“What’s a poem?” I ask the Big Kids.
“Poetry is a song, a song without a tune . . . Something you say where the sound of the words matters . . . A story that makes you feel something,” answer the children gathered in a semicircle around me. These answers surprise me; they are in some ways more sophisticated, more interesting answers than my college students offered when I asked them the same question.
“Great!” I say. “And what do you need to make a poem?”
“Paper!” shouts one boy.
“Nope,” I say. “You can use paper, but you don’t need to.”
“A pen!” a girl calls out.
“Nope again!” I say. “You can use a pen, but you don’t need to.”
“Words?” whispers a tiny blond girl.
“Yes!” I say.
“Imagination?” ventures another little girl.
“Yes!” I say. “You need words. You need imagination. And this is very important: you also need your eyes and ears and nose and body and sense of humor. You see, I’m a poet. That means I try to pay attention to the world very carefully. I use words that sound good like a song, words that make you feel something, and I try to describe what I see and hear and smell and taste and touch and feel.”
The kids nod. I have their attention; it’s time to surprise them. I need to surprise them at least as much as they just surprised me, surprise them as least as much as my son, a few weeks earlier, had surprised me.
“Wanna hear a poem?” Abram had asked, two weeks before, as I prepared dinner.
“Sure,” I’d answered. I knew that Alex Caloyeras, Abram’s day-care teacher, had been talking to the kids about poetry, so I wasn’t entirely surprised. In fact, Alex had asked if I’d come in and do something with poetry for the kids, and I’d agreed without thinking about how I would teach poetry to children who could neither read nor write.
“Ba moo hab a face like da clock inda hawl see signs on teeves onda gerdenwal,” said Abram.
“That’s great,” I said, cutting up vegetables that had little chance of being eaten and starting to worry about what I’d gotten myself into. I noticed, after making carrots into “swords,” that Abram was repeating this nonsense line exactly, over and over.
“What are you saying?” I asked.
“‘Ba Moo,’ by Blahblah Louey Stevason,” he said.
The next day there was a stapled packet of poems in Abram’s cubby and a note from Alex explaining that in honor of National Poetry Month, the three- to five-year-olds in the Big Kids Room would memorize some poems and talk about them. Then a “real poet” would come and visit! Oh dear, I thought, that “real poet” was me. And then I came to “The Moon,” by Robert Louis Stevenson.
The moon has a face like the clock in the hall
She shines on thieves on the garden wall . . .
Within a week or so Abram could recite all 12 lines of “The Moon” clearly enough for most people to understand. In the following weeks he also memorized “The Caterpillar,” by Christina Rossetti, “April Rain Song,” by Langston Hughes, and several other poems. Although his elocution left something to be desired, his ability and desire to learn poems by heart quickly outstripped those of my college students, who were struggling to memorize 14 lines.
“I have something very important to tell you. . . . ” I lean in close to the kids in the classroom and lower my voice to a whisper. “You probably think you have two eyes, right?” They nod. “Well, you don’t.” They look around at each other. Some of them laugh. “You each also have a third eye.” One girl scowls at me disapprovingly; the little blond girl looks nervous.
“Your third eye is invisible, so no one knows exactly where it is, but most people think it’s right here.” I touch the spot between my eyes and above my eyebrows. The kids touch their foreheads. I was worried that the third eye idea might be too complicated for the kids or that the teachers might think I was a total kook. I’d gotten the idea from Kenneth Koch’s book Wishes, Lies and Dreams: Teaching Children to Write Poetry. Koch’s main advice for teaching poetry to children is to speak simply but not dumb things down. I hoped that’s what I was doing.
“Everyone has a third eye,” I explain. “That’s how you see all the things in the world you can’t really see but know are there, like magic, like how flowers look in the middle of the night, like how a whale would look if it was pretending to be a princess.” The kids nod and giggle. “Grown-ups all have third eyes, too, but, well, it’s very sad . . . ,” I sigh and shrug, “grown-ups forget to use their third eye, and then sometimes they forget they even have one! When you are a poet you need to use everything you have, especially your third eye. You won’t have any trouble with this because you’re kids, and kids know how to use their third eye. Let’s try it!”
I ask the kids to close their “regular” eyes and be very quiet and still and see if they can “see” though their third eye. I let the silence settle in the room for as long as I dare and then say, “Now we’re going to make a poem. Keep your eyes closed, and raise your hand when you want to add to our poem. Every line of our poem will begin the same way, like this: ‘With my third eye I see . . . ’ And then you tell me what you see.”
The poem they make has all the specificity and strangeness that I love in poems. It moves from image to image with a bizarre and just-right associative quality that adult poets struggle to achieve. Then, as a group, they make a rhyming poem; the first two lines are “I had a bagel named Cat / But really she was a fruit bat,” and the teachers laugh out loud.
Since that day seven years ago, I continue to visit my sons’ classrooms and “do something with poetry” whenever a teacher asks. When my son Moses was in second grade and studying the Hudson River, I used a prompt suggested to me by poet Julie Carr. I read Wallace Stevens’s poem “The Snowman,” which begins, “One must have a mind of winter / To regard the frost and the boughs / Of the pine-trees crusted with snow . . . ” We talked about what it might be like to have “a mind of winter.” Then we talked about what it would be like to have a mind of the river. As a group, we wrote a poem with each student contributing a line that began, “With my river mind I . . . ” Really, the “mind of winter” and the “river mind” poems are variations on the third-eye poem. These poems are invitations to look more deeply into the heart of the world.
With the same group I also used poet Danielle Pafunda’s ode structure and asked each child to write an “Ode to the River.” Danielle’s ode structure is simple, only four lines:
one word describing the subject
one word describing the subject
fact about the subject
wild card line (imagine your subject speaking or acting or speak to your subject)
It is an easily adaptable form, and the kids love it. One boy who had been unruly during the group poem (when I asked for a word describing the river, he said “chicken nugget”) wrote a beautiful ode about a beaver and, the teacher later informed me, went on to write many more odes—odes about all the animals and fish that live in the river, odes about his friends and parents, and, yes, an Ode to Chicken Nugget.
I continue to make poetry with the kids because the teachers appreciate my visits and because it gives me an excuse to see my kids in action in their classrooms. (Moses’s line for the River-Mind poem was “With my river mind I dream of all that has happened and all that will happen to the creatures within me.” I had to avoid making eye contact with the teacher for fear of either busting open with pride or bursting out laughing.) I go because kids love poetry and their enthusiasm is contagious and makes me want to rush home and write.
In graduate school one of my teachers said that if we ever got stuck in our writing, we should read work written in translation, because it has a rawness and freshness that might jostle us into writing. Watching kids make poems has that effect for me. Kids love playing with language. They love what their teacher calls “juicy words.” They also love puns and rhyme and surreal word games. They think poetry is terrific because, as my son says, “In a poem you can say anything you want anyway you want to.” Poetry is the genre of freedom, of “kids know best.” But kids also love making poems that follow a form (like the ode) and have lots of rules. They haven’t yet been turned against poetry by well-meaning but misguided teachers who teach poems as if they are secret codes that need to be painstakingly deciphered, an approach to poetry that leaves everyone exasperated and wondering why poets don’t just say what they mean. Teaching young children gives me great ideas for teaching college students, who are so invested in using poetry to express their feelings and metaphysical quandaries that they forget to use even their two regular eyes. Even though I’m a Real Poet, I sometimes forget I have a third eye too. Helping children make poems reminds me to open my eyes, all of them, even at night, when it seems there’s nothing to see—like Stevenson’s moon, which shines “On streets and fields and harbor quays / And birdies asleep in the forks of the trees.”