For those few years when I worked in New York City public schools as an itinerant poet—Crown Heights, Harlem, the South Bronx—I’d lug a satchel heavy with books on the train every morning. Much of what I taught was directed toward finding out what the students saw every day. It was a way to honor their lives, which isn’t generally taught in public schools.
The beginning exercises were very simple: Tell me one thing you saw on the way into school this morning. Tell me one thing you saw last night when you got home. Describe something you see every day, describe something you saw only once and wondered about from then on. Tell me a dream, tell me a story someone told you, tell me something you’ve never told anyone else before. No one, in school at least, had ever asked them what their lives were like, no one had asked them to tell about their days. In this sense it felt like a radical act. I tried to imagine what might happen if each of them knew how important their lives were.
In the schools I’d visit, I’d sometimes pick up a discarded sheet of paper from the hallway floor, something a student had written in his notebook and then torn out. Sometimes, I could tell that he’d been given an assignment, and that he’d tried to fulfill it, and by tearing it out it was clear that he felt he had somehow failed.
Out of all the ephemera I’ve bent down to collect from black and green elementary school linoleum floors over the years, one has stayed with me. Likely it was part of a research paper, likely for biology. It started with a general statement, which was, I imagine, meant to be followed by supporting facts. The sentence, neatly printed on the first line, was this: All living things have shoulders—after this there was nothing, not even a period, as if even as he was writing it he realized something was wrong, that he would never be able to support what he was only beginning to say, that no facts would ever justify it.
All living things have shoulders—the first word is pure energy, the sweeping “All,” followed by the heartbeat of “living”—who wouldn’t be filled with hope having found this beginning? Then the drift begins, into uncertainty—”things”—a small misstep, not so grave that it couldn’t be righted, but it won’t be easy. Now something has to be said, some conclusion, I can almost hear the teacher, I can almost see what she has written on the blackboard—”Go from the general to the specific”—and what could be more general than “All living things,” and what could be more specific than “shoulders”? He reads it over once and knows it can never be reconciled, and so it is banished from his notebook.
All living things have shoulders—this one line, I have carried it with me since, I have tried to write a poem from it over and over, and failed, over and over. I have now come to believe that it already is a poem.
All living things have shoulders. Period. The end. A poem.