When a Poem is a Poem First: Celebrating Affect in Writing Education

by Brittany R. Collins

Midway down a nursing home corridor, past the cafeteria and behind a cloth room divider, lay Alexander Vanderburgh Jr., aged eighty-six and counting. Alex was a residential dementia patient and the father of my friend, Ann. He liked math, mountains, and chocolate chip ice cream, the latter of which I carried to him on warm summer evenings after my shifts scooping cones at a nearby shop. I was seventeen and sweaty, walking down the linoleum hallway with a Styrofoam cup and plastic spoon in hand. When I reached Alex’s room, he’d thank me and say, “Let it cool,” to which I’d nod and set the treat at his bedside, where he watched it, waiting for it to melt.

Enlisted by Ann to serve as Alex’s “special friend,” I kept him company as he faced denouement. Summer evenings were spent atop his walker, where I listened as he spoke from his rocking chair in the corner or, later, his narrow twin bed. Our time together became my personal iteration of Mitch Albom’s Tuesdays with Morrie, for Alex was a great orator, and I a student of story.

Alex was a happy patient, and lucky. Whereas many people with Alzheimer’s and dementia struggle with fearful or angry disillusionments, Alex’s faltering neural state tilted towards peace. His disease dropped him off in his days at a boyhood boarding school and left him there for the final months of his life, during which he recited his fondest memories to me.

We began in medias res. He was climbing to the steeple with his best friend, catching his teacher sunning on the roof, ringing the bell when nobody was looking. The memories were real, and the fondest of his life, but the line between past and present was blurry in his retellings. His plot structures were not linear; in fact, they were often looping. In time, I could repeat back to him snippets of his life like song lyrics, so familiar became their cadences. We sang together, in a way, and it was as if in a round: I started after him, repeating back the narratives he sought but could not find, filling in where needed, feigning surprise at the punchline of a recurrent joke or shock at the zenith of a tale.

Other times, we fell silent. I had to learn when not to sing. He’d stare, perplexed, at an object in the corner, or the socks on his feet. I’d study him as he studied each item with the professorial focus that he once brought to engineering. Sometimes, he surfaced from silence to comment on the design of a window-frame, or say quizzically, about his socks, “Weird, weird, weird. They put these funny things on me every single day!”

***

During my time with Alex, I came to learn about a “magic bullet” for brightening his days, a surefire slice into his lucidity: the quirky, galumphing stanzas of “Jabberwocky” by Lewis Carroll.

“’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves,” Alex’s daughter began late one morning, bringing her face close to her father’s.

“Did gyre and gimble in the wabe!” he replied.

The two continued on in synchrony, as they had—I gathered—many times before, exhaling in tandem every theatrical word:

All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.
“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!”

Alex looked pleased with himself. His eyes glinted. I saw in them a boyhood, a fatherhood. He may not have known where he was, or even who was standing by his side (his brain often mistaking his daughter for his sister), but he knew—in that moment—the delight of Carroll’s scansion, the inflections of the old Jabberwock. The Jubjub bird standing over his shoulder flew off into the distance for an afternoon, and I, a soon-to-be English major, watched his smile.

How powerful that a poem can offer time travel, levity, salve. How fascinating that this nonsense verse made sense for Alex, its “meaningless words” carrying clear meaning for him. The presumed nothingness of Carroll’s stanzas freed Alex from the confines of his decline, not only offering light but serving as a vehicle through which he was able to share light with others. And this is true of every reader, every person: No matter our age, we are all trying to make sense of the nonsensical, to spin something out of nothing, in the face of temporality.

***

Four years have passed since I sat by Alex’s side, since I watched his wiry, white eyebrows scrunch. Four years have passed since I listened to the stories in his heart and his hands, but I think of him, now, as I share poetry with young writers and read their nascent, bursting verses. They are teenagers, authors, poets, and friends, and they have so much to say. As the special projects coordinator at Write the World, a global online writing platform for middle and high school students, I have the privilege of engaging youth in extracurricular writing communities. Like Alex’s, these writers’ words are buzzing; breathtaking; oscillating. The themes in their stories probe love, curiosity, grace—themes that are compelling at both ends of the age spectrum. Poetry is their perfect mirror, reflecting back to readers young and old the truths of a life well-lived. In my dashboard, there is a middle-schooler penning what it feels like to come out of the closet; a sister writing about the death of a younger brother; a granddaughter composing an essay about learning to cook in the kitchen of her elders, carrying me, through concrete nouns, into a country that I will most likely never visit myself. In their writings, I see childhood. I see adulthood and the liminality of the in between. I see their searching for answers. I see meaning.

To structure teens’ articulations, I share with them the verses of others—excerpts from all canons of literature, Romantic poetry to spoken word. This is the underbelly of the magic, I want to say, these metaphors, this consonance, that scansion. These techniques are the washers and screws beneath paint, holding it all together—concealed. I pick a poem apart in my mind and then think of questions that, framed as writing prompts, would encourage young writers to pick it apart, too. What tools are at work here? And to what end? What effect do they have on the message of the work, and what effect does that work have on you? Can you see the puppet strings?

And then I stop myself. I breathe. I hear Alex’s voice in my mind, “Beware the Jaberwock!,” and I settle. How often we ask students to parse a poem in order to love it, I think, but what if we asked them to love it prior to their parsing it? The poet Thomas Hardy said that “poetry is emotion put into measure” and that “measure can be acquired,” so what would happen if we first prioritized students’ emotive reactions to verse, and then used those emotions as pathways towards measure? Alex’s affinity for “Jabberwocky” seems a vivid example of the ways in which poems, like songs, carry pathos and force. Taking a step back from analysis by inviting students to see the whole of a poem, the message quivering at its core, and to share their appreciations and impressions with peers before delving into the line-by-line specifics that dominate much of poetry curricula, invokes what Alex and Ann had in the face of mortality: connection—to each other, Carroll, future readers, the lilt of language. The poem, in this sense, is both an ephemeral and enduring entity, and not (necessarily) because its readers understand scansion or consonance, but because of its story, its sound.

So for now, I ask young writers: What moves you? Share with us a poem that you adore. What about it speaks to you? The sound? The scenery? And why? What about your life experiences pulls you towards this verse? With Alex in my reader’s mind, I nod, inside, knowing that he was right. Poetry is not only about effect and technique, but affect, impact— even laughter.

About the Author:

Brittany R. Collins is the special projects coordinator at Write the World LLC, where she coaches middle and high school writers. She is also a freelance education and curriculum writer with works appearing in English Journal and Literacy & NCTE of the National Council of Teachers of English; Inside Higher Ed; Edutopia; Thrive Global; and Brevity blog, among others. Her editorial works have been promoted by Arianna Huffington, Gloria Steinem, the National Museum of Women in the Arts, and Ms. magazine.

Photo Credit: Pixabay


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