This text by Kati Macaluso appeared on Teachers, Profs, Parents: Writers Who Care, a blog organized and maintained by members of the Commission on Writing Teacher Education, a working group of the Conference on English Education.
So I’ll tell a secret instead:
poems hide. In the bottoms of our shoes,
they are sleeping. They are the shadows
drifting across our ceilings the moment
before we wake up. What we have to do
is live in a way that lets us find them.
—from Naomi Shihab Nye’s “Valentine for Ernest Mann”
Naomi Shihab Nye is right: “Poems hide.” One was certainly hiding one Saturday morning in the health and beauty aisles of a local superstore. My poetry seminar professor had invited us to listen for a poem, instructing us to attend to the conversations and noises that surrounded us in public places, and to use those as our weekly writing inspiration. So I listened—in coffee shops, in my son’s childcare center, in restaurants, and finally, at a large shopping center. It was there that I found myself in the same aisle with an elderly couple whose conversation I overheard and soon became a part of.
Several drafts and weeks later, I had written the following poem:
Navigating the health and beauty aisles
of their local superstore,
an elderly couple moves methodically
through their grocery list:
Skim milk, white bread, Vitamin A, orange juice . . .
But they have forgotten the orange juice.
The wife turns toward the grocery aisles,
several states over in this vast territory of merchandise.
And the old man, sensing his wife’s weariness,
offers to go in search of it himself.
Ok, she sighs. But don’t forget to come back.
Turning to me, the only other person
amid the rows of vitamins and aspirin,
I always worry
he’ll forget he brought me with him—
that I’ll be left all alone, in this great big store.
So I linger.
Somewhat in search of vitamins,
but mostly because I can’t have this woman
standing all alone,
in this great big store
because she has been forgotten—like a gallon
of orange juice—
by the one she loves most.
As I wrote my way through this poem, I was also pursuing a degree in Curriculum, Instruction, and Teacher Education, thinking long and hard about the K–12 English language arts curriculum. I thought about curricular documents like the Common Core State Standards that make no mention of writing poetry. This blog entry is my response to the relative dearth of poetry writing in the K–12 English language arts curriculum.
While some might rightly make the case that writing poetry sharpens students’ linguistic awareness or knowledge of genre, I’d like to reflect on how writing poetry, like the listening poem above, might serve as an invitation to students to “live,” as Nye says, in a particular way—to be more finely attuned to the seemingly ordinary experiences they encounter on an everyday basis.
Poems Defy Explanation: Poet Charles Simic has said of poetry, “The labor of poetry is finding ways through language to point to what cannot be put into words.”
Another way of saying this might be to claim that one can never fully explain a poem. As I reflect on my own poem above, I realize I could have returned home and explained to my husband what I had encountered: “I was shopping in Aisle 30, when this elderly couple realized they had forgotten to grab orange juice. The wife was too tired to walk all the way back to Aisle 6, so her husband offered to go get it. But the wife—poor thing—was afraid her husband might forget to come back.”
This explanation would have been accurate, but it would not have done justice to this experience. It needed a poem. A poem—because it defies explanation—requires that the writer be keenly present to an experience, and all its characters, sights, sounds, and senses.
In order to engage in the labor of finding language “for that which cannot be put into words,” a writer of poetry must work in the spaces between experience and language.
And, indeed, once a writer begins to work in the spaces between language and experience, the way she sees the world is forever altered. Several drafts into my poem, I knew I needed a metaphor to show how the expansive store accentuated the frailty of human beings. I dare say, I’ve never again set foot in a superstore without seeing the “vast territory” of merchandise stretch before me, nor have I felt the weight of a full gallon of orange juice without feeling the weight of being forgotten.
My hope is that more K-12 students write poetry. I have tremendous faith in what poetry writing can and will do for these students’ linguistic dexterity, knowledge of form, and other technical knowledge.
But I also wholeheartedly believe that the opportunity to work in the gaps between language and experience, like my own experience listening for and writing “Forgotten Items,” will serve as an invitation to live in a particular way: to seek out poems by becoming more fully present to the details and people that might otherwise go unnoticed.
Kati Macaluso is a doctoral candidate in the Ph.D. Program in Curriculum, Instruction, and Teacher Education at Michigan State University. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.