One way to get better research scientists in this country, says Alexandria journalist and novelist Mary Berry, is to teach kids poetry.
"To write a poem you have to be able to make jumps in your mind, to take creative leaps between one thing and another, said Berry, now in her third year of teaching a children's poetry workshop at the Athaeneum museum in Alexandria. "Then, once you've made the jump, you have to be able to boil it down to its bare essence, to understand it. I imagine that it's very much the same thing a scientist does in his work."
What's more, making such mental leaps is a skill that "comes naturally--I'm convinced of that now," she said. "Just look at these kids."
The kids in question are fifth and sixth graders from Alexandria schools who come once a week after school to hear and write poetry. Last Friday, huddled in window sills or flopped on the floor of the museum's basement, the kids wrote out what Berry calls "the raw material of poetry. I don't teach forms--poetry is so hard. I teach them to use images, to make abstract things concrete, to give form to ideas."
The forms they were dealing with were common household items: a paintbrush, a broken plastic recorder ("Ooh, it's dirty!"), a kitchen spoon, a book ("Hey, this is a library book"), a hammer--objects Berry calls "symbolic."
"You can write about anything: an instrument you play, something from your kitchen, a dictionary, a diary," she said.
Jennifer Feller, an 11-year-old from Burgundy Farms School, picked a variation on the kitchen spoon: "It can slice, dice/But don't look at the price./It's faster than Superman himself/But it can be stored on a shelf./What is it?"
"A Cuisinart," answered the sophisticated class.
At any moment, roughly two-thirds of the students are busy writing their own poems about books and clarinets, drums and computers, bicycles and paintbrushes. The rest are fingering the objects, sharing school gossip, telling jokes or tugging at Berry's blue jeans. "How do you spell 'sausage?' " asked Steven Brita, 10, of St. Stephen's, who was writing a verse about the clarinet: The clarinet is a nice instrument. It's like a fresh spring morning and Bob E. Owens sausage smellling up the house. Phew!
And then there's Andrew Frederici, the youngest of this class of 14, who pours out the kind of poetry adults pay to read: Inside a trumpet there are sounds waiting to come out. The color is purple and feeling of pride and dignity. It is a song of the dead, or a wed- ding.
"I'm amazed by the sophistication of their language and vision," said Berry, who types their poems each week for a booklet that will be printed at the end of the course.
The cost of the book is covered by a small grant from the Virginia Commission for the Arts, along with nominal fees from the three classes. Making the book follows a method Berry established when she first started teaching poetry to her own children at Burgundy Farms Schools.
"I went to talk with my son's teacher about doing something to encourage writing," she said, "because he didn't seem to enjoy it, and she said, 'Why don't you come in and teach?' "
With what she describes as "no qualifications" and a copy of Kenneth Koch's book on teaching poetry to New York City children, Berry got the class started on "list poems."
"We took them outside and wrote about spring: 'Spring is like a what?' " she said. "Or we'd write about a letter, like W. What color is it? What does it feel like?"
She went from Burgundy Farms to teaching at Douglas MacArthur Elementary School, which her children now attend, and started a poetry workshop "in between soccer seasons" for the Athaeneum. And although she says she enjoys all the children--third through eighth grade--with whom she deals, her favorite age group is the youngest.
"A third grader knows how to write; he doesn't have to dictate the poem to you," Berry said. "But he isn't stuck in cliches, and he's not really self-conscious yet." She describes her older students as "exciting: They're learning to critique each other's work, and do some real poetry." But they sometimes have trouble making the long creative leaps, she thinks.
"It's tremendously important to teach people that they can let their minds jump out of these very narrow channels imposed on them as they grow older," she said. "It's that creative leaping that makes a good poet or--let's face it--a good anything."