For This I Am Yearning: Learning English, Writing Poetry

What can poetry offer adults from all over the world who are just beginning to write in English? Carol Birch's ESOL students at the Dover Adult Learning Center were about to find out. During their four-part Connections book discussion series on Food, Family and Friendships, the class read How My Parents Learned to Eat by Ina Freidman and illustrated by Allen Say. The book is a cross-cultural courtship tale in which both partners try to impress each other with their skill at eating the other’s food correctly. Food, everyone reading this book soon agrees, is a universal language.

After discussing the story, the students read short poems and haikus about food and tried out the forms collaboratively. Then, Connections discussion facilitator Terry Farish gave the class these prompts for a short poem: What place? What food? What feeling or action? Here is one of the results:

In my apartment in Dover
Baked fish
For this I am yearning.
In Indonesia
My wife made sayur.*
I am happy.

By Richard
                                                                                  
So much happens in the short space of this elegant poem! Where food is a universal language, we discover, so too is the relationship between food and memory: our longing for the past and the way it lives in our present.

For English students and other new writers, poetry offers freedom of expression as well as freedom from convention and the pressure to produce well-crafted, grammatically- coherent sentences and paragraphs. Poetry is ideal for the new writer, regardless of age, literacy level, or experience. In poetry, so much can be conveyed with so little: the world contained within a word.

Poetry can also help form communities of learners and writers. Let us now consider another “universal:” the problem of getting a baby to sleep. In Kara Mollano’s ESOL class at Second Start in Concord, Farish led students through a group reading of Night in the Country, Cynthia Rylant’s soothing bedtime book with soft, dreamy illustrations by Mary Szilagyi. She then asked the class, “How do you get a baby to sleep?” Each student wrote a line:

How to Help a Baby Sleep

Give the baby milk,
Mucho milk,
Calm the baby in the shower,
Give the baby a piece of silk,
Soft and warm,
Wrap the baby in my igitenge,
Read a book,
Sing Bebe eh eh, Nani abeli yo,
Check to see if the baby is sick,
Talk to the baby, don’t cry, don’t cry,
Walk in the night,
I stroke him on my shoulder,
He sleeps.

Another beauty of poetry is that we can read for a sense of the whole and infer word meanings through context. It doesn’t take much effort to guess that “igitenge” might mean a length of cloth we could wrap our baby in, nestled close to our backs. And what of the phrase: “Nani abeli yo?” The words sound comforting. Where could we find out? In Connections we search for meaning together, and look at the pieces of poems and stories: the words, the concepts, the themes as part of a larger whole. In this way, students become more comfortable with the new place they find themselves in, the journey they are taking together, the shared experience of learning, of connecting with their children through literature, of discovering a new world in a book. And together, we might even solve a universal problem, for how could any baby resist the milk, silk, singing, wrapping, walking, talking, stroking?  Yes, he sleeps!

*Sayur is an Indonesian soup with rice noodles

New Hampshire Humanities adult literacy program Connections brings the best of children’s and young adult literature and New Hampshire Humanities-trained discussion facilitators to more than 500 adult learners each year. For more information about Connections, please visit our website, www.nhhumanities.org, or contact Susan Bartlett at sbartlett@nhhumanities.org.

Conversations from Connections, by Susan Bartlett, Adult Literacy Coordinator, with Terry Farish

Photo by Sue Butman