Poetry Friday: Teaching kids and polar bears to write poems

Kenneth Koch, in addition to his own poems, tilted at two very worthwhile windmills.

First, he taught kids to love and to write poetry. Here’s a sample from one of his pupils:

I used to have a hat of hearts but now I have a hat of tears
I used to have a dress of buttons but now I have a name of bees . . .

— Ilona Bahurka, grade 3

Read more and read Koch’s report on it all here.

Second, he taught polar bears to write poetry. That’s what he claims and who am I to dispute it?

Here is his report on the polar bears, excerpted from an article called “What’s American about American Poetry.” I can’t say that I understand the whole article or even like all of it. But this part, which I first read in Harpers, is one of my favorite poems. (If you want to call it that.) You have to read through to the end to get the full effect.

Once I taught polar bears to write poetry. After class each week (it was once a week) I came home to bed. The work was extremely tiring. The bears tried to maul me and for months refused to write a single word. If refused is the right term to use for creatures who had no idea what I was doing and what I wanted them to do. One day, however, it was in early April, when the snow had begun to melt and the cities were full of bright visions on windowglass, the bears grew quieter and I believed that I had begun to get through to them. One female bear came up to me and placed her left paw on top of my head. Her mouth was open and her very red tongue was hanging out. I realized that she, and the other bears, must be thirsty, so I procured for them several barrels of water. They drank it thirstily and looked up at me from time to time to gratefully but even then they wrote no poems. They never did write a word. Still I don’t think this teaching was a waste of time, and I’m planning on continuing it if I have the necessary strength. For hard and exhausting it is to attempt something one knows it is impossible to do— but what if one day those bears actually started to write? I think would all put down our Stefan George and our Yeats and pay attention! What wonders might be disclosed! What dreams of bears!

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3 Responses

  1. Students as polar bears- brilliant!

  2. Love this. Of course, I have to say, that in school, I was NOT a polar bear. I was the kid writing poems instead of paying attention. I discovered very early on the thrill of that hidden door opening and letting me slide inside. I’m so glad Kenneth Koch is encouraging all kids (and bears) to write.

  3. This is such a neat poem-esque thing. I love that they mauled him. They do that… and yet, they become thirsty as well, and if you can give them what they really need… you’ve got them… even if they never write a word. That’s really an insightful way of looking at it.

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