more and more of the true nature of poetry, a medium in which you can say extraordinary things and have them given a kind of truth by music.” Colleen Fairbanks, associate professor in the University of Texas’s College of Education, says that Koch’s books on teaching poetry writing, “came out at the beginning of the whole writing process movement, and at a time when poetry was treated as some sort of rarefied air that only the select could breathe. He was the first person that I ever heard of who really suggested that kids not only could but should write poetry and provided teachers with some way of doing that.” Most of my early teachers had steered gently away from poetry writing, focusing on terminology instead: alliteration, similethe kind of stuff that “could wind up on the quiz.”As a visiting poet, Koch wasn’t going to give grades. He just invited students to notice and play with the musical dimension of language, not caring whether they could name the techniques they already had begun to use. His method, explained in all his books on teaching, is fairly simple: Read a delicious example of some “poetry idea” or invent new examples on the spot, pass out pencils and paper, let people go, then read all the new poems aloud and praise the best of everything. “I used to be a pig but now I am a hog”: metrically, that’s as solid as anything Longfellow ever wrote, but Eliza Bailey wasn’t toiling after a line of iambic hexameter to get there. Had she ever heard of “surrealism” or [\(metaphor”? Probably not, but here is a “banana coat” anyway. Koch’s successes at P.S. 61 and the publicity for Wishes, Lies and Dreams happened at the perfect time Bizarre as this may sound,Americans in the late 1960s and 1970s wanted local art and better public education more than an Office of Homeland Security or a beefier SEC.Then, arts councils were forming in every state, and the still-young National Endowment for the Arts, later to become such a theatre of pieties, was expanding fast with public support. Koch’s first teaching experiments in 1968, in fact, were paid for by the National Endowment for the Arts, and the very next year, the NEA began a program called Artists-in-Schools with $100,000, putting visual artists into six school districts around the country. The program took off. By 1973, poets, actors, musicians, artists, and dancers were working in class rooms in all 50 states, and by 1979 the federal government was paying out $4.86 millionmatched by state and school district moneyfor artists to teach. By the time Kenneth Koch’s approach caught on, I was long past elementary school, but I benefited from his revolution too. In 1980; I began several years of work for the Kentucky Arts Council, the first and last time I’ll ever be paid as a poet. Like the post office murals of the 1930s and the documentary photographs taken then for the Farm Security Administration, Artists-in-Schools convinced the public that art, a special kind of activity, was part of everyday life, too. It’s been one of very few federal arts programs to pay individual artists for their work and the only one to reach places like Marrowbone, Kentucky. With Koch’s books in hand, I worked in some 20 Kentucky school districts and incited thousands of poems. Right now my aunt is cleaning hotel rooms in Ohio at Lenox Inn. My grandma is working in Ohio at the factory making little bears. My Uncle Don is watching ball games. Uncle Gene is in West Virginia in surgery having a tumor taken out of his neck. Angela N., Mt. Sterling Elementary School A second grader, Angela wrote her poem after a suggestion I took from. Koch’s second anthology, Rose, Where Did You Get That Red?, a book that ignores the old “kiddie canon”no more ravens and daffodilsand assumes that children, like adults, will prefer great poems to mediocre ones. In this collection Koch’s poetry ideas come from works by Shakespeare, Blake, John Donne, Emily Dickinson, the best writers anyone knows. For Angela’s class I had read passages from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself,” each line describing what someone was doing at that very moment somewhere in America. continued on back page 8/30/02 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 31
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