Operation Poetry Dare: For the Love

Gertrude was my piano teacher and I thought she was a million years old. Had Gertrude told me she’d kept a pet dinosaur as a child, I would not have been surprised.

During my piano lessons, Gertrude often made me cry.

Perhaps I was partially to blame, having not practiced my lesson as diligently as might be wished. Or at all. But once Gertrude reached her threshold of frustration, my tears soon followed. She’d walk me out to her kitchen and make me drink a glass of cranberry juice to try to settle me down. And man, I hated cranberry juice.

Gertrude did not instill in me a love for the piano.

Since accepting the dare to read a poem a day, I’ve been thinking about former teachers in my life and their attempts to teach me poetry. To be honest, I had to think long and hard.

I remember hearing about the fog which crept in on little cat feet, and about the wind which neither you nor I can see. And I remember copying poems, either from the chalkboard at the front of the room or from my English textbook.

At my desk in second grade, I placed either one or two slender fingers next to the margin on my ruled penmanship tablet in order to indent my lines properly. I’m not sure I had any idea why certain lines were indented the space of one finger and others two, but I knew my teacher would take points off if I didn’t copy my lines just so.

My second grade teacher didn’t seem to have much room for poetry in her life.

I asked a few of my teacher friends to look at their English textbooks and tell me how they handled poetry, if at all. Some said their primary texts didn’t contain a section on poetry, but they had supplemental materials which included exercises on reading and writing poems. Another described a literature text which included a sampling of poetry in each unit. A composition text contained poetry-writing prompts and applications such as the use of verb forms and tenses in a poem.

These descriptions match up with what I remember of my elementary and middle school experiences. I’m sure my teachers covered poetry because it was there in the textbook. My fellow classmates and I perhaps listened to a poem as it was read and answered questions from our workbooks. Maybe we took a stab at rhyming a few lines or constructing a haiku.

But I don’t remember hearing about why poetry mattered or why we should bother with it, except to get through it and move on to the next chapter.

And there didn’t seem to be much love.

When we began this project, I admitted poetry scares me. Others who have stopped by have admitted this as well. I’m wondering if it had something to do with how it was taught.

Is it possible poetry can’t or shouldn’t be taught? I’m starting to think poetry is a relationship one should be invited into by someone who loves it.


Megan Willome has been my companion on this journey. In the next update on this experiment of reading a poem a day, she’ll share what she told me about how her relationship with poetry came to be. But I’m wondering, for those of you who also love poetry, how did you come to love it?

Photo by JFXie. Creative Commons via Flickr. Post by Nancy Franson. 

Follow the rest of Nancy and Megan’s journey in Operation Poetry Dare:

Operation Poetry Dare: Introduction

Operation Poetry Dare: I Can’t Dance to It


Take your own poetry dare? Subscribe to Every Day Poems to receive a poem a day, paired with beautiful art and photography, delivered conveniently to your inbox Monday through Friday. Share your thoughts with us in the comments.

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  1. says

    i love helping my students engage poetry. we start with how we feel about poetry – yes, some are afraid. or don’t “understand it.” and we move on to song lyrics because they all love a song. all.

  2. L. L. Barkat says

    I’m guessing that for those teachers who teach it the way you were taught… maybe no one ever invited them in either. And here they are, trying to teach others. And maybe they feel just like you did. A bit scared or baffled. The cycle goes on and on, nothing to interrupt it.

    I am so, so glad you got interrupted 😉 Not that there was any danger you were going to have to teach poetry. But because there was love to be found in the interruption. I’m guessing you’re not quite to “love” yet on the overall subject of poetry. But maybe you loved some phrases here and there, or even a whole poem? That feels good to me.

    Am I a “poetry lover”? I don’t know. I do *love* with poetry. I do respond to being loved *by* poetry. In the end, poetry feels like a relationship. A message in a bottle, as Edward Hirsch writes about in “How to Read a Poem: And Fall in Love with Poetry.” How I do love opening the bottle now, if it feels like maybe there’s a voice inside that will speak surprises to me.

    • says

      I think perhaps you are right, and it’s lovely when certain cycles get interrupted.

      I don’t believe I’ve used the word love yet in my conversations with Megan. I may have accidentally used the phrase I really like on more than one occasion,

      Have mercy, what’s happening to me?

      I do like your image of a voice inside a bottle. I keep coming back to thinking of poetry in musical terms, and the one I keep landing on is call and response.

  3. says

    I was in third grade. Being a poor student and one my teacher had little patience for, I was placed into the “gifted and talented” program at school. It was there I found a place of peace and understanding, and where I was first introduced to Emily Dickinson and just why … an orchard, for a dome.
    I’ll never forget Ms. Gregory and how she read us poetry.

    • says

      Have to wonder what might happen if we were able to recognize less than optimum performance in traditional classroom settings as something other than a behavior problem. How many geniuses have we lost patience with already in the lower grades. Not so much finding fault with teachers here, but seeing a system that doesn’t allow certain kids to flourish.

      Glad they shipped you off to gifted and talented, Heather. :)

      • L. L. Barkat says

        Lyla. oh. my. yes.

        I was just saying this to Kathryn this morning: that I think we have more genius kids than we know of, and that they simply aren’t encouraged to live into their particular gifts because of the *system* that finds little space for it. Often, I think teachers get as frustrated as children.

      • says

        So much I could say in response to this, but I’m afraid it might veer off into a rant. Suffice to say, I agree wholeheartedly and am grateful for any student who has been given the kinds of opportunity you had, Heather.

        • says

          Nancy, I’m sure you would find yourself surrounded by nodding heads in agreement. I was, most definitely, a lucky exception.

          I’ve been thinking about the questions from your post since yesterday… I wonder.. For my classmates who heard the same poetry, read to them with the same passion … what impact it made? Did I have the temperament for poetry? And if that’s so, then even those who aren’t taught poetry will have a natural inclination toward it.

          Perhaps I’m over-thinking. It’s a tendency. :)

  4. says

    You better be careful, Nancy. You’ll find yourself teaching poetry. Last year Grace’s fourth grade teacher summoned me to lead a class. I took my word magnets and and cut out magazine words, and we had a blast. They had no idea I didn’t have a clue. :)

    • says

      I think I’m still a long way from teaching poetry, Sandra, but I may have accidentally discussed a poem over dinner with my family last night. It was about a snake slowly digesting a rabbit. I live in a house full of guys, and they it was pretty cool. Especially as dinnertime conversation.

  5. says

    What really made me happy here was when you were able to tell Megan what was good about a very difficult poem.

    That suggests a comfort level that goes at least slight past patting the alien on the head. You might be starting to scratch it behind the ears, and that’s when the thing’s tail really starts to wag.


  6. says

    This line… it gets me, too: “I’m starting to think poetry is a relationship one should be invited into by someone who loves it.” I think because it’s lies opposite the only memory I have of poetry in elementary school which was getting in a LOT of trouble for writing one when I was supposed to be doing something else. I’m pretty sure the trouble involved public humiliation, confiscation and destruction of the poem, and a door slamming inside. But I just couldn’t stop myself that day – it fell out of me. Thankfully 6 years later in High School I had a fabulous poetry experience in a creative writing class so I was lucky.

    Poetry is a relationship … oh my. This will be in my head for a long time. I love the way you said this so much. :)

    • says

      Oh, Donna–What a story! As I was reading your comment, I got an image in my head of Anne of Green Gables getting in trouble for reading Ben Hur when she was supposed to be doing arithmetic. Sometimes there’s just no stopping one’s passions. Sounds like you had a terrific experience to help you nurture yours.

      Thank you for your kind words and for continuing along with the journey.

  7. says

    I don’t know that I can point to a particular time or event that made me fall in love with poetry, as I am much better at explaining feelings than details.
    I know I’ve been in love with literature as a way of escape since I was about 10 or 11-the oldest of 5 children in a too small house. Jo in Little Women became my hero. Then I fell in love with the Freckles story by Gene Stratton Porter. Probably what cinched my love for language was Dr. Kehl, our English teacher, who had us read some Shakespeare and TH White’s The Once and Future King–we were Sophomores in High School and I know now how lucky I was.
    I only play at playing with words now when I write poetry, as I don’t have the creative gift I’d like. But I still practice. And as for explaining the reasons for my love of certain poems–‘Paradise’–George Herbert….well, I just love what he does with words.
    A teacher person caveat–I’ve been in the classroom for over 20 years and heartily agree–you will only connect with children and discover who they are when you care about them AND love what you do.
    Kudos to Nancy for de-mystifying the world of poetry (and thanks to her invisible friend, Megan).

    • says

      Jody, if you enjoying playing with words and practicing (something I admitted I wasn’t always so diligent about. Ahem) then this seems like a great group of folks for you to hang around.

      Just recently I saw a TED talk of a teacher who said something to the effect that no significant learning can occur without significant relationship. I think you and she are both right. There needs to be care for both the student AND the subject matter.

      I’m so happy Megan loves me enough to put up with me in this :)

  8. says

    A gifted teacher who truly loves poetry can make all the difference. I had several, I think. I have always loved reading (some) poetry – Shaw/Levertov/Willis/ Cummings/some Dickinson/Rilke/Oliver and now, L.L. Barkat/Laura Boggess/Lyla Lindquist/John Blase (among many others, I’m forgetting!)

    But writing it? Scares the crap outta me! What I never really enjoyed very much was parsing poems – trying to unpack every tiny detail and find a ‘meaning’ for it. Blech. Some poetry leaves me cold, some just sings. . . even without any music. I’m grateful for this series and look forward to more conversation.

    • says

      So glad you’re continuing on this journey with me, Diana. And I think your experience probably mirrors that of many. I’m guessing many who enjoy reading poetry are similarly scared about trying to write it.

      So far I’m learning to get comfortable being in the same room with this alien creature, occasionally–as Lyla said, reaching over to scratch it behind the ears.

      But creating my own little alien? Like you said–scares the crap out of me!

      • says

        My friend, Sally, had “never written anything other than a grocery list” until after she and her husband sold their restaurant. That’s when she stumbled into writing poetry, 12 years ago. She is fearless and doesn’t mind failing.

        That’s how you make your own alien. You just try and fail and tweak and voila, one day the thing moves a pinky. And you jump back and clutch your heart, but then you gingerly approach it again. You realize it’s just saying Hi.

      • L. L. Barkat says

        I am very interested in the source of the fear, Diana and Nancy (and others maybe listening in). Why not try? What’s the risk? Just curious about it. :)

        • says

          I haven’t been ignoring your question, L.L., I’ve been mulling it–mostly while floating in the pool :)

          How do I say this? As someone who was raised to believe anything worth doing is worth doing well, I don’t want to write bad poetry. And I’m certain anything I attempted beyond a grocery list would be bad poetry.

          And even though Megan has been lovely in helping me become comfortable with evaluating a poem as good simply because I enjoyed it, or because it moved me, I still think there is such a thing as bad poetry. Almost everyone I know who writes poetry says they wrote a lot of really bad stuff when they first started.

          And the thing is, I’m sure if I tried to write poetry it would be awful and I wouldn’t have the slightest clue why. I’m sort of in awe of what poets do, and I’m beginning to appreciate the care they take with word choices, rhythm and white space. I just for the life of me don’t get how words tumble out of their brains the way they do.

          It all seems rather mysterious.

  9. says

    I am hesitant to write here for fear it would be a tome. In a rather unpoetic and lengthy way, this thread inspires me to tell my story about poetry. But alas, it is long and winding. And it occurs to me that like a marriage or a love story, we do have something within us that wants to come out on paper of our falling into relationship —-with poetry. Or into love with our spouses. Ah, for another day.
    But Nancy, really thank you for this. Because until you named it as such I didn’t let myself think in terms of poetry relationally, just as a passion and as a call or something of that sort.
    But in fact, there is a relationship with poetry for those of us who write and read it. I may start out rocky then often it moves into a place of smooth ebb and flow. And arrives at a place of relative peace. That is until you sit down and wrestle the words that won’t follow your commands, break into a sweat and write and re-write and toil at the screen. :) Nah, that never happens. Did I tell you how I am loving this series. I am loving this series. Never assume one knows. There you have been told.

    • says

      Elizabeth, I am loving that you are loving this series. And I’m so glad you didn’t hesitate to tell your story. I think you did so quite poetically!

      Then again, what do I know? I’m still in remedial poetry class :)

      • says

        Nancy :) that was me winding up and holding back. You ain’t seen nothing yet. Wait till I REALLY tell you how I arrived at a place of relationship with poetry. I think it is kinda weird and quirky. Still pinching myself. Never say never. I used to say NEVER EVER to poetry. If you add a little salt and pepper and Texas Pete you can eat anything. One day I WILL bore you. Wait I may have already. :)

        • says

          Elizabeth, maybe a year and a half ago I could be quoted speaking of poetry as “cryptic nonsense.” Had no time for it.

          Strange things happen.

          Unexplained things. 😉


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