Finding Your Poet
I’ll let them read what they wish. And then we’ll have some fun in their telling me why they made their choice; why a thing called to them.—Robert Frost, interview with Rose C. Feld [Poetry and Prose, edited by Edward Connery Lathem and Lawrance Thompson (Holt, 1972)]
Can you remember the first time you fell in love with a writer? Maybe it was the Christmas you were given the Narnia books? Or your first Dr. Seuss? Can you remember devouring all of Sherlock Holmes or The Count of Monte Cristo or the Tolkien trilogy under the blankets with a flashlight? And then cam the summers on the road with Kerouac, and the Hemingway year of the locked jaw, when everything was fine and good and true, and the beach summer of Gone with the Wind. And still later the white nights with Dostoevsky. And the summer hitching from hostel to hostel with those two European novels in your backpack; or swaying in the subway with Joseph Heller and Philip Roth.
I’ve noticed that when I ask colleagues to reminisce, they rarely mention a poet. Well, maybe Plath or Ginsberg or E.E. Cummings, but only when pressed up against the wall. And I suspect this is because we were led to believe that poetry was hard work, requiring the presence of a teacher and a scalpel.
How did we discover our favorite writers? Through browsing in the attic or the library or our parents’ shelves. Or, more likely, word of mouth; there were years when every kid from twelve to eighteen was reading Catcher in the Rye. Right now my student poets are carrying around Sharon Olds’s The Gold Cell (1) (the girls, that is) and Ginsberg (2) and Galway Kinnell. (3)
There are so many wonderful, accessible poets “out there” right now that it’s easy to find a favorite. Classroom texts are beginning to include a greater diversity of voices. But I think it’s important for students to see us hold up a book of poems we’re currently reading and flip through the pages till we find one we love: “Here, this is it. Listen, you gotta hear this one . . . !”
Browsing in the poetry shelves of a good bookstore is a delight. Several of the big chains—Encore and Borders, for instance—usually have a wide selection. You can find anthologies that focus on poets of one particular ethnic background or nationality, collections of women poets, Holocaust poets, Zen Buddhist poets, poets writing about jazz, about AIDS. You can find books of father/daughter poems, of marriage poems, of bad verse, of poems for men, of animal poems and bird poems, of poets choosing their own favorite poem, even—and I bought this one specifically with teenage boys in mind—poems about driving cars! (4)
Some of these bookstores will also have literary periodicals in their magazine section. I remember falling in love with Pattiann Rogers and Marilyn Hacker when I read a couple of their poems in Poetry Northwest and Poetry, years before they started winning prizes for their books. Treat yourself some afternoon when there’s no committee meeting; find a bookstore with a café where you can actually browse over coffee, and choose a poet to take home with you. (If you bring your notebook along, you may also get inspired to start writing a poem of your own.)
I haunt used-book sales. And libraries. Even the smallest town library can offer surprises; in the tiny village of Lovell, Maine, I found a battered collection of Native American poetry and an anthology of “best” contemporary poems selected by the Academy of American Poets.
Poetry readings and videotapes—and the occasional television interview or radio reading—offer an immediacy that students love. You can check bookstore, library, and café schedules for readings, consult your state or local arts council, look at the ads in Poets and Writers magazine or American Poetry Review, and, if you live near a big city, find out whether there’s a monthly poetry calendar of events. Two good sources I use for audiotapes, which can be surprisingly inexpensive, are The Poetry Source, in Lawrenceville, New Jersey, and Spring Church Book Company in Spring Church, Pennsylvania.
Students like to feel they’ve made their own discovery, so it’s important to provide a lot of different poets for them to consider. And not just the ones in the textbook, because then they get the idea that poems come ready-made for the classroom and that the single anthologized poem by Ginsberg is the only one he ever wrote. And that after writing it, he promptly dropped dead. (I know, there’s no date on the page to indicate this, but it’s how they think.) I like to photocopy a lot of poems, scatter them on the floor or around the walls, and let students browse till they find one they want to read to us. Or put packets together and ask everyone to go home and skim till they find a couple of poems they want to present in class the next day. This kind of assignment implies, I think, that we respect their taste, their individuality. It can give them the confidence to start trusting their own reactions to poems.
My favorite sources of taped readings and interviews are the Waterloo Festival series of videos, Power of the Word and The Living Language. (5) These were made with Bill Moyers for Public Television, and represent a wonderful range of contemporary poets reading and talking about poetry, mostly at the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festivals. Poets include African American poets Rita Dove, Lucille Clifton, Quincy Troupe, and Michael Harper; Native Americans Joy Harjo and Mary TallMountain; Claribel Alegría and Daisy Zamora from Nicaragua; Victor Hernández Cruz from Puerto Rico and New York City; Chinese American Li-Young Lee; as well as Gary Snyder, Adrienne Rich, Robert Bly, Stanley Kunitz, Galway Kinnell, Robert Hass, W. S. Merwin, Sharon Olds, Carolyn Forché, and Gerald Stern. Each tape, which includes two or three poets, comes with a set of posters—that you are permitted to copy. These posters include photos, a brief biographical sketch, two or three poems by each of the poets on the tape, and some questions to think about. There is also a teachers’ kit of suggested exercises and topics for discussion, put together by teacher/poets from New Jersey.
You can show brief clips from a tape and follow these with discussion or writing. I like to photocopy the two or three posters for one tape and ask students to go home and browse till they decide which poem they want to read aloud to us the next day. They practice reading it, preferably to someone at home, till they know it well enough to “give it” to us with conviction—with clarity and eye contact. They also write out a few questions they’d like to ask the author.
Next day we hear these readings. Find out in advance how many duplicates you have, so the class doesn’t end up hearing the same poem four times in a row; but it’s interesting to hear the same poem by two successive readers, so that you can discuss the different interpretations. Later, when they hear the poet read it on the tape, they’ll have a context; some may prefer the way a classmate read it. We’ve had arguments over interpretations that have taken us deep into the poem—even to the nitty gritty of grammar: “But I think the he in this line refers to the fathers, not he kid. So that changes the way you’d have to read it. It changes the whole meaning.” Students may find a poem becomes richer for them when they hear two different readings that both “make sense.” It can be very revealing, for example, to listen to a poem read by both a male and a female voice.
It’s important to establish right from the start that “giving” a poem requires effort from both reader and listener. I tell students to turn over their copies of the poems during readings and to focus all their energy on the reader. I describe how when I give readings of my own poems, I’m always looking for a responsive face or presence who will give me energy and to whom I can direct the poem. I ask the student reader to take a few breaths and gather all our eyes before starting to read. If someone gets off to a bad start, it’s worth asking her to begin again. Poet/teacher John Timpane gives good advice: Read “distinctly and positively, with a little push behind the words. . . . Use your chest and throat. Speak expressively. Look for surprises and gently emphasize them. Use slight pauses as emphasis. Treat white space as time. Pause gently at the end of lines—unless it’s awkward. Add pauses if the poem skips lines or if lines are indented. At the ends of lines that don’t end in punctuation marks, lift your tone of voice just a little. Give a sense of expectancy, of being pulled into the next line.” And—very important—“No need to rush.” (6)
We want to sense that the reader cares about the poem and about passing it along to us. I also ask each student to begin by telling us why she chose this poem—and, if she likes, to specify anything she especially wants us to notice.
After the readings, you can hear some of the questions that students would like to ask their poets, and get these up on the board to create a context for the interviews they’ll hear. Then show the tape—pausing if you want to hear student responses to a particular reading or issue. I always ask everyone to jot down at least three things that caught their attention—it might be a comment one of the poets made about how he or she writes, or a questions Moyers asked, or the way a poet read a line, or a new aspect of a poem that emerged from the reading. Then at the end, we compare notes.
Gradually, as students hear and read more and more poems, they’ll become more confident in their tastes and more able to articulate why they prefer one poet to another. Of course, their tastes may not jibe with ours. But that may be as well; our tastes were probably quite different when we were sixteen from what they are now. I didn’t fully appreciate Emily Dickinson till this winter, when my mother was dying and I found myself reading certain poems over and over. I suppose it was partly the language she found for the New England birds and hills and “ slants of light” that my mother loved, too; and partly the stoical spareness—not a word wasted. I read three Dickinson poems at the memorial service, and I know that whenever I encounter them again they’ll bring back that time in my life. I also rediscovered an early poem by Marilyn Hacker that I had admired but now loved even more, “Rune of the Finland Woman,” based on a line from Andersen’s fairy tale, The Snow Queen: “She could bind the winds of the world in a single strand.” (7) The poem works magic with its variations on this line, and pays tribute to the remarkably varied capacities of a wise woman. I read the poem to everyone I could find and at a memorial concert for my mother, as well.
The poetry text I used when I first started teaching—Sound and Sense—had a section of paired poems, one of which was “good” and the other not. We were supposed to train our students’ taste by asking them to compare the two. Invariably my students chose the “sentimental” or “obvious” or just plain tacky one. I felt like a failure, and so did they. Taste matures, especially if you fall in love often enough. And would we really want to be without the memory of that first love?
Nowadays I take comfort from a passage in Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet: “Works of art are of an infinite loneliness and with nothing so little to be reached as with criticism. Only love can grasp and hold and be just toward them. Consider yourself and your feeling right every time with regard to every such argumentation, discussion or introduction; if you are wrong after all, the natural growth of your inner life will lead you slowly and with time to other insights. Leave to your opinions their own quiet undisturbed development, which, like all progress, must come from deep within and cannot be pressed or hurried by anything.” (8)
This advice was addressed to a nineteen-year-old who was already sensitive to literature, but I think it’s relevant for any adolescent reader. Students need to experience powerful, immediate, personal encounters with art if they’re to fall in love with it. I didn’t appreciate Elizabeth Bishop the first time I read her. Once a student finds a poet he connects with in some way, he’s much more likely to look around for others.
The most effective means I’ve found for helping students to discover their own poet is the Project. I first tried it in my one-semester poetry course with the juniors and seniors. It does require setting aside at least a couple weeks for reading and another couple weeks for hearing presentations, depending on the size of the class; but it’s well worth the time, and can be a great climax to the year or semester. One of my more “difficult” juniors, who had just emerged from an abusive relationship with a boyfriend and was still reeling from her parents’ divorce, ended up writing about the project in her final course evaluation:
When I came into class on the first day, I sat down ready to learn about white, male, upper-class, seventeenth-century poets. I was not looking forward to this. I chose this course because I was interested in poetry and I figured I would be able to get a few good poems written and read by other people who knew something about what they were doing. Then I though I could “b.s.” my way around the poetry I believed we were going to read . . . . By the time the first class was over I wanted to call my mother to tell her all about what we were planning on doing for the rest of the semester. One of the aspects I was more than willing to get started on was discovering new poets, beat poets, recent poets, poets I could relate to. Not only did I meet a lot of poets I hadn’t heard of before, I learned a lot about myself too . . . . Discovering Jane Cooper was a meaningful experience for me. (9) We had read only a sprinkling of her work in class, and I loved her instantly. At the time we had begun thinking about who we wanted for our poetry projects, and when we heard Cooper in New York I wanted to have her for my project. When I began getting to know her work better, I realized that we had some type of connection. Through her poetry I could see some of the pain I had felt in my life. I understood her poems.
Interestingly, the variety of contemporary poets we looked at seemed to reconcile this student to struggling with Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”—a poem I thought would have no chance with her: “I thought I was never going to get through reading it, but once I did I wanted and had to read it again . . . . I chose to write a journal entry from the wedding guest’s point of view. I retold the tale in his own words and imagined his reactions to what he had been told . . . I had never read a poem that long before.”
Look around your class and ask yourself what poet you would choose for the boy in the back row who loves to challenge everything you say; for the girl who you happen to know is living in the shadow of her older, more glamorous sister; for the boy who did Outward Bound last summer and is head of the environmental club; for the brilliant violinist with the pushy, possessive mother; for the flamboyant actress; the avid horsewoman; the feisty feminist just back from a march in Washington.
Then consider: Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, (10) or Lawrence Ferlinghetti, (11) all Beat poets who challenged the Establishment on issues ranging from nuclear war to marriage; Diane Wakoski, (12) creator of powerful images in free verse, who wrote a lot about her relation to her family and her need to find out who she was; Gary Snyder, (13) ecologist and practicing Zen Buddhist, who spent a summer in his youth on top of a mountain in a fire tower; Russell Edson, (14) poet of dark, absurdist dialogues and Freudian animal fables about thoroughly dysfunctional families; Anne Sexton, (15) playwright and poet, for whom every reading was a theatrical performance; Maxine Kumin, (16) owner of a working farm, whose poems about animals are vivid and realistic; and Marge Piercy, (17) activist and poet, who writes of the needs and natures of women. Somehow, these students and poets should be finding one another.
The Project requires each student to select a twentieth-century poet writing in English (though I once allowed a brilliant Spanish student to choose Pablo Neruda, since she could read him in Spanish), to read as widely and deeply as possible in the poems—and journals and letters, if these are available—and present a fifteen-minute reading of those poems he considers most accessible to us and most characteristic. The reading includes the student’s own commentary on these poems and on the whole body of work. Research into biography and criticism is not the focus of the project, but as the students get farther into the poems, they begin to have questions about how these relate to their poet’s life and, perhaps, start to wonder how the poems have been received; at this point, I encourage them to do a little research, but to share with us only those discoveries that will help us to appreciate the poems we’ll be hearing.
I present a list of some forty or fifty poets for their consideration. I confine it to twentieth-century poets, with the emphasis on contemporary writers or at least those from the forties onward, because I want students to have their own insights and form their own opinions, not be overwhelmed by the “received” views. This means that some of their poets are so current that there is very little biographical or critical material available, but literary magazines offer reviews and sometimes biographical background, as do video- and audiotapes.
In addition for the oral presentations, students assemble a table of contents for a hypothetical Selected Works—some twenty poems they would choose as a representation of their poet’s most interesting and accessible work. They write a three- or four-page introduction to the collection, designed to help orient potential readers unfamiliar with this poet. And, finally, they each write a poem to or about their poet, imitating his or her style.
The search for a poet to live with for this long a stretch is a valuable process, and one that engages students at a very personal level. Since I don’t allow any duplication, there can some heavy negotiating over such popular figures as Plath, Olds, Ginsberg, Joy Harjo. I hand out browsing sheets on which every student must record at least three poets he’s investigated, list some poems he’s read by each one, and give a reason why he would or would not want to read more. If your school library holdings are weak in contemporary poetry, send students off to the local libraries and bookstores to browse.
As soon as everyone has a poet, you may want to make at least a couple of class periods available for reading, so you can watch the process and establish some guidelines. I require that students note down their observations as they progress from poem to poem, and I give them a list of items to look for, which have become familiar from our previous reading and writing of poetry—recurring themes, words, images, forms, and attitudes—so they can begin to characterize their poet.
Shaping the oral presentation requires a lot of thought: how best to convey a poet’s work to the class in such limited time? Some students choose provide handouts for everyone—of a particularly hard poem that they think we’ll not “get” just from hearing it aloud, or of an extra poem they couldn’t squeeze in but “you have to read,” or a chronology of the poet’s life and work, or a photograph, or quotations from an interview. Some students start by giving us a question to think about, as a context for the reading; some begin right away with a poem. I emphasize that their mission is to interest us in their poet. They are responsible for helping us enter the world of those poems. Each student is assigned a colleague whose performance he will evaluate in writing anonymously; I quote from that evaluation in my own assessment.
By the time the day for the first presentation arrives, students are excited. And with reason. The last few years have seen some memorable moments . . . Becca sits down crosslegged on a small rug, lights the incense, turns on a tape of Indian sitar music, and invites us to join her on the floor to listen to sections from Ginsberg’s “Howl.” Merritt enters in a tight, red silk dress, inserts a cigarette in a long holder, fixes us with a compelling gaze, and speaks in the first person as Anne Sexton, telling us about her therapy before she starts to read from Wanting to Die. In a moving presentation on Theodore Roethke, (18) Dan focuses on the poems about fathers and sons, and explains how his own relationship has developed with his brilliant writer father. David confides with engaging frankness that he has recently fallen in love and then proceeds to give a convincing rendition of some of e. e. cummings’s love poems. And Peter come in wearing a dress and babushka to read us Russell Edson’s ironic, nasty little fables; he explains that he thinks of fables as being told by old women, and makes us sit on the floor around his feet as he reads. Because the men in these poems are so often denied food and sex and power by the women, he interrupts his reading to unwrap a chocolate bar and, slowly, consumes it; we sit there watching hungrily. [. . .]
Once in a while, I think a writer arrives in our life just at the moment when we most need her. There was a senior girl in my class last year who had been hospitalized very recently for manic-depression. She had tried to kill herself and was still confused and unhappy, but was being released and sent back to school on anti-depressants. I had once heard the poet Jane Kenyon read a very powerful poem about the history of her own lifelong clinical depression, “Having It Out with Melancholy,” and as I watched my student sitting in poetry class day after day, totally numbed to her own feelings by medication and unable to write, I suddenly remembered Kenyon’s poem. (20) Since “Carol” later chose to write an essay on her encounter with this poem, I’ll let her tell the story:
Poetry saved my life, barely. This may sound like an overstatement, but it isn’t.
I have always expressed myself through poetry, but I never realized the incredible healing powers poetry had on my soul. It’s so easy to pick up a pen and write down all of the horrible, or wonderful, emotions building up inside. This year, however, I became overwhelmed by the awful and found that it drained too much energy to sleep, let alone write. My body worked on automatic pilot. I was experiencing so many emotions that being alive became a chore. I’ve always hated doing chores. I decided to stop living. Inside, I had died long before taking those pills.
After a brief vacation from everything that upset me, I had to return to school. The halls were so blurry I couldn’t focus on conversations, people’s faces. My surroundings were hostile and unwelcoming. How could I return to a life that became so unbearable I had to escape from it? Didn’t my parents know that school was killing me all over again? Questions like those were like gusts of helium filling a red balloon. I was once again removed from my life. I floated above, with my senses dulled, and was quite content—up high and numb.
When some of the helium was removed from my head, I began to complete assignments. One in particular was a political poem. The poem was entitled ‘Manic Mad.’ It consisted of complaints which I had about the lifeless, broke person I was nurturing inside my mind, heart, and blood. A few days later, Ms. Michaels gave me a life preserver. It was a a beautiful, touching book by Jane Kenyon called Constance. As I read Kenyon’s poems (especially ‘Having It Out with Melancholy’), there was an instant connection. I was not alone, and every time I read the line ‘Unholy ghost you are certain to come again’ my vision gradually got clearer. Jane Kenyon had written all of the feelings I was too afraid to release. I believed there was safety in my madness. It was a cave I could crawl into whenever I felt threatened.
I do not know whether my receiving that book was an act of God or just the instincts of a teacher. My loneliness and confusion are diminishing everyday, due to Constance. I did not feel joy in Jane Kenyon’s sorrow. I felt a comforting shelter in the knowledge that others often experience what I have. I do not know what I would have written about if I never read that book. I do not know if I would be here.
Sharon Olds, The Gold Cell (New York: Knopf, 1987). This is a collection girls read aloud to one another. Olds writes frankly, in vividly kinesthetic images, about sex, love, loss, having and raising children, and—very importantly to adolescent girls—a daughter’s confusing relationship with her father. This is my favorite of her books. But it’s only fair to admit that some parents and administrators and colleagues might be troubled by some of the material. Olds reads and talks with Bill Moyers on the video of the first PBS series, The Power of the Word (see note 1, chap. 1 and note 9, chap. 9).
Allen Ginsberg, Collected Poems 1947-1980 (New York: Harper & Row, 1984). Students can love the rebelliousness and jazziness and humor of Ginsberg without getting any of the historical references. Alas. Kenneth Koch, in Sleeping on the Wing (see note 9, chap. 3) has a small cluster of Ginsberg excerpts (a little bit from “Howl” and some shorter poems along with a helpful writing exercise). Some school libraries won’t touch Ginsberg, I’ve been told by students at schools I’ve visited, so you may have to photocopy or read aloud or play tapes.
Kinnell (see note 4, chap. 4 and note 1, chap. 1).
Some examples of anthologies on themes listed in this chapter:
Michael Harper and Anthony Walton, eds., Every Shut Eye Ain’t Asleep: An Anthology of Poetry by African Americans Since 1945 (New York: Little, Brown and Co., 1994).
Duane Niatum, ed., Harper’s Anthology of 20th Century Native American Poetry (New York: Harper & Row, 1988).
Garrett Hongo, ed. The Open Boat: Poems from Asian America (New York: Anchor Books, 1993).
Ray Gonzalez, ed. After Atzlan: Latino Poets of the Nineties (Boston: David R. Godine, 1992).
Florence Howe, ed., No More Masks! An Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Women Poets (New York: HarperCollins, 1993).
Jane Hirshfield, ed., Women in Praise of the Sacred: 43 Centuries of Spiritual Poetry by Women (New York: HarperCollins, 1994).
Marge Piercy, ed., Early Ripening: American Women’s Poetry Now (New York and London: Pandora, 1987).
Carolyn Forché, ed., Against Forgetting, Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness (New York: W. W. Norton, 1993). This collection includes more than 140 poets from five continents, bearing witness to war, torture, exile, or repression, from the Armenian genocide to Tiananmen Square. Forché, whose own poems often deal with political history, has written an introduction and a brief sketch about each event. Poets writing on the Holocaust include Nelly Sachs, Primo Levi, Paul Celan, Dan Pagi, Irena Klepfisz, and Miklos Radnoti.
Kent Johnson and Craig Paulenich, eds., with an introduction by Gary Synder, Beneath a Single Moon, Buddhism in Contemporary American Poetry (Boston: Shambala, 1991).
Sascha Feinstein and Yusef Komunyakaa, eds., The Jazz Poetry Anthology (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991).
Michael Klein, ed., Poets for Life: Seventy-six Poets Respond to AIDS (New York: Crown, 1989).
Jason Shinder, ed., More Light, Father & Daughter Poems, A Twentieth-Century American Selection (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1993).
Michael Blumenthal, ed., To Woo & To Wed: Contemporary Poets on Love & Marriage (New York: Poseidon Press, 1992).
Kathryn and Ross Petras, eds., Very Bad Poetry (New York: Random House, 1997). I find some of these hilariously bad, but students capable of taking them quite seriously and praising rhymes, images, etc. However, certain kindred spirits will laugh with you at James Mcintyre’s Ode on the Mammoth Cheese—the same ones who find Emmeline Grangerford’s bad poems in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn amusing.
Robert Bly, James Hillman, and Michael Meade, eds., The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart: Poems for Men (New York: HarperCollins, 1992). This collections is divided into categories such as wildness, fathers’ prayers for sons and daughters (which includes Li-Young Lee, Yeats, Etheridge Knight, Kinnell, Snyder, Rilke, and Stafford), war, language, loving the community and work, anger, zaniness, the cultivated heart. It includes women poets writing about men—Anna Akhmatova, Sharon Olds, Carolyn Kizer, Emily Dickinson—and it draws from various countries and centuries, though the focus is twentieth-century.
Christopher Merrill, ed., The Forgotten Language: Contemporary Poets and Nature (Salt Lake City: Gibbs Smith, 1991). An appealing collection that includes plants, insects, animals, and weather.
Alberta Turner, ed., Fifty Contemporary Poets: The Creative Process (New York: David McKay, 1977). A fascinating book in which fifty poets pick “one of their own poems they feel is representative of their best current work” and answer Turner’s six questions about how they wrote it. Tuner is herself a poet, and asks good questions.
Kurt Brown, ed., preface by Edward Hirsch, Drive, They Said: Poems about Americans and Their Cars (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 1994). Yes, there is a category “Women in Cars,” and those poems are all by women.
See note 1, chap. 1. See also the book that was published at the time of the second video series, The Language of Life—A Festival of Poets, ed. Jim Haba (New York: Doubleday, 1995). This includes photographs of thirty-four contemporary American poets, including those featured in the video, with at least one poem each. These poets are interviewed by Bill Moyers.
Timpane, 17, (see note 3, chap. 4).
Marilyn Hacker, Selected Poems 1965-1990 (New York: W. W. Norton, 1994) 176-177.
Rainier Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet, trans. Stephen Mitchell (New York: Random House, Vintage, 1986) 22-23. This is a nice little paperback, almost pocket-size, definitely purse-size. I find my eleventh-graders are ready for some of the ideas in these letters, and those who take their writing seriously sometimes go out and buy their own copies after reading excerpts. Rilke deals with some of the big questions that students this age area asking themselves. Will my parents ever come to understand me? What is love? Are there any answers? Rilke was, after all, writing to a nineteen-year-old.
Jane Cooper, Green Notebook, Winter Road (Gardiner, ME: Tilbury House, 1993). Cooper writes about the developing self in ways that reflective students can relate to.
Gregory Corso, The Happy Birthday of Death (New York: New Directions, 1960). Corso’s poem “Marriage” is particularly funny in its explorations of the pros and cons from a young man’s point of view. It’s a great poem to read aloud and discuss—but read it over beforehand!
Lawrence Ferlinghetti, A Coney Island of the Mind (New York: New Directions, 1958). Students who like Ginsberg and Kerouac generally like Ferlinghetti also.
Diane Wakoski, The Motorcycle Betrayal Poems (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1971). Many of these poems explore ways a young woman can seek her identity apart from relationships with men. Many girls resonate to Wakoski’s rebelliousness and the directness with which she writes about romance and family.
Gary Snyder, No Nature: New and Selected Poems (New York: Pantheon, 1993). Also see and hear Snyder on video, program #5, “Here in the Mind,” in The Language of Life series. Students interested in the outdoors and the environment, or in Buddhism, tend to like this video, and it’s interesting to pair it with excerpts from program #2, “Love’s Confusing Joy,” in which Coleman Barks read the 13th century Sufi mystic, Jelaluddin Rumi.
Russell Edson, “The Tunnel,” in Selected Poems (Oberlin, OH: Oberlin College Press, 1994). Edson defies categorization, but he appeals to students with an absurdist or surreal sense of humor, who enjoy surprise. Many of his poems are dialogues between animals or between husband and wife, somewhat reminiscent of the plays of Ionesco or Beckett. They’ve been labeled prose poems and have been compared to the boxed collages of Joseph Cornell.
Anne Sexton, The Complete Poems (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981). Sexton’s directness in exploring what Freud called “the family romance” and her own sexuality and femaleness, and the way she draws on pop culture as well as the traditions of fairy tale for her bold, striking images, continue to speak to adolescent girls.
Maxine Kumin, Our Ground Time Here Will Be Brief: New and Selected Poems (New York: Penguin, 1982). My students particularly like her poems about her farm, her animals, her family. Kumin’s matter-of-fact way of connecting the deaths of animals and of humans with the regeneration of the earth, the continuity of life, can be helpful for them.
Marge Piercy, Circles on the Water: Selected Poems (New York: Knopf, 1982). Some girls are uncomfortable with Piercy’s very outright, feminist voice, but others feel affinity right away.
Theodore Roethke (see note 3, chap. 2).
Linda McCarriston, Eva-Mary (Evanston, IL: Triquarterly Books/Northwestern Press, 1991). See also program #3, “The Field of Time,” in The Language of Life videos. These poems can be especially powerful for students who have experienced, or who know a friend who has experienced, family violence. McCarriston says, “I had to speak back to the culture that I saw creating and sustaining the ideas that led to this violent situation in the first place.”
Jane Kenyon, Otherwise: New and Selected Poems (St. Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 1996). I’ve found Kenyon’s poems to be favorites with many girls who are attached to the outdoors, to home, to the details of everyday life, but the poem “Having It Out with Melancholy,” while it draws images from these sources, as most Kenyon’s poems do, is a particularly important poem for students who are suffering from clinical depression or have friends in that situation. It also helps teachers understand these students better.
Dr. Judy Rowe Michaels is poet in residence and English teacher at Princeton Day School in Princeton, New Jersey, as well as a poet in the schools for the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.The author of two books on teaching poetry and writing, both published by NCTE (Risking Intensity and Dancing...