ere is what the Washington teacher tells her young teenaged student: “Anyone,” she says, “can write a poem!” A poem, she explains, is you! “I’ll just write the words ‘I want to be…’ and you fill in the rest. The end product is a poem! You’ve expressed yourself.”
The students are 13, not five, and the task is infantile. But the teacher insists.
The young teenaged student, the daughter of a friend, is both diligent and sincere. “I want to be… a good person.” This is what she submits. Her “poem” reads: “I want to be… a good person.”
The teacher is unhappy with this entry. This is not a poem, she says. “I was looking for a profession.” She marks the student down a grade.
There’s a dry crinkle in my friend’s smile as he tells this story. He knows what’s wrong. So do I. But it changes nothing. Teachers are teachers. Their grace is inconsistent. So is their willingness to transcend literalism.
The poem story makes me think of my university poetry teacher, the late Kenneth Koch. A fey man with grand curly hair and a shimmying, effeminate stride, he had a knack for making small children happily caress the complexities of adult language. He deplored filling in blanks. Instead, he asked his young students to dream in words. Pet the animal, pet the words: they’re both alive.
He wrote a book, “Rose, Where Did You Get So Red,” that the Washington teacher should take home and leaf through. In the early 1970s, while grappling with the famously rhetorical excesses of Columbia students (I among them), he’d troop to New York City public schools — famously numerical — and sit down with fourth graders. He’d often bring along poems by William Blake, convinced that Blake’s fanciful images, conjured from laudanum reveries, could pleasantly infect young imaginations. These were poems that kids could see.
As his adult students struggled to satisfy him in the Columbia poetry course, imitating Pound, Whitman, Stevens, William Carlos Williams, and Randall Jarrell (the enforced flattery was hard work), he brought us the scuffmarks he’d coaxed from the youngsters at PS 101.
One day, after a gifted Barnard junior named Susan had read a poem she was proud of, and which she said she’d tinkered with for a week, Koch fussily intervened with PS student Chip.
He’d given Chip and his classmates some stanzas from Blake’s “The Tyger” (“Tyger! Tyger! burning bright/In the forests of the night”) and asked them to “answer” Blake by describing a mythic animal or something else that caught their fancy. Picking “The Tyger” was a masterstroke since the poem poses fanciful questions (“What the hammer?/ what the chain?/In what furnace was thy brain?”) “Think of all the animals in the world, or just your favorite things,” said Koch, “and imagine what you’d want them to look like, how you’d imagine them acting.”
Chip, age 10, was puzzled at first. He then complied with this:
“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 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.”
Anyone can write a poem.
But the anyone must first make their mind available to forerunners who dreamed in tigers and rivers and storms and disease. The past excites the future into being. Koch knew this. And Chip, in love with Carmen, did the rest.
I write: “I want to be … a poet.”
But I’m not.
And that, while not a poem, is a lesson.