Learning From Poems: Comfort

Student artwork by Jaime P., from June 2021 Sevenatenine Literary Magazine post.

It’s hard to believe I haven’t published a post here since January, but how the the wheels of time keep turning! And I hope you will excuse my absence, as I have been working on my biggest writing project ever: a book for teachers! The title is Poetry Pauses: Using Poems to Improve Writing in All Genres, and the intended audience is teachers of writing, grades 6-12. It is due out next March from Corwin Press, and this summer my focus will be revision, revision, revision. So I’m guessing “revision” might be my beat for next year, as I explore the process in my own writing like never before!

For now though, I’d like to wrap up my 21-22 beat with a post about poems that provide comfort and how these can move our student writers.

The world is a lot right now. For all of us. The war, violence, weather, pandemic fatigue, illness, inflation — there is so much weight on our shoulders. Our students feel it. Recently, with impending storms approaching, I heard for the first time ever students frightened about tornadoes and asking questions about the safety of our plan because tornadoes — once unheard of in the region of PA where I live — have struck our community several times in the last few years. They were not shy about sharing their fear. We still drive by the stretch of snapped-apart woods every day.

English class is a place to read about about, talk about, and write about heavy things. The common texts we study in my curriculum begin with Long Way Down and end with Romeo and Juliet. And that’s not a bad thing. Literature gives us the place to read and write about things heavy on our hearts.

But we must remind our students that words can be a balm too. Hayden Saunier’s poem “I Need to Live Near a Creek” is a short, quick mentor text to help students write about what they need to find calm, perhaps even beginning their own poems with “I need to _____________________.” Ada Limon’s “Instructions For Not Giving Up” reminds us how powerful a single, colorful image — an “almost obscene display of cherry limbs” in full fuchsia — can be.

There are corners of hope and light that we must teach students to explore, not just in their reading but in their writing. Consider how Derek Mahon’s poem “Everything is Going To Be All Right” repeats the line, “There will be dying” and yet comforts and consoles.

Look at how Eve Ewing’s poem “testify” does something similar, ending on an ominous note with “yet,” but wrapping it in the repeating reminder that “we are not dead.”

So to end the year, you might consider reading a few poems like these. Then, you can you challenge your students with this prompt:

Write something that gives comfort and hope to someone else. It doesn’t have to be a poem, but it can be. It can be to a particular person in a particular situation, or to the great wide world.

In writing to help others heal, we ourselves can heal too.

I recently shared Kim Stafford’s poem, “For the Bird Singing before Dawn” with my classes, which showed up that morning in a Poem-a-Day email from poets.org. In the author’s note on the poem , Stafford had this to say: “Many times in my life I’ve been told by serious people that I must be very naïve to be happy, to have hope, to celebrate this little life I’ve been given when, actually, they say, everything is pretty dire. There’s war, poverty, crushing injustice all over—what right do I have to talk back to all that with flimsy little poems about the good? What can I say? The birds are my teachers, my elders, my guides. Every day before dawn, in silence and darkness, I’m at my desk making poems on the page. And then, before light, I hear the first bird outside begin to sing.”

Writing beside that poem and with the author’s note ringing in my mind kept me afloat that day. Perhaps it did for some of my students too.

Keep writing. And keep reminding yourself and your students that we can sing in the darkness. Poems show us how.

What are your are your favorite heartening poems to share with students as mentor texts for their own writing? You can connect with me on Twitter @theVogelman or engage on Facebook at facebook.com/movingwriters to continue the conversation.  

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1 Comment

  1. Thank you for this post. Your words hit home and the poems lifted my spirits and provided much needed balm. More than I thought I needed. 😊

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