For days I had been rummaging around in old poetry files; so granted, I was warmed up from reminiscing with old favourites, when a cherished magazine, Rethinking Schools (Summer 2010) surfaced. The cover enticed me with the colourful graphic, ‘The Power of Poetry’, and within minutes I found myself brought to tears reading students’ poems. They had been given the prompt of Raymond Carver’s poem ‘Fear’ and they opened windows wide into their private lives of raw fear, which melted my heart, along with theirs. Feelings of empathy for these students’ lives propelled me from writing this essay about poetry into actually being transported into their suffering, so I have rewritten this introductory paragraph to underscore that poetry is indeed a portal to connect with fellow humans.
The power of poetry
Yes, poetry has power. It can unleash awareness at all levels. This potential— that poetry provides the opportunity to express ourselves artfully and truthfully and that this expression may connect universes—is unequivocal. Thanks to the popularization of rap music, spoken word festivals and poetry slams throughout the world, poetry has enjoyed resurgence in schools, colleges and among the teens and young adult societies.
Through poetry, students are excavating the elemental depths of human understanding and their spoken words have become springboards for transformative action and political and social awareness. No matter what the topic, reading or writing a poem unearths our common ground on the planet and bears witness to the unitive potential.
Krishnamurti suggests that the whole of life is learning and he invited teachers and students to explore the ordinary workings of the human mind as well as its deeper layers. For me, reading and writing poetry are vehicles for identifying what is happening within us, including the controlling, dismissing, or judging noise of thinking. Poetry can reach within us in ways that other modes of expression may not, and hence, its great value for educators.
The list of what poetry can do is endless; it touches on …everything, including nothing… and all the in-betweenness of things. The right poem at the right moment can exercise the heart and mind in unforeseen ways. A poem can be a bridge or a path, a wake-up call or a ceremony, a cry for help or a dance around a fire. Poems excavate, distil, catalyze and create pause.
For a second, a poem may span the millennia. Poems you have loved for a lifetime and passed on to others hold the pulse of infinity. I would like to pass these poems on to you, hoping they may take on a life and path of their own into other worlds of inquiry and artistic expression. In this essay I include some poems that I have shared with teachers and students in circles of inquiry and reflection. I have chosen some of these poems because they refer to the life of schools, and others because they are like a good hike up a mountain with a friend. I have excerpted here a few lines from each of these poems, and the complete poem can be read on the website indicated in the end-notes. The shorter poems are reproduced complete.
Some of these poems point to the fragmentary nature of the bits of knowledge we accumulate without being able to consider the ‘wholeness of life’. Emotions too gather around these disjointed bits and pieces, even as we may remain unaware of them. The first poem, ‘Fear’, mentioned below, was the jumping off point for high school students in Chicago to describe their own challenges, especially of living with the fear of racism.
Fear of seeing a police car pull into the drive. Fear of falling asleep at night.
Fear of not falling asleep. Fear of the past rising up.
Fear of the present taking flight. Fear of the telephone that rings in the dead of night.
Fear of electrical storms.
Fear of the cleaning woman who has a spot on her cheek!
Fear of dogs I’ve been told won’t bite. Fear of anxiety!
Fear of having to identify the body of a dead friend. Fear of running out of money. …
A cornerstone of Krishnamurti’s educational intent is to understand the nature of human conditioning. So I think our first order of business as educators is to take full stock of the fact that the seeds of current problems are sown in schools. We see how school environments and teachers unwittingly and wittingly condition our minds and hearts from decades of enforced machine-like conformity. Krishnamurti suggests that many memories are lodged unnecessarily, habitually, and as such they have come to dominate the mind and clog our creativity. We are conditioned to absorb and value knowledge and to think that knowledge will solve our problems, to which Krishnamurti says, “something essential has evaded us”. The extracts from the two poems that follow bring this ‘something’ into focus:
You Reading This, Be Ready2
Starting here, what do you want to remember?
How sunlight creeps along a shining floor?
What scent of old wood hovers,
What softened sound from outside fills the air? …
On Turning Ten3
The whole idea of it makes me feel
Like I’m coming down with something
It seems only yesterday I used to believe
there was nothing under my skin but light.
If you cut me I would shine
But now when I fall on the sidewalk
I skin my knees and bleed.
Knowledge and the unknown
That we are ‘embalmed in prejudices’, as Krishnamurti has said, speaks to knowledge and thinking held in wrong places. Recurring human problems of conflict, war and exploitation are examples of the myopia of conditioning. As Krishnamurti says, “…there is obviously something radically wrong with the way we bring up our children. I think most of us are aware of this but we do not know how to deal with it… The individual is of first importance, not the system. To understand life is to understand ourselves. That is both the beginning and end of education.”
We have seen that our time in school is lopsided, a one-sided affair, with the pre-dominance of fragmented knowledge. The unknown is where young children live, and teachers and parents spend precious time organizing the sense of wonder and curiosity into the adult world of knowledge, of naming flowers and birds instead of looking at them. To enter the world of wonder, of questioning, to refrain from answering, to dwell within the beauty of the unknown, to say ‘I don’t know’ and mean it, or ‘what does it matter?’ is to respect and honour children’s world of magic.
The following excerpt and three poems invite inquiry into the limits of knowledge, the joy of daily work done well, the deeper conflicts of our times, and the mystery at the heart of human nature.
Now it was time to discover the infinite clicking
Permutation of the alphabet’s small and capital letters
Alphabetical ourselves, in the rows of classroom desks
We were forgetting how to look,
We were learning how to read.
To Be of Use5
The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
But the thing worth doing well done has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil
Hopi vases that held corn, these are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.
To Those Born Later6
Truly I live in dark times
The guileless word is folly
A smooth forehead
Suggests insensitivity. The man who laughs
Has simply not yet had
The terrible news.
I would also like to be wise,
In the old book it says what wisdom is
To shun the strife of the world and to live out
Your brief time without fear
Also to get along without violence
And to return good for evil
Not to fulfill your desires but to forget them, is wise.
All this I cannot do
Truly I live in dark times.
Two Kinds of Intelligence
There are two kinds of intelligence; one acquired,
As a child in school memorizes facts and concepts
From books and from what the teacher says
Collecting information from the traditional sciences
As well as from the new sciences.
With such intelligence you rise in the world.
You get ranked ahead or behind others
with regard to your competence in retaining information.
With this intelligence you stroll
In and out of fields of knowledge,
Getting more marks on your preserving tablets.
There is another kind of tablet
One already completed and preserved inside you.
A spring overflowing its springbox.
A freshness in the center of the chest
This intelligence does not turn yellow or stagnate.
It’s fluid and it doesn’t move from
Outside to inside through
Conduits of plumbing-learning.
This second knowing is a fountainhead
From within you, moving out.
Responsibility and wholeness
As educators, what is our responsibility? Krishnamurti observes, “When one travels around the world, one notices to what an extraordinary degree human nature is the same, whether in India or America, in Europe or Australia. We are turning out, as if through a mould, a type of human being whose chief interest is to find security, to become somebody important, or to have a good time with as little thought as possible.” Millions of people across the globe gather to celebrate, to pray, to learn, to improve themselves, to create something new; but is this newness really new? Teachers and parents are fundamentally responsible for the state of the world, for it is the children growing from our families and schools that create and perpetuate our culture and society. So we must ask ourselves, “what does it mean to be human?”, and yearn for conversations that make deep abiding impact into our understanding of how we got to where we are, and where we might be going. To enter the realm of wondering about life is fundamental to good health in its deepest sense. The following two poems inspire that kind of reflection and conversation. They provoke the reader to ask, ‘what is truly new”, “what is whole” and what is it that prevents this from coming into being?
Love in the Classroom7
— for my students
Across the garden in Green Hall
Someone begins playing the old piano—
A spontaneous piece, amateurish and alive
Full of simple joyful melody.
The music floats among us in the classroom.
I stand in front of my students
telling them about sentence fragments.
I ask them to find the ten fragments
in the twenty-one-sentence paragraph on page forty-five.
I sit down on my desk to wait,
and it hits me from nowhere—a sudden
sweet, almost painful love for my students.
“Nevermind,” I want to cry out.
“It doesn’t matter about fragments.
Finding them or not. Everything is a fragment
and everything’s not a fragment.
Listen to the music, how fragmented, how whole.
We can’t separate it from the sun falling on its knees
out our window,
Or from this moment.
This moment contains all the fragments
Of yesterday and everything we’ll ever know of tomorrow.
I Believe in all That Has Never Yet Been Spoken
Rainer Maria Rilke
I believe in all that has never yet been spoken
I want to free what waits within me
So that what no one has dared to wish for
May for once spring clear
Without my contriving.
If this is arrogant, god forgive me,
But this is what I need to say.
May what I do flow from me like a river
No forcing and no holding back,
The way it is with children.
Then in these swelling and ebbing currents
These deepening tides moving out, returning,
Will sing to you as no one ever has,
Streaming though widening channels
Into the open sea.
Love of nature
The earth is facing an unprecedented environmental crisis. Attempts to alleviate deforestation, soil erosion, water and air pollution, without fundamentally understanding the mind and psyche of humankind, without unearthing our assumptions and values, is to perpetuate the heaping of fragmentary and superficial solutions upon each other.
All education should be environmental education—acoustic ecology, deep time ecology, applied ecology, human ecology. What would it take to create an achievable vision of civilization and wilderness coexisting, a sustainable human society where the whole of life is respected and considered?
What is the root of the human problem? Have we asked this question of ourselves, our family members, students or colleagues? Krishnamurti suggests:
The difficulty in all these human questions is that we have become so utterly weary and hopeless, altogether confused and without peace; life weighs heavily upon us and we want to be comforted, we want to be loved. Being insufficient within ourselves, how can we hope to give the right kind of education to the child?...That is why the major problem is not the pupil, but the educator; our hearts and minds must be clear if we are to be capable of educating others. We are not machines to be understood and repaired by experts; we are the result of a long series of influences and accidents, and each one has to unravel and understand for himself the confusion of his own nature.
Chapter 7, Education and the Significance of Life
These two pieces, excerpts from May Sarton’s ‘Now I Become Myself ’ and Wendell Berry’s ‘The Peace of Wild Things’, are offered as an invitation to reflect on a way to live in this world.
Now I Become Myself8
Now I become myself. It’s taken
Time, many years and places
I have been dissolved again and again
Shaken, worn other people’s faces
As slowly as the ripening fruit
Fertile detached, hanging ready to drop
It falls, but does not exhaust the root.
The Peace of Wild Things9
When despair for the world grows in me
And I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life
and my children’s lives may be.
I come into the presence of still water.
And above me the day-blind stars
Wait with their light.
For a time I rest in the grace of the world,
And be free
Finally, I will admit to being an evangelist for poetry. I see poetry as essential equipment for life, and the right poem can open a door, bridge several worlds, speak the truth or inspire truth to be spoken. As Jean Cocteau said, “poetry is useless but indispensable.”
The place where one’s personal deep gladness, passion and voice meet the world’s deep need is a gift of vocation, of right livelihood. To encompass both personal meaning and the common good in one’s life is to be a ‘blessing to the world’. Krishnamurti has suggested just this possibility for our students. A poem can interrupt the entrenched, rushed mindset, and when Mary Oliver says that when you “step inside a poem you may become cooled and refreshed, less yourself than part of everything”, she knows what she’s talking about.
Perhaps these last three excerpts will help us go further into the heart of the matter, ask “what is loved and cherished?”, and evoke the challenges of living in the world.
You do not have to be good
you do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting
you only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
The Sense of Wonder11
A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful,
full of wonder and excitement.
It is our misfortune that for most of us
that clear-eyed vision,
that true instinct for what is beautiful
and awe-inspiring is dimmed
and even lost before we reach adulthood….
I should ask that my gift to each child in the world
be a sense of wonder so indestructible
that it would last throughout life…’
What have you truly loved up to now;
what has drawn your soul aloft;
what has mastered it and
at the same time blessed it.
Tunnel into yourself and
force your way down
into the shaft of your being.
- www.poetry-chaikhana.com/blog/2018/07/13/william-stafford-you-readingthis- be-ready/
- www.poemhunter.com/poem/on-turning-ten/ 4
- www.literaryladiesguide.com/classic-women-authors-poetry/now-becomepoem- may-sarton/
Christenson, Linda and Watson, Dyan, eds. 2015. Rhythm and Resistance: Teaching Poetry for Social Justice. Milwaukee: Rethinking Schools Publication
Collins, Billy, ed. 2003. Poetry 180: A Turning Back to Poetry. New York: Random House
———. 2005. The Trouble with Poetry and Other Poems. New York: Random House Intrator, Sam M., and Scribner, Megan, eds. 2003. Teaching with Fire: Poetry that Sustains the Courage to Teach. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass
Krishnamurti, J. 1954. Education and the Significance of Life. New York: Harper Collins
Mayes, Frances. 2001. The Discovery of Poetry: Field Guide to Reading and Writing Poetry. San Diego: Harcourt
Murray, Joan. ed. 2001. Poems to Live By in Uncertain Times. Boston: Beacon Press
Olson, Kirsten. 2009. Wounded by School: Recapturing the Joy in Learning and Standing up to Old School Culture. New York: Teachers College Press
Whyte, David. 1996. The Heart Aroused: Poetry and Preservation of Soul in Corporate America. New York: Doubleday.
Young, Kevin. 2010. The Art of Losing: Poems of Grief and Healing. New York: Bloomsbury