Poetry, Language, and Learning: How I Came to Love Words

Posted by Christy L. Agrawal, GD Poetry Reader for 3.2

“Led by language, led by intuitive leaps of thought, a poem does not presume.” – Kazim Ali

When I was younger my mother and I used to play something we called ‘the poem game’ every night before I went to bed. There were two versions of the poem game, the mom’s-tired version in which we would take out a Shel Silverstein book, place it between us on the bed like a sacred object, and take turns closing our eyes and pointing to random pages, delving into poem after poem and reading them aloud in an unspoken competition to draw the most laughter out of the other.

A Shel Silverstein classic

A Shel Silverstein classic

The second version of the poem game, my personal favorite, involved paper, two pens, and a small, glossy dictionary. In this version we would take turns (she always let me go first) closing our eyes and pointing to random words on random pages of the dictionary, letting our blind index fingers divine our task, our prompt, our meditation. Hug (v.), starving (adj.), dog (n. v.), red (adj.), greedy (adj.), bridge (n. v.) – what we landed on was always a surprise, catalyzing a trickling, rumbling, unstoppable waterfall of unexpected thoughts and words and sounds that would somehow, fantastically, come together into a poem. Loosed into the empty space around us as we listened intently to one another other, our eager spills of thought became entities all on their own, spun out of the air with syllable and emotion, full of taste and possibility.

It was there, in the early darkness of evening, sitting across from my mom with a dog-eared dictionary spilling out from between my palms, that I first came to know poetry, first learned how it felt on my tongue. Poetry has become, for me, a universal language constantly unfurling itself, wholly content just to emerge from the hidden places it lurks and nests within us, just to exist. “To me, poetry is where we experience language at the moment of inception, and what I mean by that is it seems to me it’s where linguistic energy first takes on form,” said Jody Gladding, professor at Vermont College of Fine Arts, in a discussion on the role of poetry in teaching children how to read. I agree with Gladding in that poetry takes on a different kind of space and existence than many of the other forms of writing that we encounter: it requires a kind of appreciation for words in their own right, a sensitivity to sound and an active presence in its interpretation. Poetry helps us learn how to differentiate between words and meanings, how to connect ideas and build complex linguistic structures. In this way, the act of writing poetry shapes the poetry itself just as much as the act of reading it does.

Language itself is a sort of dance choreographed by nuance, a unique art of expression and communication that demands its speaker or writer have a relationship to their own voice, to their words, to their craft. This is precisely what poetry can offer, in both the reading and the writing of it—a place to connect with words and expression in a way that is not often taught in school. It is unfortunately true that, prior to higher education, most students are typically only taught how to use words, how to manipulate them into pre-determined structures that help them say the things that they know they are expected to say. While it is important to develop these skills, without the presence of poetry in our lives words risk becoming hollow vessels, lacking in intrinsic meaning or beauty. By connecting writer to what’s written to reader, poetry helps us understand the why of writing, and the personhood behind language; poetry does not merely use words with the intent of discarding them, it creates with them, constructs alongside them, it is less so the chisel with which a sculptor creates and more-so the vast and infinite slab of marble before them.

Nana Asma’u

Nana Asma’u

Poetry, in fact, has a long and rich history of pedagogical application. In Ancient Greece, where students studied their national epic poems such as the Iliad and the Odyssey meticulously and reverently, poetry was an indispensable part of daily life, a higher level of communicating truth and beauty. Students were introduced to these works directly after learning the basics of reading, making poetry an important part of childhood, coming of age, adulthood, and becoming a morally and spiritually mature human being. In the royal courts of Great Britain during roughly the 14th through 18th centuries, poetry was a magnificent art and an esteemed intellectual life skill. Poems during this time were often respected for their ability to impart moral lessons, make bold political statements and explore time-lasting declarations of human emotion. In the Sokoto Caliphate of Nigeria where in the 19th century, poet Nana Asma’u, the daughter of a respected poet, Islamic scholar, and the Caliphate’s founder, created an ingenious academic outreach network often referred to as Yan Taru that utilized the studying, creating, and distribution of poetry to teach and provide support for Muslim women who were withheld from an education by lack of means and oppressive misogyny. Asma’u saw the capabilities of poetry in fostering a connection between isolated individuals, cultivating both a personal and a shared knowledge, and gathering creative, intellectual, and emotional strength.

Although poetry from Ancient Greece through the centuries all the way into my bedroom many years ago has changed in its public and educational standing, use, and spirit, it has maintained an exhaustless ability to forge connection and breach divides as extensive as time or as demanding as social roles. Its ability to convey honest emotions while allowing them to retain a more natural sense of formlessness is, in many ways, impossible to achieve through other formats such as the rigid templates that can govern analytical writing. In the same way that E.B. White declared once in a letter to his editor that, “a book is a sneeze,” poetry is an unpredictable, uncontrollable, and entirely necessary exertion of spirit. Poetry is a powerful and forgiving presence, a vital part of our relationships to our own, nuanced languages and a surprising and delighting discovery waiting like a limb that you had long forgotten was there.

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