“…But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.” -from Toni Morrison’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech, December 7, 1993
At the beginning of the pandemic, I felt largely paralyzed. Information from district leaders came quickly, but when stirred into the confusing, uncertain swell of things erupting on the news and social media, it became like the sound and fury that signify nothing. Because I felt so immobilized, I leaned in to administrative conversations about how school would go on via remote learning, and the imperatives to communicate with children and families to know they were safe. However, I couldn’t wrap my mind around everything that was happening. For the most part, I stayed in my classroom during that first week, trying to remain calm while wading through the massive amount of messages and directives and expectations. No one knew what they were doing and the locus of control had been removed. I was as though everything stayed locked inside me and I had forgotten how to exhale.
My inbox flooded with resources and ideas from various organizations, offering extraordinary resources for extraordinary times. One organization, whose income is based on standardization and progress monitoring, promised ease and celebration with their product, as though students would joyfully answer multiple choice questions about texts and word meanings. The email was punctuated with jubilant exclamation points, but the thought of students working at home on something that really didn’t matter sickened me. The email’s sentiment, I’m sure, was built on hopefulness, but I didn’t feel it. Still, no exhale.
The universe must have sensed my emotional detachment. During the first week of remote instruction, an email from poets.org caught my attention. The “Teach this Poem” feature on the website is remarkable, and many times, while trying to find the right poem to share with students, the “right one” would serendipitously land in my email. Early in my teaching life, I presented poems to students as containers of hidden meanings, figurative language, and extensions of the writer’s biography. What I egregiously missed was the essence of the poem— the microcosm of the world it represented, the push beyond the ostensible it gave. The poet had gathered words in reverence of an idea, and nudged us, the readers, to dig beneath the surface of it.
Several years ago, I spoke with my close friend and writing mentor Julie about my interpretation of a poem. She listened to my lengthy explanations, and after I finished, she smiled and leaned over her desk toward me. “Spend several hours with this poem, Travis,” she said. “You’ll know more then than you know now.”
So I did.
I spent time lingering over passages, writing lines in my notebook and letting them lead my thinking, and re-reading poems multiple times in one sitting to hear the pauses, stresses, and word meanings. I listened to the writing and noticed something remarkable. With hand outstretched, the poet was offering an amalgam of ideas, hoping I would lend an ear.
When I understood this idea more clearly, I adjusted the way I approached poetry in my classroom. I didn’t teach poems to students anymore; instead, they taught us. When questions came up in class or we, as a community, needed to explore an issue further, we turned to poetry to guide our thinking. We sought to unpack what poems taught us about people and the world we live in. We spent time thinking beside words— gathering them, discussing multiple meanings, exploring big ideas, and connecting those big ideas to the other books, poems, and essays we had read. It was in this spirit of reading, thinking, and feeling that my students and I had parted ways in mid-March, and it was on my mind when I opened the email from poets.org.
Richard Blanco’s “Election Year” unfolded on the screen. I was familiar with his work. In 2013, I attended Barack Obama’s second inauguration, and toward the end of the ceremony, amidst the icy air, Blanco’s resonant voice spliced the cold and effected a blessing of hope and warmth. In “Election Year,” I recognized his gentle voice again. Using images of gardens, he immersed me in a world of colors and blossoms. The poem’s speaker, a worrier it seems, lies awake at night, distraught over vines and weeds that choke his beautiful arrangements. But, Blanco writes, is it really the flowers and vines that create the worry, or is it something deeper, something below the surface that the garden is only a mask for?
As we waded further into the shutdown, every conversation, directive, list of expectations, either given in person or sent through email, felt like a garden of worry. The gardener couldn’t control surrounding circumstances, but the flowers and weeds were within his locus of control. Administratively, it felt as though we were doing the same thing. We couldn’t control what was happening to our world, but we could obsess over minutiae, over what clothes to wear during Zoom classes, what meetings we had to attend, what constituted “work,” and when our work day would begin and end. The more I read Blanco’s poem, the more I recognized my own struggle with control, and how now, amidst an uncontrollable situation, I was learning to recognize the substitutions I made for things I could no longer control. I stared at Blanco’s poem for what felt like hours, and resolutely, after reading the lines again and again, I understood that now was the time for poetry. And I finally felt the edges of an exhale.
When we resumed “class” via remote teaching and learning, I asked if they felt studying poetry was acceptable. So many of them had found solace in poetry. When we gathered in the sacred circle— our meeting place for mini-lessons and class meetings— we consistently read and discussed poetry. Could we spend time beside poetry during this time? They agreed, or, they were willing to try, at least.
After reading and discussing Quincey Troupe’s “Flying Kites,” we borrowed the opening phrases from the two stanzas of the poem to structure our writing, an idea I saw from Carol Jago. Using “we used to…” and “now we…”, we wrote something that used to happen and how that contrasts with what we now do. We gathered our finished poems on a Padlet. If they didn’t want to share with the class, they were welcome to submit their work privately, but most of them were eager to post on the Padlet. In their writing, I could hear them wrestling with the complexity of our times. Some of them wrote about the change from face-to-face to remote learning; others wrote about changes in their friendships and family. This did, however, give us a space to share thinking. We couldn’t be together to share our words, but we could share them in a small, virtual space.
Next, we talked about odes. We read Pablo Neruda’s “Ode to a Large Tuna in the Market” and discussed “the point.” I talked with them about how ordinary things have beauty, and how, as my friend Christina Nosek told me, they have the power to connect us to other people. When we write odes, we are celebrating an object, an idea, or on occasion, another human being. I challenged them to write about something ordinary, using Neruda’s text and my personal example as mentors. When they turned in their pieces, I read of special blankets, stuffed animals, action figures, photographs, musicians, and nature. When he submitted his work, Aiden explained how writing about an ordinary thing— his football helmet— made him appreciate it even more. Could this be another way to exhale?
I never ceased to be amazed at my students’ writing. We read poems from Rudy Francisco, Maya Angelou, and Frank X. Walker. One week, we spent time beside Francisco Alarcón’s poem “Words are Birds” to discuss metaphor. I told them they could use the phrase “words are…” as a starter for their poem, and I gave them options just to get them thinking. If they wanted to create a completely different metaphor, that was acceptable. Students wrote how words are football games, flowers, blades of grass, and songs, just to name a few. These would be some of the poems I would carry with me as mentor texts as I worked with students during independent writing time. Their gorgeous words moved me.
As I sit beside these ideas, I’ll be honest: I haven’t fully exhaled yet. Like others, I still worry and question. But poetry continues to offer comfort and beauty. I save poems, print them, paste them in my notebook, and write to find deeper meaning— in the poem and in myself. Every time I share a poem with students or read one they write, I lift another layer of poetry’s resilient skin and see something new. Not long ago, my dear friend Jennifer LaGarde sent me a link to Marie Howe’s “What the Living Do.” I must have read that poem over twenty times in one sitting, reading and re-reading, and seeing something different each time. That, I suppose, is what poetry really did teach me. It’s not, necessarily, that poems have multiple meanings or can be interpreted differently. It’s that these small vehicles of ideas are charged with exceptionality, that in being ordinary they become extraordinary. It may be about a blanket or stuffed animal, but the more you read it, the more you connect to it. Ordinary things have extraordinary power. They can ground us when the world feels turbulent and out of control.
When thinking about Morrison’s quote from her Nobel Prize acceptance speech, I am left wondering: How does one do language? Write? Speak? Read? Interpret? I’d say yes. And I’m courageous enough to believe that poetry is one of the most beautiful ways to do language. Because while we read it, write it, speak it, and seek to interpret it, we are examining the very essence of who we are, what we know, and what we value.
Poetry has helped me reconnect with the ordinary and see it for the extraordinary it is. It’s also helped me begin to feel, to connect again. As I’ve listened to others speak about their feelings and uncertainties, I’ve recognized the same reverence of words, and, in many cases, of poetry. Wisdom lingers inside of poems, reaching out, beckoning, singing to us in songs and rhythms that nudge us, compel us. By doing language, we become part of the fabric of humanity.
Poetry gives and gives. But you know what?
It’s always willing to give more.