Exploring Poetry with Voorhees High School

Rebecca Gambale, Program Associate, Poetry

What is it that poetry does?

Michael Cirelli explored this idea with students of Voorhees High School last week in a classroom conversation, presenting them with Jack Gilbert’s poem “Forgotten Dialect of the Heart“. “How astonishing it is that language can almost mean, / and frightening that it does not quite,” he quoted from the poem.

Cirelli discussed with students what is at the heart of what poetry is –  an attempt at “saying the unsayable.” This idea resonated with the students, as one put it “how do you tell someone how much you love them when there aren’t words for it? It can sound corny.” This is the crux of the Gilbert poem, and Cirelli explained that this is the risk that poets take – trying to say it differently, to try to express feelings in a way that is unique but still can be appreciated by the reader or audience.

This idea that we can only almost say what we mean, to almost get there, emphasized the beauty of trying. Later in the day, during round-robin style readings in the auditorium, BJ Ward and Cirelli responded to one anothers’ poems on the universal theme of loving one’s mother – a topic which could easily be “corny”. However, Ward’s poem “Upon Being Asked Why I Dedicated My First Book To My Mother When There’s Not A Single Poem In There About Her” and Cirelli’s “Buy You A Train” both explore the topic in unique and interesting ways without stating “I love you mom.”  The poets showed that poems that are very different stylistically can get to the core of the same feeling in different ways.

The high school’s poetry festival, organized by Terry Leyland and Rich Broan of the English department there, featured poets Tara Betts, Michael Cirelli, BJ Ward and Gretna Wilkinson, and was comprised of auditorium readings as well as in-class conversations about poetry. Students were able to ask the poets questions and in some cases do some writing of their own in the classroom conversations.

The recurring idea of the day was that poetry tries to express that which cannot be expressed, and through this trying, connections are made – to a reader, to an audience, to another writer. The poets connected to the students, the poets connected to one another, and the auditorium was filled with some great poetry that day.

Toward the end of his classroom session, Michael came back to the inevitable “almost” saying what we feel, quoting Gilbert again: “we write, and the words / get it all wrong.” With the help of these four Dodge Poets, we were shown how the trying is worth it in itself.

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The Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Program co-sponsors school festivals in New Jersey high schools. For more information, contact Michele Russo, Poetry Coordinator, mrusso@grdodge.org.

Did you know that the Dodge Poetry Program has a YouTube channel? Take a look – view video clips from past Festivals! You can also join the conversation on Facebook, and follow us on Twitter @dodgepoetryfest. See you there!

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One Response to Exploring Poetry with Voorhees High School

  1. Sounds like something we could try here. I teach Navajo students at a tiny prep school. We are in the isolated Four Corners area, and do not have access to the same resources. Nonetheless, there have been regional arts festivals that include poetry and I have taken my students to open mike at the local bookstore for Poetry Month. Traditionally, Navajos teach that “words have power” and one must choose one’s words carefuly. These teens enjoy rap as do other teens. Their traditional chants and prayers are beautiful. I suggest a pen-pal cultural exchange between my school and Vorhees or any other Jersey school. The year is almost over, but it’s not too late to try. Let me know! R.R. English teacher, Navajo Prep, Farmington, New Mexico.

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