The month of Cheshvan is sometimes called Marcheshvan – “bitter Cheshvan”. Why, bitter? Because Cheshvan is the only month in the Jewish calendar with no chaggim or other out-of-the-ordinary days. At Heschel, we like to make learning sweet every month of the year. So, we planted our annual Poetry Festival right in the middle of the month of Cheshvan.
We celebrate poetry because poetry celebrates us. Poetry offers us metaphor, sounds, imagery, and form to express what is in our hearts, minds, and souls. It speaks to the whole child in each of us and allows the whole child in each of us to speak.
Reading and writing poetry is also a true and tried way to develop language and literacy skills. The educational philosopher and psychologist Professor Kieran Egan teaches that poetry lies at the root of human thinking and therefore deserves a formative place in the curriculum. Egan rejects Piagetian notion that young children only think concretely and are capable of the more sophisticated forms of thinking usually associated with poetry only later in their maturation. Egan asserts that, “The central fact of our minds is their poetic nature.”
To learn more about how and why we learn poetry and Heschel, click here.
Egan cites researchers such as Howard Gardener and Ellen Winner of the Harvard Graduate School of Education to explain that,
Human children are equipped with some specific intellectual capacities that reach their peak in our early years…For example our ability to generate appropriate metaphors reaches its peak by age five, and declines thereafter” (“The arts as ‘the basics’ of education”, 8)
According to Egan, the linguistic practices that are inherent in poetry are not advanced cognitive developments, but are, in fact, “the true basics of education.” Many elements of poetry, such as forming images from words, understanding abstract notions, and appreciating the moods and emotions that different cadences and rhythms can convey, are fundamental to the way the human mind works and makes sense of the world.
The poet Ted Hughes likens poetic thinking to fishing. If we do not learn this way of thinking, “then our minds lie in us like fish in the pond of a man who cannot fish.” Hughes draws further on the metaphor of fishing to evoke the practices of patience, close observation, and “concentration on a small point,” that we use when we read and write poetry.
Poetry is not only about reaching inside ourselves, it is also a way to communicate and share our thoughts and emotions with others. Just as science constitutes a method for investigating and sharing knowledge about natural phenomena, so poetry provides a method for exploring and sharing inner personal experiences. “…then our minds lie in us like fish in the pond of a man who cannot fish.” -Ted Hughes Metaphor – the ability to see one thing in terms of another – allows us to express unique experiences, and yet understand one another. For Robbie Burns, love is a “red, red, rose,” Leonard Cohen calls it “a broken Halleluya” and, for e.e. cummings, “nothing, not even the rain has such small hands.” Each poet describes love using a different metaphor; and yet through our common understandings of roses, broken praises, rain, and hands, we can share in these poets’ individual experiences of love.
Metaphor’s remarkable quality to preserve a unique experience and yet render it sharable, is what Natalie Goldberg, author of Writing Down the Bones, means when she writes, “We are all connected. Metaphor knows this and therefore is religious.”
So, in month of Marchesvhan, a quiet time for traditional Jewish chaggim, poetry engages us another way in religious experiences of awe, wonder, and connecting with one another.