In a Clay Pot Blooming

Article excerpt

A few miles from where I live in upstate New York, workers at the Syracuse Pottery make pots out of the red clay they mine from the surrounding hills. The work is tedious, each wet slab of clay pressed by hand on a spinning wheel. Later, the pots are fired in huge kilns. The smaller of these clay pots can be purchased for fifty cents--fifteen cents if there is a slight flaw. I go for the flawed pots and bring armloads of them into classrooms and after-school programs. These pots help the children write clay poems.

Before we write, I lead the children into a calm and focused state. I do this by turning on calm music. Then I give each of the children a peacock feather to balance in the palm of their hand. This is easy to do if you keep your eyes focused on the eye of the feather. Some of the children are no taller than the peacock feather they balance. The calming is instant, visible in the children's eyes, the smiles on their faces. "If you can balance a peacock feather," I say, "you can write a poem." With older children I sometimes use brooms, chairs and small ladders. "If you can balance a chair, you can write a story. It's all in the focusing."

After the children have selected their own pots, I tell them that they themselves are clay pots. I have every reason to tell them this because the God of Genesis is taking slabs of clay in hand and one by one creating each child in the room, and their teacher as well. I tell the children it's all in the breath, the breath of God inside the clay pot that makes each of us spring to life. Some of them give me a look.

That is when I pull out a poem from a 15th century master named Kabir and give a copy to each child. "Here it is," I say, "'The Clay Jug. In Which the Poet Thinks of His Body as a Clay Jug.'" We read the poem aloud together:

Inside this clay jug there are canyons and pine

mountains,

and the maker of canyons and pine mountains!

All seven oceans are inside, and hundreds of mil-

lions of stars.

The acid that tests gold is there, and the one who

judges jewels.

And the music from the strings no one touches,

and the source of all water.

If you want the truth, I will tell you the truth:

Friend, listen: the God whom I love is inside.(1)

After we have read and talked about Kabir's poem, I give the children simple directions for writing a poem of their own: Write a poem, or what you think is a poem, in which you think of yourself as a clay pot. If you want, you can think of your poem as a kind of letter written to someone who is close to you, someone who thinks they know all about you, what you think, how you feel. But there are some things that they don't know. This person could be your mom or dad, your teacher, your grandmother or grandfather, a favorite aunt or uncle or friend. Write a poem in which you tell them something about yourself that they don't know, something you really want them to know.

I think it's that "really" that gets them because pot poems come rolling out as if they've been waiting at the tip of the pens. The poems are accompanied by the children's own drawings of clay pots.

Every time that I have taught this lesson, without fail a couple of pots slip off desks and smash to the floor. When this happens, I am always secretly glad because it gives us a chance to consider brokenness. Gently, I pick the pieces up from the floor, place them on an empty desk top so all the children can see, and then offer them the opportunity to write about a cracked or broken pot, if they wish. This is how Joseph Snyder, a tall, affable boy, came to write his poem.

In this clay pot is a lot of love.

In it are a lot of good feelings.

There is a lot of trust for people.

When someone lies to the pot,

It feels like it is going to

shudder into a thousand pieces.

Then a trustworthy person comes

and tries to help. …