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The Poetry Survival Kit
by John Caddy

first published in the St. Paul Pioneer Press

When you teach kids to write poems, you offer them power. You offer them an entry code, an open sesame that lets them unlock the power inside themselves named poetry.  And that is a power that can help us survive.  Poetry resides within each of us.  People arrive on Earth pre-wired to create art.

When you teach kids to write poems, you offer them power. You offer them an entry code, an open sesame that lets them unlock the power inside themselves named poetry. And that is a power that can help us survive. Poetry resides within each of us.

Think of it this way: there is a box deep inside each of us. The surface is covered with words and rhythms and figures. The box is labeled Poetry Survival Kit. You can show kids how to find and open their kit. Once we have the entry code, and the lid pops open, we are offered a wealth of tools for survival.

Our hand moves first to a tool that shines. It's called the Discovery of Power. When we grasp it, we learn that the language is our personal inheritance: we own it. We discover that we can use words to say things that no one, not all the millions who've felt and spoken in all the history of man, has ever said before. That's a heady power for kids to realize. If we tinker with this tool awhile, we find that by putting words together in this way, or that way, we can let, even make others feel what we feel, let others see the unique ways we see.

The second tool we pick up is the Power of Discovery. When we point the tool at ourselves, we learn to use our own writing to go exploring inside ourselves. It's mostly unexplored territory in there, terra incognita, which adds an edge of excitement.

The questions are old ones: Who am I? Where did I come from? What do I mean? Seventh grader Heather Whiteman asks a fine question within her poem: When will we be released from our bodies? When we die? When we write? When?

E. M. Forster once wrote, How can I know what I mean, until I see what I say? Exactly right. When you marshal all your resources and write a poem, you find out later what you've said, for the techniques used in poetry—image, metaphor, rhythm, sound play—enable us to say more than we knew.

Jenny Koziol, grade 5, on growing older:

Never old enough
Or else too old . . .
Going too fast,
Yet even too fast is too slow.

Fifth grader Erik Vonrothkirch sees it another way:

I'm always afraid
I'll go too far, too early,
and fall in pain

This next tool is simple in appearance, but it hums with power. It is the astonishing human ability I call Poison-Changing. It names one of art's basic motives. Life is often painful and confusing and filled with loss, especially for kids. No news there. But how do you survive all this, and still remain whole and open to experience? That's a question our society has almost forgotten how to answer. But there are answers, and making a poem is one.

Poison-Changing is the process of accepting whatever experience life throws at us, and within ourselves, changing that experience into power and order, learning and even beauty, in the act of making a poem.

The poem, and its making, can not only heal, but transform pain into power, transform the grotesque into the beautiful. Sounds far-fetched, doesn't it? It's such a basic process we forget it exists, but all artists and musicians use it.

Consider the paradox of the blues—shackles changed into a kind of celebration. Take a look at Picasso’s Guernica. Read an elegy.

Ninth grader JoAnn Wiebke begins a look inside with these words:

My blood runs black . . .
My mouth is of clear sour tears,
flowing backward.

Look at this statement of confusion from Denise Bruley, grade 5:

Mom, you know,
you're like a puddle,
and reflect me all day long.
When I look at you, I wonder:
Am I upside down, or are you?

This transforming ability allows us to stay open, to retain within us that childlike eye that lets us see what is really in front of us. The alternative is to grow a shell and see the world only through the distorted lens of our own pain and fears.

When we touch the fourth tool, it makes light. It is the Power of Celebration, the way poetry allows us to share our joys. But in the process of writing poems, kids teach themselves the healing importance of those brief daily surprises of joy—a beauty seen, the unexpected hand ruffling the hair, a rush of wings, the letter on the hall table as you walk in, the sudden ambush of a grin—that we hold and savor to carry us through the hard parts.

Our public language of celebration has been worn flat by its endless use in commercials. But in the poem, we each invent our personal language of celebration, and discover, to our pleased surprise, that others can read that language, too.

Third-grader Heidi Thyr said it her way a few weeks ago:

When my brother
is in a bugging-his-sister mood,
the space between his teeth
starts to giggle.

Listen to Bobby Baker, grade 3:

I love my laugh.
It swirls like a dust devil,
It crumbles out of my mouth
like a dirt rock exploding!

There are emergency rations in the poetry survival kit too, labeled the Power of Sharing. When we hurt, the act of expression itself relieves. When we are awed or feel wonder, we also express—it feels larger, more complete when we do. Here's the bonus: when we share the poem with others, whether in a book or over the phone, in public or private, we learn again a root human truth:

Shared pain shrinks. Shared joy grows.

The poem is a three-for-one artistic bargain: we are relieved by 'getting it said,' we are bonded to others in its sharing, and that sharing both heals and enlarges us.
Let me quote one poem whole, to show the Discovery of Power, the Power of Discovery, the Poison-Changing, the Sharing, all of it. The poet—and I use that term with respect—is Tara Roberts, grade 3, and the poem is called

To an Unknown Grandma

The stars make me
not see you,
But if your heart
was touching mine,
I know my heart
would appear as a flame.
I love you, but you did not
get a chance to know that.

    What can you do?  You can give kids the keys to a survival kit they already contain.   What can you do? You can give kids the keys to the survival kit they already contain. You can offer them power—they will accept.

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