Morning Exercises: Poetry

“If poets ruled the planet, we’d still be living in caves, and we wouldn’t care about anything except writing.” Janet R. Kirchheimer

This was just one quotable line from Janet’s response to an email I sent to her, in which I confessed that I’d been writing poetry to procrastinate grading papers and answering emails. Janet, the CLAL teaching fellow who manages the LEAP program, is a poet, so I knew she’d understand my predicament.

It’s been one week since I returned from Philadelphia, where I attended numerous lectures and seminars at the Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies. I crammed a lot of learning into three days, attending not only the LEAP program but also a lecture in the Religion and the Global Future series at the University of Pennsylvania, touring the National Museum of American Jewish History with a docent, and connecting with friends and colleagues over delicious meals.

But the thing that stuck with me, that I’ve been thinking about and working on all week, is poetry.

In our first LEAP session, Professor Nancy Berg of Washington University in St. Louis began by having us write a cinquain, a five-line poem, to prepare us for our discussion about the teaching of Hebrew in the United States. She gave us specific instructions about the word count of each line, and asked us to use the word “Hebrew” for our noun in the first line.

We wrote our cinquains in silence, and each of our poems reflected our individual relationships to Hebrew as a modern language and as the language of our ancient, sacred texts. Some intrepid souls shared their cinquains with the group, which sparked lively discussion, for nearly two hours, about the role of Hebrew in our professional and personal lives, as well as debate about the ideas raised in the book we’d read in preparation for this seminar.

I didn’t share my cinquain that afternoon because I didn’t finish it. I’m not a poet, but I love poetry, and I’d challenged myself to write this poem in two languages, English and Hebrew. Choosing my words carefully—testing their weight on the page, listening to the music of each line and reciting the whole poem, silently, in my mind—took me more than the time allotted to us.

On Tuesday of this week, I enlisted my friend Ariella Livnat, a Hebrew teacher at The Weber School, to help me revise my חמשיר, as it’s known in Hebrew. I needed to consult a native speaker about the connotations of each word. On Wednesday morning, I woke up with two adjectives on my tongue, and finally finished my poem.

I also introduced this technique to my friend and colleague on the Jewish Studies team, Chaya Lieberman, and we wrote cinquains with our students in the Meditative Minyan, using the word “prayer” as our noun for the first line. After ten minutes of writing silently, we each shared our poems and discussed what ideas and feelings about prayer the process evoked in us.

Chaya’s cinquain is elegant, each word reflecting the meaning, and music, of prayer.

Mine is still unfinished.

I’ve been writing revisions, adding and changing words, reciting lines between classes. I haven’t graded any papers this week, or answered many emails. When poetry is percolating, it’s difficult to care about anything but writing.