The Wonder Man

I Never Told Anybody: Teaching Poetry Writing in a Nursing Home

by Kenneth Koch
Random House, 259 pp., $8.95

The Duplications

by Kenneth Koch
Random House, 154 pp., $6.95

Kenneth Koch
Kenneth Koch; drawing by David Levine

All poetry deserving of the name has been written by people who have passed through puberty. On the other hand, there are some aspects of poetry—notably, originality of perception and spontaneity of language—which appear frequently in the speech and writing of children, but which are so dishearteningly killed off by life and schooling that a way with words is one of the rarest of adult talents. Most literate adults can express opinions, make statements, deliver judgments, even offer insights; but hardly any of them can cause that intake of breath, that startled glance, which a poet’s barest phrase can occasion.

When, seven years ago, the poet Kenneth Koch published Wishes, Lies, and Dreams: Teaching Children to Write Poetry,1 his title was both brash and inviting. Those who doubted that anyone—not to speak of children—could be taught to write “poetry,” wondered what this new extension of “creative writing” could amount to. Like other doubters, I read the book; and if I didn’t wholly agree that the children were writing “poetry,” at least I agreed that they were writing in ways that schools rarely sponsor. Koch had, in effect, adapted many techniques used in adult creative-writing classes to the capacities and interests of children; and he had invented new exercises and a style of teaching especially suited to elementary classes. The usual criticisms of elementary-school teaching—that it considers education to be the instilling of information; that it rarely addresses the mind, let alone the feelings; that its “problems” are those suggested by the teacher or by packaged “unit materials”; that it avoids the provocative and the subversive; that it is a deliberate socialization of the child in the service of the state—are not repeated by Koch, though his practice suggests that he may concur with some of them.

I would suppose that he takes the Wordsworthian view—that quite without any villainous intent except the child’s own wish to get on with the business of being adult and the adult’s wish to equip the child for “real life,” various valuable human powers are allowed to dwindle and atrophy. Chief among these powers are those of remembering and analyzing feeling. Since it is natural for both parents and teachers to ignore feeling in the interest of order, efficiency, intellectual effort, and even justice, feeling itself is one of the early victims of social life. The memory of feeling; a sense of the irrational links between feeling and sense experience; the perception of the conflict of one feeling with another; the development of an indirect vocabulary of feeling; the permission of fantasy; the intuiting of emotional form—these are endangered in all children, those whom Koch taught in PS 61 among them.

Koch’s exercises in Wishes, Lies, and Dreams aimed systematically at the retrieval of “the history and science of feeling”—Wordsworth’s description of the function of poetry. Some of Koch’s exercises were formal ones, some thematic—but all…

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