Listening to poetry enhances `meaning'

Poet tells county students to hear poems `out loud' in their `encounter with words'


Many students read and write poetry in high school, but Pikesville poet Kendra Kopelke wants young people to listen to poetry, as well.

"Poems are kind of an odd encounter with words," she said. "To hear them out loud is really different."

As the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society's poet-in- residence, Kopelke will read and discuss her poetry in every Howard County High school between October and April. One of her messages is that hearing a poet read his or her work is as valuable as talking about themes, meters and line breaks.

Kopelke said that when people study poems, they are trying to unpack all the ideas that the poet had in his or her head. When people listen to poetry, they may think "something just happened to me. ... I felt some meaning about life that I hadn't had before."

Kopelke is director of the master's program in creative writing and publishing arts at the University of Baltimore and founder of a literary journal for senior citizen writers, called Passager. Two of her poetry collections have been published: Eager Street and Carpe Diem, Ants.

She said she studied music in college and was a serious flutist before she discovered poetry.

"In college, I really fell in love when I heard poets read their own poems," she said. "It did me in."

She told a class of sophomore English students at Reservoir High School last week that when she was in school, all of the poems they read "were written by people who were dead, like really dead. I never thought of poets as people who were living."

She said later, "I think whenever you see a living artist, you think you may be able to do this."

In her tour of Howard County high schools, Kopelke said she wants to do "whatever I can to lift the poems off the page for them."

At Hammond High School last week, where she spoke to a group of 11th-graders and ninth-graders, she started by reading a poem about attending a poetry reading.

It reads, in part:

The poet reads another poem

about a famous Italian painting

and your mind is sweating blue peonies.

What a shallow little tramp

you are, you tell yourself,

sliming around art,

sucking on its ethereal walls

like a snail."

When students applauded, she told them gently that at a poetry reading, people usually hold their applause until the end of the program.

"Poems really depend on silence," she said. "I think the poem kind of emerges in the silence. ... These poems are very shy. You have to be good to them, or they'll go hide under the desk."

Kopelke did spend some time talking about the meaning in her poems. The ones selected for the school program - many of which came from her early collections as many as 20 years ago - draw ideas and imagery from seemingly simple topics such as eating out, the color green and the activity of squirrels and ants. Several students enjoyed a poem called "The College Essay."

Erica Szalkowski, a Hammond junior, said Kopelke's work was a lot different than poetry her class had been reading in school.

"It felt more conversational than very rigid when we read it," she said. "I thought it was really neat to hear how she thought them out. ... It is interesting where she gets her inspiration from."

Kopelke said she is eager to help young people connect with words and with their imagination.

"The world is very complicated and beautiful," she said, "and poems can help you explore that."

She also answered what she said is a common question about how much money she makes writing poetry. She told the Hammond students she has made about $150 from her poems in her career, and that most poets write "around the edges" of other jobs and commitments.

"If you are interested in being a poet, it is because you're completely in love with poems and words and what words do," she said.

She also said that writing without someone paying you for it can be good for the artistic process.

"I like the freedom of it," she said, "because they are completely mine."

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