National Poetry Month brings news, teaching support

Does poetry seem unnecessary to you? Like an extra piece of jewelry? Or the whipped cream on the all-American, hearty apple pie?

searlesPoetry has been maligned like that. It’s used to it. But poetry asks us to pay attention.  A good poem has a relevant subject, and expresses an original take on matters, says George Searles, professor of humanities at Mohawk Valley Community College in Utica and a member of the MVCC Professional Association.  As a teacher of English, composition, technical writing and poetry, he’s been honored with the Chancellor’s Award of Excellence in Teaching and was named Professor of the Year for New York by the Carnegie Foundation.  Searles loves poetry because it’s “language under pressure. Since it’s so compressed, every single word has to be the exact right word and there can’t be any clutter.”

What a wonderful opportunity: to teach without clutter.

Now, there are fresh, new resources to help teachers get their students into their stanzas.

The Academy of American Poets is relaunching its website next week, adding more resources for teachers interested in poetry.

And for this month – National Poetry Month – the academy is offering a lesson plan and videos for teachers as part of its poet-to-poet project.

Other big news in the world of poetry: Beginning this week, King Features began syndicating “Poem-A-Day.” The daily poems will be available to newspapers across the country, along with a short biography and paragraph from the poet.  “Poem-A-Day” already e-mails poems to a wide readership every day. Sign up at www.poets.org.

Meanwhile, the American Federation of Teachers’ Share My Lesson program has several poetry-related resources, including Forms of Poetry: Nonsense Poems and related resources.

Sabine Chishty, a New York City educator and member of United Federation of Teachers, just finished teaching a five-week poetry unit at Bronx Leadership Academy II. Her students are working with 826NYC, a nonprofit that supports students with creative writing skills and helps teachers inspire students. The organization will be publishing a book of the students’ poetry in June.

“We have not done a project as exciting as this,” Chishty said. “I think poetry can be powerful for students. My students tend to define poetry as a way of expressing emotions through language … the lack of rules concerning free-verse poetry allows for a freedom they really enjoy. It’s incredibly useful in teaching writing as we’ve used poetry to focus on sentence-level revisions and to teach several literary devices (enjambment, simile, etc.).”

Poet-in-residence Patricia Smith will be speaking to Chishty’s class about writing and revising.

As both a teacher and writer, Searles is immersed in the world of revision. As a working poet, he has had approximately100 poems published in literary journals and magazines. Along his busy path, he has had three books of literary criticism and a textbook published. His soon-to-be-released poetry chapbook, “Bottoms Up!”  Is being published by Finishing Line Press. He describes his own poetry as attempts “to get a few laughs while, at the same time, trying to do something pertinent.”

Poetry, he says, is “the human condition under a microscope.” While most poetry no longer rhymes, he said the line breaks are what makes the rhythm of the poem. His list of favorite poets includes Stephen Dunn, Charles Simic, Sharon Olds, Kim Addonizzio, Naomi Shihab Nye, Mary Oliver and Billy Collins (who did a reading at MVCC a week before being named national Poet Laureate. The current Poet Laureate is Natasha Trethewey).

So, let’s end with this nod from Collins:

Introduction to Poetry

By Billy Collins

I ask them to take a poem

and hold it up to the light

like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem

and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem’s room

and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski

across the surface of a poem

waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do

is tie the poem to a chair with rope

and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose

to find out what it really means.

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