April 11, 2018KR BlogBlogChatsReadingWriting

Marty Skoble on Why Poetry Matters

(Photo Credit: Noah Davis)

For National Poetry Month, I spoke to Marty Skoble, the brilliant man who “teaches” poetry to the students (from lower school to high school) at Saint Ann’s School in Brooklyn. It would probably be more accurate to say he introduces his students to poetry, and gives them the space to play with language and find their own relationship with and passion for poems. I asked him some questions to help us all reflect on why poetry matters, why it’s so important to read it, write it, and introduce it to young people.

Caroline Hagood: What is poetry?

Marty Skoble: There are many answers to this apparently simple question. One of my favorite answers comes from Arthur Hoffman, a professor I studied with at Syracuse University in the 1960’s (it may have an earlier source): “Poetry is language measured and supercharged.”  Of course, that can easily be read as “anything you think.”

And indeed, an answer I frequently give to parents of children I teach who ask that question is exactly that: “if the writer thinks it’s a poem, it is a poem.”

Going back to the first answer, there are three parts:

There are many kinds of “language” including gesture and image, thus the rebus can be a poem.

There are many ways to create “measure,” which is really another word for pattern or design: musical measure being the most obvious in its relation to traditional poetic scansion (sonic pattern).  The intricate patterns of Pope’s heroic couplets use words the way Mozart uses notes (a sonic and intellectual pattern). Alliterative verse is a different kind of music that is also measured. Then there are acrostic poems where the measurement is linear; shape poems where the measurement is visual or spatial; now people are writing poems in which the number of characters defines the measurement, a reflection of technology.  Someone recently suggested that a prose poem is simply one very long line.  That works for me.  It may well be argued that good prose is merely poetry without line breaks.

And “supercharged” is a wonderful catch-all term for all the tools poets use to create emphasis, to empower ideas and voices. Carl Sandburg’s poem “Ten definitions of Poetry” is really ten poems, each illustrating a different kind of supercharging.  Anne Pierson Wiese defines poetry as “the distance between what we must say and what we can.”

CH: Why is it important?

MS: It’s important because it’s primal.  Life is, by its very nature, rhythmic.  There are cycles everywhere: in our bodies, in the natural world, in the sky, in our daily routines.  Infants are cyclical creatures, attuned to rhythm and cycle, nurtured by the heartbeat even in the womb.  So the child is naturally given to setting his/her experience and observations to an inner music. It’s no accident that ancient texts are often poems.  When we sing our stories and beliefs we give them power.

CH: Why is it important to teach it to kids?

MS: We don’t teach it to kids; we facilitate and support it.  It’s really a mistake to “teach” kids; the term implies a power dynamic that misses the real exchange happening in a good classroom.  Showing them how the tools work and even how others have used them in the past is not the same as telling them how they should use them or what they should create with them.

CH: How do you introduce poetry to kids?

MS: I enable them to feel as free as possible.  When they are dictating poems to me, I set very few limits: no poop, no baby talk, nothing that makes fun or criticizes classmates by name; if the child talks about a “mean” or violent babysitter, I don’t put it in the class book as the sitter is likely to see it before the parent, (but I do share it with the parent).  In the dictation process, I usually omit “Once upon a time” which is how many children begin almost everything, story or poem; usually it becomes “Once” or “Once there was” or “There was…”

After they tell me what it was that there was, I read the line back as I’ve written it.  They almost never say “I said ‘Once upon a time.’”  If they do, I put it in.  Once in a while a child will tell me that their poem’s title is “Once Upon A Time.”  Once the poem is underway, I write what they say, go where they go, sometimes reading back what we have if they seem to be wandering.  I often omit “and” or “then” because I hear it as “ummm,” and again if I read it back and they notice the omission, I’ll add it.  It almost never happens.

Once the children are able to write by themselves, I facilitate poetry by inviting them to experiment with patterns. They already know the list as well as the narrative and descriptive modes from their days of dictating, although they might not know their names. I introduce the acrostic, which makes them think about lines and about where they are doing as they write each line.  We also explore isoverbal forms, creating shape poems, learn to count syllables to compose cinquains.  Lunes offer them the chance to write short forms either by counting words OR syllables.  As they progress along this road they work with alliteration and rhyme, with riddles and irony and tone.  Soon their toolbox includes stanzas, repetition, figures of speech; they write dialogue poems, odes, alliterative verse.  More adventurous explorers work with a variety of constraints devised by the Oulipo movement, while others try their hand at the pantoum,  the sonnet, the haiku.  They teach each other what’s possible and what’s fun.

CH: What are kids?

MS: Kids are people, slightly smaller people who “get” play.

CH: What is teaching?

MS: Teaching is an act of love; it is giving the gift of freedom; it is sharing the tools with which one makes art and communicates what matters to the body and the soul.

CH: Why do so many people hate poetry?

MS: Bad teaching by teachers who share their fear as they try to hide it behind pedagogy.

CH: How can you make people not hate poetry?

MS: Few people really hate poetry; most of those simply fear it.  Humans often “hate” what they fear.  Learning to love what you have learned to hate (or fear) is a difficult journey.  It begins by seeing and accepting your own misconceptions, by being compassionate to yourself.

CH: Why do so many people love poetry?

MS: Johan Huizinga defines our species as Homo Ludens.  Poetry is the mind at play even at its most serious.  It’s the simultaneous fusion of persiflage and deeply felt truth.

CH: Why is it important to read poetry?

MS: William Carlos Williams wrote: “It is difficult/ to get the news from poems/ yet men die miserably every day/ for lack/of what is found there.”  Poetry sustains the soul in times of spiritual scarcity; it provides the words with which to celebrate our presence.  Sometimes it’s just fun, connecting us with each other and with the world in the guise of play.

CH: Why it is important to write poetry?

MS: Poetry is our way of expressing ourselves as a reaching out, a primary gesture with words.  We must do that or perish as a species.