Essay on Children's Poetry

Fears, Truths, and Waking Life

On the teaching of Kenneth Koch.

To use Kenneth Koch’s work with children as a model for your own teach­ing, you have to take children seriously—their feelings, their ideas of beauty, their ways of using language.

First, this means not talking down to them. You can’t give a child a story about what you’re teaching that’s categorically different from what you would give an adult. Children understand when you’re not telling the whole story. You do have to communicate your story clearly, which requires choosing direct words, stating the idea once, and find­ing instantly understandable examples of what you’re talking about. Everyone in the room deserves for you to get through to them.

Second, this means responding sincerely and compassionately. When you praise student work, it has to be clear what you’re praising, why it’s worth calling attention to, and how anyone in the room could have come up with something like it, or, better, could use one child’s discov­ery to make something of his or her own. When the students are going in a direction where you see nothing to praise, stop and start over. It’s not the children’s fault they found nothing inspiring in the suggestions you’ve made. Just as you can’t falsely praise work that is trivial or lifeless or mean-spirited, you also can’t criticize children for giving back what you’ve asked from them.

Third, because you’re the teacher, the one who’s supposed to know, the one the children will be looking to, it’s crucial that you take yourself seriously and know your own feelings, ideas of beauty, and ways of using the language. If a writing idea isn’t one that you can use yourself, you’re not going to have an easy time showing nine-year-olds how to make it work. This doesn’t mean you need to think and write like a nine-year-old, but it does mean, for example, that if you were happier reading Richie Rich and Casper comics than DC and Marvel, you’re not going to have much to say on the subject of superheroes’ origin myths and hard-earned grudges. But you may be able to use what all comics have in common—the wish to identify one’s own special power—to suggest that the children write poems in which they try on several different kinds of magic or abil­ity: to fly, to be invisible, to be able to create anything instantly, to go anywhere in space or time, to stop bullets or airplanes or bombs, to talk to the dead, to heal, to make people believe anything.

Likewise, if you don’t particularly care for writing that pulls lots of dif­ferent examples together in one small space but prefer to read and write narratives that work from a single premise or situation and feel their way through setbacks and conflicts to satisfying conclusions, you may have trouble suggesting that the children write list poems with different ani­mals, colors, and places in each line. If it’s not your idea of beauty, it’s a lot trickier to make it work.

You may be able to adapt what worked for Koch into something better suited to your tastes. There are, of course, some preexisting limits you’ll have to consider—the forty- to fifty-minute class periods, the difficulty of engaging twenty or thirty children on a single topic, the kinds of sto­ries children are told and will think they are supposed to tell—knowing that even the most accomplished teachers struggle with them from time to time.

The best introduction to Koch’s ideas about teaching poetry writing to children—and while I am using superlatives, the best work there is on the subject—is his 1970 book Wishes, Lies, and Dreams. Used correctly, it can help inspire children to write poems of strong feelings and lively images almost instantly. Opinion over the years on the correct use of Koch’s methods has not been unanimous. There are purists and there are critics. I had the good luck to work with Koch for several years, and it seemed to me it might be useful to teachers and poets, or at any rate not too distracting or misleading, if I shared some of what he told me.

I worked as Kenneth’s assistant from 1990 until his death in 2002. I began as a replacement for his graduate assistant (I was an undergradu­ate), responsible for mailing his bills and retyping his drafts. I remember thinking my duties would include library research—Kenneth’s riffs on Tadeusz Kantor, Fernand Braudel, and Ludwig Wittgenstein in One Thousand Avant-Garde Plays had come out a couple years earlier—but learned gradually that self-conscious erudition was not Kenneth’s default mode; friendly competition was.

I had been dating his previous research assistant, and as her graduate exams drew closer, she told Kenneth she needed to stop assisting (and me she needed to stop dating) and start focusing on studying for her comps. And she told him that I knew Kenneth’s poems as well as or bet­ter than anybody, including Kenneth himself. This was a stretch, but in any case I’d read all of his poems and plays, and as he had told me, I was probably one of twenty people who’d read through both his novel The Med Robins and the play of the same name. I had also looked at one or two of his books on teaching. I got the job.

One of the main texts Kenneth taught from was Mayakovsky’s How Are Verses Made? He quoted to students Mayakovsky’s rule that the most important thing for a poet is to have a clean copy of what you’ve written when it’s time to revise. What he did not tell his students is that he had assistants to make these clean copies for him, which he would then mark up in pencil, grease pencil, highlighter, ballpoint, and felt-tip, then cut up and tape, rearrange, and hand back to be turned into new clean copy. Kenneth’s industriousness was not unlike a factory’s. There were days when he generated forty or fifty pages of these drafts.

I was not the first assistant to make these clean copies using a per­sonal computer with a dot matrix printer or laser printer, but judging from Kenneth’s archives, I was probably among the first three or four, and he was pleased and surprised that I returned his work to him while it was still fresh in his mind. It was fortunate that I could do so because I resented the bill-mailing part of the job to the point of incompetence, with treachery lying just beyond. Dozens of young scholars, poets, and artists must have worked in a similar capacity for Kenneth over the almost forty years he taught at Columbia University. One of my first tasks was to accompany him to a rug dealer to find a carpet to furnish his office on the fourth floor of Hamilton Hall. Kenneth was very good at using his allocation of the English department budget.

A few months into the job, at the start of a long weekend break from school, I received from Kenneth a fifty-page draft of a poem in the form of fake book reviews, à la Gilbert Sorrentino’s Mulligan Stew. I didn’t know at the time that Kenneth had been let go by his editor, that he’d had a cancer scare, that the woman he considered the muse of the thousand plays had left him, or, for that matter, that book reviews were in those pre-Amazon days the main way authors could tell how they were doing. All I saw, as I read Kenneth’s parody of the Times Literary Supplement’s wonderful but obscure miscellany on the train home, was that it was not a good poem. The reviews were mean-spirited, the books were implau­sible, the jokes were flat. I didn’t want to type it. Sunday came around, and it remained untyped. My parents, sensing that I was even more out of sorts than usual, counseled me just to tell him that the piece wasn’t up to his standards and that I didn’t want to take his money to do work he wouldn’t use.

“You’re fired!” he said, taking the poem from me. It wasn’t the first time he’d said it, but it felt definitive. I walked down the long hallway from his living room, where he wrote, to the front door. There was an enormous Red Grooms canvas along that hallway, a backdrop from the stage production of The Red Robins, showing a plaza in Guadalajara with at least one man in a sombrero, shoulders hunched, caught mid-stride I took a good last look at it as I walked, to memorize details to put in a short story about my brief time as a writer’s assistant. I was at the front door when I heard Kenneth again.

“Fucko! Come back here.” I walked back. “You’re right. It’s no good.” There was a pause. “Why don’t we try something different,” he said. From then on, I was to listen to Kenneth read his drafts aloud, let him know which works were promising and which were not likely to work out. I was flattered and daunted by the increased responsibility. It took me a while to understand that I was actually being hired as a sparring partner.

A few years later, I was about to start my first residency through the Teachers & Writers Collaborative. One evening, after having discussed several long and short poems on diverse subjects and a play about a man who shows up for a duel in a giant bird costume, I changed the subject to ask for some advice on teaching. Kenneth paused, then reminded me that he’d written a few books on the subject. I allowed that I had read them several times and in fact had shipped off several orders for them that day as part of my job at T&W. “What I was hoping for,” I said, “were some gen­eral instructions.” Kenneth paused again, then smiled. “Some General Instructions” is the title of a poem he’d written at the height of interest in his work teaching children. (If you ever need a favor from a poet, it some­times works to quote the poet’s work casually in conversation.)

Shortly after Wishes, Lies, and Dreams was published, around when I was born, the poems of Kenneth’s elementary-school students at P.S. 61 in the Lower East Side made a splash. The children read on David Frost’s TV show, and Barbara Walters interviewed Kenneth. The book was reviewed widely. And Kenneth found himself speaking frequently to groups of educators around the country. Sales of the book were good, and Kenneth proposed a sequel. Rose, Where Did You Get That Red? picked up a promising lead left undeveloped in Wishes: how to use great poetry—Blake, Lorca, Shakespeare—to teach elementary-school children to write poems.

Kenneth enjoyed success. The sixties had begun extremely well for him: a tenure-track position at Columbia, his first poetry book reviewed in Time magazine with more books of plays and poems following quickly upon it, collaborations with major artists and composers, and every sign suggesting he and his friends were finally being heard. By the end of the decade, though, his first marriage had fallen apart, his closest friend in poetryland, Frank O’Hara, had been killed in an accident, and poems, which had always come easily to him, were proving more and more dif­ficult to write. The enthusiastic reception of work in one area of his life suggested an opportunity, and through trial and error, he found a way to use in his poems what was working so well with teachers and students.

In The Art of Love, published within a couple years of Rose, Kenneth pursued the thought experiment of addressing several subjects in poetry, beginning in roughly the same tone he used in his prose about teaching, leaving the restrictions of the schoolroom behind while taking his cho­sen subjects—love, beauty, poetry—as seriously as possible, which is to say, entirely seriously and with a little silliness. (He told me once that, regarding being silly, he took courage from Maud Gonne’s referring to Yeats as “silly Willie,” paraphrased by Auden.) He referred to these as his “instructional poems.” One success led to another. Inspired in part by the increasingly adventurous all-inclusiveness of the work of his friend and rival John Ashbery, Kenneth decided to try an instructional poem about life itself. The following are lines from “Some General Instructions,” the poem I mentioned earlier:

Be attentive to your dreams. They are usually about sex,
But they deal with other things as well in an indirect fashion
And contain information that you should have.
You should also read poetry. Do not eat too many bananas.
In the springtime, plant. In the autumn, harvest.
In the summer and winter, exercise. Do not put
Your finger inside a clam shell or
It may be snapped off by the living clam. Do not wear a shirt
More than two times without sending it to the laundry.

Though the instructional poems derive their tone from Kenneth’s work among schoolchildren, there’s an important difference between them and the books about teaching. In his prose he’s careful not to tell teachers what to do but describes what worked for him and how he found it, stays in the first person and the past tense, and sticks to specific classrooms and the obstacles he overcame in them. In the context of the constant explosive change of the poems and plays he had published up to this point, the coherent narratives of the introductions to the teaching books mark a change. The introductions to his books on teaching can be read as one thing after another, and reread as complex explanations of how to identify and remove problems in order to create ideal conditions for spontaneous discovery and collaboration. In his introductions, Kenneth takes the teachers in his audience as seriously as he does the children in his classrooms: all appearances to the contrary, he doesn’t tell any adults what to do; he simply explains his goals, what difficulties he found, how he and the students found ways around them, and what they accom­plished together.

I’d read the introductions. Young and foolish, I preferred the absurd certainty of the instructional poems to the pragmatism of the teaching books. I wanted an executive summary of the introductions, and I thought I had figured out how to get it. “Well now, very funny, White Fang,” Kenneth said, in response to my having quoted him. (Kenneth’s instant nicknames tended to fall away like sticky notes on corduroy.) He proceeded to quiz me on my knowledge of Wishes and Rose, both the introductions and what others refer to as “writing prompts” but he preferred to call lessons, assign­ments, or poetry ideas. And satisfied, I suppose, that he could emphasize certain points in what he had written without sacrificing the sense of the work as a whole, he gave me a few suggestions. They are below.

When teaching poetry to children, it’s important to start with a poem written in collaboration with the whole class. Write five or six lines from different students on the chalkboard so that everyone sees that everyone can do what is being asked and so there can be ideas to work from on the board.

Wishes are good to start with because they encourage children to con­nect writing with expressing what they’re excited about and also because they allow children to feel comfortable sharing feelings and ideas in a friendly, competitive way. There will be wishes for world peace and a bil­lion dollars; it may be useful to accept each of these wishes once and then ask what else the students wish. If the prevailing mood in the room is too far in the direction of trying to please you by saying what they think you want, make up a bunch of completely different kinds of wishes to relieve the pressure of having to say the “right” thing. It may not hap­pen as much with children these days, but it can be scary to be told to say what your wishes are; wishes and fears are famously connected. You really don’t have to tell the children that, though. The important thing in the first few lessons is to interest and excite them and to keep adding to what they can do in a poem.

Once the children have become familiar with the idea of putting a wish in every line, you can increase the difficulty modestly by asking them for a wish and one other thing in every line, such as a color or place. The formal requirement is a slight distraction that can give access to sur­prising changes of association: What color are the leaves on the tree you want to be sitting under instead of at your desk, for example? What color do you make the invisible car when you need to see it to find it? What’s something else that has that exact color? You’ll know it’s working if the poems are lively and surprising.

If you have weeks and weeks and the students are responding well, you can cover comparisons, colors, and noises one class at a time for each, but you may find that by bringing synesthesia into the classroom from the beginning, you can cover them all at once. Ask the children to close their eyes and keep them closed; then jingle your keys or ring the teacher’s bell or pull open a shade and ask them what color they saw when they heard the sound. Some won’t have seen any color, but some will. Ask them to name something else that has that exact color; if they say something general, help them be more specific. Then write a line based on what they’ve said and put it on the board: “The sound of keys is purple-silver like the little flowers by the blacktop.” One thing that can work well is to compare the sound of a word in different languages—for example, which is darker, night or noche? Green or vert? Five or fünf?

Lies. There’s a lot in the book to make it clear that writing in the class­room is a special situation in which giving children permission to do what comes naturally can be put to socially acceptable ends. The power of saying “put a lie in every line” is undeniably exciting; if it looks as though it might get out of hand, you can revise and have them put some­thing crazy or unusual in every line, but it’s not as good. What is always good, when the students seem stuck, is to encourage them to make their lines as real or as crazy as they feel right then.

The “Swan of Bees” exercise is a good fourth or fifth class. A spelling mistake in a poem a third grader was writing suggested this idea, as did that phrase in Frank O’Hara’s poem “Easter”: “the roses of Pennsylvania.” 

The idea is to put together unexpected combinations using the word of in the middle of them. You can also have them use is alongside of to connect apparently unlike things. It helps to suggest that students make the two things they connect have only one part in common: “a road of strawber­ries” would make sense because pavement is usually slightly bumpy like a strawberry, but “the forest is coats” may be too obvious. “The woods are a hallway of cubbies” might be a better example, where the spaces between the trees are like the cubbies of absent students.

If you try having students write to music, the examples mentioned in Wishes, Lies, and Dreams are all by classical composers, but jazz can work, as can songs in other languages. Songs in languages the students know can be a little distracting from the purpose, which, like the “sounds and colors” poems, is to have them write what the music suggests to them, to be aware of how it makes them feel and what that reminds them of. Different kinds of music lead to different feelings, from Wagner to Louis Armstrong to Gregorian plainsong.

Work on dreams after you’ve been in the classroom a few times. It may be good to prepare students for the next class by asking them to pay attention to their dreams. If they want, they can take notes when they wake up each morning so they remember, but it isn’t necessary or required homework.

Having the students combine poetry ideas, once they’re familiar with some of them, can be exciting, as can poems that encourage feelings of mastery and change. The “I used to, but now” poetry idea is good for that; having them begin one line with I used to and the next with but now, lets kids talk about memories and things they miss (and don’t miss), as well as mistakes they’ve made and ideas they’ve outgrown.

It’s almost always better to suggest that students write as if they are the things they want to talk about or as if they’re talking to, rather than just describing, them.

Eat a good breakfast and drink some (not too much!) coffee before class. Wear nice, brightly colored clothes, show up on time, smile, and have writing paper ready to hand out to everyone.

Wishes, Lies, and Dreams and Rose, Where Did You Get That Red? include several student examples for each of these ideas and others, and if it seems as though the ideas aren’t getting through, it may help to read from the examples. The best examples will usually be the freshest ones, though—yours, and those of the students in the room.

In my work as Kenneth’s assistant, I was comfortable letting him know when I agreed and disagreed with his ideas about poetry and when I thought specific lines and entire poems were working or not. As a stu­dent of his teaching, though, it hasn’t occurred to me to argue with his methods, which I’ve found produce remarkably consistent results in classroom after classroom. I’m aware that that consistency itself is, for some critics, a sign that the poetry ideas wash over children without being integrated into their thinking and practice, that the ideas just give back what Kenneth put into them. I’ve also heard the criticism that the children’s poems included in Kenneth’s books on teaching writing don’t live up to the claims Kenneth made for them. I could not disagree more. The analogy I keep thinking of is to gym class or sports camp. The exer­cises suggested in Wishes, Lies, and Dreams develop some basic skills that much contemporary writing fails to demonstrate, writing that would be improved by a stronger sense of form, a greater variety of imagery, sensuousness, spontaneity, and deep feeling.

Teachers who have already applied Kenneth’s methods will recognize that much of his advice to me in his general instructions derives from the introductions to his books. He did restate and repeat certain principles and ideas many times in his college classroom and in his writings. I think I heard him quote Paul Valery’s line that “a poem is never finished, only abandoned” about a hundred times. My own advice to writers and teachers coming to these ideas for the first time is to read the introductions to Kenneth’s books a dozen times. They are at once brimful instruction manuals and breezy narratives. It is very easy to mistake a necessary ingredient for a passing remark. And then, having read and reread his texts, try anything and everything that comes to mind as a poetry idea for the classroom, as long as it feels exciting and surprising and leads to lines of your own that you can look at coolly and find life in.

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.

Jordan Davis writes about poetry for The Constant Critic. His essays and reviews have also appeared in Slate, The Nation, and the Times Literary Supplement.