Poetry's Lasting Impact

A teacher walks into a CVS on Detroit's east side and is greeted warmly by a group of children, her former students. Nothing unusual there, except that she hasn't seen the children in a long time. They've grown, and they cluster and clamor around her with great eagerness and affection. She is not only their teacher, she is also their Poet -- their InsideOut Literary Arts Project teaching poet to be exact -- and to her amazement they begin to recite the poems that they had read with her and had written for her during her weekly visits to their class several years before. I guess it's not so surprising, however, when one considers the beauty and purity of the poems that are consistently created by the students of this teacher, veteran iO poet Dr. Suzanne Scarfone. Poems like this one from a fifth grader:

I am a red sunny dawn
when I shine
heaven has a carnival
it is a rebirth
my light makes people
happy all over the earth
when babies look at my light
they fall asleep
millions of people dance
thousands marry when
my warmth hits their bodies
I frolic in the flowers with angels
my light is a present.

-by Carlos Westbrook, Grade 5
Glazer Elementary School

Or this, by a Detroit first grader, that in 2006 became the first poem by a child ever selected by U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser for his American Life in Poetry website. You can read about this youngest poet and Dr. Scarfone in Rebecca Mazzei's article in Detroit Metro Times here.

Common Janthina

My shell said she likes the king and queen
of the Poetry Palace because they listen to her.

She tells them all the secrets of the ocean.

-by Tatiana Ziglar, Grade 1
Stewart Elementary School

Readers and lovers of poetry know that when we have poems by heart, or even partially by heart, they stay with us. Why, then, should it be any different for children who, thanks to InsideOut, gain this immersion in the beauty and power of words, theirs and others?

Anecdotes about poetry's impact on Detroit children abound. Peter Markus and a guest are sitting on a bench at recess outside Golightly school when a boy comes up, perhaps a fifth grader, who is not known to him or to the guest. The boy seems put out with Mr. Pete, iO's Senior Writer and a 2012 Kresge Arts in Detroit Literary Fellow. When, he wants to know, is Mr. Pete going to come and teach his class "to do shape poems"? Apparently, word about the coolness of shape poems has been getting around.

The guest is Dr. Mark Creekmore, iO's self-described "objectively passionate" evaluator, who has come to assess the sustained effect on a group of students who each year, from grades two through five, had the benefit of weekly poetry lessons with Mr. Pete.

What the students reported to Dr. Creekmore warms the heart, at least that of this former English teacher. The children showed self-confidence, patience and consideration for their peers, and, as Mark wrote, the need "to be present in what they do." As they said, one has to "pay attention" with poetry. They were comfortable writing from imagination and reflecting on their feelings. They took care to make sure the reader could "see" what they were saying. They experienced the social power among friends and family that comes when one stands out as a writer, and they learned terms and special forms of poetry: Haiku, Ghazal.

Earlier this year, after meeting for the first time with some children on Detroit's east side with whom he had worked the year before, Peter sent me this email:

Wish you could've heard this group of 5th graders yesterday. I had them do an I Remember exercise around what they remembered about our time together last year writing poetry. To hear them talk about dream hands and metaphors and lines and stanzas and "The Red Wheelbarrow" and "The Man with the Blue Guitar" was really sweet. One student when asked about a painting we looked at guessed that it was Jackson Pollock but I have no memory of bringing in any Jackson Pollock. One student got up and recited "The Red Wheelbarrow" and remembered the name of the poet. In short, poetry left its mark.

In another example of poetry leaving its mark, Johnathon Hosey, a high school junior and a member of iO's Citywide Poets performance troupe that opened for Wayne State's 2013 MLK Day Tribute Luncheon, suddenly realized that we were the same organization that brought poet Anita Schmaltz to his classroom when he was in fourth grade. Please, put me in touch with her, he asked. She changed my life. I wouldn't be where I am today if it weren't for her.

I marvel at this impact, more than seven years later, but it only confirms my belief that over time, for even one hour a week, poetry can open the hearts and minds of young people. This simple "needful thing," in the words of the poet Robert Hayden, has the power to change the world, one child at a time.