College Junior/Senior High School. This blog post features a recent image of Early College students reading from their work, and their university student writer mentors.
I can’t remember how often I’ve asked students young and old to write the poem that begins, “Like an (animal) my heart beats fast when I….” But every time, I’ve learned how much poetry could matter, the way it mattered in 1989 to a shy boy who faced a class full of children who might laugh at him. Yet he did read that poem he’d made with his own hand, his own heart.
This is how poetry matters. Not because it changes the world, but because it changes one person at a time—both the solitary writer and the solitary reader—one poem at a time. Sometimes that solitary person is a 7th grade student and the student’s family; sometimes it’s a nationally prominent poet such as Miller Williams, asked to write an Inaugural poem by the President of the United States.
It’s a lesson I hope I never forget.