Poetry Never Fails: River Hill H.S.

We gathered with about a hundred high school students in the River Hill High School Library to talk, read, and listen to poetry. It was a Friday afternoon, May 22nd, and we were told there would be four or five classes coming to the reading. The huge bank of empty chairs were soon filled with students. This would be my last school visit as Poet-in-Residence for the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society. I was sad to see it end but excited for this day’s visit. My trusty guide, Kathy Hurwitz, made sure we arrived on time and got to the right place– as she has done all year.

With a group of nearly a hundred students, we knew there wouldn’t be a chance for the students to write, but they had the packet of poems we gave to all the schools and most had read the poems. So this visit would be more a discussion about poetry, and I would read some of my work, which most of them had also read.

The difficulty with a discussion in a group of more than one class is that many students don’t want to speak up in front of students they don’t know. If it were only one class, the students know each other, at least a bit. This group was a little slow to start but once they started talking they had plenty of observations about poetry. I started with a question I’ve used many times: Tell us about a poem that matters to you. Or, what would a poem need to to for it to matter to you? These questions got a few students talking to the large group about poems they had heard at a family gathering, poems they had read in classes. One student talked about a poem her uncle read at her grandfather’s funeral. It caused her to go looking for the poem afterward. She wondered why it meant so much to her grandfather. Once she found the poem, she could see why it mattered to him. The poem was “Invictus.” Another student mentioned to the group a poem she heard at a cousin’s wedding. She thought it was beautiful but she couldn’t recall the name.

After a bit of that discussion, I read a couple of the “Cool Disco Dan” poems. We talked about the need to be heard and seen in the world and that many people, often young people, do not feel heard or seen. This seemed to resonate with a few students because more students spoke up. They remarked that sometimes a poem works simply because it gets something off your chest. Two students said they valued poetry as self-expression, especially in a world that often doesn’t care what they think. I read a few more poems, we had a good discussion and soon the forty-five minute class period was up. What happened afterward might have been the highlight of this visit.

Two young women came up to me. One had a poem she’d written for her writing class and she wanted to know if I’d look at it for her. I read her poem aloud and asked her friend to talk with me about it while she, the poet, stayed silent. (This is a common “workshop” strategy.) The poem was gorgeous. It described an old music box with a tiny, dancing ballerina who turned slowly as the box opened. The poem had four or five stanzas, each about coming to life, about adults not understanding what young people need to come alive. Her friend and I both complimented her on it– the poem was simple, clean, and beautiful. She had a couple of spots with more alliteration than necessary. So I talked to her about using these devices like spice– less is more. She said their assignment required them to use the devices a certain number of times. I told her that sounded like a good idea for practice. She agreed the poem didn’t need it and I think she was right.

Another student came up and said they didn’t have a literary magazine at their school and wondered if I had any ideas about how they might start one. I was sorry to hear they didn’t have a literary magazine but many schools don’t. I asked her if she thought they’d get enough good writing if they started one. She was certain they could. I suggested she start small. I told her to just put out the call and use a copy machine and a stapler. Make fifty copies of the first issue and it might be a bigger deal because it’s small. I also suggested she might get permission to use a bulletin board in a student hallway as a literary magazine. She thought that was a good idea. I told her she could change the work on the board as often as she had good writing to post. She was fired up about writing and wanted a way to channel that fire. I hope she will.

It never fails. Poetry grabs students. It might not grab students by the thousands at one school, but it does grab some. Those it captures are usually the students who need it, who want it, who can do something beautiful with it, if they are given some structure and room to be creative. I have always believed this and my visits to eleven Howard County high schools only confirmed my belief.

For my last school visit as Howard County Poetry and Literature Society’s  23rd Poet-in-Residence, I left River High High School with deep  gratitude. I’m grateful to Susan Hobby, Tara Hart, Tim Singleton and all on the HoCoPoLitSo board, who entrusted me with this position. From October, 2014 to May, 2015 I visited eleven high schools, Howard Community College, and Howard County’s Alternative School. It has been a pure joy.

I’m deeply grateful to Kathy Hurwitz, who served as my guide and friend on these visits.  She got me to the right classroom at the right time, every time.

I’m also grateful to the teachers who decided to take a chance on bringing their students to a workshop or reading. Lastly, I’m grateful to all the students who let poetry greet them. As HoCoPoLitSo’s first Poet-in-Residence, Lucille Clifton is known to say, “Poetry isn’t about how smart you are. It’s about how human you are.” I know I am a better human for my love of poetry– reading it and writing it. I hope all the students, who took a chance with poetry this year, will discover their own deep and good humanity which poetry so often calls up from within us.

Published by www.JosephRoss.net

Poet & Teacher. Author of four books of poetry: Raising King (2020) Ache (2017) Gospel of Dust (2013) Meeting Bone Man (2012)

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