When you come to a challenging place, it’s always comforting when a friend gives you a poem that speaks to your experience. That’s exactly what happened when two of my dear friends gathered at my home the day after the inauguration for poetry, meditation, and mandala-making. We wanted to support the goals and intentions of the worldwide marches as well as each other, so to that end, each of us set an intention and offered a word that might guide our hearts as we move into the future together. One friend offered the word light, one offered the word tolerance, and I offered the word perseverance. We talked about some ways that we might put those qualities to use, and then my friend Mary shared her poem “How the Stars Get in Your Bones” by Jan Richardson. We all agreed that this poem captures all three of the words that guided our mediation day. We found the poem inspiring and I hope that you will as well. Enjoy and keep hope in your hearts.
How the Stars Get in Your Bones A Blessing for Women’s Christmas
Sapphire, diamond, emerald, quartz:
think of every hard thing
that carries its own brilliance,
shining with the luster that comes
only from uncountable ages
in the earth, in the dark,
buried beneath unimaginable weight,
bearing what seemed impossible,
bearing it still.
And you, shouldering the grief
you had thought so solid, so impermeable,
the terrible anguish
you carried as a burden
who can say what day it happened?—
See how the sorrow in you
slowly makes its own light,
how it conjures its own fire.
See how radiant
even your despair has become
in the grace of that sun.
Did you think this would happen
by holding the weight of the world,
by giving in to the press of sadness
I tell you, this blazing in you—
it does not come by choosing
the most difficult way, the most daunting;
it does not come by the sheer force
of your will.
It comes from the helpless place in you
that, despite all, cannot help but hope,
the part of you that does not know
how not to keep turning
toward this world,
to keep turning your face
toward this sky,
to keep turning your heart
toward this unendurable earth,
knowing your heart will break
but turning it still.
I tell you,
this is how the stars
get in your bones.
This is how the brightness
makes a home in you,
as you open to the hope that burnishes
every fractured thing it finds
and sets it shimmering,
a generous light that will not cease,
no matter how deep the darkness grows,
no matter how long the night becomes.
Still, still, still
the secret of secrets
keeps turning in you,
kindling the luminous way
by which you will emerge,
carrying your shattered heart
like a constellation within you,
singing to the day
that will not fail to come.
I had the pleasure of meeting Michael in Salerno, Italy, in July of 2015 when we both participated in the 100Thousand Poets for Change Conference. Michael joined me, along with Laura Shovan and Debby Kevin, my travel companions, in sharing a gourmet Salerno lunch in a wonderful ristorante. Michael also served as the emcee for one of our poetry nights. His work speaks of struggle and peace, and he is committed to using the arts for social change. Welcome, Michael.
A couple of years ago, I taught an English as Foreign Language (EFL) creative writing course at one of the top education colleges in Israel. The students were in the Excellence Program, an Israeli version of an honors program, where they receive full tuition if they keep their GPAs up, and also take additional courses each semester to enrich their learning and prepare them for professional life and graduate study. My course helped them get more comfortable with their English writing and their creativity.
The students had had a few writing assignments at the point in the semester when I introduced a poetry one. They had written to introduce themselves, practiced descriptive writing from observation (non-fiction), and developed a short narrative (fiction). For this assignment, I had them write a poem in response to another poem.
I gave them two different poems to read and respond to, both of which have straight-forward language accessible to English-language learners. The poems involve observation and description, but in very different ways. One tells a story. They share a deceptive simplicity, but that surface simplicity also allows students to access them and to use them as a model for their responses.
One poem I used was William Carlos Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow,” quoted above. It owes much to short Japanese poetry forms and Williams’ insistence on the image over ideas. Despite the simplicity of what is, in the end, only one sentence, the poem conveys a mood, and with its opening lines, the sense that something significant waits, an outcome, and that what it depends upon is beyond us—beyond our understanding or control.
Langston Hughes’ “Theme for English B”, on the other hand, is more involved. It includes narrative. It opens:
The instructor said,
Go home and write
a page tonight.
And let that page come out of you—
Then, it will be true.
I wonder if it’s that simple?
In fact, I chose it because it begins with an assignment, and the persona of the poem responds by questioning the assignment (it is not Hughes speaking—the biographical details that come later are made up). The speaker of the poem goes on to ask what is true for him, as he describes his walk from New York University to the cheap housing at the Harlem Y, where he, “the only colored student in my class,” lives. He describes what he likes, what he does, and wonders if it is different for him as a “colored” person (the poem was written in the 1950s) than it is for his “white” instructor. He wonders if his paper will be white or colored, and suggests it will be both. He engages both the similarities and differences of the two of them—white instructor and African-American student—and their mutual resistance to be too much like the Other.
The poem ends with:
As I learn from you,
I guess you learn from me—
although you’re older—and white—
and somewhat more free.
This is my page for English B.
I often use this poem when asking students in a course to write a poem, as a way to invite them to use any resistance that they might have to writing a poem, or to writing any assignment, for that matter. I also like that it suggests the fact that students and teachers learn from each other (I think this happens when classes go very well). Finally, the poem shows that we often give assignments without fully knowing or understanding the material- and cultural-realities of our students.
For the assignment, I asked the students to read the poems first, and then to choose one and write their own poem in response. Most, but not all, of the students responded to the shorter poem by Williams. Some responded to Hughes’ poem. A couple of the Excellence-Program students wrote two poems, responding to each.
How I respond to student writing
When I respond to students’ poems in my courses, especially in the EFL context, I don’t focus on issues of correctness in English. I mark spelling and grammar mistakes, of course, but without a written comment in almost all cases. I write comments, though, about poetic suggestions. Often, these poetic suggestions transfer to other forms of writing as well.
For example, one student wrote a very powerful poem using the image of an empty velvet chair by a window. However, she wrote it as a sentence, without line breaks. So, my comments suggested using line breaks, and where they might add drama or power to the reading of her “sentence.”
The students seemed to enjoy the assignment. Almost all of them took it seriously, from my reading of their poems. Many of them wrote good poems—that could be made better, which I hope my method of commenting helps them to see. And I believe commenting on content and poetics (while still marking errors) focuses on the students’ strengths and the potential of their writing. They still learn about their mistakes in the language, but they also see that they wrote something that their instructor took seriously as a draft poem.
For this assignment and others, I choose strong examples to share with the class—both so that other students see good examples, and so that they see (for later, when they respond to each other in small groups) that even good writing could be improved, with the help of thoughtful commentary. I tell them that I revise my own writing all of the time. And, I think most importantly, I emphasize that the writing process is not about how to write perfectly the first time, but about how to perfect writing over time.
Often students tell me that they “can’t write” because it is so much work, that they struggle to write what they mean, and that they can’t just write it out the first time. I usually turn these narratives of “failure” as writers around and congratulate them on being “good writers” (or “good potential writers”)—writers who already realize that writing takes work, that it is a messy struggle, and that even the “best” results often don’t quite say what we are trying to say with our writing. I believe that providing students with content comments, alongside modeling for them in class how to use those comments to serve their own purposes, is a process that helps students learn how to negotiate the messiness and arrive at, if not perfect writing, at least writing that they feel comes closer to speaking for them.
Bio: Michael Dickel, a poet, fiction writer, and photographer, has taught at various colleges and universities in Israel and the U.S. He co-edited Voices Israel Volume 36 (2010). He was managing editor for arc-23 and 24. Is a Rose Press released his new book, The Palm Reading after The Toad’s Garden in 2016. His previous books are War Surrounds Us, Midwest / Mid-East, and The World Behind It, Chaos… With producer / director David Fisher, he received an NEH grant to write a film script about Yiddish theatre. Dickel’s writing, art, and photographs have appeared in print and online.
I’m pleased to announce that my second poetry collection, No Barking in the Hallways: Poems from the Classroom, is now available from Amazon,Barnes & Noble, and New Academia Publishing. I’ve spent nearly all of my career as a teacher and have met many memorable students over the years. Each one came to me with their own story–sometimes funny, sometimes sad, often heartbreaking. But it was learning their stories that helped me to connect with them in more meaningful ways as a teacher.
Praise for No Barking in the Hallways
“This is poetry in its finest hour. Bracken does what a great poet does best: reveal, provoke, wound and heal readers, all in such a fashion that one cannot be left unchanged. With poignant and sometimes painful imagery, Bracken creates moments in which we could easily be standing alongside her in the classroom, bearing witness to each moment as it unfolds. Collectively, the poems are a window into a system that is more damaged than the circumstances faced by of some of the children the system claims to serve. Yet the language is always equally as beautiful as the children for whom these poems are written. This is exemplified in one poem in which Bracken observes,
“We can’t stop the line. But when you peek under the hood— like the car with the wrong bolts, Ben will need repairs. “
For anyone who has ever worked in schools and with children, or for those who appreciate how language can transform lives, this collection of poems is for you.”
Here’s the poem that Prof. McNulty referenced which was also nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2016 by Robert Giron of Gival Press. The poem is based on the story of a young man I taught in a high school a few years ago. I hope you’ll enjoy meeting him and find truth in what Fred Rogers had to say when he talked about learning people’s stories: “Frankly, there isn’t anyone you couldn’t learn to love once you’ve heard their story.”
THE AUTOWORKER AND THE FACTORY MODEL
We never stopped the line, no matter what mistakes we saw. We worked a lot of overtime fixing mistakes but we never stopped the line. ~ This American Life
And I feel the same way about Ben
my student determined to graduate from high school
still reading at the 3rd or 4th grade level.
The administrators say
“Ben needs credits to graduate,”
but reading class doesn’t count
if he takes it more than once.
So administrators find ways
for us to push him along
like the auto factory grinding out
a Ford Focus with Fiesta doors
held on by Explorer bolts
nothing fits, and you can’t drive the car
but we don’t stop the line.
for Ben who understands a lot about history
but doesn’t read well enough to pass the test.
So we give him an accommodation—special help—
and someone reads him the test
which worked well when he was seven
but seems foolish when he is seventeen—
and hoping to get a job, hoping to graduate
So I ask, Will someone read to Ben at work?
the answer echoes back We can’t stop the line
But when you peek under the hood
like the car with the wrong bolts
Ben will need repairs.
The cover art is an original painting by my daughter, Christella Potts, an art teacher in Baltimore County, and Deb Dulin of Dulin Designs did the layout.