Celebrating Joy and Laughter

Using Poems to Praise and to Think Critically

By Linda Christensen

As a teacher trying to equip students to “unlearn the myths that bind them” in history, literature, and popular culture, I find it necessary to balance the critical stance we strive for in class with times of laughter and playfulness. I want to create more opportunities for joy. But even in those moments of joy, of community building, I want students to think critically about the world. In class, we read the poetry of Lucille Clifton, Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou, Countee Cullen and others who celebrate African-American culture and beauty.

Praise poems I call them. Many of these poets found it necessary to praise themselves because the standards of beauty and acceptance in the dominant culture were European American. For example, Clifton and Angelou praise big women — going against the norm of beauty that holds thinness as the standard.

Writing praise poems gives us a positive way to look at ourselves, but these poems also speak against the negative portrayals students too often see associated with their neighborhood, race, gender, size — the list is endless. I encourage students to praise themselves, their “people,” their school, their neighborhood. Of course, this is awkward. Most students have been taught that bragging is not acceptable. That’s why I frame the idea socially and historically. When Lucille Clifton writes in her poem “homage to my hips”: “these hips are big hips/ they don’t like to be held back./ these hips have never been enslaved…these hips are mighty hips/ these hips are magic hips,” she critiques the way women have been judged as well as the treatment of African Americans. As we talk about standards of beauty and materialism, students gain permission to criticize commercially produced images. In writing about themselves, students learn to praise their own attributes which have either been overlooked or held in contempt by society. Some students love the opportunity to point out what’s good about them. Curtina Barr wrote:

What the Mirror Said
In admiration of Lucille Clifton’s poetry

The mirror told me,
“Yo’ skin the color of coffee
after the cream’s been poured in.
Yo’ body’s just the right size —
not too plump,
not too thin.
Yo’ lips like cotton candy
sweet and soft.
Yo’ sho’ done good.
Yo’ like a city,
strong and tall,
though deep in your eyes
I can still see yo’ pain,
yo’ smile and laugh.
Keep doin’ yo’ thang.

Damon wrote a praise poem about his back side. Marcus wrote about his luscious lips. Aaron Wheeler-Kay wrote about his eyes in a poem called, “I Got The Blues”:

Blue eyes./ Yes, ma’am./ Blue. /Like the ocean —/ No, blue like new jeans./ Stiff and comfy — /No, blue like hard times./Yeah. /Blue like cold steel and oil. /Blue like the caress of jazz at a funeral. /The azure ice cubes in my head / Melt hearts. /Yes, blue like lightening in a desert storm. / Blue like twin sapphires blazing in a jeweler’s palm. /Blue like my baby. /Like my baby blues. /Blue like cold lips in winter, /Indigo stains /In an optical vein. /I got the blues / And they got a tale /To tell.

As students read aloud, the poems brought kinship and often a great deal of laughter to our classroom community. When Marcus returned two years after he graduated, we still laughed about his “luscious lips.”

  1. When we read the poems by Angelou, Clifton, and others, I ask the students to talk about what the poets are praising and why they might feel it necessary to praise themselves.
  2. I ask students to think of something about themselves, their community, their school, their culture that deserves praise, but that may not often receive praise. I ask a few students to share their ideas so they can help shake loose some ideas for classmates who are stuck.
  3. I find it helpful to have a “hook” for students to start their poems. I suggest they might want to praise a specific part of their body as Clifton does in her “homage to my hips” or look at themselves in the mirror and praise what they see as Clifton does in her “what the mirror said.” They might want to praise a specific person in the same way Quincy Troupe describes Magic Johnson in “A Poem for ‘Magic.’” As I select the poems, I look for ways students can enter the writing as well as look at the content of the piece. It helps if students have several ideas of how to begin their poems.
  4. I usually turn the lights off and ask students to find a space where they can write quietly. Some like to sit on the floor, others on the window sill, some turn their desks to the wall. This allows them time to get prepared. Then I tell students that when I turn the lights back on they must begin writing in silence.

Some students have difficulty praising themselves. I understand this group because I haven’t been able to write a decent praise poem either, so I allow students to find their own passion in the assignment , but to remember the intent of the poem: praise something that may not traditionally be valued in our society. Travers Holbein was upset with how society teaches young people to value themselves based on their access to wealth, so he wrote a mock poem in praise of the almighty dollar:

Greenback Lover
My fingers caress your length.
I know
Every inch of you
I hear your beauty.
I smell your voice.
I see your scent.
You call to me
Happiness for all
Anything I desire
You will get for me.
Your power hypnotizes me
As it has a billion others.
You’re a whore
Making love
To the world.
All have fondled you
And the extreme
Of the touch.
I was addicted
Then deprived
For so long.
It opened my eyes
To the pain
To the masses
Who give their lives
To you.
In a sea of greed
And jealousy.
I will always love you.
I despise you.
In God we Trust —
The Green god.
The almighty dollar.

In a classroom where students and I critique everything from Donald Duck to U.S. foreign policy, I also need to prompt kids to celebrate the ordinary, the common daily events they take pleasure in. I want to find other ways to coax joy back into the room especially when students feel down about the ways of the world. One look at the number of Doc Martens and Reeboks or whichever shoe happens to be the fashion at the hour with the assembled group tells me that students are still seduced by consumerism. They are bombarded with messages that their route to happiness is a Diet Pepsi, a new deodorant, or a shampoo that will make them irresistible. At times, students and I explicitly examine ads and their messages, but I also use odes, a traditional poetic form, to help students re-see the beauty in the world outside the mall.

I stumbled across odes a few years ago when I fell in love with Pablo Neruda’s poetry. Students read Neruda’s “Ode to Socks” in which he praises a pair of socks given him by a friend. The odes, like the earlier praise poems, allow students to find the positive in their daily lives. Neruda’s odes also push students to use concrete details and imagery in their pieces. I use Selected Odes of Pablo Neruda which has the original Spanish as well as the English translation.

  1. Students read the poem in both languages. (This validates students who speak Spanish as well as locating writing in the broader linguistic world. I encourage students who speak more than one language to write in either or both languages.)
  2. We discuss how Neruda describes the socks, “two woolen /fish, /two long sharks /of lapis blue /shot /with a golden thread, /two mammoth blackbirds.” I noticed this year, the more time I spend examining the imagery in Neruda’s poem, the more students attempted daring, outrageous imagery. We also note how he talks about both the gift and the giver.
  3. Then I ask students to make a list of objects they might praise — a gift, an everyday object, something that has meaning for them even though it might not seem important to anyone else. As in the earlier exercise, a few students share their ideas to dislodge memories for their classmates.
  4. I turn off the lights and ask students to take a few deep breaths and close their eyes. (They hate this at first. They’re afraid other people might look at them. It takes patience to get this to work in my classes.) Then I ask students to think about what they are going to praise. I do this part slowly — 30 – 60 seconds for each question. There’s a tendency to rush because the class is silent, but it takes a while to get a visual image. I ask students to remember what the object looks like, smells like, sounds like, what else it reminds them of, how they came to get it. I find the guided visualization helps students remember more detail. When I turn the lights back on, I again ask students to write in silence.
  5. With classes of younger students, I sometimes begin by asking them to write a paragraph describing the object, a paragraph about how they came to have the object. They can use these details in their poems.

Students have written odes to: the Spanish language, their skin, their weight, lesbians, a mother’s hands, animal cookies, ham, a grandfather’s hat, tap dance, coffee, Jefferson High School, chocolate chip cookies, the color red, writing, and more. The ode became a form they returned to frequently in their writing.

Sarah Scofield, whose beautiful reading of Neruda’s poetry in Spanish allowed her to share her linguistic talent with classmates, wrote this poem:

Ode to Spanish
A language
As beautiful as music:
Melodious verbs
Harmonious adjectives
Rhythmic nouns
Intertwine as I speak.
An orchestra of words
Conducted by my tongue.
I compose
A new song
As those around me listen.
Musical sentences
Rich with the notes
Of culture.
A romance language stirring the hearts
of its listeners.
The music plays on
As I watch with wonder how
My untrained yet experienced tongue
conducts the orchestra,
and the music pleases me.

I don’t want to exaggerate the importance of these lessons. They are two small weapons in my fight against cynicism and despair. But I do believe that if I want my students to imagine a more just society, I must spend time teaching them how to find what’s good as well as to find what’s bad. My classroom provides a small space to undermine a social system that daily damages my students with belittling messages. In this space, I hope to help students not only construct a critique, but also to build a community that can laugh and share joy.