EXCERPT FROM CHILDREN AND THE HUNGERING FOR 
Last summer, somebody interviewed me on a hot afternoon. It was so hot, I found myself talking, half asleep. Then I noticed the silence: My questioner sat there with an expression of disbelief and shock. What had I said? Something about poetry as a more natural communication than prose. Something about society indicted because so little poetry, so little of the process of poetry, outlives what we excuse as education.
Last summer, it was too hot to argue the point. But this morning, I want to try and tell you about poetry as a natural communication among human beings. I want to convince you that poetry, or that the hungering for infinite metaphors based on you and me, is more natural than dialog. If you believe me, maybe more of us can return poetry to its human purpose.
All of us hunger a great part of our public and secret time, alive. We reach and we dream, we surmise and we concentrate beyond the limits of ourselves. Or we scheme against the facts of isolation. We hope for love. We even memorize an enormous store of data merely on the premise that someday or lives will join that knowledge, to good purpose.
People look for coalitions or they laboriously construct a cultural identity larger than their own. Being alone appears to be a problem. Everywhere you find the evidence of human longing to coincide, to blur individual boundaries.
Our obsession to overcome separation stems from a primary perception of essential loneliness. The first knowing of oneself, as alone, is painful and early. It occurs in the context of mother and child. Recognition of the Other, of non-self, cannot be avoided. Nor can we evade the pain of initial separation; when the infant separates from his parent, he loses his safety. Distinction between the identities of mother and child lead the child into vulnerable experience. None of us ever learns to dissociate pain from separation, entirely.
Adults carry around a hunger born of limited relationship. But the years obscure the original awareness of safe dependency, and the hunger loses its outward momentum. When they grow up, people begin to talk about things missing inside themselves rather than the issues, the other lives, they have failed to positively intersect. To grow old often means to turn away and to worry about one’s navel, with more and more despair. (One’s navel cannot compare with the world, no matter who you are.)
Since the newborn person is necessarily a student, and since children are necessarily close to the first trauma of limited relationship, they embody a hungering for: Children fill their lives with learning: they hurtle themselves outward, into the greater reality, hoping to embrace, without perishing.
At its best, poetry records the self in positive intersection with someone else, or with outside circumstance. Poetry engulfs reality in a communicating form. In fact, apprehension through poetry is valid because it communicates: poetry is valid because it includes beyond the self.
Poetry is your own naming of the world. As such, it provides relief from the hazards of dependency. Rather than simply accepting terms: This is a table, this is downstairs, the poet chooses, he determines the names of his universe.
As your own naming of the world, poetry protects your independence from the frightening implications of limit. Poetry serves an independence of power and privilege. Rather than the independence of the forsaken, or the victim, or the weak, poetry asserts the personal freedom of definition and synthesis. Poetry supports the prerogative of the always only one: the self confronting the other, in a manner that will generate healthy control of the communion: i.e.: control endangering no aspect, nor any factor, in the assimilating process.
Poetry confers the power and the privilege of independence as a condition purged from threats to survival.
In psychoanalytic literature, we read that the human capacity to risk embrace, the capacity to trust, depends upon the nature of the first relationship, and its rupture. Since the break, or the bifurcation of identities seldom takes place without hurt and fear, we commonly link isolation with death.
The process of poetry, profoundly treats with the difficult awareness of being alone. Poetry directly calms the anxiety attending separate position. For poetry overcomes the subject to object relationship. Poetry triumphs over the separation; in its place, a poem will invent relationship. Objects become parts of the subject; they enlarge the developing self. In poetry, objects are reclaimed by the subject from the Realm of the Other to the Realm of My Self.
We may usefully think about the coincidence between the time when children begin their so-called “mastering of sentences” and the normal timing of the child’s perception of his mother as a distinctive entity: The coincidence translates as follows: Child, or subject, recognizes his mother as separate, or as object, even as the child begins talking in sentences. Here it helps to remember that mastering sentences actually means adoption of the subject versus object system of thought.
From the moment of this coincidence, onward, poetry poses an urgent liberation for all children: it presents an opportunity to control the meaning of separation, or to obliterate the separation and to enmesh and to enrich enmeshed realities through simile, metaphor, and associating sounds.
In its contemporary emergence, poetry declares our freedom from the regimentation of grammar and syntax; poetry undergirds the desiring areas of I and Thou acknowledgment.
The creative retrieval of erstwhile objects, and/or the hurdling of fearful separation, mightily meets the child’s hungering for. In poetry, the retrieval of objects signifies the organic, the growing integration of reality with self.
Accordingly, the poem is affirmative as well as therapeutic for the individual. And it is inherently humane: Poetry is not objective; it is governed by moral values and the instinctual blurring of limitation.
For more than three years, I have been privileged to test these assumptions about poetry, with children. The Academy of American Poets has sent me into New York City public schools serving every age level and income level and racial mix or racial segregation.
After reading some of my poetry, and the poetry of people I admire, we talk. Let me share a couple of events I clearly remember.
At one school, the kids asked me about this poem:
This old whistle could not blow except
to whiskey wheeze
with bandage on his head temple to temple
and dry hands
in his pockets keeping warm
two trembling fists clammed
against a stranger’s blueandwhite sedan he
would never drive could not repair but damaged
just by standing there.6
So I explained: I saw this man standing outside my window, and he watched me watching him, for almost an hour. Finally, I left the windowsill and wrote the poem. Why? Otherwise, I might forget about him. Why does it rhyme? Because I want the reader to remember the poem: remember This Man.
That seemed to make sense to them. They wanted to try remembering, in poetry.
“(THIS MAN, Copyright © 1969: June Meyer)” appears handwritten at the bottom of the page in the original document.
In a Harlem elementary school, the students sat so quietly, I felt uncomfortable. So, after a few minutes of zig-zag through already written poetry, I suggested that we write poetry, together. They were not enthusiastic. On the board, I wrote: “RISE LIKE LIONS AFTER SLUMBER.” They liked that line. And they agreed to assemble themselves in pairs: Taking that as the first line, one student would compose the next, and his partner would provide the clincher. The pairs kept changing composition and the chairs kept changing their position, and the verses they composed were very enjoyable, as a matter of fact.
At the High School of Fashion Industries, a girl challenged me: How come your poems are so simple? (What do you mean?) Don’t you ever write allegory? (What’s an allegory?) She explained, and I listened. Then I told her how I try to write a poetry that will reach people right away. If they want to, later, they can read it again and perhaps the poem will spread, thicken, or seem unintelligible. But right away, I want to reach people and let them share my words with me. In the next period, she sneaked back to tell me about the non-allegorical poetry she’d been piling up, for months. She had been afraid her poetry was “too direct.”
Out on Governor’s Island, in New York, mostly white children, by turning around in a full circle, can see Manhattan’s skyline, trees, horizon, the river running into the ocean, men in military uniform, and semi-civilian institutions like their public school. I went there and found the students excited to hear the poetry of black, inner-city youngsters. Soon they were engaged in a fantasy: Suppose I’m black and suppose the grass is hard enough to kill you, if you slip. Suppose the whole block looks like a long, big, angry stone. What would I write? They tried, they wrote and, at last, we decided on a different project. The children wanted to invite black poets, of their own age, over to the island: they could eat lunch and then they could eat poems, together: Write them together. Thus, the adult witnesses to this idea tried, and wrote, and telephoned each other, but The Board of Education, and its various regulations, prevailed. Nevertheless, the young black poets and their waiting friends remain, in willingness.
Throughout the city schools, I met children who were eager to grasp anything usable. Poetry is usable. And I met children eager to expand and multiply relationships: poetry starts the multiplication of relationships.
Now, there’s a place in the city where the children don’t sleep. Not well, and not long enough, any night.
There’s a place in the city where the children don’t eat. Not well, and not often enough.
There’s a place in the city where the children have to hide
have to lie have to fight
and sometimes have to kill.
It is not a slum.
It is not a ghetto.
It’s not even a community.
It’s blocked-in kids next to each other, and others, and others.
It’s no particular stairway. It’s violent isolation.
It’s violent loneliness.
It’s a place in the city some children call home.
You can find these children in the Ft. Greene section of Brooklyn, which is across the bridge, or across two bridges, or three bridges, from Manhattan. But once you get inside Ft. Greene, you might as well forget about the bridge. There are no bridges leading the children from Ft. Greene to someplace else.
About a year and a half ago, a small group of black and Puerto Rican youngsters stood together in Ft. Greene, on a Saturday morning. Where they stood was cold. They were trying to get into somewhere: somewhere warm with chairs and a table and a couple of lights.
A white teacher, Terri Bush, and myself, stood with these children, and finally they got into someplace else: somewhere of their own.
The Church of the Open Door let this group meet weekly in a large and sometimes sunny room. There we collaborated to bring books, records, snack stuff, paper and pencils. After a free while of dancing, book browsing and gossip, the kids would take a title, one they individually accepted, and write a poem, an editorial, an essay, a story, a fable, a joke. The lacking structure of our Workshop reflected a deliberate attempt to emphasize the separation between Saturdays and school, which is a place where children “fail.” At the same time, we tried to obliterate the usual distinctions between creative writing, or art, and life. We were trying to prove, by having it happen, that poetry is as natural as neighborhood friends and as natural as dancing the Funky Four Corners.
Within a few months, the original group increased in size and in its commitment. The children elected to form a magazine called The Voice of the Children.
Now they were publishing, once a week. The secondsight of their work, changed into type, transmuted from a private to a more public (legible) statement, tremendously excited the kids. In addition, when they were able to read their writings, in typescript, they became critical, in new ways, and their craft rapidly advanced. As, and only if, requested by the children, their published work changed with respect to spelling. No inflections were added, nor any idiomatic usage “corrected.” From the habitual and building fluency of their work, the children, spontaneously, became concerned about punctuation, stanzas, paragraphs, and form, generally. Questions about these technicalities were pursued by the children because they wanted to make sure that what they said could not be mistaken, by anybody.
Today, the audience that admires the children’s work has widened even as the distinction and clarifying moment of their voices steadily deepens. The very experience of successful communication has assisted the children in their constructive overleaping of poverty- limitations. And their valuable awareness of special identity has been strengthened.
Because The Voice of the Children’s Workshop springs from a collaboration between a public school teacher of English, and myself, we have been concerned to imagine, at least, how Saturdays could take place in the classroom. […]