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Making the Case for Poetry (and for Pillows, Lampposts, and Subways Seats that Speak)

This fall, I started a job teaching 7th grade English. It began as a part-time job, just .5. Then, three weeks ago, the other 7th grade English teacher resigned, and since then, I find myself teaching his classes as well as mine … meaning that I am 1.2 time. Meaning that now I really have zero time to write.

But while I miss writing terribly, I love my students so much, partly because seventh graders are so easily grossed out. For example, if I want them to move their desks together into little pods, I say, “Please make your desks kiss!” They find that so gross. Which makes me laugh. Which means I laugh a lot more than I ever did as a .5 teacher. I love laughing while working.

What does not make me laugh at work? What does not bring me joy? Teaching poetry.

Reading poetry fills me with dread. Talking about poetry multiples the dread. Presenting my students with poems that I don’t understand? That’s dread to the power of infinity.

So, three weeks ago, on the first day of the Poetry unit, I decided to be honest with my students.

“I have a confession,” I said.

The kids grew instantly silent and perfectly still.

“Please don’t tell anyone,” I continued, “because English teachers can get fired for something like this. But here’s the truth: I don’t love poetry.” I cringed. “Some poems, in fact, I find really, really … boring.”

A few kids nodded.

“So I promise,” I continued, “we will only study poems that, at least in my opinion, aren’t boring.” I held up three, glued-together fingers as if making a teacher oath (which may have in fact been the Girl Scout Promise). “We will only study poems that change the way we see the world.”

I wasn’t sure where this past part came from. Did poems change the world? And if so, how? And why? And where were these particular poems?

To be clear, there were a few poems I did like. Ones by Wislawa Szymborska, Billy Collins, and William Carlos Williams. Adrienne Su, Adrian Matejka, Nikki Giovanni. But I didn’t care for the canon of poetry, the ones I read when I was in school, the ones I taught in previous teaching jobs. Those poems never ignited me. Poetry was a chore. Poems were so darn serious! Plus, I could never remember the differences between trochaic, pyrrhic, and spondee feet.

But then I learned about talking subway seats.

My sister, Libby, is a farmer. Libby is also a poet, a musician, and an artist. In other words she creates literal and figurative fuel for people’s bellies and brains. When Libby and I were together recently, she mentioned a podcast called “Everything is Alive,” [1] a series of interviews where Ian Chillag (a human), interviews a variety of not-humans: Sean, subway seat. Maeve, lamppost. Dennis, pillow.

In these interviews, all unscripted, the inanimate comes to life. Sean, the subway seat, explains that he can tell quite a lot about people when they are sitting on him. “The butt,” he explains, “is my window to the soul.”

Dennis, a down pillow, shares that when his person has insomnia, he feels responsible. Dennis also reminds listeners that “you don’t have to be foam to have memories.”

And Maeve, lamppost, discloses her desire to be as famous as the lamppost around which Gene Kelly danced in Singing in the Rain.

These interviews are eye-opening. They have given me empathy for things–literal things–I didn’t have. I see the world differently.

The interview snippets also got me thinking about personification, which got me thinking about poetry and the poets who employ personification in their poems, so in class, I shared a few snippets from the “Everything is Alive” interviews, hoping my students would be equally impacted.

I was delighted when one boy said, “I would have thought a subway seat would not want someone sitting on him.” He paused. “Now I see he does. When people sit on him, it means he’s doing his job well.”

After that, we read and discussed personification poems by Plath and Dickinson, and we learned that Death was maybe more kindly than we had previously assumed, that a Mirror was not mean, just truthful, that the Sun was in fact a floor-sweeping woman. Just as the “Everything is Alive” interviews made Maeve, lamppost come alive, Plath and Dickinson made inanimate and intangible things human, even sympathetic.

My students and I proceeded, reading other not-boring-to-me poems, one poem describing a woman as a wet, paper bag. In another, a single, solitary sneaker becomes a symbol for the children lost in wartime. In still another, immigrants are monarch butterflies. In these poems, poets were imbuing “things” with meaning that surprised, delighted, and discomforted us.

And I started to understand something about the power of poems, about the power of seeing–really seeing–things.

We humans are too good as seeing other people as “things.” And we forget, when we view people as things–Democrats, Immigrants, Republicans, Mexicans, Whites, African Americans, Police Officers, Bleeding-Heart Liberals, Right-wingers, 1%-ers, the Poor, the Rich, the Homeless, the Mentally Ill–we ignore people’s humanity.

What if poets used words to expand the worlds of the reader, to reveal quiet moments of humanity in places we forgot to look or notice? What if I had spent the first 47 years of my life not appreciating poetry because I never understood that poems are not meant for the dissection, analyzation, and parsing, at least not to the point that carefully crafted clusters of words became a carcass? What if poems helped humans be more humane?

I do know that we fiction writers, like poets, write to understand, explore, wander around in the shoes of another. And the byproduct of our stories? World expansion. Empathy-building. And this question: Are people who seem so different actually all that different?

I see that poems have a similar result.

In fact, the poems and stories we write are a vehicle—perhaps a subway!—where a reader finds herself sitting beside one of the 5.225 million daily riders. But her seat mate is a Stranger, an Other, someone who seems more Thing than Human.

Still, sitting together on subway seats, maybe she and this Other engage in some small-talk. Or maybe not. Maybe it’s just that she can hear this Other’s music coming faintly through the Other’s earbuds. And maybe she finds the Other’s music interesting.

Or, maybe she notices this Other is anxiously sending texts to a boss, a teenage son, an aging mother. And this makes her wonder about the factors and details of the Other’s life.

Or, maybe she is only aware that she and this Other are breathing in unison, sharing the same air as they speed through a tunnel 180 feet under streets and sidewalks.

Maybe that’s enough: understanding that we all share the same air. And as she gets off the subway, or as this Other disembarks, perhaps she will see this Other as a person rather than a thing with a tidy label.

Our stories do that. Poetry does too.

Next year, when I teach this poetry unit, I won’t tell my students that I don’t really like poetry. That would be a lie. When however, I tell them that poetry will change the way they see the world AND the way they see others, I’ll be able to back that up with hard, solid evidence.

Your turn! Do you have poems you love that you’d like to share? Especially ones that might help us unite our unnecessarily divided world? Do you use poetry in any phase of your writing process? Thank you for reading and sharing, as always!

Subway Seat photo (maybe it’s Sean!) compliments of Flickr’s Alex Liivet [2].

About Sarah Callender [3]

Sarah Callender lives in Seattle with her husband, son and daughter. A crummy house-cleaner and terrible at responding to emails in a timely fashion, Sarah chooses instead to focus on her fondness for chocolate and Abe Lincoln. She is working on her third novel while her fab agent pitches the first two to publishers.