This piece originally appeared in the BAY School of San Francisco's monthly newsletter (April 2009). Given my recent letter to The New York Times, I decided to re-publish the essay here.
Wired for Poetry
Poetry is an art form—that started a long time ago. It is still an elder among the creative arts. We can also say that the essentials of poetry overlap significantly with the basic ways the human brain learns. According to our modern and blossoming neurobiological understandings, the human brain is a natural poetry machine. I can’t help but recall the time my three-year-old nephew held up high a peeled banana at breakfast and exclaimed, “Look, the moon.”
In July 2005, after Bay School’s first academic year, faculty members attended a conference called “Teaching to the Teenage Brain.” Ever since, notes from that week have informed my work with students. According to the conference leader, Gesner Geyer, an enriched learning environment matches teaching practice to the nature of how the brain learns. Recently, I have come to understand how well humans are wired for poetry. Geyer’s summary of recent scientific knowledge proposes that, fundamentally, the brain learns in six ways:
By associating (linking, connecting) new information to existing knowledge
By shaping those associations into patterns
By making meaning (e.g., from these patterns)
through emotions (that work as relevance detectors)
through the body
mostly beneath the level of awareness
As just one example of alignment between poetry and the brain, consider metaphor, a basic building block of poetry. Through metaphor, we associate something unknown, unfamiliar or puzzling (like love or separation) with something our brain knows (like the scent of a rose or the stacked stones of a wall). This year’s sections of the Poetry course focused on three essentials: sound, imagery and metaphor. Through both reading and writing poems, students regularly circled back to each element in order to build an understanding of its special potential. They read poems from the ancient Near East and Far East, from medieval Europe and from the modern Americas. They wrote in meter and free verse. They analyzed published poems and reflected on their own original compositions. Each student was responsible for leading a class on a poet of his or her choosing. In these sessions, classmates learned about subjects such as World War Two’s effect on Tadeusz Rozewicz (Poland), modern industrialization’s impact on Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads (England) and the playful criticism of Billy Collins (United States). As a final project, both sections of the course produced a book for the school’s library. These books contain separate chapters from each student. The first half of each chapter contains two published poems and that student’s analysis of how these two poems “talk” to each other. In the chapter’s second half, each student includes an original poem, as well as an essay explaining plans, discoveries and final reflections from the process. The samples in this newsletter come from the class presentations and the book chapters. As always, it has been a pleasure working with the students, as they study and create poetry.