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They Cheer When He Enters the Classroom

Author: John Gardner

It's not strictly necessary to read both of Kenneth Koch's excellent and enormously important books on children and poetry, though I strongly recommend it, if only for the pleasure both books give. Each stands on its own, implying the whole argument. But they're better together, and to anyone for whom the subject is important- parents, teachers, anyone who has the normal human delight in true poetry, or anyone who wonders how this normal human pleasure was dwarfed and twisted- the pair of books will, I think, be a revelation.

"Wishes, Lies, and Dreams," originally published in 1970, is the record of Koch's highly successful experiment with teaching children to write poetry at P.S. 61 in Manhattan. In schools all over America, children are excited when the art teacher comes in; and a look at children's art in recent years shows that something really happens in those art classes. Why then should the art of poetry be, for children, an annoyance and a bore? Koch, himself the author of such books of poetry as "The Pleasures of Peace," "Thank You" and "Ko, or A Season on Earth" and a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia, set out to prove- and has clearly proved- that writing poetry can be as exciting as anything in a child's experience. When he entered a classroom, his pupils (grades 1 through 6) shouted and clapped. When he left the classroom, he left children's poems that might make an adult poet envious. Poems like this:

Snow is as white as the sun shines.
The sky is as blue as a waterfall.
A rose is as red as a beating of
The clouds are as white as the
busting of a firecracker.
A tree is as green as a roaring lion.

"Wishes, Lies, and Dreams" tells how he did it and how, hopefully, anyone can do it. I can suggest here only the general approach. He began with a firm conviction that the thing could be done. He writes: "One thing that encouraged me was how playful and inventive children's talk sometimes was. They said true things in fresh and surprising ways. Another was how much they enjoyed making works of art- drawings, paintings, and collages. I was aware of the breakthrough in teaching children art some forty years ago. I had seen how my daughter and other children profited from the new ways of helping them discover and use their natural talents. That hadn't happened yet in poetry. Some children's poetry was marvelous, but most seemed uncomfortably imitative of adult poetry or else childishly cute. It seemed restricted somehow, and it obviously lacked the happy, creative energy of children's art."

To get what he was after, he knew he must slay two ancient schoolroom dragons. One was inhibition, the child's fear of getting something wrong, proving for the thousandth time that he's stupid, unacceptable. The other was, in effect, the child's innocence of cultural tradition. However free and open a child may feel, he nevertheless has the question, "What shall I write about?"- really the difficult question, "What is a poem?"

Koch slew the first dragon by establishing a comfortable, fairly noisy classroom much like that typical of art classes; by encouraging students to write whatever they pleased, joke poems (even ornery jokes on Mr. Koch), mean poems, poems involving sex, and so on; by placing no importance on spelling, grammar or neatness (all matters which could be attended to later); and by discouraging the use of rhyme, since rhyme tends to limit imagination and honest feeling. As for the child's question, "What shall I write?", Koch worked out a set of "Ideas for Poems"- simple, essentially formal ideas that should get things moving in any classroom. One is, Begin every line with "I wish." Another is, Use a comparison in every line. (He offered many more.) The poem I quoted earlier, "Snow is as white as the sun shines, is a result of the comparison idea. Here is another:

Thunder is like bowling
Clouds are like a feather
The sun is like a yellow
balloon in the sky
A tiger is like the beating
of drums.

I quote this second poem partly to relay one of Koch's most important points. Both poems I've quoted, you'll have noticed, contained the phrase "beating of drums." A bad teacher would call that plagiarism. In fact, it's proof of live poetic tradition in P.S. 61. Again and again, Koch's students borrowed each other's ideas, attempting to improve on them. (That's one of the things art is all about.) Koch forced this valuable process along by getting children to write in collaboration. He says, "Composing a poem together is inspiring: the timid are given courage by braver colleagues; and ideas too good to belong to any one child are transformed, elaborated on, and topped." A typical result of collaborative writing:

I wish I was an apple
I wish I was a steel apple
I wish I was a steel apple so
when people bit me their
teeth would fall out

The poems by children published in "Wishes, Lies, and Dreams" show how vital poetic tradition was at P.S. 61. Naturally, it was a somewhat limited tradition: children learned from each other and from their teacher's suggestions, but the children themselves felt a need for something more. Koch's response was to shift the experiment to "teaching great poetry to children," thus broadening the tradition available to them. And the record of this experiment and its startling results is "Rose, Where Did You Get That Red?"

In his new book Koch explains in detail how he introduced- how any good teacher might introduce- poems ranging from Blake's "The Tyger" to Rimbaud's "Voyelles." Briefly, the method went like this: Koch would pass out and read the poem, he and the children would talk about it, not worrying about every single detail but getting the feeling, the core idea. With "The Tyger," for instance, the core idea is "A person talking to an animal." As soon as the teacher senses that the children have got it- that is, they feel the awe at the heart of the poem, the shocking quality of the nightmare lines ("burning bright/ In the forests of the night," or the idea of God hammering out the tiger on an anvil)- the teacher sets the children to work on poems of their own.

Look at three results. First, a poem fragment which shows imagistic influence from Blake:

Giraffe! Giraffe!
What kicky, sticky legs
you've got.
What a long neck you've got.
It looks like a stick of fire

Second, a fragment from a brilliant joke poem that shows that its young author really did imagine conversation with an animal:

Glub, blub, little squid. Glub
blub, why blub do you glub
have blub Glubblub blub
such glub inky blub stuff
blubbb? I use it for a protective
shild against my enemies blubbb

Third, a poem I quote simply because it's terrific:

Giraffes, how did they make Carmen? Well, you see, Carmen ate the prettiest rose in the world and then just then the great change of heaven occurred and she became the prettiest girl in the world and because I love her.
Lions, why does your mane flame like the fire of the devil? Because I have the speed of the wind and the strength of the earth at my command.
Oh Kiwi, why have you no wings? Because I have been born with the despair to walk the earth without the power of flight and am damned to do so.
Oh bird of flight, why have you been granted the power to fly? Because I was meant to sit upon the branch and to be with the wind.
Oh crocodile, why were you granted the power to slaughter your fellow animal?
I do not answer.

Not everyone can teach children poetry as well as Kenneth Koch, a man who, as a superb poet himself, perhaps knows more about poetry than he realizes. Telling how he worked in the classroom, he says: "Sometimes a student would be stuck, unable to start his poem. I would give him a few ideas, while trying not to give him actual lines or words- 'Well, how do musical instruments sound? Why don't you write about those?' or 'What do you hear when you're on a boat?' Sometimes students would get stuck in the middle of a poem, and would do the same sort of thing. Sometimes I would be called over to approve what had been written so far, to see if it was OK. I often made such comments as 'That's good, but write some more,' or 'Yes, the first three lines in particular are terrific- what about some more like that?' or'I think maybe it's finished. What about another poem on the other side?'"

I talked with a college professor in California, a well-known literary critic, who tried teaching young children by Koch's method. The problem, he told me frankly, was that he was never absolutely sure what to praise, what to call finished, and so on. If it was hard for my friend, it may be harder yet for, say Miss Watson at East Pembroke Central.

Nevertheless, the principle is right, and not just for poets. What we have now fails almost invariably; Koch's method will work for everybody at least some of the time. His two books could- should- be the beginning of a great revolution. I urge you to buy them, pass them around, exert influence on schools. Help stamp out the kind of poetry children are normally forced to read and write- for example this horrible textbook piece (from "September," in "The World of Language," Book 5, Follett Educational Corporation) which Kenneth Koch quotes:

Asters deep purple,
A grasshopper's call,
Today it is summer,
Tomorrow is fall.

Koch compares, with devastating effect, a fifth-grader's poem on spring:

Spring is sailing a boat
Spring is a flower waking up
in the morning
Spring is like a plate falling
out of a closet for joy
Spring is like a splatter of

John Gardner is author of "The Sunlight Dialogues" and, most recently, "Nickel Mountain." He teaches English at Southern Illinois University.

DMU Timestamp: May 31, 2018 00:33

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