Kenneth Koch (1925-2002) was a poet who reached out to the world instead of sitting back and waiting for the world to come to him. His book I Never Told Anybody: Teaching Poetry Writing in a Nursing Home (1977) documents an experiment he, Kate Farrell, and their assistants performed with a few dozen people:

The students, whom I was soon to know as individuals, seemed this first time very much alike. They seemed old, sick, tired, uncomfortable. Some seemed to be asleep or almost so. Others stared around distractedly. One or two showed signs of being in pain. Some looked at me in a pleasant friendly, if slightly puzzled, way. ...

Through a series of exercises over a period of weeks, these unlikely poets blossomed and flowered:

Our students did accomplish things. I am not sure that helped them to adjust to life in the nursing home. Rather, I think, it slightly changed the conditions of that life, which was better. I don't think I would like to adjust to a life without imagination or accomplishment, and I don't believe my students wanted to either. It is in that sense, perhaps, that it can best be understood why it is better to teach poetry writing as an art than to teach it — well, not really teach it but use it — as some form of distracting or consoling therapy. As therapy it may help someone to be a busy old person, but as art and accomplishment it can help him to be fully alive.

What this means in teaching is, first, believing that students such as ours are capable of writing poetry, and of continuing to do it and of getting better at it. It means, too, having the confidence that one can do the teaching. It is, if one is patient and can be free of some wrong ideas about old people, not terribly difficult. Our students liked poetry so much. And some were writing it fairly well after two or three classes. In the conduct of the course, it means always paying attention to the text, and especially to the esthetic qualities of the text, rather than to the person who wrote it. That is, saying, "This line is beautiful. I like the way it repeats the word green," rather than, "How wonderful that you could write that." For example, in our class, Mary L. Jackson didn't go from "I had a cat whose name was Minnie" to the lovely music and imagination of her later poems because I thought her Minnie line a "good sign" or because it made me proud, but because I talked to her, in regard to that and other lines about the music in it, the language, the humor. We were never contemplating Mary L. Jackson, she and I, but the things she said and wrote. Teaching poetry as an art meant giving her, always, opportunities to make what she said and wrote better — more inclusive, more intense, more musical. That way, she, any student, accomplishes things. Even when there were apparent setbacks, I kept that artistic, and accomplishing, aim in mind. One trouble with a kind of falsely therapeutic and always-reassuring attitude that it is easy to fall into with old people is the tendency to be satisfied with too little. I could have been "happy with" and "proud of" my students after the first class — even in that first hour, they were better at writing poems than they had ever been. How good it was to keep helping them genuinely to be better at it every time! And how much better than anything I said I felt was their being happy and proud because they wrote well.

Accomplishment was good for our students, as it is for everyone. ...

Koch believes "... that many more people like those I taught, as well as those less ill than they, are capable of writing good poems and liking it. Their ability to do so is in most cases restricted by their not knowing about poetry or by their knowing about it in the wrong way, thinking of it as something obligatorily rhyming and abstract and grandiose and far from anything that they could do well." He concludes:

These things were in our students but, I suspect, for the most part, hidden. Writing poems, they discovered them and made them into art. They were richer for that, and so, to a different degree, were those who heard their poems and read them. It was not only the details in their poems on the subject of untold secrets that our students had "never told anybody," but all that was best in all they wrote. They hadn't told anybody, and thus nobody had ever heard it, and neither they nor anyone else knew that it was in them to tell it, because they had never written poetry.

(cf. LyingVerses (15 Mar 2001), ...)

TopicPoetry - TopicLiterature - TopicArt - 2005-12-16

(correlates: LyingVerses, GreatPicnic, SuspensionOfDisbelief, ...)