For the past few months, I have posted, from time to time, poems written by teachers and students about schools. This month, I offer a talk on the importance of poetry given by Charles Keller, a historian who created one of the first American Studies programs in the nation and was one of the founders of the College Entrance Examination Board’s Advanced Placement program. This talk was to secondary school principals.
Archibald MacLeish made such a good case for poetry in an interview with a New York Times reporter last year.
“I think you have to deal with the confused situation that we’re faced with by seizing on the glimpses and particles of life, seizing on them and holding them and trying to make a pattern of them. In other words, trying to put a world back together again out of fragmentary moments. And this poetry can do. In fact, the life of our times seen backward is a sort of mosaic made up of the glint and glitter of poems.”
Of that interview, by the way, Mr. MacLeish said in a conversation, “It came out in print just the way I wanted it to come out particularly the part about poems and poetry.”
“The Poets Have Words for It” is the title of my talk-the “it” being education. I have often quoted poems in talks about education. After reading what Archibald MacLeish said, I decided that some day I would let the poets take over. Today is that day. I hope that the poets-some famous, some unknown, even very young people-will say things to you about education. And maybe along the way-every once in a while I’ll venture to say what a poet is saying to me.
Listen first to young people. An eight-year-old whose poem is entitled “Who Am I?”
I have many things I want
to say but-
No one listens.
I have many things I want
to do but-
No one lets me.
I have many places I want .
to go but- .
No one takes me.
And the things I write
are corrected but-
No one reads them.
Who am I?
And there is a ninth grader’s “Imagine.”
A mile wide
And a year deep.
Imagine a chain of sorrow
Linking past with present .
Present with future.
Imagine no one to turn to.
Imagine a never-ending
Search for love
And a God that may not be.
Imagine all the
Here is a poem written by a high school senior.
for we shall some day be men
and we will call a world
a world of tomorrow
built on the dreams of yesterday.
We, the children gone by,
we have laughed, dreamed,
smiled, loved then somehow lost
and now we find ourselves
no longer the children
we once were .
But not yet the men we shall be,
realizing that lollipops and bicycle-scraped elbows
have slowly faded and merely become
an integral part of the mirage we call memories
weeping, for somewhere along the way
we have lost yesterday and are not quite sure
where to find tomorrow.
And here is a student’s response to a challenge set in an interdisciplinary humanities course: “According to your own definition or standard of beauty, discuss the elements in your environment that prevent your concept of beauty from being fully realized.”
is a cool mountain stream
swollen with rain water, bearing speckled fish downstream,
and beauty is a clear memory
of the stream, until the waters seem to flow
inside your head.
Or perhaps it is
the last ray of the dying sun
as it mingles with the light of
a newly-rising moon;
a kiss in an unexpected place,
beauty is the sound of raindrops
splashing on the ground and in my hair,
the pathos of a sweet violin
a new mother hearing her child’s first crying.
I found beer cans floating under dead fish,
and a forest converted to a chemical factory.
An image in the boob-tube
informed me of “100 per cent chance precipitation”
and spoiled the surprise.
I looked for the moon and found Apollo 8,
Telestar, Haley’s Comet, and a Boeing 707.
Beauty is neither electronic nor man-made.
stars are more silver than aluminum, and
wax fruit are blasphemous. Beauty is
that which is natural, original, and unexpected.
I am waiting for the day when computers
and leave us to ourselves, and
I am watching for the day when
the last blade of grass is removed
to make room for a missile factory.
I am waiting for a machine that can
fall in love, and
I am watching for an IBM card for God.
And in an American Studies course for not-go-to college students a young lady wrote:
What is this world coming to
Is there anything I can do .
Will this war ever end
Tell me, why did it ever have to begin
It is wrong for people to hate
Love is something we should make
Calling names and fighting back
Isn’t the way to make an attack.
We are all made of the same thing
A different race, but that’s a common thing
Calling names and making fun of one’s color
Isn’t the way to love thy brother.
Love, love that’s the game
Will it ever be the same
When we die we’ll all go to the same place , ,
So why make fun of each other’s race ,
Red, white, yellow, or black
When you’re on the road of hate.
There’s no turning back….
The poets are saying that we live in troubled times; that people do not know where they are going; that there is much uncertainty in young and old. It is a world whose values must be questioned; it is a world of polarization, particularly of generations and races. There are many questions; there is a search for answers; the question, “Who am I?” is being asked in different ways. A young person has put it gently and beautifully in a strangely-formed poem.
Some day I’m going to elope with a Saturday.
I know there’s one waiting for me.
A Friday told me. Some day when we get together, I’ll play with it on the
beach all day and all night. We will run away from the week days and laugh and rollick in the surf until a
Sunday comes to take us away, back to the days of the week.
But we will dance on the golden silver sand until 12 o’clock
Saturday night, dance into the surf and be swept away from the land, swirling in
It seems to me that in what the poets are saying I hear a call for an education that will help young people to live effectively and responsibly in this world. I hear this call in Robert Frost’s “What Fifty Said.”
When I was young my teachers were the old.
I gave up fire for form till I was cold.
I suffered like a metal being cast.
I went to school to age to learn the past.
Now I am old my teachers are the young.
What can’t be molded must be cracked and sprung.
I strain at lessons fit to start a suture.
I go to school to youth to learn the future….
I began with Archibald MacLeish and his case for poetry. Let me end in the same way.
“I think you have to deal with the confused situation that we’re faced with by seizing on the glimpses and particles of life, seizing on them and holding them and trying to make a pattern of them. In other words, trying to put a world together again out of fragmentary moments. And this poetry can do. Poetry has done it over and over again. In fact, the life of our times seen backward is a sort of mosaic of the glint and glitter of poems.”
This is an abridged version of a talk that Charles Keller of Williams College and later director of the John Hay Fellows Program, gave to principals in 1970.