Why I teach poetry by Kathleen Driskell

When I was eight years old, my third-grade teacher, Miss Walker, asked us to write poems. I scribbled mine, handed it in, and went out to the playground to swing with my friends. When I arrived at school the next day, as I hung my little yellow coat on its hook along the wall in our classroom, Miss Walker called to me. She said I was going to read my poem over the morning announcements.

She held my hand and led me down the hall and into the principal’s office where I was sat in a chair and scooted up to a heavy oak desk. A squat silver microphone rose up in front of me. Miss Walker laid my poem on the desk. I can still remember how plump and creamy her hand looked as she smoothed out the paper. She nodded and I read:

War is bad.

It makes me sad.

When my uncle gets home

from Vietnam,

I will be glad.

There are so many moments that can change the course of a life, it seems impossible to point to a specific instance and say that’s it, that’s the place there. If that hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t be me. But I’m absolutely certain reading my little poem to the entire school caused my life to veer into an unpredicted direction. After that day, I was going to “be” in the world in a different way.

Miss Walker’s kindness, her recognition of me that morning, set me on the way toward being a poet. She is but the first of many writing and literature teachers who have helped me find my intellectual life. I’m moved to share with my own students all I have been given.

The Greek roots of the word poetry mean to make or create. Some folks paint, some play violin, some knit, some cook, some make cars run again, but human beings are meant to make something.

Poems can’t make sense of the inexplicable, but they can teach us how to make the inexplicable meaningful to our own lives. Poems are eloquent responses to all that we can’t understand, like a beloved uncle, a kid himself, in a faraway war in a green jungle.

When I turned ten, two tall men in Marine uniforms pulled up in a dark car and knocked on my grandfather’s door. Forty-some years after the death of my uncle, this scenario continues to occur on the front porches of Americans across our country.

My undergraduate students in creative writing class may never become poets who go on to publish. Perhaps they will not become writers of any kind, but they will leave my classroom to become citizens of a world that is often inexplicable. I can’t teach them the specifics of anatomy or legal code or the intricacies of corporate communication theory, but I can, through teaching them how to read and make poems, give them a way to be more wholly human, more creative,  and show them that these qualities are just as essential when caring for the sick, defending the accused, or trying to figure out what is actually the bottom line. Poems can help us make our way through our own lives. Poems can teach us how to be fully alive.

Kathleen Driskell’s most recent book of poems “Seed Across Snow” (Red Hen Press, Los Angeles) was listed as a national bestseller by the Poetry Foundation. Many of the poems in “Seed Across Snow” are about her family’s experience living in an old country church that was built before the Civil War. She teaches creative writing and helps direct the brief-residency MFA in Writing Program at Spalding University in Louisville.

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