Essay on Children's Poetry

Children’s Poetry

Giving children the gift of language in all its forms.
Poetry word made of wooden cubes on a desk.

One of the really good gigs for a poet in the ‘70s was teaching poetry to kids. There seemed to be a lot of public funding for poetry in the schools back then and there were two organizations in New York City alone, Poets & Writers and Teachers & Writers Collaborative, that sup­plied poets for that function. Lots of known and upcoming poets became part of this practice and you’d always hear about it. In a reading the poets would get up and read their students’ poems. It was a little soft-edged for me. I’d roll my eyes because now (yawn) we were having to hear what the sainted children wrote. I was still aiming to be a kid and a poet, and I didn’t have so much room for these silly pet tricks.

Yet there are lines some kid wrote that are still a part of my head: “When I grow up I want to live in my house,” for instance. I mean generally being the poet teaching kids in a school sounded like a good gig and yet like most administrative things I just couldn’t figure it out. How to get in on it. I assumed that “those people”—the ones who hired poets in the schools—wouldn’t like me. Would know I was bad. I made a few vague passes—mailing those applications in—and nothing ever came back. Word was that the woman who ran it mostly liked to hire men. Most of the people I knew reading kids’ poems aloud were guys. Children needed male role models in the classroom and it was an opportunity for guy poets to make dough. Good for them. Groan. I sort of assumed that it was because I was so clearly a lesbian in my work and that wasn’t what people wanted to send into our schools. I had a secret longing to teach queer kids at Harvey Milk High School, which is New York’s LGBTQ high school, but I never lifted a finger. So it never happened. I suppose if I think about it honestly, kids scare me. The little bit of substitute teaching I did right out of college was largely a painful and humiliating experience that dis­suaded me from wanting to teach for a long while. Cause kids just look at you with those big eyes—and I instantly feel like a fraud. Like, what’s she hiding. I couldn’t imagine a way in.

As a child I had instinctively recognized that poetry disseminated val­ues. It was rolled out in school right next to prayers and the Pledge of Allegiance as part of the larger tapestry of things we supposedly belonged to—but I knew also that those poems were corny. “Blessings on thee, lit­tle man, / Barefoot boy, with cheek of tan!” What was that about? The pleasure of these early poetry experiences was not the dull one of moving my mouth to make these treacly lines with fifty other sets of lips in grade school after lunch, standing with our bellies stuck out, heads swarming with other things. No. What I liked was being home in the afternoon after dinner with my family and seeing how quickly I could memorize the poem. Poetry proved my mind was strong. Not only could I remember everything on the list of things my mother sent me to the store to buy, jingling the list in my mind as I walked, but also I could commit a page of poetry to memory in half an hour. Next came the allure of funny poetry I could spout for my friends outside of school. Mostly it was that stupid poetry from Mad Magazine: “I think that I shall never hear / a poem as lovely as a beer ....” And then finding bad poetry in an anthology in col­lege. Gregory Corso’s “Marriage,” throwing weird names into the world: “Radio belly!” “Cat shovel!” 

Poetry became the exemplar of private vindictiveness and funniness and personal mourning—flipping that space into the world. I knew it, I grew it, it was there.

So despite the fact that I was female, that I couldn’t play dad and wouldn’t be an appropriate choice to teach poetry to children in the classroom, and despite the fact that kids scared me and I knew I would be bad at it—where to begin—my own poetry teaching experience nonetheless began to form in response to the poetry workshops I took as a young adult. I began to understand that teaching poetry was a kind of collective word game, and how you learned it in the easygoing intensity of the workshop (as highly individualized as dating) was also how you developed the teaching practice in yourself, witnessing and practicing and meeting one another in the workshop’s playful intimacy.

And sadly, those free programs—the ones I went to at the Poetry Project in the seventies now cost money—and the ones in public schools have been largely cut out of budgets, and when they do exist the tales of cen­sorship are legion. Yes we want poetry in the schools and yes it would be lovely if the children would produce their own publication but no we certainly will not fund the publication of poems that include such words as “pee-pee,” “caca,” and “butt.” And what about “fag”? So even when the money was a little bit there, it could easily be cut, silencing poetry. All of this was just part of the cultural wars of the ‘80s and ‘90s. Which only further demonstrated to my mind that poetry is powerful. The need is radiantly there. Today when I meet young art students and I’m out of things to say I ask them what they’re reading. Do you like poetry. And surprise, the young artist tells me she’s a huge fan of Lucille Clifton, Ron Silliman, John Wieners, Arthur Rimbaud. How do you know about them I ask assuming they’re probably family. Or French. Well there were always poets in my school when I was a kid. And let’s just have a little moment of silence there.

Because for every person like me who ferreted poetry out of bookstores in states of depression, and found common cause for their warped natures in that literature anthology we never cracked in high school, there is an entire generation who learned from those poets in schools, who had actual poetry teachers, who took poetry class just like art class—and I think it’s why today’s art world is flooded by words. We put it there, all those jerky poet guys reading their kids’ poems, and that one heterosex­ual woman, she did that too. Not just reciting poetry, but writing it—this was taught in school! That’s a revolutionary act.

I will tell you why. It is the most cherished gift of a lifetime, language, especially the idle use of it that’s all furry, snippy, lazy, concatenous, and tough. Language in the hands of poets is a squalling baby and an old man. It’s a creaky, sentimental, surprisingly weird woman. Of course it’s totally trans. It’s queer. And presupposing that you learned it somewhere (illit­eracy is a related but entirely other subject), the point is that language is free and it is the medium that gives us the knowledge that other people think too, and it offers us a way to transmit our thoughts. Language is the ultimate human tool. Portable, invisible, and it zips around the world at no cost. And poetry is language’s first use and its last. While so many languages are dying right now, people continue chanting its poetry. Each and every one of them.

I do have one story specifically about teaching the children. Actually they weren’t children. They were charming thugs, high-school students, at-risk kids in an at-risk town, Provincetown, Massachusetts. Provincetown is at risk cause everything’s for the real estate and the summer folk, nothing for the schools, the local kids. Really, are there schools here? the condo owner asks on his deck. I lived there in the winter to absorb the sounds of the New England working class, my own native tongue, and to be surrounded by the ocean and a wild and duney landscape, and to write a book. My friend Kathe Izzo was single-handedly doing the cool thing: she had created for the troubled teens in her town something she called the Shadow Writing Project, funded by the Mass. Cultural Council. She found kids in the streets, she went into classrooms at Provincetown High, she went to gigs where kids with guitars played out. Kathe had managed to persuade these “bad” kids to take part in an afterschool program. Some liked poetry, reading, a few already wrote songs because they were in bands and imagined that writing poetry would stoke the output of their songwriting. However she did it Kathe had corralled twelve awkward radiant teens to meet in the public library one evening a week to write. It went on for three or four years. One February night in the winter I was Shadow’s guest. So bringing poetry to the kids for me was not a gig. It was a favor. I liked Kathe, I liked her work. I thought it was cool she was doing her Shadow thing. And she had created a job for herself.

What should I do? I asked her. Read, just read your work, she smiled. I explained to them that really I was a poet, that I grew up in Massachusetts. Though I happened to live in New York. I knew one kid in school who was a poet and we would pass notes in class and our notes were poems. We actually got in trouble for these notes so my first work was incendiary, I explained. They didn’t laugh. I don’t even know if that kid still writes poetry. I was thinking out loud. And weirdly (I was digging a really big hole for myself), the next poet I met, a guy in college, Brian Rattigan, lived in P-town in the summer. He was from Watertown. They nodded. He came down here to work in restaurants and write poems. He worked at Sal’s. He drowned at Cape Cod Light. But it’s not like all poets die. I’m alive. I think. I looked around nervously. Finally they laughed. OK I’m going to read some of my poems. It’s very hard to read at a table with people sitting with you. The poetry reading generally as we understand it today is constructed around a little bit of distance, or even a whole lot. The whole thing, the sipping water, the remarks between poems, all of it is artificial. The poems come quietly into the world, often after a lot of activity, intense feeling or thought, and usually I share the poem with one person then—my girlfriend, or for years I would call someone on the phone and read it, but you know cell phones don’t work so well. I think it’s because you’re not home. I think I probably told them this because to sit at the same table sharing my work made me feel both very connected to them and full of shame too—for having a body, for being alive, for want­ing them to like my work, for making something invisible visible, and then for being the evidence of that bleeding, by being there. That whole trashy dancing cave scene in my head ... stepping out. The place where art and poetry begins. Is it okay? Each time after a poem I looked up, usually saying nothing followed by I’ll read another. Do you want to talk at all? I asked. One kid said did you write those all at the same time. No, this one, I said, shaking a page, I wrote last week, and some of these are really old. Like fifteen years. I like to show what I’m thinking and where I am. I think of a poem as something that does what nothing else can. Not a movie, I guess a song can do this too, but a song has to make it simple. A poem can be a really quiet show, but very complex. It goes inside and out. It reflects the pattern. They were listening.

Usually at this point, said Kathe, smiling, we do some writing. They all pulled out their notebooks. They may have liked me but this is what they were waiting for.

So what would you like us to do, she asked. It was like she was flirting. But that’s Kathe’s style. And I wanted to be helpful. They were so young. Seventeen at most, I think. I wonder what they think about their lives right now. I thought of one of my favorite poems, which is almost noth­ing at all. By the 8th-century Chinese poet Tu Fu. Supposedly it was his first poem. I love the idea that you write a poem your whole life. You preserve that culture.

Now I am six
I feel very strong
And open my mouth
With a Phoenix Song!

Six was my favorite birthday too. I don’t want to make their poem be about being children though. Some of them were in bands. People think these kids are no good. They say “at risk” but they mean already lost. This is like a little jail. Poetry is, too. One of the things I like to do is always to think of the thing, the worst thing, and make it good. Flip it. Even just in my head walking down the street. If it’s really hot like in the 90s in New York in the summer, “It will always be this way” I think. I don’t know why but that makes it cooler. OK I’ve got it:

Write a poem from any age in your life—doesn’t have to be your age now, or an age you’ve been. And go down the drain with it. Go down the drain one kid laughed. Yes totally. What does that mean asked the smart girl. I don’t know. I haven’t written it yet. Just make it up. You can’t do it wrong. I guarantee. Just go, just fall. Everyone.

I felt so happy. I loved being six. I had a great party, it was the first time I had friends.

I was six, I had lost my snake ...

I mean, I think that meant a plumber. Right. A plumber uses a snake. But that’s not what anyone would think. Everyone was writing. It was quiet in the library. You could hear cars on the street, the librarians were picking up their papers and putting books on the shelves. Reserve. It’s a little cold in here. People look up when they write. They are looking into an abstract space. A new one, all mind yet all these same wavy distractions come in. Maybe. You can’t trust that anyone is having the same experience, ever. That’s the anarchy of poetry, seeing what anyone has gathered, giving a shape to it ...

Years later, I met Kathe again, in San Francisco. It was amazing to bump into her. Where are those kids today, I asked. When I go to Provincetown I always see Shadow kids in the street, she said. That was the best time in my life, they say. They say to Kathe you saved my life. Mostly they say let’s go write. That’s exactly what they say. One girl who still lives there keeps saying I should start a Shadow group. Shawn Kelley, do you remember her, she was on that artist boat that went down the Mississippi. You know, Swoon. Shawn’s doing great. She looks great. And Carmine is in a band. But no they really mean it. They would walk into a cafe. They would do it right now. Let’s write. That’s it. That’s Shadow. That’s the gift, Kathe said. Just to want it.

This essay was originally published in Open the Door: How to Excite Young People about Poetry (2013), a co-publication of the Poetry Foundation and McSweeney's Publishing, edited by Dorothea Lasky, Dominic Luxford, and Jesse Nathan.
Originally Published: November 24th, 2015

Eileen Myles was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and was educated in Catholic schools, graduated from the University of Massachusetts-Boston, and moved to New York City in 1974 to be a poet. They gave their first reading at CBGB's and then gravitated to St. Mark's church where they studied with Ted...

  1. December 4, 2015
     Margaret E. Bell

    As a very senior citizen, I realize what a wonderful gift my school teachers gave me. I learned a little about who Shakespeare was able to devote so much time to doing what he loved to do, how important it was to observe the moral values I had been taught at home and in Sunday School, and how music can sometimes say things better than books. Those memories and lessons helped me find my way to enjoy writing poetry for children intended to help them deal with problems, appreciate the earth, and strengthen family ties. I give those poems away and the children seem to think they are masterpieces. In reality, those poems are just clever limericks.