The blinds are drawn closed in the first-floor dining room of St. Anthony Park Home, but the sun still tries to peek in on the scene. The effect is a striped pattern of shadow and light behind David Healy as he stands at the head of the class.
Healy teaches Poetry Class at the nursing home, 2237 Commonwealth Ave. As with many poetry and composition classes, the students study the works of famous (and not-so-famous) authors and write their own poems. There are no right answers here, just discussion. No corrections in red pen, just creation. No grades, just appreciation—of poetry and the writing of poems.
Today’s group of seven people doesn’t quite fill their adopted classroom, but nearly everyone is at the front. Class begins with a short discussion of the last session’s poem. Then, Healy reads aloud the dramatic monologue, “Hawk Roosting,” by Ted Hughes:
I sit in the top of the wood, my eyes closed.
Inaction, no falsifying dream
Between my hooked head and hooked feet:
Or in sleep rehearse perfect kills and eat.
The convenience of the high trees!
The air’s buoyancy and the sun’s ray
Are of advantage to me;
And the earth’s face upward for my inspection . . .
“What might the hawk symbolize?” Healy asks.
“Maybe Ted Hughes?” offers one student.
The bird might symbolize arrogant people, like Hitler and Napoleon, suggests another.
The class never fully agrees on an answer.
Next, Healy asks for animal suggestions for the class’s own dramatic monologue. Two of the students make suggestions:
After discussing the benefits and disadvantages of each—rats are aggressive, mice are thought to be friendlier, dogs love to please people, cats expect us to please them—the votes are counted. Dog wins in a runoff election with mouse. Cat receives no votes.
As class goes on, more students begin to participate. Four students offer their ideas by the end of the session. “What do we know about dogs?” Healy asks. Dogs are “fun-loving, obedient, noisy, disobedient, sulk if in trouble,” students suggest. Soon, the white board fills with the beginning of a poem.
Healy copies down everything and promises to return next week with the completed poem. And class is over. The residents trickle out of their classroom, and the room becomes a dining room once more.
Healy, who taught English composition at both the University of Minnesota and Bethel University and ran writing centers at both schools, began teaching Poetry Class six months ago. After a year of volunteering at the home, reading and chatting with a few individual residents, Healy—who retired as the editor of the Park Bugle in 2010—wanted to do more. Poetry Class allows him to share his love of poetry and teaching experience with more of the residents.
The format of the class was important to Healy. “I wanted to have them write something. Poetry could be managed in a short session,” he said.
The class has read a variety of poems from different authors and writing styles, yet the students spend little time analyzing the mechanics. “My main goal is to nurture an appreciation for poetry. I don’t spend a lot of time talking about formal features. I hope that they will develop, or have an existing, appreciation for poetry,” Healy said.
Twice a month Healy leads the class, using different poems as a jumping-off point for the class to write their own. Sometimes the class writes a complete poem during a session, sometimes not. “We don’t always get to the point where we’re generating sentences or lines,” Healy said.
The class participants appreciate Healy’s efforts. Lillian Finley has lived in the nursing home for several years but had never seen anything like Poetry Class before.
“I like it; it makes me think. It challenges me,” she said. Finley added that she enjoys the connection that the class gives her to the outside world. “In a nursing home you maybe only see your family,” she said.
Poetry Class lets Richard Horberg pursue something he loves. “It’s the highlight of my being here,” he said. “It’s the most interesting thing I’ve done since being here.”
Like Healy, Horberg also once taught writing classes. “I like David’s manner. He doesn’t rush. I like the way he constructs a poem,” he said.
Horberg writes outside of poetry class, too. He has 12 (unpublished) novels on his computer. Some good, some bad, he admits. In the 1970s and ’80s, Horberg had 15 short stories published by various magazines and quarterlies. After nights of cigarettes, beer and prose, he could go to bed happy knowing that he had written something good.
“I really love to write. I feel more alive than at any other time, so I have to write,” he said.
Poetry Class met the following week, and Healy shared the completed Ted Hughes-inspired poem:
A Dog’s Life
I sit by the fire and sleep.
I hear a noise and growl.
I answer my master’s call.
I eat whatever is given to me.
I love children; I protect the elderly.
I love you master; kiss me in return.
And the class moved on to the next poet. Perhaps “A Dog’s Life” will not be published outside of this newspaper. It doesn’t need to to be important. The process of writing the poem challenged the students, made them think and gave them a chance to write.
As Horberg said, “For me, writing is its own reward.”
Teresa Woodward is a freelance reporter and coffee roaster in St. Paul.
Micawber’s readings will celebrate Poetry Month and Earth Day
Celebrate National Poetry Month and Earth Day, on Wednesday, April 22, at 7 p.m., at Micawber’s Books, where poets Dave Healy, Naomi Cohn, John Krumberger and Sharon Chmielarz will read works suitable for the occasion.
Healy, author of The St. Paul Manual of Style and Nothing Is Lost, is a freelance writer and editor and was the editor of the Park Bugle from 2000-2010.
Cohn, author of Between Nectar & Eternity, is the creator of Known by Heart, a collaborative project on poetry, memory and the arts (see knownbyheartpoetry.com), and she provides poetry activities at Ebenezer, a senior housing and care center in Minneapolis.
Krumberger, author of In a Jar Somewhere and The Language of Rain and Wind, works as a psychologist in private practice in St. Paul.
Sharon Chmielarz’s ninth book of poetry is Visibility: Ten Miles, a Prairie Memoir in Photography and Poetry. Micawber’s is located at 2238 Carter Ave., St. Anthony Park.