What I Am Worth

by Daemond Arrindell

I don’t know if poetry saves lives, honestly. But, I believe that it can. I also know that I have seen many a student drop out of school in the years that I’ve spent teaching poetry. Drugs, gangs, abuse and absent parents are usually the cuplrits. And sadly, every single one of the students that I saw disappear wrote beautiful, heartfelt poetry.

At Cleveland (where I am in my second year of residency through the WITS program) high school in particular, I’ve seen three different students drop out in the past year and a half. Paige Vanderhoff, their language arts teacher, told me that her class – especially when i was teaching poetry on Tuesdays – was one of the only classes these students actually attended. So while I have no basis for saying that poetry saved their lives, I do know that they needed it.

Poetry can’t save lives in the same way that a firefighter pulls an elderly woman from a burning building where she is trapped and helpless and screaming out for help. But I do believe that it can wake a person up from a deep slumber or be the nightlight in the darkness that lets them know the monsters will not get them tonight, and help them get through til dawn. Poetry lets them know that they’re not alone.

A poem can, sometimes, if picked at the right time, make a student perk up and say, “hey, that’s about me. S/he’s talking about me.”

When I am coaching anyone on the performance of a poem, whether they be a seasoned poetry slammer or a high school student reading her poetry in public for the very first time, I give the same tip: someone in the audeince needs to hear what it is that you have to say. Your job is to reach that person and impact them. But because you have no idea who that person is, and neither do they, you need to try to reach all of them.
As a result, when I put together a poetry lesson, I always seek out poems that are inspiring or have touched me and build out from the forms and structure and aspects of poetry that the poem engages. This could be extended metaphor, personification, hyperbole – but what matters most is the heart of the poem. What does this poem have to teach the students about life? How does it show value to them? Where is the redemption in the poem? What will students be able to identify with?

This is why I always bring in audio/video footage of the poems. So the students can hear the passion of the poet’s words and see the intensity on their faces – that THIS “poetry thing” is serious business. The performances that convey the same goal I convey to students – that SOMEONE needs to hear this, and this is the ONLY chance to reach them – are the ones i choose to use time and time again. There are two poems, in particular, that I consistently use which display excellence both in the imagery and craft of the writing, but also in the passion of the performance: “Shake the Dust” and “Frank Sinatra”

Shake The Dust by Anis Mojgani
Shake the Dust is a list poem that begins as a tribute – and it seems odd, but it is a tribute to…everyone. “this is for the schoolyard wimps and for the childhood bullies who tormented them.” Who of us has not been a bully at some point? Who has not BEEN bullied by someone at some point? And then he calls to all of us to “shake the dust.” To not allow the dust to settle upon us, to recognize there is always the possibility to change no matter what mistakes we have made or what has been laid as burdens on our shoulders.

for the ones who are told to speak

only when you are spoken to, and then are never spoken to

speak every time you stand so you do not forget yourself

do not let a moment go by that doesn’t remind you

your heart beats 900 times a day

and that there are enough gallons of blood to make you an ocean

do not settle for letting these waves settle and for the dust to

collect in your veins

“Shake the Dust” is an excellent example of an anaphora poem, using repetition as a chant that takes the reader in deeper and different directions with each line, but it is also a call to arms for students who are “never spoken to,” to remind them of the magic that lies within them and to do something magical with it, that it is okay to be afraid but don’t allow that to silence or limit you either.

so grab this world by its clothespins

and shake it out again and again

and jump on top and take it for a spin

and when you hop off

shake it again

for this yours

make my words worth it

make this not just another poem i write

not just another poem like just another night that sits heavy above us all

walk into it

breathe it in!

let it crash through the halls of your arms

like the millions of years of millions of poets coursing like blood

pumping and pushing

making you live

shaking the dust

so when the world knocks at your front door

clutch the knob tight in your hands

and open on up

running forward into its widespread greeting arms

with your hands before you

fingertips trembling though they may be

Frank Sinatra by Katie Wirsing

The author brings to life a young boy named Jordan in this poem, with use of wondrously detailed imagery, simile and metaphor. Jordan is a 6 year old boy who despite serious odds stacked against him chooses to see the world through eyes of love and appreciation.

Jordan, who lives in a place…

where little boys learn too quickly what it means to be a man,

and men learn like dogs what it is to be afraid,

and people dress themselves in concrete and barbed wire.

Jordan, whose father is absent and whose mother is sick when he says sick means:

that his mom is afflicted with the worst four letters ever put next to one another.

The poem also addresses how we are affected by holding onto our pain if we make the choice to to do so when  Jordan expresses the complex feelings he has for the father he’s never known through dance:

it takes every muscle in your body to wear resentment like armor

but jordan’s sporting nothing but ‘love me’

as he pop and locks out those feelings that make us feel weak

stopping only to say “Thank you – i know my dad would be proud”

In the midst of this maelstrom of strike after strike against him, the author paints a vivid picture of the light that continues to shine within this little boy and even inspires her:

Jordan lives like the heart is a weapon of mass destruction
and kiddos gonna bleed all over you til you’re so covered in love you’ll forget what you ever dressed yourself in previously
and i dance like the soul is a butterfly and i’m sprouting wings head to toe
so, in our ways we teach each other things we never knew we know

In the discussions following the viewing of the “Frank Sinatra”, i always address the lines that deal with resentment and the line referring to the heart as a weapon of mass destruction, although the students almost without fail will point out these lines as their favorites or that stood out the most to them. The idea that holding on to anger, frustration and hatred can take a lot out of you is not one lost on the students. But, neither is the strange wonder of using the heart as a weapon of mass destruction except to employ love and make people forget the past. The possibility of such a thing fascinates them.

Both poems speak to the power of choice, choosing to looking for beauty even when the world slings nothing but ugly at us. To the choice to do more than just want better, but to believe that we deserve better and that the sacrifices are worth, at the bar minimum, trying to reach for more.

Wordsworth defined poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.” And so I seek out poems that epitomize this notion, because what is adolescence marked most with but powerful feelings? And what better way to connect with a student than on the cause and effect of these powerful emotions?

So again, I don’t know if poetry saves lives, but after reading a letter from a student at Franklin High School, Angela Roh’s class where I taught this fall, I am only further encouraged to keep believing it to be true, or at least teaching as is if is.
Here is an excerpt:

Through poetry, I found my innermost self and now, no one can choose the choices make. With support from all my teachers and friends I now know what I am worth..


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