Monday, November 5, 2012

Make Poetry

There they are. My two favorite little girls.
Avery (1) reading at the bookstore,
and Liya (newly 3) reading to her kitty after her bath.
What does this have to do with the post? Not much.
Except that my girls definitely "make poetry" of motherhood.
And so we have this.

Last week, my youngest daughter, Melissa, and I were chatting. She is in college, and she said, “The first paper I ever wrote for school was my best. I need to stop learning so I can start thinking again.” I had to laugh at that because I knew what she meant. And then she told me she got that line from a TED talk by a genius kid, and she liked it, so I guess she appropriated it. Me, too. I’ve been saying it ever since. School has its purposes. It’s school. I’ll leave it at that except to say that I’m glad doctors go to school to get an education before they practice medicine.

But school isn’t always good for poetic learning and doing, which requires time and freedom and makes a meaningful life. I believe that God put a poetic, wonder-filled nature in us at birth, but as we grow older, begin school, and get involved in the world, it’s easy to lose some—or maybe all—of that poetic wonder.

I was looking through a box of papers recently, and I ran across something I wrote when I was reading Kathleen Norris’s book Cloister Walk. Norris often visits elementary classrooms to help kids get started writing poetry, and in her book, she describes what that is like. I’ll type part of her text here, along with some of the thoughts I jotted down before and some new ones from today:

“A strange thing happens when I enter an elementary school classroom as a visiting artist, to read some poetry and eventually get the kids to write. It has much less to do with me as an individual than with the power of poetry, and may also be a side effect of the simple fact that I come to the children knowing very little about them. With me, they are suddenly handed a fresh slate. But no matter if the school is rich or poor, in the country, a suburb, a city, I’ve found that the kids that the teacher might have described as “good students” will inevitably write acceptable but unexceptional poems and stories. The breathtaking poems come from left field, as it were, from bad students, the ones that teachers will say don’t usually participate well in classroom activities.”

Norris goes on to share a sweet poem by a 5th grade boy who was not one of those “good students”:

My Very First Dad

I remember him
like God in my heart, I remember him in my heart
like the clouds overhead,
and strawberry ice cream and bananas
when I was a little kid.
But the most I remember
is his love,
as big as Texas
when I was born.

The teacher told Kathleen Norris that the boy never knew his father; he left the day the boy was born.

Norris goes on to say that she encourages children to escape the learned rules of writing: to write in the margins, to misspell rather than looking up a word, to doodle on the page, to scribble things out, to collaborate with other students, to let the poem sit and maybe come back to it, not to finish a poem, to take your time, and to allow yourself to get carried away and keep on going instead of moving on to the next assignment.

“Often by this time,” Norris writes, “the children are looking at me gratefully but a bit warily, wondering if they’ve fallen into the hands of a lunatic.”

Well, I thought in response, our lucky kids who learn at home. For them, this is the way it always is. They don’t have to keep up with a conveyor belt of assignments. They have time to think. Time to create poetry.

Norris shares more from her classroom experience: “We talk about ways this kind of writing differs from learning spelling or math, where there are right and wrong answers. I tell the kids that in what we’ll be doing, there is no one right answer, not even a right or wrong way to do it. . . a way to get beyond paying lip service to children’s creativity and encouraging them to practice it. By now the good students may be feeling lost. They’re often kids who have beaten the system, who have become experts at following the rules to get a good grade. And now, maybe for the first time, they’re experiencing helplessness at school because the boundaries have shifted; without rules to follow, they’re not sure how to proceed.”

“But it’s the other students, the bad students, the little criminals, who often have a form of intelligence that is not much rewarded in school, who are listening most attentively. It’s these kids, for whom helplessness and frustration are the norm at school, and often in life. . . who take to poetry like ducklings to water. And sometimes, as with that fifth-grade boy, they find that adopting a poetic voice can be a revelation. It’s as if they’re free to speak with their true voice for the very first time. It is always a gift—to the teacher, to the class, and to me—to have a child lead us into the heart of poetry.”

As I said earlier, I believe God gave us all a poetic nature. I think we are born seeing the poetry in everything. A child joyfully and freely delights in life. He possesses an eye for beauty and a sense of wonder. But poetry is not always expressed in the form of written verse. Maybe the poetry of one child is his way in nature. Maybe with another, it is his desire to draw. There are those whose poetry is movement—in dance or sport—like Olympian and missionary Eric Liddel, who said, “When I run, I feel God’s pleasure.” For others, it might be in science or math. Great scientists—those with a love and passion for what they do, who have made discoveries big and small—were making poetry in their discipline.

I believe that the way a child is inclined to spend his free time (when he’s not a too-busy or entertained child who suffers from boredom) are clues to where he finds and makes his poetry. It's something really precious to watch a young child happily and busily pursue whatever is calling to him from "out of left field," no matter how mundane or unimportant it may appear to be to a watching adult. It's poetry. Children who are not allowed the freedom to do this begin to lose that poetic gift, that natural gift that God gave them.

What about you? What do you love to do? Do you love to cook, to garden, to write? Do you love to make a home and bring people together round your table or in your living room? Do you love to read and think and make connections? Do you love to correspond with others? Do you love to organize meetings or events? Or hike in beautiful places because it brings you joy and you feel like you’re meeting God out there? It can be any number of things, but if you do it our own way, with joy and enthusiasm, maybe it’s your poetry. Often, our poetry becomes our service or our vocation; it’s what we share with others.

If you’re thinking that you don’t have time for this—Are you a mother at home? Are you so busy with your family that you only dream of having a bit of extra time to do what you love? Well, make poetry out of motherhood—out of even the most mundane things. Motherhood abounds in poetic potential. Creating a home and a family is a fine art. And know how blessed you are to do it—gratitude and loveliness can be your poetry.

The trap to avoid is measuring and comparing what we do against the template of what others do. This is a certain way to be like those good students who wanted to do everything correctly and follow the pattern—and they struggled to make poetry. Be yourself. This is your poem. Write in the margins, doodle on the page. Be who God made you to be, and you will be His poetry.


  1. Gratitude and loveliness - the poetry of a mother.

    Dear Susan,
    I'm so glad you are back. I feel your solid foundation shining brightly through all your writing. That confidence and calm that He gives. Even when you are 'only' describing your apartment, it's your contentment and peacefulness that makes it sing. I love reading the things you write.
    Best, Sandra

    1. Well, thank you, Sandra. That's really sweet.

  2. Beautiful! It is always a delight to read your posts. I'm going to add Norris' book to my reading list. I've recently gone back to teaching at my local community college after being home with my children for 12 years. The literacy and proficiency level of some of my students is really heartbreaking. I wish I could do more to share my love of poetry and the written word with all of them.

    1. Jenn, it's good to see you! Your own love for poetry is a kind of poetry itself, and all you have to do is be you to share that! I have a favorite teacher right now who exudes love and enthusiasm for her subject. The whole class loves her and loves the class. I have a class at 10 a.m. on M-W and a different one at 10 a.m. on Tu-Th. Both classes have 100 people in them. In one, there are usually about 50-70(max) people there, but in my favorite teacher's class (even though attendance is not required) it's packed every time. It's because she loves what she's doing and loves sharing it. But she's also a gifted teacher. . . I am guessing you are a wonderful teacher, too. Best wishes!

  3. Ah, yes and amen, Susan! Everything you've said here is so very true and good. I was one of those kids who mastered the system and so missed out on the poetry. At some point along the way, several years ago, I realized this and now that I'm well into my forties I (hopefully) am heading in that original, God given direction of the person He created me to be. It's interesting that I was just having a conversation with my daughter about the pros and cons of school this morning. She had been homeschooled through 9th grade and decided to give school a try this year. After a few months, I think she's feeling a bit limited in many ways. Anyway, excellent thoughts, and I adore the photos of your sweet little granddaughters! :)

    1. Thanks Silvana. I always enjoy your comments/thoughts. I love that you realized that you might be missing some of what God had for you and decided to begin to pursue it! And I hope your daughter will find good bearings. I remember when I went back to school (this time around), my son told me that the only way I'd survive would be to somehow make my education my own, in spite of school. (That's what he did, he said.) I have followed his excellent advice, and I'm grateful for it.

  4. I just e-mailed Sarie Melissa's quote. I think she'll see the point very quickly!

    1. Haha! That's great, Laura. I happen to love that quote. :-)