Ten weeks with the East Harlem Poetry
Maureen N. McLane
8We meet on Friday afternoons
in the basement of the Jackie Robinson Educational Complex at
106th and Madison in New York City. I am there because I want
to teach poetry, work with kids, and explore settings beyond the
academy; the kids are there because they have to be.
During regular school hours, the classroom we use for our afterschool
poetry project is home to seventh- and eighth-graders at Rosa
Parks Academy, one of several schools housed in the building.
Poetry chapbooks stapled to the hallway bulletin boards offer
glossy evidence of academic bustle. Inside classroom B-8, one
bulletin board is devoted to small posters of vocabulary words
and their definitions. Another features student artwork inspired
by a recent visit to the Jacob Lawrence show at the Whitney. One
boys picture captures perfectly the blocky angularity and
monumental presence of Lawrences three ironing women.
There is one bookcase in the room, its shelves filled with identical
copies of the dictionary. Aside from the odd candy wrapper, the
desks are empty. Books, papers, pencilsall removed. Students
are transient and so is their stuff. Only graffiti distinguishes
one desk from another. Rosa loves Hector. Gangsta
Life. School sucks.
Ive been told to expect two groups of twelve or so kids,
seven to eleven years old. Most are enrolled in Central Park East,
the famous progressive public school also housed in this building.
Over the years I have taught college humanities and poetry courses
and the occasional adult education class. Now I have signed on
to be the poetry consultant for the East Harlem Tutorial Program,
an organization that has sponsored programs for youth for over
For months Id pored over poetry anthologies and poetry-teaching
anthologies. I read everything the poet and educator Kenneth Koch
wrote about teaching poetry to children; I cribbed his ideas for
lessons. I sifted through my spoken word CDs and picked
out tracks I thought the kids might find interesting. I revisited
the New York School poets and the Nuyorican Poets. I sifted through
topicsdream poems, picture poems, self portraits, animal
poems, city poems, sense poems. I concocted strategiesword
games, listening exercises, dance moves. I made lists of words
and phrases, of poetic forms and refrains.
So I was prepared. I stood there that first Friday in March,
2002, and surveyed my
materials. Id come with CDs, with a video camera.
With a borrowed boombox and games. We could drawwe could
even make shape poems like experimental poets in France. We would
collaborate. Talk and share. Confabulate. Create.
At that very moment, I heard my fate coming down the hall in
a rush of jangling kid voices moving toward me.
As I stood there in classroom B-8, as I plugged in the boombox
tuned to hip-hop station Hot 97, as I moved desks and chairs and
straightened my xeroxed information sheets (name, age, interests,
favorite singer, favorite book, likings, hatreds), I felt the
urge to flee. An overwhelming inner command to flee.
But there the kids were, and there I stayed.
As a longtime student of Romanticism, I of course subscribe to
the view that children are original geniuses, bubbling organically
with creativity, born free but everywhere in chains because of
hostile adult military actions going by such names as socialization,
education, piano lessons.
And of course I also subscribe to the even earlier, time-honored
view that children, like all humans, are fallen creatures, ontologically
wayward, in need of training, structure, and at times even severity
to help them direct their energies into the best channels.
Call these views Wordsworth vs. Augustine. Rousseau vs. Lord
of the Flies. Every day offers support for both.
What is this?
Oh god is this poetry class?
Is this writing?
I hate writing!
Can I go to the office and do my homework?
Thats how low I was. Kids begged to do their homework
rather than stay in Poetry Project.
I thus began to grasp the situation, which appeared to be governed
by the following axioms:
1.Most kids hate writing.
2.Kids covered by Axiom #1 especially hate writing poetry.
3.All kids, even those not covered by #1, especially hate writing
poetry on Friday afternoons in spring.
Poetry Project is called an elective. In true Orwellian
fashion that means precisely that no child had elected to be here.
They would come to me one Friday and go to computer elective the
next. No choice, no change. Only making trouble would get you
out, and then to the office. The office at least had a water fountain.
Some kids assessed the situation and quickly adopted a policy
of nonviolent noncooperation. Others took a more direct-action
approach: flicking pencils, playing with gum, fiddling with their
do-rags, snapping rubber bandsan apparently inexhaustible
repertoire of acting out, as the school psychologists
Thus began a three-month-long education, of me as well as the
kids, a schooling in various optionswhether, for example:
a) to get attention by threat, i.e. force;
b) to solicit attention by charm and/or bribery, i.e. seduction.
I could be either Gorgon or Siren. I felt myself becoming an
ungainly hybridcall me Sorgen.
As the children, most of them shockingly beautiful, sat or wriggled
in the semicircle of chairs Id arranged, I saw:
a) dreamy, thoughtful, articulate, lively beings, sociable yet
singular, remembering their babyhoods and looking forward to lives
as musicians, cops, basketball players, teachers, construction
workers; fully alert in the present, fiercely attached to their
families and friends, curious about the world, reflective about
b) a little vicious band of Hobbesian cannibals, searching with
murderous eyes for that days scapegoat, armed with an unending
supply of taunts, insults, and malicious strategems, able to weaponize
small everyday objects in the blink of a soon-to-be-punctured
eye. . . .
Poetry Project had officially begun.
* * *
Historically the teaching of poetry has tipped more toward the
pedagogy-as-punishment side of things: memorization, imitation,
recitation, the whack of a rod, the smack of a ruler. I had a
dear friend who in Montreal circa 1920 was forced to memorize
Wordsworths Odes as punishment for giggling with her girlfriend
in class. In later years she was grateful to be able to draw on
Wordsworths lines for comfort.
Nowadays if poetry enters the classroom at all it comes in under
the banner of pedagogy-as-play. I was all for play, but I also
wanted there to be some learning.
On that first day I asked if any of the kids spoke or read or
understood languages other than American English. Hands shot up:
Spanish, Swahili, and Chinese
He dont know Chinese
I do I do
(We agreed to suspend disbelief regarding Pauls Chinese-language
Yes, said the wide-eyed, curly-haired, apparently Latina
child. I bit my tongue not to say, you sure you dont mean
Spanish? When her mother, a tall blond named Inga, arrived
I was glad I had.
The anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss speculated in Tristes
Tropiques that writing first began as an instrument of enslavement,
a tool for rulers to use against the ruled: a way to dominate
subject peoples, to count them, to tax them, to discipline them.
Perhaps all children recognize the alien and alienating aspect
of writing: thus their general resistance.
But of course poetry need not mean writing. It began as
an oral art and it still flourishes as one, e.g., the rappers.
In Poetry Project we could bypass writing altogether. Forget proper
spelling and rules of punctuationwere we going to allow
the arcane requirements of formal literacy to impede us? No. Thus
the CDs, the video camera: we could do poetry as performance
The fact is, however, that I am not a performance artist, a poetry-slammer,
or much of an improviser. I am instead an addict, product, and
servant of the long literary tradition of poetry in British, American,
and other Englishes. A tradition in writing. A tradition bound
in books. So these kids were going to get their Whitman and their
D. H. Lawrence and their Langston Hughes and their Gertrude Stein
and their Amiri Baraka and their Fernando Pessoa in translation
and their eighteenth-century nutjob Christopher Smart as well
as Maggie Estep and Emily XYZ from the United States of Poetry
CD. The students would have pencils and writing journals and free-writes
and short assignments as well as taping sessions and improv opportunities.
For good or ill, the kids were going to have to deal with my predilections
as I would deal with theirs. A few kids were well versed in several
of these poets; many were notnor was I at their age. Some
kids were great readers, some were not.
We would have to feel our way toward our own limited social
contract. We would have to negotiate. Our medium was time and
our currency was language and sound, writing and speaking. Over
ten weeks wed see what we could do.
* * *
We faced, of course, some problems of definition. With kids,
unlike undergraduates or grumpy academics or bickering coterie
poets, one need never enter into metaphysical, formal, or historical
debates revolving around the question, What is a poem?
Anything you said was a poem. A prose poem, a poem in stanzas,
a poem in free-verse lines: all were poems. No problem: who cares?
It became clear that our tacit definition of poem
was, a short piece of writing, in lines, more or less.
I found out on the first day that the very idea of a line
of poetry confounded some kids. Id asked them after a long
conversation to write down five lines about the sensesfood
they liked to taste and smell, things they liked to look at or
touch, sounds they loved or hated, and so on. As some kids scribbled
away about the sensual ecstasies to be had at McDonaldsand
clearly McDonalds fries are the apex of sensuous experience
in the under-ten settwo kids drew five straight lines in
their writing journals, lines as in the shortest distance
between two points.
For most kids, as for most adults, poetry means rhyme.
In his remarks on teaching poetry, Kenneth Koch warned against
rhyme, and for good reasonit tends to lead kids right into
the waiting straitjacket of Hallmark insipidity. But its
also true that rhyme is the open sesame for some kids
linguistic energy. Terrences energy, for example.
Terrence makes an early debut as our master rhymer. He is in
fact a compulsive rapper. He hates to sit; it cramps his rhythmic
speech, the pointing fingers, tilting head and hip rotation that
anchor his stream-of-Terrence-consciousness. He rhymes effortlessly,
brilliantly, and punctuates his lines with expertly timed percussive
chhshhhk sounds, as if he were his own snare drum.
I see girls
I play the drums and it makes little pearls
When Terrence takes off its important to stand clear, because
sometimes in his exuberance he throws whatevers at hand:
the eraser, the chalk, his backpack.
Terrence abhors an aural vacuum; he would rather rap nonsense
or repeat phrases endlessly than not rap, and once he gets started
the morphemes start flowing, liberated from the humdrum requirement
to organize themselves into recognizable words.
Fueled by Terrence and some of his livelier classmates, we begin
our first conversations about words and sounds, rhymes and rhythms.
We modulate into other themesWhy write? Why make poems?
The kids have good answers: to remember things, to make yourself
feel better, to have privacy, to share something, to make something
up, because you like to, because its interesting. But many
dont write unless required to. Writing equals school.
I soon discoveredthat it is far easier to have a good conversation
than to launch a writing exercise or a discussion about a poem.
American kids are brilliant raconteurs; they will talk about anything
and talk well, as long as theres no written object to refer
to. We talked about dreams. Everyone has dreams, and everyone
remembers big ones. We talked about memory versus imagination.
We talked about the first things we remembered as infants. It
I realized that we could talk forever about our lives as small
children: how we used to wear diapers, what horrible dreams we
had some nights, what lovely visions we had other nights, on and
on without ever once talking about or paying attention to language
qua language. I was torn between running an encounter group
and running Poetry Project. After two classes wed barely
read a thing. And the kids journals were mostly blank. By
the third class I decided that it was time to refocusor
more precisely, to get some focus. I figured there were only a
few things I could do in my limited time as Poetry Consultant:
I could open a space for conversation, I could facilitate self-expression,
but I could also get some new things in the kids earsnew
words, new rhythms, new phrases, new ideas.
The kids got all manner of new things into my ears: I now know
more about Alicia Keys, Bernie Mac, Ja Rule, and Aaliyah [R.I.P.]
than I ever needed to know. But more profoundly, the kids also
shared their habits of mind and their modes of sensory processing.
Though we had little time together as a group, and still less
time one-on-one, certain things became clear: the kids were seriously
wired. They live in surround sound, and I doubt if many
of them had paid attention to the low rocking rush inside their
own earswhat you hear when theres nothing else to
hear. They are beyond MTV generation, beyond hip-hop; these kids
are cellphone-Gameboy-CD-digital-video-Matrix-etc. generation,
used to processing lots of stimuli all the time. Given the general
cultural gestalta dispersal of attention, a hopping from
thing to thing, obligatory multitaskingit seemed that
I might usefully provide some way to focus attention, to
gather ones wits and senses and mind.
Now I will do nothing but listen,
To accrue what I hear into this song, to let sounds contribute
I hear bravuras of birds, bustle of growing wheat, gossip of flames,
of sticks cooking my meals
I hear the sounds I love, the sound of the human voice,
I hear all sounds running together, combined, fused, or following,
Sounds of the city and sounds out of the city. . . .
Walt Whitman, from Song of Myself
* * *
By week four, wed read some Whitman together; we compared
his city to ours and listened to a scratchy Edison recording of
Whitmans voice, now available on CD. We read Langston Hughess
Island, each child reading a line aloud; we studied
a map of Manhattan, the island in question, as well as a map of
the outer boroughs; we located our own neighborhoods, and identified
the two rivers of Hughess poem.
As we launched our first poemscity soundscapes, poems of
the sensesit became clear that in Poetry Project as in life,
one confronts a choice: to grapple with the particulars of reality,
or to soar in imagination. To document or to invent. No
ideas but in things (William Carlos Williams) or notes
toward a supreme fiction (Wallace Stevens).
A few surrealists we will always have with us, and thats
good, for they diversify our vast, hearty population of American
realists. Maybe it was our immersion in Whitmans concrete
catalogues, maybe it was the urban stress the kids lived with,
but it seemed that we as a group tended more toward socialist
realism and poesie verité than toward the outlandish,
the whimsical, the expressionistic, the abstract, the surreal.
Under the admittedly realist rubric, Life in the City,
In my project
we play outside and in my project
me and my friends watch the
playground because the people
took it apart because they
are going to make a new park
Every night theres always a gang
Riding around my block
Saying the name of the gang
When Im in the projects
there are always
Thinking about life in the city also inspired more sensuouseven
I hear the talking outside my building,
I hear the firetrucks going for a fire.
I can hear the wind blowing in my face . . .
Susanna Lundbergs The City Sound
We read aloud Claude McKays Tropics in New York:
Bananas ripe and green, and ginger-root,
Cocoa in pods and alligator pears,
And tangerines and mangoes and grape fruit,
Fit for the highest prize at parish fairs. . . .
With McKay and Whitman in his ear, Joshua Howard tapped into
a lyrical documentary mode:
In my life I see pineapples apples
kiwi mangoes banana
And I hear people I hear music
And I hear subways and its just lovely
Tasty food and I see Fatima and look
At people to see
What they are doing.
Miles Litteral, a careful, deliberate speaker and our sole resident
surrealist at age eight, gave his acoustical catalogue a special
I hear the subway the rail road the bus
the car the people the birds the bugs
the wind the rain the locks
the toys the dogs the cats the rumbles
the walking the door the fish
* * *
In several essays (on Leonardo, on Michelangelos Moses),
Freud wrote eloquently on the narcissistic foundations of art-making.
Poetry Project thoroughly confirmed his sense of things. Kids
who were in la-la land when we read Claude McKay or listened to
Maya Angelou or watched another kid read her poem for the class
would suddenly snap to full engaged attention when it was time
to read their poems. By week five a class rhythm had emerged:
at the end of each session, when I took out the video camera
to record the kids poems, a free-for-all would break out.
Nonononono let me read its my turn I wanna read.
I began to value the video camera as never before. It was indispensable,
the video carrot following the writerly stick.
We were thus fully prepared to exploit the fine American tradition
of poetic egocentricism. Some kids emerged as the true heirs of
Whitman, barbaric yawpers singing their own songs of themselves:
I am very outspoken
to people I know
I would never be smokin
even as I grow.
I have an attitude
because I know people can see
that I also have gratitude
because I am free to be me.
Free to be me! Brea-Simone Brown, age eleven
Other kids found it more congenial to celebrate themselves in
their mesostic name-poems. The mesostic (as I explained to the
kids) is a poetic form championed by John Cage (in his Mesostics
for Merce and Reading through the Cantos): you
select a word or phrase, write it as a vertical column, and then
write words you find relevant on the horizontal, your horizontal
words sharing one letter with your key vertical word. It sounds
fussy, but its nota mesostic is basically an acrostic
with more flexibility. We first tried out some mesostics on the
blackboard, using words like spring and March,
then kids wrote their own mesostics, using their names, and made
posters (a project that revealed the violent passion children
have for glitterglued in great gobs to their posters). Most
kids mesostics were, in the end, slightly modified acrostics.
Kamari and Jamila came up with:
Lemon & lime
Jamila Washington, age eight
Intelligence and . . .
So beat it, or else!!!
Kamari James, age nine
Poetry as self-expression, poetry as self-extension. Poetry as
observation, poetry as ululation. Poetry as communication, poetry
as obfuscation. Poetry as prose, poetry as music. Poetry as sign,
poetry as sound.
In later weeks, we had some success with shape-poems. We looked
at Guillaume Apollinaires brilliant, early twentieth-century
French constructions, deftly rendered into English by Kocha
heart shape, for example, formed by the words, my heart
like an upside down flame. One small girl, during her first
visit in week seven, entered into the project with gusto. She
made rainbows out of color-words, clouds out of cloud-ridden phrases,
stars out of her siblings names, and in the end she made
a teardrop, its outline formed by the sentence: When my
mommy and Sammy broke up I cried.
There is not enough time in three months, much less in a brief
glance over the shoulder in a two-hour class, to respond properly
to such a thing. But then, the child wasnt looking for my
response. She was looking at her own page, her objectified sadness;
its shape, its language, its finality.
Such moments sharply reminded me how inadequate our time was
(long as it may have seemed to the kids), how stretched and patchy
my attention. Some kids desperately wanted affirmation for each
scribbled line; others wanted to team up with buddies to horse
around or draw baseball players. Older kids bossed younger ones;
quieter kids retreated before exuberant ones; some loved to write,
others to draw, others to riff, others to sulk. Sometimes we sat
in chairs at desks arranged in a circle; other times the kids
roamed the room, pencils and paper in hand, or plunked themselves
on the floor. Our reading efforts were communal, and thus vulnerable
to the attention-seeking wisecracks of this or that child. Yet
most listened with a friendly competitive interest when a fellow
student read a poem, or when I read poems written decades ago
by Kochs young students: as Aadil said, appreciative, disbelieving,
and rueful upon hearing the work of a fellow seven-year-old, Aw,
that sounds like a professional! Or as Nakell remarked on
hearing Joshs city poem, I like that! I was going
to write something like that. I want that line. Great poets
steal, I told her. At which point Terrence interrupted his flowing
rap to nod sagely.
And then there was India, a lovely eleven-year-old who would
deflate into a limp rag doll the minute she was given her journal
and a pencil. She would revive with equal rapidity when I took
out the video-camera. The trick was to get her to write something
in her limp phase that she could then read in her enlivened phase.
One part of Indias brain was devoted to a refined hatred
of her teacher Darren. This emerged when, after our long and winding
conversation about dreams, I asked the kids to draw one of their
dreams. Soon Travis was snickering, looking over Indias
shoulder at her picture: one horizontal dead Darren, offed by
the bloody knife in the hands of a little grinning stick-figure
Aside from the occasional fantasized murder in Poetry Project,
things were often calm, sometimes even idyllic. On some Friday
afternoons you really could believe the republic was full of native
Consider Jasmin Ortiz, age nine. She was one of the kids who
seemed to take easy pleasure in writing. She sat there with her
hair pulled back, her gamines face shining, her eyes slyly
crinkling, and bit on her pencil. She was like a shy charming
little cat. She darted into your space then out again, rubbing
briefly against your legs. Out would come fey little rhymes, popping
phrases, deft turns from thought to thought, sound to sound:
I hear my baby brother going
Wa wa wa
I hear a door slam shut
I hear Charlenes
My goldfish bowl
I hear at
Jasmin Ortiz, nine, from My poem of sounds in my
At approximately 4:10 one Friday afternoon in April, Jasmin independently
discovered the variable foot, a unit of prosody that
William Carlos Williams announced as his own invention in the
midtwentieth century. Like Williams in his late phase, Jasmin
laid out her poems on the page in staggered increments of phrases
of variable lengths, composing and arranging along a kind of musical
phrase. Other student-poets cleaved to the justified left margin;
still others wrote in paragraphs. Again, had there been world
enough and time, we could have explored what each of these choices
might have meant. One felt that Jasmin was already making artistic
choices when she wrote.
* * *
But given everything else a child might do with her Friday afternoon,
what was the point? A friend of mine thinks all kids should be
shipped out to farms and small factories and workshops at age
ten for seven years, where they can learn actual skills and discipline.
Where they can learn how to make things. Where they can
do something other than hang out. Shouldnt the kids
have been working on more formal skills (in composition or arithmetic),
or shouldnt they have been outside stretching their legs,
or indoors learning something useful, like how to repair bikes
or cars or computers?
Our public discourse about schooling has largely abandoned itself
to the language of economics and bureaucratic management: productivity,
efficiency, standards, competitiveness, and so on. This is a great,
telling failure of civic imagination, a failure obfuscated by
disputes about vouchers and testing. Is it the job of schools
to produce competitive workers? Is it the job of schools to produce
reflective citizens? Artists? Mechanics? Professionals? Dropouts?
Schools make all of these things, including their failures.
Poetry makes nothing happen, Au-den famously wrote,
but schools in theory are supposed to make something happen: to
make kids learn, to make them literate, numerate, responsible
junior citizens. Auden went on to write that poetry was a
way of happening, a mouth; so too can school be a way of
happening. School offers a series of spots of time,
to invoke a Wordsworthian phrase. Poetry Project aspired to be
one such spot, a spot both in school and after school, where time
might slow and attention expand. Time did slow, of course, into
interminable chasms of bored yawns, but time also flew some afternoons
once we got into a poem or a collaborative project.
What didnt happen: I established no longstanding rapport
with any child, nor did I expect toI was seeing the kids
every other week at most, at the end of their tiring school day.
I do not think the kids neural networks were re-wired or
even much altered. As for me: I feel almost exactly the same about
Poetry Project a year after finishing it as I did before starting
it: skeptically committed, provisionally engaged with the idea
that children and adults can meet in structuredif somewhat
arbitraryspaces to feel out what conversations and projects
they might undertake together. I doubt the kids in Poetry Project
remember my name, much less the concrete details of our intermittent
classes. But the kids have the class anthologies we made, selected
works from both groups of students, featuring poems by each
child printed alongside the poems we read by Whitman, Hughes,
and so on. Maybe in ten or twenty or forty years one of the students
will find the anthology stashed in a closet or buried in a box;
maybe this person will be surprised or amused or interested to
see what he or she wrote and thought as a child. Im enough
of a romantic to believe both that the child is father to the
man and that we cannot know except by experience proved
upon the pulse (Keatss phrase) what matters to us
and what will matter. What we can do is commit ourselves to an
experiencea term the Romantics knew was virtually synonymous
with experiment. Poetry Project was just thata
pro-jectsomething thrown forth into the world,
from a shared present to an uncertain future.
William Carlos Williams observed in his long poem Paterson
that it was not the writing but the being in a position
to write that obsessed and inspired him. In the end, Poetry
Project was about that getting into position, about moving into
the condition of receptivity, awareness, or kinesthetic momentum
that is the precondition for anything really happening.
So when people asked what happened in your poetry class?
it wasnt wrong to say, not much, but we got ready
for something to happen. And sometimes, amidst calls for
bathroom breaks, groans and insults, flying chalk and tears of
frustration, something did happen:
I love mom I love dad
I love my teacher I love I love
the taste of tea
I love it, Aadil Mendez, age seven
Today is cool.
I like today.
My name is Terrence.
I love this world.
I am fun.
I like to play.
I like to dream.
Free write, March day, Terrence Barnwell,
a rhyme, Jasmin Ortiz, age nine <
Maureen N. McLane, author of Romanticism and the Human
Sciences: Poetry, is currently a junior fellow at The Society
of Fellows, Harvard University.
Originally published in the April/May
2003 issue of Boston Review