Though I’ve been writing stories and poems since I was four years old, I sometimes find it hard to actually sit down and write. Often I walk and write in my head or just upon waking, write in my mind the wonderful idea I had while I was dream-waking. Sometimes, I make the time to write them down, but most times they slip away, and my day gets filled with daily minutia. As I’ve grown older, I try to be more consistent with my writing, because I am keenly aware of time and life slipping away. Writing is important to me, and I need to be mindful of giving it the room it deserves in my life. Without writing I know I would not fully be me. Without writing, I would not be able to think through my problems or create new things. Writing needs a conscious, breathing space. Writing needs time.
Many of my writing ideas come from books I’ve discovered. In the pre-COVID years, I loved to browse my favorite indie bookstores, wandering and reading hoping to come upon an interesting find. I miss those days. Buying books on Amazon is not the same experience. I hope those bookstores find a way to survive because they were an important part of my inspiration. It was in one of these now defunct bookstores where I found the little yellow treasure, FEG: Ridiculous Poems for Intelligent Children by Robin Hirsch. In this book, Hirsch includes the poem, “Entering a Poem,” which is a brilliant and humorous way of introducing poetry to children. It begins:
You enter a poem Just like you enter a room. You open the door And what do you see? A sink, for example, A bathtub, a toilet (Does a toilet belong in a poem?) And you say to yourself, “Aha It’s a bathroom.”
Needless to say, I bought the book immediately and shared it with everyone I know. I wanted to see what I could do with this subject. I began to think of the old row house my husband and I lived in decades ago in Princeton. It dated back to the early 1800’s and had a quirky charm. It is this place that I thought of as I wrote my poem.
When You Enter A Poem You enter a poem through the basement. Walking down several steep steps, you inhale a musty odor – the damp darkness. You reach above for the string that will turn on the light, you can’t find it. You shuffle and stumble, trying to adjust to the light. You begin to see outlines – shadows of things Could that be your old wagon? Is that a box of your books? You bump into an old rocking chair, you always loved that rocker. You’d sit on your mother’s lap as she told you stories, a cobweb gently touches your face. You swat it away. Where’s the light? You find the string and pull, but it does not go on. You know the poem is in here, somewhere, you reach out your hands and feel your way around - the cool, rough cinderblock walls, the smooth, curved oak chest the ragged, chipped-painted pipes. Your eyes are getting accustomed to the dark. You can now make out the wooden ceiling beams, the various pieces of furniture stacked with boxes the small, odd door on the far side of the room. There is a sudden scent of lavender from some abandoned blooms forgotten in an old vase. You walk on feeling your way in the murky darkness. You come to the small, odd door. It is really just some rough-hewn planks crudely hammered together. A brass key protrudes from the lock. You try to turn it, you try to pull it out, but it doesn’t budge. You wonder what is inside and why it’s locked away. You try the key again. It won’t turn. You knock on the door - There is no one on the other side. You boldly bang and kick it, Throw your shoulder against it, it remains steadfast. You walk back towards the steps, You can make your way more easily through the darkness. A poem is like that – Some things become clearer, some remain secret, you turn and ascend the stairs. Whenever I think of a lesson for children, I must try it out first and make mistakes. Mistakes guide me in how to make the lesson better. I welcome mistakes. If my idea comes out too perfect, I don’t trust it. There must be something I’m not seeing, not realizing. This poem came out all at once, and I wondered if children would be able to create a visual space for how they enter a poem. I tried it out with some 5th graders, and they easily delved into their poetry place. I think the humor imbedded throughout Hirsch’s poem helped them understand that poetry is accessible. It can be about toilets and musty basements. It can ask questions and not provide all the answers. Indeed, it should raise more questions and make us wonder.
When sharing this idea with students, I first read aloud both Hirsch and mine own “entering a poem” poems. We talked about how each poem was constructed and the form, language, and images the poets created. Then I asked my students to think about a poem as a room in a home or space somewhere. How do you get inside? How do you begin to understand it? I asked them to write an “Entering a Poem” poem. I told them that their “room” can be any type and anywhere. It could be a bedroom, kitchen, secret room, tunnel, spaceship, a place outdoors, – whatever they imagined it to be.
When You Enter A Poem by Lauren When you enter a poem... It’s like entering a kitchen First you stick out your hand, Reach for the cabinet with the bowls. Take one large bowl and one small bowl. Then comes the eggs, flour, sugar, chocolate icing, and honey out of the refrigerator. Next, beat two eggs and some honey in the small bowl. Then mix the sugar and the flour in the large bowl. Time for wet ingredients! Put them in the large bowl and mixed them together. Pour the batter in the pan, And put it in the oven. A half an hour later, Take the cake out of the oven and ice it Making a poem is like Making a cake Keep adding ingredients Come into the Poem by Maxine Come into the poem, It is a cool pool, Blue and deep. Dive down Make bubbles All the way. The fish swim Between your feet. The slick seaweed Wraps around your shoulders. Something sparkles on the Rocky ocean floor But you cannot reach it. The current takes you In another direction The water is murky It's hard to see clearly Then something beautiful Comes into view, Into the Poem, Cool and blue and deep, Delicate and full of wonder, A starfish on the sand Dancing gracefully Into the Poem.
I look forward to playing with this idea with more groups of children. What rooms will they create? What fresh language will they invent? How will they show me a new way of thinking? What will they teach me next?