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Let Poetry Flow: Inspiring Student Expression

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Poetry is an experience, not a genre. It is a form of exploration, with as many intuitive and natural aspects as skilled and studied ones. Poems are emotional, yet they are also as real and solid as any bridge. Words connect people. By reading, we enter each other’s minds. We learn to listen, empathize, and develop compassion, which is the seed of peace.

Poetry, like Peace, is Personal

No two poets will ever interpret a poem in exactly the same way. In fact, one poet is likely to interpret the same poem in different ways on different days. Since poetry often aims to express the inexpressible, even the author of a poem may not be able to tell you exactly what it means, but she will be able to tell you how she felt while writing her bridge of words to your mind.

A Safe Space for Expression

Some of my favorite lines of poetry are written by the Dulce María Loynaz, a 20th century Cuban poet who wrote about feeling free within her verse. Poetry helps me feel free. It creates a refuge, a safe place for my thoughts and emotions. Poetry also creates a mysterious form of communication, one that is interactive. The open spaces between lines on a page are not empty. They are filled with resonance, like the echoes after the ringing of a bell. Those echoes connect the writer’s emotions to the reader. Poetry, in other words, is a form of music. Rhythmic language offers comfort, joy, and like any birdsong, hoof beat, or heartbeat, a kinship with nature and human nature.

Sparking Creative Spirits in your Students 

When teachers ask students to tell them what a poem means, they might trigger deep fears of failure to express the inexpressible. So many adults are irrationally afraid of poetry that they may transmit their contagious fear to children. Instead of asking young readers, “What does the poem mean,” please ask, “How does the poem make you feel?” Just like music, poetry is meant to be enjoyed, even when it is not thoroughly understood.

 When I am asked, “Why did you tell this story in verse instead of prose?” I used to look for complex, sophisticated answers. But the truth is simply that poetry makes me feel hopeful. Even the most sorrowful historical or contemporary subject carries hope when it travels through midair on the wings of musical language.

 What can we offer children? They already have imaginations and emotions. All we need to do is give them a chance to put those thoughts and feelings into the safe refuge of words -- first by listening, then reading, and eventually, writing their own mysteriously interactive forms of communication.

 The Three Ps of Poetry

When children or teens are ready to start writing their own poems, they will need nothing but supplies that I think of as the three Ps: peaceful surroundings, a pencil (or pen) and paper.  Let their first drafts flow. They can revise later. If they’re serious about writing, they’ll need to read, read, read, and practice, practice, practice. We have a tendency to assume that our first efforts at writing should emerge with no need for improvement but authors are just like musicians, dancers, or athletes. We need to rehearse, train, and never stop learning.

Explore Multiple Forms of Poetry 

If children end up with awkward rhymes, you can guide them toward other forms, such as free verse, haiku, and tanka. You can also show them how to use internal rhymes, near rhymes, or vowel rhymes, which often sound more natural.  If they can’t decide what to write about, take them outdoors, or show them pictures or videos of animals, plants, and other aspects of nature. Sources of inspiration are endless, once a poet learns to watch, listen, and observe.

Margarita Engle

Margarita Engle Author

Margarita Engle is the Cuban-American author of verse books such as The Surrender Tree, Enchanted Air, Forest World, and Drum Dream Girl. Awards include the NSK Neustadt Prize, Astrid Lindgren Award Nomination, a Newbery Honor, multiple Pura Belpré, Walter, Américas, Jane Addams, and International Latino Book Awards and Honors, as well as the Charlotte Zolotow, PEN USA, Golden Kite, Green Earth, Lee Bennett Hopkins, Arnold Adoff , and Claudia Lewis Awards.  Margarita served as the 2017-2019 Young People’s Poet Laureate. 

Margarita’s most recent verse memoir is Soaring Earth. Her newest books include Dancing Hands, Dreams From Many Rivers, and With a Star in My Hand. She was born in Los Angeles, but developed a deep attachment to her mother’s homeland during childhood summers with relatives on the island.  Margarita studied agronomy and botany along with creative writing. She lives in central California with her husband.

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