I Never Told Anybody Teaching Poetry Writing in a Nursing Home


Your leaves were yellow
And some of them were darker
And I picked them up
And carried them in the house
And put them in different vases

Your leaves sound different
I couldn’t understand why
The leaves at that time of year
Had a rustle about them
And they would drop
At the least little thing
And I would listen
And pick up some of them.
—Nadya Catalfano


Last spring and summer, I taught poetry writing at the American Nursing Home in New York City. The American Nursing Home is on the Lower East Side, at Avenue B and Fifth Street. I had about twenty-five students, and we met sixteen times, usually on Wednesday mornings for about an hour. The students were all incapacitated in some way, by illness or old age. Most were in their nineties, eighties, and seventies. Most were from the working class and had a limited education. They had worked as dry cleaners, messengers, short order cooks, domestic servants. A few had worked in offices, and one had been an actress. The nursing home gave them safety and care, and a few activities, and sometimes a trip to a show or to a museum. They did little or no reading or writing. None had ever written poetry.

I was assisted throughout by poet Kate Farrell, who, along with taking down students’ poems and talking to them about their work, also helped me plan the lessons and directed the workshop when I wasn’t there. We always had the assistance, too, of one of the social workers at the nursing home, Suzanne Uriel or Barbara Mittelmark, as well as, for about ten classes, two volunteers from Hospital Audiences, a group which, along with Poets and Writers, had helped me to find the American Nursing Home and to arrange to teach there.

The idea to teach old and ill people to write poetry had come to me as a result of an interesting hour I spent working with poetry at the Jewish Old Age Home in Providence, Rhode Island, and as a result of other hours, much less happy ones, I had spent as a visitor in nursing homes where there was nothing of that kind going on. I wanted to see what could be done. Old people had long lives to look back on. Removed from certain of life’s struggles, they had time to think and the chance to be detached, objective, and dreamy in a way probably not possible to them before. If, in the blankness of a nursing home, they could write poetry, it would be a good thing—a serious thing for them to work at, something worth doing well that engaged their abilities and their best thoughts and feelings.

I sensed this possibility, but it was evident that the students I had at the American Nursing Home were removed from poetry and from the writing of poetry in many ways. None had written it before and none, I think, would have begun without the workshop. The workshop had to provide a bridge between what poetry was and what the people there were—old, ill, relatively uneducated, separated from their early lives, cautious about trying anything new, afraid people might think them “finished,” worthless, unable to do things well. They also had a conception of poetry likely to make it impossible for them to write it well: the rhyming, metrical treatment of “poetical” subject matter.

Not only were they unfamiliar with poetry, they were quite out of the habit of learning, of sitting in a room and hearing something explained. These were problems aside from the physical ones. Some had recent memory loss, or were forgetful, tended to ramble a little when they spoke. Everyone was ill, some people sometimes in pain. Depression was frequent. A few were blind, and some had serious problems in hearing. Several students had severe speech problems and were very difficult, at first, to understand.

To be added to all this was their confinement within the walls and within the institutional regime of the nursing home; they had little chance to find, as poets usually do, fresh inspiration in new experiences, sights, and sounds. They lived without either the city or nature to inspire their feelings. Poetry, if they did write it, would have to come from memory and from what happened and from what we could help make happen right there in the nursing home. And only a very few of our students were able to use their hands to write—because of muscular difficulties or blindness.

Still, it is such a pleasure to say things, and such a special kind of pleasure to say them as poetry. I didn’t, when I began, think much about the problems. I started, instead, with my feeling for the pleasure people could find in writing poetry, and assumed I could deal with any problems as they came up. My students, in fact, once given the chance to begin, were, in spite of all the difficulties, happy to be writing poems.

The method of teaching worked itself out as we went along. I began cautiously, asking people to think of a sentence or two. Then I suggested simple forms: say three or four things about colors, and put the name of a color in every line. Gradually, encouraged by the students’ success, I proposed bolder and bolder ideas: imagine you are the ocean, and write a poem with every line beginning, “I, the Ocean.” Listen to this Keats sonnet and write a poem about talking to the moon or stars. In every class I gave a suggestion for the kind of poem they should write. This gave new ideas and relieved these hesitant, inexperienced students of the burden of finding a proper subject of their own. I said, “Write a poem about the quietest things or the quietest times you can think of; if you like, put a different quiet thing in every line.”

The students told us their poems aloud, and we wrote them down. I was afraid this might not give them as much a sense of composing a work as writing would, but we found ways to do it that did: we were always reading lines back, saying, “Here is what you’ve written so far,” and, “What do you want to say next?” The students’ hesitancy and fear were much alleviated by our encouragement and admiration. My reading the poems aloud at the end of each class was an important part of this. It helped them to see that what they wrote was poetry and could be talked about seriously and admired. The teaching was based on the assumption that there is no insurmountable barrier between ordinary speech and poetry, and its aim was to help students move, easily and with confidence, from one to the other. Between the writer and the poem were no difficult demands of rhyme, meter, rhetoric, diction, or subject matter.

The kind of poetry I had in mind as a model was the unrhymed, nonmetrical, fairly unliterary poetry of such poets as D.H. Lawrence, Walt Whitman, and William Carlos Williams, poetry with music and language like this—

The youth goes up to the white
   horse to put its halter on
And the horse looks at him in
They are so silent they are in
   another world.
—D.H. Lawrence, “The White Horse”

or like this—

I think I will do nothing for a long
   time but listen
And accrue what I hear into
   myself…and let sounds con-
   tribute toward me.
I hear the bravuras of birds…the
   bustle of growing wheat…
—Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”

or this—

There were some dirty plates
and a glass of milk
beside her on a small table
near the rank, disheveled bed…
—William Carlos Williams, “The Last Words of My English Grandmother”

Such poetry, with its combination of prosiness, talky quality, repetition, and lyricism, if not something many writers can completely master, is also not completely unapproachable. A modestly educated, unliterary old person can have a chance of writing something like it. He can use the natural strengths for poetry he has: the music of ordinary speech and the memories and feelings his long life has given him. Asked to rhyme or to use meter or any difficult forms, or to write about mythology or metaphysics, most of my students, I think, would have written nothing at all.

Our students didn’t know there was such poetry as that I read to them. Hearing it encouraged them to write and made my praise of their work more intelligible, too. Having read them D. H. Lawrence’s “The White Horse,” I could say how in one poem of theirs the repetition of “quiet,” like Lawrence’s near repetition of “silence” and “silent,” gives a sensation of conclusion and finality, and how coming down on the same word “quiet” makes a very quiet sound—

I always was quiet
And my mother always had to send
   my sisters into the room
To see what made me so quiet.
—Fred Richardson

Our students didn’t know, very consciously at any rate, that repetition, for example, was a part of poetry, or comparisons, or personification, or exaggeration. They didn’t know that details were good to have in a poem, details of color, of weather, of sound. They didn’t know what kind of language could be in a poem, or what kind of form. I taught them what poetry could be, by suggesting subjects and forms, by reading them great poems, and by reading aloud and commenting on their work. It was starting from the beginning in every way, but it didn’t take them long to get a sense of what poetry is. Such a sense seems, and how could it not be, a fairly natural one for people to have. They had it once poetry was no longer something forbidding and remote but something near, familiar, and beautiful—as near as their feelings about a color:

I like green; I used to see so many
   greens on the farm.
I used to wear green and sometimes
   my mother couldn’t find me
Because I was green in the green.
—Mary Tkalek

or as their memories of a quiet time:

The quietest night I remember
Was going out deep-sea fishing
Me and my friend were way out on
   a rowboat fishing
We caught a lot of fish
All the stars were shining
The ocean was quiet
The wind was quiet
And we were quiet
And the fish were biting.
—Leroy Burton

These two poems were written for the second and third classes. Both are good examples of how quickly the students could move from ordinary conversational prose to poetry, with the help of a suggested (and arbitrary) theme and a suggested (repetitive) form, and with an approachable poetic model to emulate. Some of Leroy Burton’s lines are very different from the prose in which he spoke—

…The ocean was quiet
The wind was quiet
And we were quiet
And the fish were biting.

The “poetry ideas,” the suggestions for form and content I gave each time, were important for providing subjects (small, evocative ones), for directing the students’ speech toward the slight arbitrariness of poetry (put a color in every line), and for teaching new things about poetry (comparisons, for example, or personification). They also helped to provide the excitement and surprise that are part of poetic inspiration, and that were lacking in nursing home life. The ideas were usually accompanied by other things. For poems about music, we brought in and played records of Vivaldi and of New Orleans jazz. For other poems we brought in flowers or seashells, seaweed, driftwood, and sand. Whenever possible, I read other poems aloud. For the quietness class, for example, I read not only “The White Horse” but also (along with Williams’s “Nantucket”) a haiku, by the Japanese poet Ryota, about a very silent evening—

No one spoke
The host, the guests,
The white chrysanthemums.

To make the strangeness and the quietness of that perhaps closer to my students, I invented a similar poem about the workshop room

No one spoke,
Kate, Suzanne,
The white chairs.

When I asked them to write to the moon or stars I read Keats’s sonnet “Bright Star, would I were steadfast as thou art!” For poems on Being the Ocean I read passages on the ocean from Whitman (“And you, Sea, I think I know what you want…”) and Byron (“Roll on, thou deep and dark blue ocean, roll!…”).

Poetry, which seemed so distant from the students when we began, became natural to them. At first unfamiliar with it, reluctant to write it, some unwilling to talk at all, they soon found it possible to write about almost anything and found nothing strange in our bringing in seaweed, Christmas lights, or Chinese poems, for example, to give them inspiration. Poetry gave them a new reason for looking at things and for remembering them: to say what they thought and felt.


The workshop was in a large room on the fourth floor of the nursing home. It adjoined the TV room, which caused the minor distractions of noise and people going back and forth. When Kate and I arrived, the students were still arriving (there were about twenty-five of them), most being wheeled in in wheelchairs, some with walkers, only a few able to walk without assistance. In chairs or wheelchairs, they were finally all seated at two long tables perpendicular to the small table I stood at to talk to them. Kate and our assistants sat on the side. I did all the talking at the start. When we took down students’ lines, each of us would go and sit down with one at a time.

The students, whom I was soon to know as individuals, seemed this first time very much alike. They seemed old, sick, tired, uncomfortable. Some seemed to be asleep or almost so. Others stared around distractedly. One or two showed signs of being in pain. Some looked at me in a pleasant and friendly, if slightly puzzled, way. Suzanne had chosen people for the workshop mainly on the basis of their articulateness and sociability. These standards didn’t include a knowledge of poetry or of what was going to happen in the workshop.

What I was going to do, I said, was to have them write poetry. I said how much I liked to write it myself and said also that it need not be the difficult and painful thing that many people think. I had a kind of poetry in mind and a way of writing it that I thought they would like. The nursing home residents were nodding yes, but of course just as puzzled as ever until they had actually begun to do something. As I looked out over the room, I did wonder then, for the last time, if what I was proposing to do was really possible. If we hadn’t started to write, both their doubts and mine could have gone on forever.

In the first class my main purpose was simply to get the students to write (or say) something. Each student would write a sentence. Once I had sentences from all, my plan was to read them back together as one poem. The speed, ease, and surprisingness of this procedure would, I believed, excite and make them want to write more.

I proposed a collaborative poem about childhood memories. What I actually said was I want everyone to think of some small thing he remembers from his childhood. Think of the place you were born. And think of something you remember about that place. Something about the house you had as a child, maybe. The color of the bedroom walls. The kinds of flowers that grew outside. Or the clothes you wore. Or a pet you had. Make it something really small and talk about things like colors and sounds and the way things feel. Use the name of the town or country you were born in. And if it fits use the real names of people or animals or streets. When everyone has written a memory like that, I’ll put them together and we’ll have a poem. Then I’ll read it aloud. Everybody will write one thing. It can be about absolutely anything so long as it’s about the place you were born, and make it something particular, with colors, if possible, and names.

If this sounds repetitive, it’s because it was. I couldn’t be sure that people were catching on to what I said. Some students had difficulty hearing, and most were so unaccustomed to listening in the way what I was saying demanded (they weren’t used to courses or lectures) that that too might have made me hard to understand. I went on to asking them questions. Suzanne had told me they were born in a variety of places. People are usually slightly fascinated by the fact of having been born someplace, and the questions about birthplace got a good response. There were students born in Scotland, Sweden, the Barbados, Austria, and Poland, as well as in different parts of the United States. I asked them to tell me some things they remembered about those places. Responses were sometimes just silence; or “I was born there, that’s all”; “It’s a wonderful country.” Some were more specific: “I remember we had a lot of dogs on the farm.” My questions, to this last, were, “What were their names? What color were they? Which one did you like best?” My questions to the silence or to vague responses were, “What was your house like? What was your favorite thing to do when you were a child?”

I kept asking for smaller and more precise details, just those that most seemed reluctant to give, perhaps because they thought them unimportant and silly. How did they know they wouldn’t be thought foolish if they talked about playing with their dog or what color their babyhood pyjamas were? People usually think best of themselves for making general statements, and those also seem the safest. I gave examples from my own life: the blue bike my father gave me when I was five, on which I rode up and down Mitchell Avenue; the Cincinnati Reds baseball games I went to with my grandfather and my fear of asking the soft drink man to give me something. I said one remembers strange things, or rather it’s strange what one remembers, not always things one thought would be most important. I encouraged them to say the first thing that came to mind.

All this, in a shorter version, we did again when we took down the lines. Person-to-person confirmation of what I’d said made it clearer and more appealing. A few students couldn’t, or wouldn’t, tell us anything, but most did. Much of the collaborative poem was fairly general and prosy, but there were enough remembered, specific things to make it pleasant to hear. That is what we wanted, an attractive text to read back to the students which would make them feel good about writing and want to write more. There were lines likable for their feeling, for their humor, or simply for the information they gave—

I remember the national colors of
   yellow and blue….
The ocean in the Barbados was very
   a big wide sea….
I did so much devilment until I
   didn’t know
   my own self. I went to bed with
   my dog….

I shuffled the pages and read the lines off as a poem. I read the lines with pleasure and admired a lot of things, sometimes stopping to comment on just what I thought was so good about them. People were excited at the unaccustomed pleasure of hearing what they said read aloud, and excited at hearing it admired by me and by other students. For the students were quite responsive to the poem, commenting on the beauty of something said or on its truth to their experience, as Mary L. Jackson did to William Ross’s memories of his first pair of long pants.

…They couldn’t tell me anything
   when I had that pair of pants…

Oh I know, I know, Mary L. Jackson said, smiling and looking around to see who might have written that (I didn’t give the names this time of writers of particular lines).

My comments on what they wrote were, as always, positive. I looked, in the fundamentally prosy work they gave me, for whatever had any quality that I liked in poetry and that would be good for them to be aware of and think of using later. This included sensuous detail, humor, talking about strong feelings, some energetic, personal way of saying something. There was humor in the line about going to bed with the dog, in the story of the long pants, and in that of Minnie the Cat—

Once we had measles, the cat
   thought we needed extra nour-
   ishment and brought us more…

Humor is good to point out and praise. Like many kinds of poetic statement, it is a spirited form of language. What is said and how it is said makes one laugh, causes a physical reaction as metaphor does, and is a departure from ordinary fact-recounting prose. There was little about sense impressions in this poem. I admired anything that suggested them, such as the naming of Sweden’s national colors: yellow and blue; saying of the ocean in the Barbados that it was “a big wide sea.” I admired the truth and the dreaminess of these recollections of a street—

…I always wondered about the
   name of the street, Amber Street.
   I always thought there must be
   something to the name, Amber…

I said that I had wondered about things like that, too, and said when I had lived in France, in Paris, on the rue du Cherche Midi, I had always wondered about that name but never found out where it came from. It could mean the street of Searching for the South, or the street of Searching for Noon. Nice names for a street, and quite mysterious.

One student wrote about her sadness over a cat that died—

…When someone killed it, I cried
   like a baby. My mother said,
   “What? Are you crying like that
   over a cat?” But dumb beasts like
   that, you get to love them…

I admired this little story of sadness and incomprehension, and said so. I liked the student’s talking about something strong and emotional that might seem silly to others.

Mostly the collaborative poem had the sound of prose. I stopped to admire anything in it that had a suggestion of music—such as this about the sea:

I used to go in every blessèd day as
   a girl…


I thought I was a big deal in that
   long pair of pants
I thought I was as big as my father
   in those pants—

I said how good those things sounded.

What I was doing, this first time, was finding, and praising, whatever poetic elements there were in the prose text, so as to give its authors confidence and courage to do more, and better. There was nothing false about it. I did in fact admire the qualities in the poem that I praised. In the work of more sophisticated poets I would pass over most of those things, because others would preempt my attention. But at the beginning, when someone is learning to dance, say, one admires what grace and balance and control there are, and they are really admirable. The professional dancer makes a beautiful work of them, as a painter may make a beautiful painting out of red, green, yellow, and white. But those colors are bright, beautiful, and even moving in themselves. And so were these materials of poetry in my students’ first text. I praised them to show that they were there and to give those who’d written them ideas for using them again.

I gave them a chance to use them again immediately, for, since there were fifteen or twenty minutes left, and since the class was in an excited mood, I proposed they do another collaboration right away. This time the theme I suggested was beauty. Think of the most beautiful thing you have ever seen, absolutely the most beautiful. When were you really moved and excited by how beautiful something was? It can be a landscape, a mountain, the ocean, anything you saw in nature. Or a person. Who was the most beautiful person you ever saw?

It could be a dress, a painting, a building, anything, you might try closing your eyes and thinking hard about it, the most beautiful thing you ever saw. As before, I gave examples, asked for some responses from them. I was a little more hurried, though. There wasn’t much time, and the main thing I wanted was for them to write again, there in that same class, in that same mood of excitement about experiences and words. This second poem did in fact turn out to be more sensuous, more detailed, and more surprising than the first. The subject, beauty, which is probably more stirring than any childhood memory, had something to do with it, but there was also the mood and what they had just learned from what they’d written and what I had said. Again I urged them to be particular and to think of how things really looked. I mentioned, among other examples, the white angora sweater of a girl I took out in high school. I thought it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.

As with the first poem, we explained the idea again, when needed, to individual students. Not so many needed it this time. Reading the poem aloud I again praised things precisely seen and felt—

Redwood trees I saw in
   California—their tallness and
   their huge trunks…

…beautiful girls with bikinis on,
   on Jones beach…

and the humor, which this time seemed more thoughtful and surprising,

The most beautiful thing I ever saw
   was my first dollar bill—so I
   could buy candy for my child-
   hood sweetheart

as well, this time, as the judgment reflected in the choices they made—

The locks at Sault Ste. Marie,
   making air where the ships go

In this class, one could see in little what happened throughout the workshop: suggestions leading to works, works to admiration, excitement, and thought, and those to new suggestions and new works.

For each of these collaborative poems I had the students choose a title. Poems almost always do have titles and having one made theirs more the real thing. I never regarded anything they did as “practice,” to be followed by, “And soon we’ll be ready to write a poem.” I preferred having them write one at once and give it the kind of attention a poem gets. I didn’t treat anything in the class as merely preparation for something more authentic to come. Students thrive most on achievement. Choosing a title not only made the class collaborations more like other poems but also gave the students a chance to think about the whole poem, with all its diverse contributions, at once, and have more of a sense of what it was like.

I proposed they make suggestions for a title and then vote on the one they liked best. This caused pleasant reflection this first time, if not too many suggestions. The winning title was rather tame, but everyone seemed pleased with it: “American Nursing Home Poem.” It was natural enough to call it that when it was the only one. For the second collaboration, the title was “Beautiful.”

It was a good first class. The students had been willing to write. They had been excited at hearing what they wrote. And they had been willing to write a second poem. In one hour, in difficult circumstances, they had done something new and even progressed at it, for the second poem was more beautiful than the first.

Class collaborations are a good beginning. They take pressure off individuals and encourage brief and spontaneous contributions. Collaborating also creates a slightly festive atmosphere, being in some respects like a party game—everyone contributing his sentences, then hearing the surprising results. Very little is expected of anyone, and one can laugh at the results or feel unexpected admiration. In the writing of individual poems, which the students began to do next, we were able to keep much of this feeling of excitement and ease. Though people wrote more lines, again everyone wrote on the same subject, and everyone heard the results a little later, read aloud, together—not as one poem this time, but still read all at once, and with admiration.


The poetry idea in the second class, for their first individual poems, was Color. Think of your favorite color or a color you like a lot, and write about what it makes you think of. Put the name of the color, if you like, in every line or so. Colors had been one thing I liked in the first collaborations and I wanted to encourage their use. The next poetry idea was Quiet Things and Quiet Times. Instead of sense associations this time the students concentrated on moods. Next was a Lie Poem, to show the possibilities in departing from ordinary prose reality, of bringing in the purely imaginary. It was for the next class we brought in the flowers. For the first time, poems could be about present perceptions as well as about the past. Next were poems written while listening to music. Childhood memories, beautiful things, colors, and quiet times were, in our class, good ideas to start with. But there was nothing inevitable about them or about their order. More important was that the idea be different every time and give the students, as much as possible, something to do in poetry they hadn’t yet done.

The class on writing poetry to music was so good that I gave another one, but two were enough. It was good to go on from “hearing” feelings in music to touching things (lace, velvet, lemons, ribbon, Christmas ornaments, seashells) and “feeling” memories and feelings in them—

It makes me think of a tent
Out in the open where children
—Peggy Marriott

And to go from there to having them touch, smell, and look at a collection of seashells, seaweed, sand, and stones and write a poem imagining they had all these things beneath them, beside or inside them, that they were the sea—a new way of dealing with feelings and perceptions: personification, being someone or something else—

…Everyone is afraid of my temper
But I soon cool off
And everyone is happy again
My company is all happy again
All the fish are glad, especially the
   small ones
Because they are the most helpless
   during the storms
—Rose MacMillan

And, later, after writing poetry had become a meaningful part of their experience, to have them write about that, which was the first time they wrote about their associations with something they themselves were doing—

I like the idea of poetry
It gives me a chance to explain my
   life and my childhood days
Because ever since I was five or six
   years old I was a very busy
—Leroy Burton
Poetry is like being in Inner Space…
—William Ross

If I repeated an idea in one way I tried to make it different in another. We used flowers again in that class, but this time we asked the students to write collaborative poems while they looked at them and then to take the parts of different flowers in a poetic play.

Some things about the poetry ideas remained the same. They were always about feelings, impressions, and associations. They always asked for personal responses. They invited thinking of and remembering small things, particular details, especially those connected with feeling and sensation. They approached strong emotions in indirect ways, asking, for example, not for poems about childhood longings or about feelings for nature, but for a poem of talking to the moon or the stars. In the course of writing such a poem these feelings, hard to get to directly, might come on by surprise—

Oh moon and stars
I loved to watch you
When I was a child
I would watch you through my
   little window
And wonder and worry
What would happen if you got hurt
And next time I’d say
“Oh, you’re still living!”…
—Mary Tkalek

Asking directly for writing about love, life, time, childhood, and so on tends to make people’s minds go blank as they search for conventional and general statements which will be the “right answer.” One needn’t be afraid such feelings won’t come up, since so many memories and details of life are connected to them. Our students wrote about love, for example, when the poetry ideas were talking to the moon, poetry comparisons, touch, writing while listening to music, and I never told anybody—

I write poems about going to school
And about home and about the old
About love and being together with
I don’t know whether he likes me
   or not….
—Laura Bradshaw
I never told anybody that I drove
   away in a buggy….
—Mary L. Jackson
…This powder puff makes me
   think of your hair….
—Sam Rainey

The one time I did ask directly for feelings about a “big and important subject”—a poem on feelings about growing older—students for the most part got stuck in conventional feelings and generalizations. Even in its small details I wanted the poetry idea not to be phrased in such a way as to invite inhibition and, with it, conventionality. A poem about quiet things and quiet times was a better suggestion than a poem about “peaceful times.” The word “peaceful,” I think, suggests attitudes, whereas “quiet” suggests feelings.

Another constant feature of the poetry ideas was proposing a certain form—always some kind of repetition or listing. This seemed an organizing principle for poems which was not too far from my students’ natural speech, which would not be too difficult for them to learn, and which would give what they wrote some of the disconnectedness and surprising juxtapositions of poetry, as well as providing it with a structure. I sometimes asked them to repeat a word (Put the name of the color in every line or so) or a phrase (Start every line or so with the words “I never told anybody”—or “I, the Ocean”). Sometimes I asked for repetition, or listing, of a certain kind of content (in every line or so put a different thing the music reminds you of) or of a rhetorical device (put in every line or two a different comparison). The formal element made their poems clearly different from what they usually said, thus making poetry something distinct. It organized memories and feelings in a way which, by putting them in a new order, showed new things about them, and which could cause the writer, coming on them this way by surprise, to be moved by them and to communicate that emotion in what was said—

All I know is the white sheep
And that I used to watch the collie
Taking the sheep home.
I remember my Communion in my
   white veil,
And my Confirmation, and my
—Rose MacMillian

The repetitive form also helped students get a sense of writing in lines. In addition to the natural syntactic pause, the presence of some repeated element could determine the unity of a line—

I can remember a dress trimmed in
And silver slippers…
—Helen Lesser

With repetition and listing the students could get more of poetry’s content and form without losing anything good that was naturally theirs, in language or in what they had to say. They could help in the transition, say, from the loose conversational charm of this recollection,

Our cat’s name was Minnie. She
   used to catch birds and little rab-
   bits. Our grandmother used to
   clean them and make them into
—Mary L.Jackson, first class poem

to the more musical and formal charm of this one,

I once had a secret love but I never
   told anybody
I once ran away but I never told
Once when I was walking down the
I saw a man running with a gun in
   his hand
But I never told anybody…
—Mary L. Jackson, eighteenth poem

Rhyme is another formal element one might consider, but it would not have helped our students make this kind of transition. Unfortunately, for inexperienced writers, rhyme tends to destroy or at best to dull the qualities one hopes that form will help to create. When our students used it, their work was quite inferior to what they otherwise wrote—like this first stanza of “Memories” by William Ross—

Memories are made of things
That happen every day
The moments as we live them
Things we do or say…

which may be compared to a characteristic product of William’s talent, written two months earlier—

Roses are the stand-out flower
   among flowers.
They’re just like a beautiful
Can’t help being noticed,
Especially American Beauties.

Rhyme and meter aren’t unteachable or never to be taught, but in the short time we were at the nursing home they were not something students were able to have without losing too much of what they had gained. Had I stayed, I would have encouraged William to try ways of using rhyme without his poetry’s losing the good qualities it already had. But as an alchemy to change prose to poetry, repetition was, for my students, much, much better.

A certain daring in the poetry ideas always turned out to be good. Nothing I did was any bolder than what I had done at the start, in asking them to write poetry. Some of my most successful ideas I was hesitant about: listening to music, being the ocean, talking to the moon. The music seemed too loud and gay for the nursing home. Being the ocean seemed a little outrageous—to ask these people to identify themselves with the powerful sea. Talking to the moon or stars, and using Keats’s sonnet to inspire it, seemed inappropriately youthful and romantic.

There are several reasons for the kind of doubts I had. One is a hush-hush feeling about old people, the feeling that what they really want and-need is quiet and peace; the other is that these subjects, all having to do with power, energy, and passion, will cause them pain and make them feel empty, because they feel unconnected to them, being themselves weak and infirm. Both ideas are wrong. Strong feelings do not vanish. Passion and energy are what life is all about, and most of the time people can identify with them easily, as I can with Hamlet on the stage or with Superman, or with an aria in The Magic Flute. What a teacher should do is not protect his students from experiencing strong feelings but look for ways to help them to express such feelings.

Physical disability didn’t keep my students from responding enthusiastically to music—in this case, New Orleans jazz—

This makes my ribs move
I had an accident a couple days ago
I couldn’t move
But my ribs are beginning to move
The doctor almost gave me up
Till I heard that music
Then I started to move
—Mary Tkalek

nor did their inactive, indoor, physically restricted life interfere with their ability to identify themselves with the ocean, in its peaceful aspects as well as in its wildest and most destructive—

…When I’m angry
All hell breaks loose
Again I can be so beautiful
When I’m calm…
—William Ross
…I can rock boats and wreck
Pounding and breaking…
—Mary Tkalek

My students found it easy to talk to the moon and stars as well as to be influenced by Keats’s sonnet, for all its purely youthful passion and its unfamiliar language and references—

Bright Star, would I were steadfast
   as thou art!
   Not in lone splendor hung aloft
   the night
And watching, with eternal lids
   Like Nature’s patient, sleepless

Here, it was just a question of my reading Keats’s poem slowly twice, explaining words and ideas, and saying what I liked. This lesson produced, among other good things, this poem by William Ross—


Beloved, I have to adore the earth:
The wind must have had your voice
It echoes and sings like you.
The soil must have tasted you once.
It is laden with your scent.
The trees honor you in gold and
   blush when you pass.
I know why the North Country is
It has been trying to preserve your
I know why the desert burns with
It wept too long without you.
On hands and knees the ocean begs
   up the beach
And falls at your feet.
I have to adore the mirror of the
You have taught her well how to be


Dictation, necessary because of physical disabilities, such as muscular and visual difficulties, was helpful to students whose limited education would have caused them worries about the correctness of their writing—spelling, grammar, and so on. Speaking their poems made it much easier, especially at the start, but I think, too, throughout the workshop. My students in general felt more relaxed about talking than about writing, had command of more words and had more chance to say things musically, humorously, colorfully, and movingly. Dictating the poems also created a time for individual teaching, in which a great deal of the work of the course took place.

Working alone with them, we did more than take down poems: we encouraged students to begin, and, once begun, to stay on the subject, to think again of what they had written, to write more. We clarified the poetry idea, went on talking about it, gave examples, the purpose being always the same: to make poetry writing easy and to teach by means of experience and inspiration. We helped students have confidence in themselves and in their ability to make up poems. We helped them to a feeling for the beauty of what they were saying. We read their lines back to them, saying, “This is what you have so far. It’s good. I especially like such and such. What do you want to add now?” Only three or four students, I think, could have written at first without these small conferences. And without them even they would probably not have progressed so quickly.

At the beginning of the workshop our students were in different stages of readiness for writing poetry. Some seemed ready to write and learn almost at once. Other students were willing to talk to us and to have us transcribe it but remained unsure for some time of the distinction between regular talk and composing a poem. They might chat in a rambling sort of way about some subject, or tell us a story, or give us information. With these students it was important to stay with the poetry idea and always bring them back to it—by reading back whatever on the subject they had already written, by questions and suggestions (what about clothes? the color of a car? what is another thing about blue that you remember?). The students were good-natured about doing this odd thing—making associations with the color blue, for instance—which demanded an unfamiliar kind of reflection.

For some students it was hard to begin to tell us things and let us take them down. They said, I don’t remember anything, or I can’t think. We would say, of course you can think. And remember. Listen, tell me, where were you born? Everyone remembered that. We went on to other questions. What kind of house? Did you have a dog? What was its name? What color was it? We gave instances of our own. I had a dog named Henry, whom I walked with in the woods. I lived in a house with a huge basement where I had my chemistry set. Almost always struck by some example or question, the student would tell us something, and we could ask if he wanted to begin the poem with something about that, and, if so, how he wanted to say it. When he told us a line, we would read it back to him and say, “All right, that’s the first line. What do you want to say next?”

It was a happy time, for us and for the students, when someone overcame serious hesitations and began to like writing, as Nadya Catalfano did, in the sixth class, the one on writing while listening to music. At first refusing to say anything, Nadya did finally, at Kate’s urging, tell her something—

The only thing I can think of is my
   grandmother’s going to give me a
   whipping if I do this or that—

Kate said, that’s fine. Shall we begin the poem with that? Nadya’s line was good in the way it went back into the past dramatically, as if what happened then were happening now. And her being transported that way promised good things to come if she would go on talking about that memory the music inspired. To Kate’s question, Nadya at first said, no, she didn’t want that written down. She said it was not poetry, was “not anything.” Kate encouraged her to tell her more, which, in spite of her doubts, Nadya did. Then she was very unsure about the value of what she had said.

The only thing I can remember is
   my grandmother’s going to give
   me a whipping if I do this or that.
There was a log house and steps.
I was an only child
And my mother was away

Kate said, that’s beautiful, that short line about the log house after the long first one. It really makes me see it, as if it had just suddenly gotten clear. What you wrote is very pretty. It’s good poetry. Nadya said, Oh, really? I thought it was childish. She meant that it wasn’t serious because it was just what she remembered about being a silly little child. Kate assured her that such “childish” things were important in poetry. She read it back to her again. Nadya liked it. Even more, it seemed, when I read it aloud, and other people responded to it as well. After that, Nadya really liked writing poetry, and often talked to Kate about what it was like to be a poet. What happened was that Nadya found out that what she considered a silly weakness in herself, or at least a secret pleasure no one else would care about, her thinking all the time about “little things,” was something she could do something with in poetry. She wrote later—

There’s a lot of little things that I
   think about.
I think about them to write them
Flowers I like to see them grow
I like to see them blossom
I go and pick them up and put
   them in books
And save them.
I love to smell them
I think I hear them
It seems to me they answer me

Once she had begun, Nadya wrote some fine, bold poems, such as this one, which she entitled “The Call,” written in the class on Touch, which was just after the music class, about the feel of a thin gold necklace—

Something soft and gentle
Glides through your fingers
And it seems to grab your hand
   and lead you
On to something greater
If only you had the sense to follow

Sometimes a setback of some kind, a feeling of weakness, illness, or depression, would make it hard for a student to write. We thought that if he had come to the workshop that day, it was probably because he would like to be able to write. We would talk to him about how he felt, and, usually, after talking for a while, the student would write something and be glad to have done it. Sometimes, especially in the early classes, a student would grow discouraged, or bothered by the effort of making up a poem, and tell us, “You say it—you can say it better than I.” We said, “You are the only one who can. It’s your poem.”

Having strong feelings unexpectedly, as often happens in writing poetry, sometimes someone would feel overwhelmed and start to cry. That seemed natural enough—it’s not unusual to cry when one is writing. We would wait, and talk about what caused the sadness, and, always, after talking about it, the student would want to go on with the poem, and would be glad on hearing it read aloud. Tears were something on the way to the poem and not anything that made the writer unhappy about it afterward. Most of the students, most of the time, were in good form for the class. When they were not, it was usually not hard to help them to be, especially once they had come to enjoy writing.

Especially at first, the dictation part could be very slow. Later, often, when the students knew more, and when the poetry idea stirred them, they wrote quickly and sometimes made up two or more poems in a class. I remember Nadya, the week after her conversion to poetry with Kate, writing two of them, one with Kate and one with me. In the music class, impressed by the students’ enthusiasm, I asked everyone to write two poems. It was always a good idea, when there was time, and someone had written a poem, to ask him if he wanted to do another. Sometimes writing one made a student excited and gave him ideas for the next. Sometimes writing more than one gave him a chance to revise or in some way change his original conception.

Working with students in later classes we could sometimes concentrate on some special problem, or opportunity, that we’d seen in their writing. Margaret Whittaker, for example, I thought witty and talented, but her poetry had not so far escaped from being rather prosy and dry. In the I Never Told Anybody class I proposed she rewrite the poem she had already done and this time write it as if it were happening right now—she did that, and in doing it wrote a good, dramatic poem—saying, for example, instead of “I wanted people to ask me to dance” (first version),

I’m sitting here and wondering
How many are going to ask me to
   dance tonight…
(second version)

It was good to have people to assist me in talking to students and taking down their poems. Not only because of how it helped with time (transcribing twenty-five poems could have taken more than an hour, maybe two hours, and what would those who weren’t dictating be doing all that time?), but also because the students talked to Kate and the social worker (Suzanne or Barbara) in a way they might not have talked to me, and wrote things they might not have otherwise written. With Suzanne and Barbara, whom they knew, the students sometimes talked more freely about themselves. And Kate has a special talent for giving confidence and for helping people talk about their feelings.

At the beginning students tended to write somewhat differently for different transcribers—much less so later on. I could have carried on the workshop as we did with only one person to help me. Alone in a class of that size, I would have used many more class collaborations of the kind I used in the Roses class (the last one I taught), in which everyone is looking at or thinking about the same thing and everyone hears what everyone else has to say. That way, interest and excitement are kept up. There would be time, too, for individual poems, for it often happens that students, stirred by a collaborative poem, have a poem of their own come to mind that they can dictate quickly.

In many groups, of course, all or most of the students will be able to write. Or if some are and others are not able to, those who are can transcribe poems for the others.


Reading the poems aloud was important for the students’ pleasure and continuing interest in poetry as well as for their learning more about it. It was best when it came just after the poems were written. I read them all, liking and commenting on things. One doesn’t have to be an expert in poetry to make such comments but just to be able to show that one likes something that is funny or beautiful or well said, that makes one remember something or want to laugh or cry. I responded sometimes to details, sometimes to a whole poem.

Some examples from the classes on writing to music will give a general idea of my comments. Other people might admire other things. It is important to show the admiration. The music suggested this brief poem to Carmela Pagliucca—

The ocean—
The waves and the beach—
It reminds me of my childhood

I found the poem touching and said so. I liked the idea of the music sounding like the ocean. I liked the way the lines got longer, as if stronger, the way a wave does when it comes to the shore. It’s sad. It has a nice feeling of sadness. I said that. Another poem (by William Ross) began like this:

This music reminds me of a
   multitude of colors—

I loved the word “multitude.” It was an abstract word that made you see something, and seemed to go very well with the sound of “colors.” The image that followed this first line was beautiful and rich. It made one see the colors and also something new—

Like petals from flowers floating
   through the air—

after this was another comparison—

Also like a ballet group dancing on
   the stage….

I said how much I liked going from one comparison to another—the music like colors, like flower petals, like dancers. It made them all seem like the same thing in some magical way. The dancers had the lightness and grace of flower petals. The colors were moving like dancers. When I liked something as much as these three lines, after talking about them a little, I’d read them again, saying, listen to this.

Mary L. Jackson was reminded, among other things, of being

…At a dinner—something large—
   dancing and eating pheasant
Or riding through Central Park on
   a warm day.

I really liked the details and the very real and particular things the music made her think of. I liked the way the lines seemed to be trying to make something, like a dream or a vision, become clearer—

At a dinner—something large—

I said that was a good way to describe something, as if one were just seeing it and didn’t necessarily already know all about it—that’s the way things really happen. I said her poem reminded me of Whitman, the kind of thing he talks about in his long lists of what is going on in America all at the same time—

The married and the unmarried
   children ride home to the
   Thanksgiving dinner—

I liked the detail “on a warm day”—it made the ride in the park seem real. It’s so nice to hear about the weather. It’s good to put something about it in poems.

I much admired the humor of Mary Tkalek’s lines about the music’s having on her a curative effect—

This makes my ribs move…
The doctor almost gave me up
Until I heard that music….

When Sam Rainey wrote

The music reminds me of a

I said, That’s terrific. What a beautiful thing for music to remind one of—a mountain. There was also the beautiful image that came later on—

…And it sounds like the wind
Against the house
And the heavy rain blowing on the
And now and again with the

I especially liked how much the added details about the rain and the lightning made the scene and the comparison seem much more real, much more so than if he had merely written

And it sounds like the wind
Against the house….

My comments never took much time. I said what I liked and why, sometimes reread a line or two, then moved on to the next poem. Even if many students didn’t understand all my comments, they understood some, and heard me praising their poems, and perhaps most important they heard me saying and repeating the lines I praised. Students heard their poems, composed sometimes with difficulty such a short time before, read aloud and admired. That consolidated, validated in a way, like some sort of instant publication, what they had accomplished.


Our students did accomplish things. I am not sure that helped them to adjust to life in the nursing home. Rather, I think, it slightly changed the conditions of that life, which was better. I don’t think I would like to adjust to a life without imagination or accomplishment, and I don’t believe my students wanted to either. In that sense, perhaps, it can best be understood why it is better to teach poetry writing as an art than to teach it, well not really teach it but use it, as some form of distracting or consoling therapy. As therapy it may help someone to be a busy old person, but as art and accomplishment it can help him to be fully alive.

What this means in teaching is, first, believing that students such as ours are capable of writing poetry, and of continuing to do it and of getting better at it. It means, too, having the confidence that one can do the teaching. Such teaching is, if one is patient and can be free of some wrong ideas about old people, not terribly difficult. Our students liked poetry so much, and some were writing it fairly well after two or three classes. In the conduct of the course, it means always paying attention to the text, and especially to the aesthetic qualities of the text, rather than to the person who wrote it. That is, saying, “This line is beautiful. I like the way it repeats the word ‘green,’ ” rather than, “How wonderful that you could write that.”

For example, in our class, Mary L. Jackson didn’t go from “I had a cat whose name was Minnie” to the lovely music and imagination of her later poems because I thought her Minnie line a “good sign” or because it made me proud, but because I talked to her, in regard to that and other lines, about the music in it, the language, the humor. We were never contemplating Mary L. Jackson, she and I, but the things she said and wrote.

Teaching poetry as an art meant giving her, always, opportunities to make what she said and wrote better—more inclusive, more intense, more musical. Even when there were apparent setbacks, I kept that artistic, and accomplishing, aim in mind.

One trouble with a therapeutic attitude is the tendency to be satisfied with too little. I could have been “happy with” and “proud of” my students after the first class—even in that first hour, they were better at writing poems than they had ever been. How good it was to keep helping them genuinely to be better at it every time! And how much better than anything I said I felt was their being happy and proud because they wrote well.

Accomplishment was good for our students, as it is for everyone. Poetry must have made a difference to them, too, because the thoughts, memories, and feelings poetry is about are just the things some of them feared they had lost touch with or lost the power to use and to communicate to others. Poetry not only makes people more aware of their feelings and memories but emphasizes their importance. And in poetry, one talks about feelings in something other than the usual way. Quiet, or ramblingly conversational before, someone who comes to like writing may suddenly feel he has a lot to say, and be eager to say it—

I’d like to write the book of my life
I’ve started it already….
—Mary L. Jackson

In poetry one can talk about feelings without thinking about the listener’s reaction, without worrying too much about looking good, without making anyone else feel bad (guilty, worried about one), and without the expectation of someone’s feeling an obligation to cheer one up. One’s feelings, which are such strong things, can, even when they are unhappy feelings, go into making something beautiful, which no one would be distressed to hear—

My husband I loved
He was a good man
He died
He was tall, strong, and a
   handsome man
He worked hard with his hands
He was sturdy like a tree
—Selena Griffith


For the students to accomplish things in an art, the art form has to be within their physical abilities. Since we used dictation, writing was so for our students. As a form of writing, poetry had certain advantages which helped us teach. One thing about poetry which seems modest enough but is very important in this kind of teaching is that poems can be quite short. They can be composed in an hour, with time, too, for inspiration, reading aloud, and comments—in other words, for the whole cycle of proposal, writing, and response. So each hour is a separate and new experience and has the excitement that goes with being so, while at the same time the hours are really connected and what one learns is continuous. Students can write a great many works, and works of different kinds, and so get a variety of writing experiences and have many chances for success. One can consider a poem all at once and be aware both of what it says and how it says it—

When I was a little boy and got
It was quiet afterwards.
—George Johnson

It is easy, when there is one small subject like this, to talk about it, give examples of things like it, to cite one’s own experience, to sympathize, and to admire its accuracy. Easy, too, to speak usefully about it as a work, to say, for one thing, that I liked its shortness, because it made it seem very solemn and final and silent. The poem says it was quiet afterwards, and it really is. There are no more words. And that I thought the silent effect was increased by the first line being longer and having a quick rhythm, while the second is simple and short.

From the point of view of the student while he is writing, a short work is less demanding. And the fact that poetry is supposed to be emotional and quick means one can skip such burden-some matters as explanation and setting the scene; one can get to essentials immediately, spontaneously, almost without thought; one can say the best part and then stop. In poetry, one writes about present feelings, and about the past, without needing to adhere to chronology. One can write of past feelings as they are alive in one now—

Spring, when are you showing up?
I like to plant flowers and
Summer, when are you coming
I like to get out and travel to
—Harry Siegel
The music makes me see soft blues,
   like the water.
I see small hills that lead down to
   the water…
—Margaret Whittaker
Loving a lady could be like a rose
That has soft petals
—Eric Carlsen

And, with its slight formality and its disconnectedness, its putting things together in unfamiliar ways (three of the quietest times in my life, comparing someone to many other things), poetry gives a person a chance to be, surely, himself, but different from the usual conception of himself (which, for some, may be one who is old or ill or “finished”) and to say things he would not ordinarily be able to say—

She is like moonshine
She is like the morning star
She is everything to me
Her eyes are like velvet
Her hair is just like golden grain
Her skin is smooth like silk
Her legs are just like the walk of
I love her so much
—Sam Rainey

The poetry ideas, which helped so much to make learning poetry possible, didn’t seem to limit our students’ imaginations. And, when people are ready to write poems without them, they do, as William Ross now does—


Ice had many sons. “Find me my
   food!” he shouted.
They searched in the air and under
   the blue teal water and rock
For crab, widgeon, salmon, oyster.
“More! more!” Ice shouted. “My
   sons must feed me!”
Some climbed after eel and fell,
   some sailed after gray whale
   and drowned.
Some offered buzz and minnow,
   goot and sea slug.
But Slump stood in the ocean,
   catching nothing.
“Foolish Slump!” Ice shouted.
   “What are you standing on?
What are you holding in your shut
Feed me, feed me!” But Slump
   said, “Father?
What am I on? What am I
If you tell me, they will be yours
Ice shouted, “You are standing
   over Flounder!
You have stolen the last sweet eggs
   of kill for your selfish dinner!
The tide is rising! Who brings me
Then Ice pulled his other sons to
   north, and the water rose
And the water ebbed away, and on
   the barren shore
Slump stood alone on his feet
Holding his life in his hands.


Writing poetry made our students happier, at least so it seemed to us and so it seemed to the social workers. One would expect it to. The way they were writing, how we and they regarded it, and the value of what they did made quite a contrast with other activities I had seen or known of in that and other nursing homes. It saddened me, but the contrast also impressed me and gave me the hope that others could see from what we had done what was possible, and desirable, to do in other places.

Soon after the workshop began our students’ attitudes toward poetry began to change from hesitancy about it to feeling familiar with it and liking it. A change we could feel was that now we were in a room full of people with a lively interest in something they were doing, which we hadn’t had a sense of before. Students changed in how they talked and wrote. Mary L. Jackson, interested and chatty from the start, talked at first largely about her dreams. I don’t know if that is because she thought dreams especially appropriate to poetry or not, but later in any case she began to talk about a variety of things, and to talk well, and to have a strong sense of writing poetry and of being a poet; she said it made her “young again.” One thing it gave her, as it gave to all, was a way to talk about life in a way that showed its beauty and its sadness and its humor and, finally, because of all that, its value—

…So it was rough
And sometimes it was sweet


But I have lived to be ninety-three
And that’s wonderful…

I think about Mary L. Jackson, how, when the workshop began, her talking about her experiences and her dreams had a kind of random and rambling quality, as if she were used to talking a lot, saying what came into her head, and nobody necessarily paying too much attention. Later, when she caught on to poetry, she would raise one hand and say, “No I don’t like that line, I don’t want it in the poem. I want to say this.” It was quite another sense of the quality and of the import of what she was saying, and seemed connected, obviously, to how she was thinking about herself.

William Ross seemed to get a lot of confidence out of the workshop. As well he might have. His was the most dramatic poetic “career” of our sixteen weeks there. Almost every class would reveal some new point he’d reached, some new aspect of his talent. He read books of poetry, wrote and worked on his own poems when we weren’t there, and spoke of himself as a poet. These seem modest enough signs, but William Ross had written nothing before and poetry was new to him. One of the first signs of his natural gift for it was, the first day of writing about flowers, his suddenly being inspired to do a second poem after the first one had been collected. That was his “American Beauties” poem. He often wrote more than one poem per class after that (as did sometimes Nadya and Mary L. Jackson, among others). William’s “I, the Ocean” poem was not only musical, intelligent, witty, and dramatic, but also sustained these qualities over its considerable (and unheard of for the course until then) length of forty-nine lines, beginning

I the Ocean
So huge
So powerful
So rich

and moving through considerations of Neptune, mermaids, the sea’s cruelty, its calm and beauty, all the things inside the sea, its anger at what humans do to it, and other feelings, concluding—

I hear their laughter
And I hear their crying
And hustle and bustle of the cities
As I go floating by
I’m nice and cool
But the people they suffer from
And I feel sorry for them
Old cool me.

William originally ended the poem at line twenty-seven, before the part about his (Ocean’s) anger at man, then, thinking of that part, called me back immediately to dictate to me the rest of the poem. He had, it was clear, what in French is called le souffle, “the breath of inspiration.” He read part of that poem aloud, I read the rest after he’d gotten tired, and it was enthusiastically received, with applause. Afterward there was his “Love Song,” with its complicated conceits and rich, literary language, and his poem about writing poetry, with its image of “Inner Space,” and the fine works he wrote on his own, such as “Slump Stood in the Water.”

Suzanne, the first social worker, felt from the start that the workshop was doing its participants good. So did Barbara, who spoke to me and wrote to me in some detail about the good effects she observed. We could see this for ourselves, but it was good to have it confirmed. What we noticed in the poems and in the class was apparently going on outside the class as well—increased clarity, concentration, and confidence. The students spoke more clearly and had more to say to us, to the social workers, and to each other. Eagerness to talk about what they thought and felt had replaced reticence, vagueness, and, for some, even silence.

The students’ poetry, the center of our attention and the source of all the good things that happened, was sometimes very good. I was often surprised by it. I thought the poems would be about the past, be full of nostalgia and regrets. I perhaps even had an idea there’d be a certain spacious quality and detachment. But I was unprepared for the devastating directness of some of my students’ poems, for the sensuousness, for the imaginative and specifically literary power. I was surprised, and moved, at discovering feelings and perceptions in strange perspectives, in lives and situations where I wasn’t in the habit of thinking they were.

One of the best things about their work, I thought even from very early lessons on, was its characteristically unaffected, direct, simple tone—as in these lines about a seashell—

It’s heavy
My whole life is heavy.

or these about a childhood recollection of the moon

…I put out the candle
But we still had you
Shining in
So bright
—Mary L. Jackson

or these about the end of World War II

I was crying and laughing and
And throwing things through the
Throwing things from happiness
To make a noise!…
—Mary Tkalek

Sometimes, combined with certain subject matter and with a certain kind of form, this quiet directness was very strong—

The quietest time I ever remember
   in my life
Was when they took off my leg

Another quiet time is when you’re
   with someone you like
And you’re making love.

And when I hit the number and
   won $800
That was quiet, very quiet.
—Sam Rainey

That was one fine quality of our students’ poetry. Also, as they went on writing, their work became more musical, used more details and was less vague, was more sensuous, more excited, and more dramatic. A good example of what they had learned through writing poems is the change from Leroy Burton’s pleasant line in the second class collaborative poem (about beauty)—

The most beautiful thing I ever saw
   were beautiful girls with bikinis
   on, on Jones Beach—

to what he wrote when he took up this subject later, in the last class, in a poem about roses—

When they are blooming, they are
   like ladies in bikinis
Lined up on the sea shore in the
All in different colors
And a rainbow cloud facing

These later lines lack nothing of the modesty and directness of what he wrote before. There is, now, just much more there.

It is probably not so surprising that their work was as it was. They were people from milieus where almost no one wrote poetry, and they had never in their whole lives thought of themselves as poets. They had fifty or more years behind them of not being poets, a rare thing for a poet to have. They had unusual (for poets) lives and were looking at them now in an unusual way (poetically) at an unusual time. It was natural that their experiences would differ, and that the ways they brought them together would differ, from the usual material of poetry. I did think, sometimes, too, what a marvelous thing it was for someone, for instance, to be writing poetry, and loving it, who had kept, through decades of hard domestic work, a fine and delicate sensibility that she could now express with eloquence in words.

It seems obvious that many more people like those I taught, as well as those less ill than they, are capable of writing good poems and liking it. Their ability to do so is in most cases restricted by their not knowing about poetry or by their knowing about it in the wrong way, thinking of it as something obligatorily rhyming and abstract and grandiose and far from anything that they could do well. A teacher, of course, can show them what poetry is and show them how close to it they already are.

The problems of this kind of teaching are easily resolved, and the rewards, I found, are enormous. It is not really so astonishing that it all went as it did, and that the students I saw, looking so all alike to me, and so sad, that first day at the American Nursing Home, really did write, and wrote so well. The strength and beauty of what they had to say, once they had said it, made it clear what had been neglected. It is certain that feelings for brightness and multiplicity of color existed in Leroy Burton before he wrote his lines about the roses, and in William Ross the music of his poem about the ocean—

…So huge
So powerful
So rich
I have everything
Everything my heart desires…

These things were in our students but, I suspect, for the most part, hidden. Writing poems, they discovered them and made them into art. They were richer for that, and so, to a different degree, were those who heard their poems and read them. It was not only the details in their poems on the subject of untold secrets that our students had “never told anybody,” but all that was best in all they wrote. They hadn’t told anybody, and thus nobody had ever heard it, and neither they nor anyone else knew that it was in them to tell it, because they had never written poetry.


William Ross’s Poem February 17, 1977