Write Like a Kid
I have the two latest California Poets in the Schools anthologies on my desk: If the Sky Was My Heart (2014) and Sing to the Heart of the Forest (2013). The more I read them, the more I understand why I read them, and why I, and everyone who reads and writes poetry, need these poems. In his excellent introduction to Sing to the Heart of the Forest, Steve Kowit explains:
“Unlike many journals and anthologies of contemporary American poetry that relish ambiguity and opacity, this anthology of young people’s poetry is deliciously readable, the poets managing to be surprising and creative in their language without diluting their humanity and ability to communicate what they wish to tell us.”
The insights in children’s poetry often startle us. A third-grader writes, “Green is the mighty bite of a snake” and a first-grader, “The world is blooming / with you and me.” The imagery in these books pops from the page; it is undiluted, agile, and profoundly innocent. Reading poetry that children have written awakens something deep inside us: the big, raw world, dangerous and full of untapped experiences, some beautiful and some tragic: “I was cursed with / cancer when I was 8,” writes sixth-grader Cameron, “My mom was how / I kept going. / My dad is how / I kept the fun / in my life.” Cameron died in 2013 of leukemia at the age of thirteen; Sing to the Heart of the Forest is dedicated to him.
Children’s poetry reminds us of how the childhood and adolescent years shape adults. “I am a tall mountain that’s never been explored,” writes eleventh-grader Alex. “The air in the room is full of ideas but I can’t grab one,” writes fourth-grader Chaya. These lines have a clarity that adult poetry too often lacks; as Kowit writes, too many of us fall into ambiguity and opacity. Children’s poetry reconnects us to a more wholesome ambition: as fifth-grader Shelby writes, “Poems want to be used / not just as a jumble of words / but as a friend.”
Victoria Chang, who wrote the introduction to If the Sky Was My Heart, tells us, “When I read the poems in If the Sky Was My Heart, I was immediately brought back to childhood and the wonder and anxiety I felt when I was the age of these student poets.” As Chang notes, many of these poems are “beautifully complex,” and “so often filled with hope and optimism.” We could even write a prescription: read two children’s poems and call me in the morning.
None of these poems would be published without the efforts of California Poets in the Schools, a 50-year-old arts organization that places poet-teachers in California schools. For more information on CPITS, visit their website, where you can order your own copies of these and other anthologies of student poetry.