A Place for Poems: Poetry Urges Us to See, Even Momentarily, the Ordinary as Extraordinary, and the Extraordinary Coexisting with the Ordinary. It Both Elevates and Grounds; Excites and Subdues

By Rothman, Don | Leadership, March-April 2004 | Go to article overview

A Place for Poems: Poetry Urges Us to See, Even Momentarily, the Ordinary as Extraordinary, and the Extraordinary Coexisting with the Ordinary. It Both Elevates and Grounds; Excites and Subdues


Rothman, Don, Leadership


Much has been written since Sept. 11, 2001 about the healing powers of poetry. Accompaniments to suffering, poems in local newspapers and on the walls of makeshift shrines, have helped us talk to each other through our grief and confusion. Poems have also helped us occupy intimate silent public spaces, as I recall doing at the World Trade Center site reading children's poems through my tears.

I recently spent more than an hour with a group of middle school teachers reading and rereading Walt Whitman's "The Wound Dresser," and without having to explicitly connect this Civil War poem to the Iraqi battlefield, we allowed it to take us there. The poem forced us to consider how we respond to children's questions about war. It opened the doors of memory, reminding us how soon "what is over [is] forgotten, and waves wash the imprints off the sand."

Softened by the poem's invitation to slow down, open up, admit confusion, value patience and honor bewilderment, we came to know one another in its presence. We tuned our ears to Whitman's language, grateful to those sitting with us in the school library as we contemplated war's legacy.

What hasn't received much attention is how poetry might keep us from violence and how it might nurture new sorts of leadership so desperately needed in our schools. Shelley's observation that "poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world" CA Defence of Poetry," 1821) may sound terribly inapt in this day of sound bytes and a language-impaired president. But even without making such a grand claim about poets, I think that poetry belongs in a conversation about leadership. It can inspire and provoke people to take on new roles.

I address this possibility with teachers and school administrators in mind, since for almost three decades I have worked to explore the role of writing to enhance democracy. Reading and writing poetry have been part of the Central California Writing Project's efforts to nurture creative, imaginative and effective school leadership.

In our four-week summer institutes, kindergarten through university teachers write every day, reflecting on our own composing process to inform conversations about writing pedagogy. Teachers' inquiry presentations to the group emerge from practical teaching questions, such as: How can composing poetry help reluctant writers? How can we teach students to combine the evocative and the persuasive? Once students are inspired and motivated to write, how can we teach them to craft their work?

Since our institute is both a pedagogical think tank and a writing workshop, participants often invite the group to write in the same genres as they assign their students to write in. It isn't unusual for a sixth grade teacher, for example, to demonstrate how she teaches the haiku or sonnet and then to prompt us to compose one, using the scaffolding of her presentation to get us started.

What happens when a group of teachers who aspire to provide school leadership write poetry and are invited to share it? Predictably, teachers reenact their students' shyness, and the room is filled with nervous energy. When we read what we've written, the disclaimers are as creative as the poems, and the "stars" in the room, those who introduce themselves on the first day as poets, shine. We appreciate how they seem to work directly from their source, avoiding extra words and the didacticism that signals distrust of their readers.

But we also appreciate the efforts of those who rarely write poems and who risk a great deal by reading aloud in uncertain voices their tentative efforts. These poems often move us to tears, and when we're ready to move on, someone gratefully acknowledges what has just occurred. Somehow, after reading these fragile creations, we become more generous with each other.

Reading our poems aloud enables us to deepen how we know one another. For the institute teacher who wants to become a staff development leader, and for the principal or assistant principal in our group, this experience reveals a sort of leadership that values metaphor, imagery, meditative space and wonder. …

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