This morning I woke up in darkness, as did all of the Methodists I know. But Wednesdays are "hope" day at the school where I work, so I put on my HOPE sweatshirt and showed up in the cold and dark. Just before 7:20 am, my room filled with two dozen teenagers. Without a lot of hope in what would happen next, I put eight poems in front of them and assigned three students to work through each poem from three different literary theories. A wise endeavor on an already dark day? Maybe not. But it was first hour on a Wednesday, and this is what we do.
Then something happened. They started to read the poems out loud. They knew this is what one does with a poem. (That may sound obvious, but believe me, that in itself was something pretty cool to witness.) They started to talk about the poems. I joined the group reading “There are Birds Here,” and we started to notice lines like “how lovely the ruins,/ how ruined the lovely/ children must be in that birdless city.” “What do we call that?” asked one girl. “Yeah, it’s so cool! Is it...is it antithesis? Can we use that word in poetry?” “And why is the city birdless if he’s talking about there being birds here?” “I noticed that he’s contradicting someone the whole time, but who is he talking to?” We asked the poem questions and asked each other questions and by the end of the conversation, we sat back in our chairs and sighed. The magic had happened.
Then, third hour, the class that is most vocal about its distaste for poetry also sat down in their groups and immediately started reading. What is happening? I thought. A girl summoned me over to the “Richard Cory” group, told her partners to keep reading, and asked me about rhyme scheme. Before I could finish my answer, one of her partners finished reading, half-stood, and pounded his fist into the desk. “This. poem. is. AWESOME!” he shouted. Yes, shouted. “No, seriously!! They’re all like ‘he glittered when he walked,’ like he’s everything they want, and then he goes home and Cobains himself!” All the people around him stopped their own reading and flipped to “Richard Cory.” At the end of the class, he went up to the kid who most vocally hates poetry and said, “No, really, this poem is the bomb! This is the best poem I’ve ever read. Did you read it?” Who knew. Today was the day the magic finally happened.
Fifth hour, my senior jock boys met with me about the cataloging they noticed in Whitman’s poems and another two talked about how the death of Poe’s mother and wife led to him writing really dark stuff. Seventh hour, a kid asked to borrow a highlighter and spread out eight pages of Billy Collins on the floor in front of him, laid on his stomach, and started to read. Eighth hour when my “An American Sunrise” readers saw the connection to “We Real Cool,” they gasped audibly and their mouths dropped open. The “Richard Cory” group was discussing whether or not any of the great industrialists had committed suicide.
Yes, today was the day when the magic happened: the magic that only happens when they’ve already voiced all of their complaints, when they’ve read so many poems that the fear is gone, when they finally suspect that poetry is about real things and they have lots of tools to find those things and that it’s OK to like a poem. It’s been painful getting to this point. It’s been dark. There were days when I thought that since everything else in which I put my trust has slipped into brokenness and darkness and I’ve felt that any attempt at striving toward a better society is futile that maybe this would be the year when poetry wouldn’t work its magic. Instead, poetry reminded me that the methodology of hope is to keep showing up. To wake up in the dark, put on the hope sweatshirt, and say, “Here are eight more poems; see what you can do.”
So on Sunday, we’re going to church. Because that’s what we do on Sundays. And we’re going to ask the church some questions. And we’re going ask each other some questions. “...but they won’t stop saying/ how lovely the ruins/ how ruined the lovely/ children must be in that birdless city.” No. There ARE birds here. And hope, too. Year after year, poetry teaches me (again, again, again) to just keep showing up. To read it again. To ask another question. Until we figure it out.