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Poetry makes nothing happen, so W. H. Auden famously said. And there are Sunday afternoons where I wonder why I am teaching it to middle school students. Make no mistake: for all my enthusiasm and bantering in class, I understood from the beginning what sort of transaction this was. I had some skill with words and needed the money, the students I tutor needed to bump that B in English to an A. That, at least, was something poetry could make happen.
Regardless, I was determined to be a good teacher. From my eleven some years of experience as a student, I realized what separated good teachers from dictation machines was their uncanny ability to make both unmotivated and externally-motivated students internally-driven. Rather than expecting students to be naturally engaged (really, it’s a Sunday afternoon, and they’re learning), I had to adapt my delivery. What better way to learn about rhythm and rhyme in poetry than by exploring rap? That lesson, we clapped to the lyrics of Hamilton and listened to rap lines in Korean pop songs so that, divorced from lingual meaning, the intonations of rhythm stood on their own. As a challenge, we compared romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Ozymandias to Coldplay’s Viva la Vida, which, though composed in very different time periods, share a similar theme: the ephemeral nature of power.
Some days are slow; there are challenges. I still have yet to come up with a fun way of teaching essays, and some students, you can tell, truly have no desire to be in class. Sometimes, they get too loud, the projector breaks down, or someone decides to play hide and seek during breaktime and refuses to come out. Yet, there is no better feeling than hearing a whispered “Now that was really fun” at the end of class.
No, there is a better feeling than that. I remember collecting their first poetry assignment, expecting nothing more than a few rhymed lines. Instead, I received:
The lone ancient tree
bathed in golden light
casts a creeping shadow
on the green grass behind.
Its tentacle like roots
slithers deep down into earth,
its withered bark
and its frail boughs
sway back in time.
It begins. And it concludes:
I ask the tree,
How old are you?
What type of tree are you?
And how do you live a life of an outcast so jubilantly?
But I only get
the rustle of the leaves.
I read that again, smiling at the By: Dennis Lu running beneath the title, The Tree. Forgive me for perhaps reading too extensively into the work of a seventh grader, but I saw so much there: the recognition of time beyond oneself, a sort of courage, a boy daring to demand answers from an indifferent universe. Beyond that, the appreciation of existence we can only get from a detailed, poetic eye. And I am reminded of how I fell down the rabbit hole and became engrossed in poetry myself--it made me see the world in such visceral detail and possibility: shadows creep, roots slither, and “frail boughs / sway back in time”.
My piano teacher said, “My mother wanted me to be a doctor. And now I say to her, I am a doctor! A soul doctor.”
In The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath writes, “People were made of nothing so much as dust, and I couldn't see that doctoring all that dust was a bit better than writing poems people would remember and repeat to themselves when they were unhappy or sick and couldn't sleep.”
And I--I perhaps cannot be a soul doctor; I do not claim that my poetry can heal bloodied knees or protect people from harm. But maybe--I can provide others with a new way of seeing, capture a snapshot of our time, jolt people with a breath of fresh air. This is what I can offer, my way of happening.
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