There has never been a moment in my life, so far, in which I could relate a current situation that I found myself in, to that of a quote said by a famous philosopher 2000 years ago. The concept of using quotes from centuries ago to guide my actions today seemed pointless. That was until I found myself walking into a zen-like classroom in rural India where 16 eager students were sitting on the floor waiting to learn Japanese style poetry from me. The saying “Those who know, do. Those that understand, teach” (Aristotle) popped into my head. Was I someone who could do both?
I had prepared my lesson plan: an introduction to Haiku, Senryu, and Tanka. All three, types of Japanese poetry which have a zen quality to them and a particular syllable structure. I kept trying to simplify the lesson, not knowing how my audience would receive the plethora of information I was going to try to give them. Having learned beforehand that English was not their first language, I made sure that I could explain every point I was going to make in excessive detail. Going into the session, I innately doubted the children's ability to grasp what I thought was an esoteric and refined form of poetic writing.
As I sat at the center of the ceremonial circle surrounded by 16 YIL’s (all in 9th or 10th grade), I could feel the nerves closing in. To break the tension in the air, I began by asking each of them to introduce themselves. Immediately, the students responded with an infectious smile and an air of confidence. This process lasted about a minute, which meant that it was time for my planned lesson to begin.
I was told beforehand by my translator that keeping the attention of some of the children would be difficult. My devised solution was to play a game mid-lesson to help the kids interested enough to express their ideas about poetry. Sitting in the middle of the circle, I would throw a ball to a child whose turn it would then be to tell me either what he or she thought made up a good poem, or provide a brand new topic for a Haiku, Senryu, or Tanka.
I was stunned by the fact that these students gave me such insightful and profound answers, such as rhythm, rhyme, context and word choice. Each child had a unique perspective on this form of poetic writing and a different idea on what to write on: nature, artwork, and general observations in their day-to-day lives. After I had given my prepared talk, I asked each of the kids to pair up and write a poem with their partner’s help. I went around the circle offering the kids advice, but, for the most part, they were able to craft several poems by themselves.
I collected all of their work and we then played another game in which the students would try to guess what the author of the poem had written about and their interpretation of the poem. This exercise was made easy by the descriptive and simple language that was used by the kids. I was mesmerized by their command of the English language (their 2nd or 3rd language) and how well they interpreted each poem. Out of all the well-written works, one poem stood out for me.
'Oh, beautiful tree
An old man climbs the tall tree
He cut the branches.'
9th Class, Z.P.H.S, Kothaindlu, A.P.
This student's awareness of a pressing issue, deforestation, in the villages of India and his ability to express the magnitude of the problem in such simple and contextually relevant terms was astounding! At the end of the lesson, one of the children confidently shouted out in Telegu, “Could you teach us some American songs?" My training in classical Carnatic and Western music came in handy. We sang a prayer in Sanskrit for Lord Ganesha: "Mudakaratha Modakam", and then, proceeded to sing the Beatles tune "Yellow Submarine.” The children loved every moment of it. This experience showed me that the quest for knowledge and fun is universal. The kids in the room were all deeply inquisitive and were willing to learn any new material that was thrown at them.
My goal for the session was to try to spark an interest in poetry in at least one child. To my great pleasure, five students asked me for my phone number so that they could send me their future work and seek my advice. After seeing how excited they were about learning Japanese poetry, I have decided to go back to Agastya to conduct future workshops in poetry.
After some careful reflection on the poetry session, I realized that Aristotle’s quote needed a further modification. The experience of hands on teaching in my case, cemented my own understanding of poetry, its subjective nature and its ability to communicate with everybody in the world. Not the other way around as coined by Aristotle.
Poetry can be written by anyone who is willing to put the time and dedication as demonstrated by the bright kids of Agastya. While there are some basic tools that poets must possess, (understanding of rhyme, rhythm, meter, alliteration among others), it transcends all borders and boils down to curiosity and passion. These motivated kids from rural India who are so in touch with nature and their own feelings, if given the right encouragement and opportunity will make great poets some day.
Trinity School, NYC.
Here is a link to more of Govind's poems: