Prejudice revealed through poetry


Two poets appeared at Horace Mann school, an elite private school in the Bronx, and caused quite a stir when students took their directions for writing poems in unexpected and unacceptable directions.

Poets Denise Duhamel and Maureen Seaton, award winners and creative writing teachers from Florida who have collaborated on three books, came to NY to bring their skills to the high school students. They read one of their poems as a prompt to the 9-12th graders, then set the 700 students on the path of self-expression.

Students were given index cards, then by instructed to write five words beginning with “I remember…” on one card, then seven words including a color on another, and five words referencing a pop culture icon. Cards were randomly shuffled and students volunteered to read the cards aloud, thereby creating a new poem from the various fragments.

The group poem didn’t turn out as expected. The problem was that the poem that Duhamel and Seaton had written and read to the students, which used slurs against blacks and gays, instead of prompting a gush of creative energy had primed a pump full of bile. Student contributions repeated the slurs without irony, without context, without explanation. It was raw prejudice that spewed out.

“We invited them to express themselves, and they did,” said Duhamel.

Dr. Schiller, the upper school’s head, said that the poem read by Duhamel and Seaton was “filled with profanity” and “included hateful and highly antagonistic language.” The visiting professors saw the point of their poem as blunting the idea that “gay lives are somehow different from straight ones.”

Dr. Schiller, publicly apologized, saying, “It was my responsibility to ensure that the presentation to our students was fitting and appropriate. It was not. I should have intervened to stop the assembly, and I did not do so.”

And good thing he didn’t. For the poem may do a great deal of good, despite (or perhaps because of) the discomfort it caused. It has revealed a reality that had been all but invisible to the administration.

One senior said that the students’ cards accurately reflected a common attitude in the school. A black student said, “Words and ideas were thrown around that I’ve heard expressed in hallways, classrooms and the cafeteria. I personally have been subject to remarks much worse than those shared on stage . . . We need to have a culture in which it’s normal to hear people speaking up not only when they feel attacked but also when they feel.”

Franz Kafka wrote, “A book must be the ax for the frozen sea inside us.” An ax has been taken to Horace Mann, breaking open the frozen sea of silence. Duhamel and Seaton probably never expected to be so effective. This is art at its best.

Schiller shouldn’t be apologizing for inviting the poets but thanking them for starting a discussion long overdue.

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9 thoughts on “Prejudice revealed through poetry

  1. None of this surpirses me about Horace Mann. The Headmaster, Head of the Upper School, and Disciplinary Dean allow drunk teachers to be escorts on school trips and drunk coaches (one of the coaches is married to the DIsiplinary Dean)to supervise during daily practices. The school always turns a blind eye and blames the outside. These children have no role models and nowhere to turn. Horace Mann graduates students without a moral compass and when there is a problem it is always tooo late. Where were Schiller, Kelly, and Delanty when these teachers invited these poets? Where was this Trinity when these students should have been taught right from wrong?

    • As a student, i’d like to ask you where the hell you’re getting this information. NONE of this stuff has happened. The poetry assembly, I agree, was the axe to break apart this frozen sea of hatred. But the thing is, we all know that it’s not a shock. Don’t be ridiculous. You give 700 teens oppressed by rules anonymous cards that they know are going to be read out loud and then you expect everything to be g-rated? Come on. Be realistic.

      • I’m not sure which part of my comments you are bothered by?
        As for where I got my information: NY Times. A comment I received by one of the poets supported by interpretation.

  2. Poetry that provokes honesty leads to a dialogue that is otherwise suppressed. May Horace Mann confront the prejudices that are clearly there but usually unspoken.

  3. This speaks volumes to points Muriel Rukeyser made in her book, “The Life of Poetry.” In it, she said that we corrupt our consciousness when we replace what we do feel, with what we are told to feel or think we should feel. She also said, this is the real reason people don’t read poetry, because poetry forces people to face their real feelings. This exercise is exactly what the poetry did. The black student said as much and said this is what should happen. We should grapple with our real feelings, of course, in a civil way. Art is one of the ways to do that. Bravo Denise and Maureen. Wish I could have witnessed it.

  4. Richard Levine, retired NYC teacher, poet

    Kurt Vonnegut compared racism in America to a gagging stench in a high-ceilinged, marble-floored great room filled with people in formal wear, holding drinks and pretending they didn’t smell it. How well that captures ‘how far we’ve come’ in our American journey only means that it’s not as out in the open as the “Whites Only” signs of the pre-civil rights Jim Crow south.

    In this historic light, the racist attitudes expressed by the Horace Mann children might be seen as an expression of a historic American problem, one that goes back to the day Adams told Jefferson to edit out an anti-slavery paragraph from the Declaration of Independence. The question, here and now, is why, after Brown v Bd of Ed of Topeka, after Jackie Robinson, after Rosa Parks, and Dr. King and Birmingham, Selma, etc., etc., are children of such affluence filled with such angry prejudice?

    And the comments don’t seem at all spontaneous or the mischievous impulse of immaturity, they seem more like deep seated attitudes learned from the example and speech of adults around them. In addition to influences at home and school, these children are growing up in a time when a rhetoric of disrespect and hate is becoming routine and acceptable in our public discourse, especially since the election of our nation’s first black president, Barack Obama. The incident at Horace Mann recalls a lyric from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific …

    You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
    Before you are six or seven or eight,
    To hate all the people your relatives hate, …

    This lyric is an example of the power of art to make us face even ugly truths, yet poetry or songs alone cannot be expected to carry the weight changing a society’s culture. After all, during the long run of South Pacific, with its spotlight on prejudice, Senator Eugene McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee were the biggest shows on American’s Great White Way.

    Poetry and all forms of art can create openings for social change, but all of us can by speaking up about such incidents can promote that dialogue locally. But unless the students’ parents and administers at Horace Mann initiate an honest conversation about the cancerous nature of hate in a democratic society the institution will continue to protect a right to prejudice among the privileged. A friend says this incident is an example of “… 1% parenting.”

    i am accused of tending to the past
    as if i made it,
    as if i sculpted it
    with my own hands. i did not.
    this past was waiting for me
    when i came,
    a monstrous unnamed baby,
    and i with my mother’s itch
    took it to breast
    and named it
    History.
    she is more human now,
    learning languages everyday,
    remembering faces, names and dates.
    when she is strong enough to travel
    on her own, beware, she will.

    Lucille Clifton

  5. The poem(s) that comes from their collaborative collection Exquisite Politics is the problem. Controversial work should be explained more to an adolescent audience before it is read. Why do movies, music cds, or video games come with warning labels?
    -Nick

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