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Poems inspire classes Residency: Barbara Goldberg, the county schools' writer- in-residence, hopes to teach her student audiences that poetry is like magic.


Barbara Goldberg, this year's writer-in-residence at Howard County high schools, wants students to know that poetry is more than a boring mishmash of similes and metaphors they might be tested on in school.

The Chevy Chase poet compares poetry to everyday things, like scoring a goal, scratching an itch or meeting a new friend.

"It's magic," she tells them. "You want to taste it, like ice cream, and see if you like the flavors."

Goldberg, who has written five books of poetry and co-edited two, began her yearlong residency Thursday with visits to Mount Hebron High School in Ellicott City and Hammond High School in Columbia. She will speak at eight other county high schools during the school year.

At Mount Hebron on Thursday morning, Goldberg began by talking about her childhood growing up in Forest Hills, N.Y., the daughter of refugees from Nazi-occupied Europe. She said the Holocaust was so painful for her parents -- one set of Goldberg's grandparents died in the Holocaust -- that they never discussed it. She said she was aware of her parents' suffering, especially when her father would go into rages that terrified her as a small child.

That taught her, she said, that smiles and good manners can be deceptive.

"There are many ways of knowing things, and probably the least important way is what's on the surface," she said. " Truth is in the underbelly of things, and that's what I'm after."

Goldberg admitted that might seem strange, coming from a cheerful woman who likes to laugh and joke, was captain of the cheerleading squad in high school, and reads and writes poetry to delight herself.

But, as she said, "Even the captain of the cheerleaders can be obsessed with underbellies."

The writer-in-residence program, sponsored by the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society, is about 10 years old. Ellen Kennedy, president of the group, said she chose Goldberg this year because she admires her energy and intellect.

"This is a person who has had a very busy life, and a very busy life of the mind," Kennedy said. "You don't earn three different master's degrees in three different subjects unless you are an able, searching person."

Goldberg, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Mount Holyoke College, has master's degrees in education, psychology and creative writing. The 55-year-old tells students that she didn't discover poetry until she was in her 30s.

She works full time as a speech writer for AARP and said she writes poetry when she can, usually in the morning when she's still "hazy."

"I like to [write] in my bathrobe," she said. " It's less restricted. It's before the structure of civilization and its discontents has a chance to enforce itself."

Goldberg also read her poems, discussed poetic technique and gave advice on how to read poems.

"It's short, it's concise, it should pack a wallop, and you are honor-bound to read it twice," she said. "Honor-bound. The first time you read that poem, read it fast. Fast. And you are forbidden to try to figure out what it means."

Goldberg told the students to approach a new poem as if they were meeting a new person or trying a new ice cream flavor. She talked about writing in everyday terms.

"I would suggest that one of the greatest pleasures in life is finding the right word," she told them. "It's like an itch. It stops itching when you find the exact, precise, right word."

Mount Hebron students said they enjoyed Goldberg -- though one didn't fully understand what she was talking about, and another thought her poems needed to be more abstract.

"I like the idea that they have poets come," said Megan O'Brien, 17, of Ellicott City. "There are a lot of people who don't experience poetry outside of school."

Jaime Curlett, also a 17-year-old Ellicott City resident, said she thinks it's an "honor" to be able to listen to poets in school.

"I enjoyed it," she said. "It was different the way she read the poems, a lot different than I've ever heard."

Goldberg, who began the day by wandering the halls and watching the students, said she loves teen-agers' energy and hopes her time in Howard schools will inspire more students to channel their energy into poetry.

"I feel very passionate about bringing poetry out of the ivory tower and to have it become a deep, instinctive part of people's lives," she said. She said she likes to talk to young people because "a lot of times one can turn a life around."

Pub Date: 12/13/98

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