by Jeff Anderson
Poetry has the capacity to help us see what is common through new eyes. Before reading the poem "You Can't Have It All" by Barbara Ras, I ask students, “Have you ever heard the expression, 'You Can’t Have It All'?" After gauging students' familiarity with this expression, I say, “Some say we’ve heard it often enough that it's a cliche, but I’m in love with the way Barbara Ras uses the well-worn expression in a fresh way, making it the opposite of cliche. Let me read it aloud to you, so you can observe how Barbara Ras uses the expression." (When reading this poem aloud, I generally remove the line about the skin between a man's legs without fanfare, though this is at the discretion of the teacher of course.)
“How does Barbara Ras make the cliche do work?” I ask the students after reading this poem. In our discussion, I highlight that concrete, everyday experiences become worthy of our focus, our appreciation, our gratitude.
“To me, poetry is meant to help us pay attention,” I say, " to focus on all the wonderful world and all it gives us. Writers pay attention to things that might note be noted or recorded on first glance. We look again at the simplest things, like the way Ras sees a clown hand in a fig leaf."
We read the poem a second time, for poems are meant to be read at least twice. This time our goal is to note what Ras feels she can have and start letting thoughts of what you can have in life begin to come to the surface “like the white foam that bubbles up at the top of the bean pot."
This opening can be extended into a full writer's workshop, wherein students write their own “You Can’t Have it All” poems, focusing on making the simple sublime. You can’t have it all. But there is this and this and this. Each poet has the unique capacity to see those things. I invite students to call out to others by giving them voice, by making poetry, stringing together words and experiences you—only you—care about.
Jeff Anderson is a writer of middle grade fiction and a professional developer for teachers who has been sharing writing strategies with students and teachers for 25 years. His books for teachers include Mechanically Inclined and Patterns of Power. Learn more about his work at www.writeguy.net or on Twitter @writeguyjeff.