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My friend is unhappy. What can I do?

California State University, Dominguez Hills
University of Wisconsin, Parkside
Latest update: May 22, 2000
E-Mail Curran or Takata.

Using Poetry to Express Learning

Essay by Jeanne Curran and Susan R. Takata
Part of Teaching Series
Copyright: Jeanne Curran and Susan R. Takata, May 2000. "Fair Use" encouraged.

During the course of the Spring 2000 semester, we discovered that poetry is a tool that many of you enjoy. Our Poetry Gallery is growing, and I will continue to put up those poems that have come in in the last few weeks.

This file addresses particularly ways in which to use the poetry as a measure of your learning. For me, poetry just happens. I think that is how it should be. So this is a structurally violent approach, in that we are asking poetry to do something, I would normally not ask of it.

With that caution in mind, I would like to teach those of you who want to learn, how to use poetry in this way, as a tool.

  • First, remember that poetry is poetry. It is meant to evoke feelings, to reach the soul, often bypassing the linear route of argument.
  • That means that you'll have to get in touch with what you feel about what you're learning.
  • I should think this would be most appropriate in response to our work with love, structural violence, justice, and theories that guide us in these areas.
  • As a very rough model for what I mean, I tried to use poetry to describe an insight I had recently about reaching out to a friend who is unhappy.
  • First came the need to express myself in poetry.
  • Then I corrupted that need by deciding to use the poem to guide you.
  • The first draft I put up was called Respect

    By the time I got to that stage, I had left aside my feelings that my friend was unhappy, to thinking in terms of defining my willingness not to be structurally violent by privileging my feelings as more "healthy" or "right" than those of my friend. Thus, the title, Respect.

    Look at Respect, and see the difficulty I had with staying away from "intellectual" words, withsticking to affect as the practice of theory. I kept wanting to put in the theoretical language so you couldn't miss it. That's teaching, not poetry.

  • On Monday, May 22, I put up a second draft of the poem, now called "My friend is unhappy. What can I do?"

    In this version, I struggled to get back to the original feelings. I've still a long way to go, but it gives you an idea of what I was feeling, and you can still see the theory I was clinging to:

As you look back and forth at the versions of this poem, I hope this will give you some sense of a model to work with.

CAUTION. If you do not enjoy poetry, this is probably not a good technique for you. I am counting on your poetic sense to guide you to an appropriate use of poetry to express your learning. DO NOT TURN IN SUCH PROJECTS IN LIEU OF TERM PAPERS FOR TEACHERS WHO WANT TERM PAPERS!

Often with the need to write a poem comes the memory of a much loved poem. With the need to write "My friend is unhappy. What can I do?" came the memory of Jacques Prevert's Le Petit Dejeuner.

Dejeuner du Matin
by Jacques Prevert

Dejeuner du matin
by Jacques Prevert
Il a mis le cafe
Dans la tasse
Il a mis le lait
Dans la tasse de cafe
Il a mis le sucre
Dans le cafe au lait
Avec la petite cuiller
Il a tourne
Il a bu le cafe au lait
Et il a repose la tasse
Sans me parler
Il a allume
Une cigarette
Il a fait des ronds
Avec la fumee
Il a mis les cendres
Dans le cendrier
Sans me parler
Sans me regarder
Il s'est leve
Il a mis
Son chapeau sur sa tete
Il a mis
Son manteau de pluie
Parce qu'il pleuvait
Et il est parti
Sous la pluie
Sans une parole
Sans me regarder
Et moi j'ai pris
Ma tete dans ma main
Et j'ai pleure.
He put the coffee
In the cup
He put the milk
In the cup of coffee
He put the sugar
In the cafe au lait
With the little spoon
He stirred
He drank the cafe au lait
And he sat down the cup
Without speaking to me
He lit
A cigarette
He blew rings
With the smoke
He put the ashes
In the ashtray
Without speaking to me
Without looking at me
He stood up
He put
His hat on his head
He put on
His raincoat
Because it was raining
And he left
In the rain
Without a word
Without looking at me
And I, I took
My head in my hands
And cried.

I think it was the last line, "I took my head in my hands and cried." Yes, I'm sure it was, because I remember writing "et moi, j'ai pris ma tete dans ma main, et j'ai pleure." The loneliness of that line struck me in the same way as the loneliness of my friend's unhappiness.

You can see Prevert's influence, too, in my attempt to keep the language very simple, to not elaborate on my friend's feelings by using my own. As I reread Prevert's poem, I was struck once again by the way he strings verbs together to create a sense of quiet desperation. Maybe in another version . . .

Comments on the "My friend is unhappy . . "

On May 22, 200, Lisette Garcia wrote:

Jeanne, I loved your poem. You are so right; sometimes when we are feeling down all we need is for someone to be there. It doesn't matter if they don't say a word, but you know that they are right there next to us, and we know it's because they care. Sometimes all it takes is a nice, big hug and not a word. I really did enjoy this poem. I will share it with my friends and family and I will keep a copy for me.
Lisette Garcia

On May 22, 200, jeanne responded:

Thank you, Lisette. Now link on the Poetry Course below and Cliff Yates' suggestions for writing your own. jeanne

Online course in Teaching Poetry - Free

Have some time this summer? Want to work on your poetry? Visit Link to Cliff Yates' "Teaching Poetry in the Secondary School." He offers a whole lesson on how to write a simple poem like Prevert's.