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VPR's coverage of arts and culture in the region.

Vermont Reads: Where Poetry Goes To Die

U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins’ search for poetry to include in Poetry 180: A Turning Back to Poetry,  led him to believe that “clear, reader-conscious poems are the ones that will broaden the audience for poetry.”

Vermont’s poet laureate, Sydney Lea, agrees with that approach.

“I have no particular patience for obscurity for its own sake. It doesn’t mean you have to be simplistic in your subject matter. But there ought to be some way in which the reader is invited in and can say at least where he or she is and who’s talking and where and why,” Lea said. And he’s taken that approach in his own writing.

Lea says one of the problems with making poetry exciting for young people is that it’s not purely rational, but it’s too often taught it as if it were.

“We imagine, because it’s convenient in a classroom format, that a poet had an idea and then he or she came along and put a lot of things over it, you know, fancy language and images and metaphors and allusion and meter and rhyme and what have you, and our job is to just go and get rid of all of that stuff and get back to the idea. Well that’s an absurd way to respond to poetry,” Lea said.

“Poetry is both a physical act and I think a dramatic act. That is to say we speak of poems as moving us. But that’s almost a physical thing, we’re in one place and the poem pushes us in another place from where we might perceive the world from a quirkier angle than we had before and all that technique that I referred to that we too often dismiss as irrelevant is part and parcel of that,” Lea said.  

Lea says how something is said is just as important as it’s meaning. He uses the poetry of another Vermonter as an example.

“If you took Robert Frost and “translated” him, as it were into free verse, then you would have a completely different Robert Frost. The way in which he spoke was every bit as important as what he may have said in a kind of an intellectual or philosophical kind of way,” Lea explained.

Poetry In High Schools

When Poetry 180 was being assembled, Billy Collins hoped that students would simply hear the poems and enjoy the language. He describes the book as a big bouquet of modern poems he happens to like – and that he thinks students will like as well - one for each day of the school year.

Some teachers have tried Collins’ approach of simply reading a poem a day – without discussion.

Including at Rutland Middle School, where Laura Foley walks between rows of desks in a 7th and 8th grade English class.

One of the poems the students are reading is, The Death of Santa Claus is from Billy Collin’s Poetry 180, which Foley calls a terrific resource.  But does she read a poem every day?

“I think it would be a great idea if you could really do it. And then you get into the year and you realize there’s so many things we need to teach our kids  - we need to be improving their spelling, their grammar, their usage in writing. We need to be looking at the voice of the writer, their tone, the organization of pieces and reading is a whole other context,” Foley explained.

All of that made reading a poem a day unworkable. But even if it’s not every day, Foley says poetry is an invaluable part of her curriculum for a couple of reasons.  First, middle and high school can be an emotional minefield and Foley says writing poetry can be a safe way for teens to vent their feelings.

“They’re beginning to realize there’s more to these words that what’s at the surface, and as writers as they’re trying to write poetry, they’re realizing their voice can come through. It’s a very strong medium for the student to discover their voice.”

Foley says poetry also teaches students to choose their words carefully so their writing is more meaningful.

“And the ability to use words powerfully is what a poet is doing. So if you can get that across to kids that their word choice will make all the difference, their word choice, their point of view, whatever their message is, trying to get that message across and try to communicate better and that’s what English teachers do teach kids to communicate better.”

In Poetry 180, Billy Collins writes that too often, high school is where poetry goes to die.”

“Yeah I think too often teachers are encouraged, asked to force students to dissect the heck out of a poem,” says Peter Bruno, an English Teacher at Mill River Union High School.   He says that’s why with poetry, he likes to use a lighter touch with his students.

“So this poem is kind of like free association - so let’s take a look at it and the words on the board are for you to choose or not,” Bruno said as he reads a poem and asks his students to take a few minutes to craft their own free form poem.

“It’s just a start but I used open,” the boy said. 

“Open?  Okay,” Bruno replied.

“Open a door open a mind. Meander through an open corridor and echoing silence. Sit quietly in a dark space you need not know where you are,” the boy read.

Bruno called on another student.

“I did stage - see the stage, walk on the stage, lights on, curtain up, the spotlight is up, see the crowd, all eyes are on you - let the lines flow out smoothly evenly. . .  end poem,” the students laughed.

Mill River student Cheyenne Taylor says she loves poetry - but admits it can be tough to read. It can be confusing or bring up emotions you don’t want to face, she said. And for a lot of teens and adults poetry can be too much work. 

Taylor, who’s had poetry published and has her own writer’s blog, encourages teachers to hold poetry performances, like the Poetry Out Loud competition the state holds - so kids can hear poetry read well. She also says teachers should remind students of the power of poetry.

“That it’s not just rhyming, it’s writing down what you’re thinking - it’s almost showing a part of your soul and something deeper than just the words,” Taylor said.  

As Billy Collins writes in his book, poetry is like medicine for the head and the heart.

Young Writer’s Project

There does seem to be something about poetry that prompts teens to write their own. And some even build up the courage to take the next step and try to get their work published. One group helping them to do that is The Vermont Young Writer’s Project.

And the number of poetry submissions the group receives shows the genre is striking a chord with the next generation.

Here’s one poem by Avery McLean, a seventh grader at the Lake Champlain Waldorf School, who lives in St. George and Fletcher.

The Sky Laughs and Cries

She loved the way you
Always laughed with her.
At secrets that only
Believers can see.
Because you taught her that
Pretending is
Different than believing.
That sometimes imagining is
Knowing, not just
You taught her that reading the
Lyrics off the Sun is humbling.
But most of all, she learned from you
That the
Sky does cry, but it also
And that's alright,
You said.
That's the way it is in this
Less than perfect world.
Because rain mixed with the Sun,
Tears mixed with laughter,
After that always comes a

Vermont Reads: Poetry 180 continues tomorrow, when we hear from poets Major Jackson and Galway Kinnell.

One in five Vermonters is considered elderly. But what does being elderly even mean — and what do Vermonters need to know as they age? I’m looking into how aging in Vermont impacts living essentials such as jobs, health care and housing. And also how aging impacts the stuff of life: marriage, loss, dating and sex.
A graduate of NYU with a Master's Degree in journalism, Mitch has more than 20 years experience in radio news. He got his start as news director at NYU's college station, and moved on to a news director (and part-time DJ position) for commercial radio station WMVY on Martha's Vineyard. But public radio was where Mitch wanted to be and he eventually moved on to Boston where he worked for six years in a number of different capacities at member station a Senior Producer, Editor, and fill-in co-host of the nationally distributed Here and Now. Mitch has been a guest host of the national NPR sports program "Only A Game". He's also worked as an editor and producer for international news coverage with Monitor Radio in Boston.
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