Pinsky on poetry: Teachers should ‘do no harm,’ from Dodge Fest

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He is the former Poet Laureate of the United States.  He has performed with Bruce Springsteen. He has made a guest appearance at Morristown High School.

He is Robert Pinsky, and he doesn’t mince words about the value of poetry and how to teach it.

“Let’s face it, a lot of harm is done by the schools. We should take the same oath as doctors: Do no harm,” Pinsky, 74, told a theater full of teachers at the Dodge Poetry Festival  in Newark on Thursday.

'DO NO HARM!'  Poet Robert Pinsky advocates for poetry in education, at the 2014 Dodge Poetry Festival. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
‘DO NO HARM!’ Poet Robert Pinsky advocates for poetry in education, at the 2014 Dodge Poetry Festival. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Organized by the Morristown-based Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, the festival of readings and workshops runs through Oct. 26, 2014, in Newark’s Downtown Arts District.

Too often, Pinsky said, teachers condescend by searching for poems they think will appeal to students–football poems for 6th grade boys, for example.

“As a teacher, read what you love,” he said, and ask students to share what they like by compiling  anthologies. These might include song lyrics, nursery rhymes, and poems that their grandparents read to them. Reading aloud is essential. Making videos of this can be useful, he added.

Above all, the experience should be pleasurable.

“If you’re not enjoying it, there’s no point in it,” said Pinsky, a Long Branch native who teaches at Boston University.


THE 2014 DODGE POETRY FESTIVAL

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Art has endured throughout human history, he said, “simply because people like it.”  Yet it cuts much deeper, in his view. The ability to reflect on our existence and contemplate our past and future makes us unique as a species. Art is central to human intelligence, not at its fringes, and should be central to our education, contends Pinsky, who holds degrees from Rutgers and Stanford.

Poetry can be challenging, poetry can be difficult — and there is a certain pleasure in grappling with difficulty.

“That’s why people do this dumb thing of golf,” he joked. “It’s why kids play video games.”

“What we can offer our students with arts like poetry, and with disciplines like organic chemistry, is a worthy difficulty.  A difficulty that is lofty,” he said.

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That all rang true for Nancy Gorrell, who taught creative writing at Morristown High School when Pinsky participated in a project there several years ago.

“I don’t think poetry will ever wither,” said Gorrell, who retired in 2008 and recently published a book with science teacher Erin ColfaxWriting Poetry Through the Eyes of Science. 

Poetry is alive and well on campuses thanks to poetry slams, hip hop and jazz, she said. And because poetry defies easy categorization, standardized testing cannot hurt it.

Nancy Gorrell, author and  retired Morristown High School teacher, at the Dodge Poetry Festival. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Nancy Gorrell, author and retired Morristown High School teacher, at the Dodge Poetry Festival. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

“It will always be subversive. It can’t be co-opted,” said Gorrell, who has been attending the biennial Dodge Poetry Festival since its inception at Waterloo Village three decades ago.

At Morristown High, Pinsky critiqued students’ poetry that was set to music with help from composer David Sampson.   

Gorrell said her creative writing class loved it, and Pinsky, author of Jersey Rain, won a new generation of fans. “He gives of himself 100 percent,” she said.

Danielle Firavanti, a language arts teacher at Morristown High, left Thursday’s festival workshops reminded that poetry is a process, one that’s rarely “finished.”  At its best, she said, short poetry is “concise, purposeful” and more easily digested than longer art forms.

Conveying this to students is a process, too, and a challenge.

“Very few kids have neutral feelings toward poetry,” Firavanti said.

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