When he was poet laureate, Billy Collins created “Poetry 180: A Turning Back to Poetry.” It’s an anthology of “contemporary poems,” enough for one on each school day (with a few to spare, in our case). His goal was to freshen up the perception of poetry by collecting new voices and varied topics, have poems simply read aloud without comment at the beginning of a school day. No point in extracting a confession from them as to deep inner meaning, but just let the topics and words and nuanced feelings flow over us, a trickle-down effect of fresh words. Listen to the sound of myriad voices. Tune into perspectives and insights that prose (or texting or Facebook or Snapchat) does not give us.
In an interview at the time of its inception, Collins said, “We are all kind of natural poets as children. We all like rhyming and clapping and basic musical and rhythmic delights that support poetry. But when we get to high school, poetry becomes just another subject. It becomes like trigonometry — harder than trigonometry. At least with trigonometry you have a hope of getting the answer! With poetry the answer often seems to be a kind of mystery that only the teacher knows.” It’s that academic sense of poetry that needs a refresh. So “Poetry 180” opens up the ears of a new generation that does not have a sense of the Anglo-American canon, the oral tradition in literature, nor academic trafficking in deep inner meaning — opens up to dynamic language, a diet of intrigue, insight, bemusement and new perspectives. Where does this meet the road for my seventh- and eighth-grade language arts students? So far, they’ve started a list of favorites, read poems about swimming, sentimental song prompts, “the pink car,” acting class, telephone calls, infatuation, favorite outfits, the loss of a colleague, space heaters, numbers, lines, dogs fetching snowballs, salt … and poems themselves. But of course every poem is about itself.
Any other poetry alive in our schoolhouse? The third- and fourth-graders do a poem a week, and read it to the kindergartners. “You get to read to the younger kids and every time you read to them they like what you’re doing,” Ella reported. “It’s something that you read to them, but you don’t sing to them,” said Garrett. “We did one of our own poems last year.”
“What is poetry anyway?” I asked. “We get funny poems and we get to read them,” Garrett said. “Usually poems rhyme and they’re about something.” Like colors, climbing a tree, haiku — anything. There are favorites. “Ladies and jellyspoons,” comes to mind. “Colors,” and “If my dog could talk.” Billy Collins would be impressed. “Poetry is the only surviving history we have of human emotion,” he says, “ … the emotional companionship of our ancestors.” And, evidently, their pets. Every day’s a poetry slam dunk, or ought to be.