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August 4, 2011 / johnoliversimon

Craft Lecture: Flora Arnstein

Flora Arnstein (1897-1990)
Craft Lecture
California Poets In The Schools

San Francisco, May 12, 1980

Facilitated by Gail Newman, California Poets In The Schools honored then 83-year-old poet and educator Flora J. Arnstein by inviting her to lead a special seminar of experienced poetk-teachers. Beginning in the 1920’s at Presidio Hill School in San Francisco, an institution which she co-founded, Flora Arnstein became the first American educator to teach free-verse poetry bnased on natural perceptions, emotion and imagination. About the same time, Hughes Mearns went into Hunter College High School in New York City and got terrific poetry from his students. There is a thread of lineage down to Teachers & Writers Collaborative, CPITS and Poetry Inside Out, the translation-based poetry-in-schools program I now direct on behalf of the Center for the Art of Translation.  In 1980, I was Statewide Coordinator of California Poets In The Schools; these are my notes on Mrs. Arnstein’s seminar.

Flora Arnstein answers the question: why did she decnide to start teaching poetry to children? “I had young eyes then.” —Joseph Conrad

Of course students [5th through 8th grade] come up with big topics like What is God? What is Death? but what you can teach them is: the scope and depth of thought and the handling of language. Kids are most stimulated by other kids [other kids’ poems and also classmates as they get it — a reason to type up some poems every week) She says she never gave an assignment. Kids indict adn ults for lack ofbm honesty.

Fragment by a kid named Anna:


why the world does not listen —?

He would pat me on the head

and say in a superior tone’

‘you’ll understand in due time.’


More: “unequal, untamed, unloving” and “O you can shoot me once in a while, it gives variety” Where am I going and what is my purpose in life? Are we really here?

Many of us parents have heard from our offspring, “I hate you!” Look at hate.

Here I am in the midst of all this sickness we call truth. Like walls of hardened steel around me. Poetry, let me know if I am real. Such is the price of consciousness. What would happen if you never told anyone anything?

Student Miriam writes: It all floats, it all floats. Poetry is like silk fllowing from the transcontinebhtal railroad. Diving through the apple, you find the seed. Rage is quick and cleansing through its horreror: a small stab of light. Only once will you be a child. Ah you young children, eager to grow old!

Mrs. Arnstein wrote no death poems during World War II but has written many more recently. Reminiscent of Emily:


I met death on a clumsy day

and after that I died


how deceitful is God

to fool us with a loveable world


When kids say, “I don’t know how to write a poem,” you tell them to dictate their thoughts. Throw your thoughts into space and see if they come back.


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