The Power of I, Too

Langston Hughes’s poem “I, Too,” first of all, has all the qualities I look for in a poem for English learners. The vocabulary is not too challenging, though there are some interesting word choices to think about. The length is manageable for reading and discussion in the same sitting. In fact, instead of struggling with too many words — and too many new words — all at once, the English learner can take in the text of the poem and get to the deeper realm of discussion of history, of culture of life, of society, of humanity, which is actually much more challenging. Isn’t that kind of conversation why we’re here, why we’re learning langauge in the first place? To connect. To experience the world through a slightly different lens. To experience the world through another language and immerse in the culture it carries.

And this poem does carry so much history, culture, and meaning in its few words. I recently read that Julia Alvarez, herself a bicultural, bilingual person, read this poem when she was young. She had, with her family, escaped the dictatorship in the Dominican Republic and landed in New York City an immigrant, “different.” As she read the poem in a school textbook, she realized that she, too, could make a life in this country and could be a writer. (Here is a lesson on her piece “Snow,” all about being an immigrant and loving language.)

I think about people right now, maybe you, who might be in the US in a similar situation and who will read this poem and think — yes — I, too. Maybe you’re in another country reading in English, and this poem can do for you what great literature does: gives a valuable glimpse into another culture and country without even getting on a plane. This poem asks: What does it mean to be an “American”? Who is included, and should be? What is the ideal vision of this country?

This question of who belongs can be found in every culture, every human group. So can writing, literature, art, which explores those essential questions. I think about Hughes writing this poem and Julia Alvarez reading it as a girl, and another student somewhere reading it now, I am, again, astonished at that cloth of connection through generations, at the power of literature, of poetry.

Why do poets write, and why do we read? I think, to paraphrase Virginia Woolf in To the Lighthouse, for love — of words or an idea or a phrase that goes out into the world to become “part of the human gain.” Poets write and artists create not to get much for themselves but to send something out, to add another strand to the tapestry. Poets speak — for themselves, for others. There is value in saying. There’s value in imagining. In this poem, there is the gain of solidarity in saying “I, Too,” and a declaration, a vision of a country of equality, of valuing every person at the table.

We may learn another language to get a better job or to communicate at the grocery store or bus stop. But why do we really learn language, beyond its utilitarian function? I think deep down our motivations are a lot more akin to poetry — to connect, to speak to other people we wouldn’t have been able to speak to, to more thoroughly know our world. So for me, reading literature to learn language isn’t a luxury or too academic or too difficult — it’s at the heart of why we speak and an insight into a language’s depths.

Read more and see the lesson on this poem here.

Thanks for reading!

This month, December 2020, on Instagram, I’m doing a series on the value of poets & poetry. I’ll share posts with poems about poetry and short video reading/discussion of the poems. Head on over & follow along!

“Eating Together” by Li-Young Lee

Go straight to the complete lesson here!

And see a creative writing prompt based on this poem here.

To me, Li-Young Lee writes some of the most complex and layered and beautiful poetry I know. Yes, his work can be difficult for even the native English speaker with a big vocabulary and with lots of poetry reading experience.

But at the same time, he relies so much on memorable images that langauge learners can quickly surpass the langauge on the page and access the visual, tactile, sensory world the language only points to. And isn’t that the beauty of poetry, the reason to read a poem?

That characteristic of poetry — relying on the image and the symbol more than literal language — makes it a form especially rich and rewarding for those learning English. If we can make it past those initial black and white letters on the page, we can see and hear and taste the meaning, particularly with a poet like Li-Young Lee.

And in “Eating Together,” we see also how the simplest language, the first words you might learn in the language — “brothers, sister, my mother” –become so important. This is another advantage for the language learner: if you know even these basic words you can read this poem — and feel how just by saying their names he honors them. In a beginning English textbook, these words might seem so elementary. But here, in this poem, these most basic English words are carefully, intentionally used in a way that creates a feeling of honor and love.

In poetry, simple language does not mean a lack of meaning. Because in poetry, the way a word is used, its position on the line, the amount of space devoted to a subject, the sound of the words themselves, all contributes to the meaning. These poetic signals are like having conversational cues in addition to the literal words being said — and with these cues people learning a language have much more help in understanding the exchange.

Here’s an excerpt from my lesson on the power of naming and the importance of these poetic signals:

Poets often do this listing or naming in poetry to honor things, to acknowledge their presence — even things that seem commonplace, that we see every day. Think about how many objects or people you see everyday without really seeing them. Somehow when poets write things into poetry, give them that attention — like placing “brothers, sister, mother, together on that one line — it honors them.

(Walt Whitman, one of poetry’s most famous “namers,” wrote many poems simply listing the people he would see on the street in this country, and somehow bringing them all together in a poem brought them together even if they didn’t notice each other or feel connected in everyday life.)

So Lee, here, devotes half of this poem to naming the food, the people together at the table — a way to give honor and appreciation for their presence, for the moment of gathering.

Read more


After you read the lesson, see a creative writing prompt based on Li-Young Lee’s “Eating Together”!

And see more lessons on ELLiterature.

Visit ELLiterature homepage.

Tending to Raw Spots

I was talking to a student the other day who said she relies on visual art because she feels like a weak writer. But she knows the audience needs words, or that her art would be stronger with solid writing. So by seeking out teaching, she’s inviting growth. She’s willfully beginning a process, she knows will be challenging.

I admire that willingness: to ask for help, to invest in learning, to begin a process that you know will challenge and push and frustrate you.

I know that growth begins with the small, delicate things. Seeds, eggs, sprouts, baby creatures learning to scoot then crawl then walk. Growth begins in things that are unripe, raw, just emerged. Growth is inevitable. Yet it is so difficult, espeically as adult people, to even become aware of, to admit (both: to say out loud and to allow) the vulnerable places in ourselves.

Logicially, I know that people who do things really well are constantly learning. A friend who speaks another language almost to native proficiency for years carried around a dictionary to constantly study words and pronunciations, look up synonyms. A master teacher I admire is constantly attending workshops, trying new teaching methods, exploring new lessons to bring into the classroom, and refines her approach after each class. People who embrace growth are willing to say, “I don’t know; let me look it up,” and so they become masterful in thousands of small, willful actions.

On the other hand, many people who avoid learning, who don’t want to admit they don’t know how to pronounce x word, don’t ever grow, won’t ever learn to pronounce it. And so they remain stagnant. Instead of seeking growth, we often defend our delicate spots and become fearfully protective of them instead of opening them to the fresh air of exploration and tending, like letting a wound breathe.

So I, as a poet ever-interested in language, was looking for a word to describe these places in ourselves that feel so vulnerable, and settled on “raw.” Why raw?

source: Dictionary.com

This is why I love language. I was trying to find a word: weak, vulnerable, sensitive, undeveloped, unripe. None of these seemed exactly right. I wanted a word that meant both unfinished and sensitive, almost painful. I was picturing a soft spot on fruit, a bruise or small cut on an arm that keeps getting prodded.

Life does that, right? It keeps prodding us, poking those weak places, those vulnerabilities, until we notice and tend to them. It prods until we stop pushing up our hands in defense and begin the process of healing and new growth. We might call these “weaknesses,” but they’re weak only because they haven’t been through “processes of … finishing, refining.” They’re painfully open and exposed, just asking to be addressed. They’re unprocessed, unevaluated, inexperienced, untrained — which means they can be, they’re waiting to be processed, evaluated, experienced, and trained.

And these untrained, undeveloped parts of us are “grossly frank.” They’re painful, calling our attention, and we must be grossly honest to acknowledge them. Kids are so brutally honest in that way. They haven’t learned the adult, socialized way of polite white lies or ignoring what should politely be ignored. They stare at people and speak up and comment on whatever is happening. If these raw parts of ourselves are like small children ready to grow and experience, they can serve us in the same way — by forcing us to be brutally honest with ourselves about who we are, where we are, who we’d like to be, what we’d like to be able to do. Raw in one sense means unadorned, uncovered by our usual ways of performing our competence. Raw is brutally, honestly, saying “I don’t know.”

And children are also usually unabashedly curious and courageous in learning; they fall and stumble and recover quickly. They poke around and get excited, like my friend learning language, my friend thinking of new ideas for her classroom. Maybe we develop more fear as adults in exposing ourselves to falls and wounds. There’s a courageousness, a verve in children learning to ride a bike or take on a new skill. There usually isn’t shame in not knowing — but joy in gaining something new, gaining a new ability, being enabled to do new things.

Learning is difficult. It’s challenging. It’s uncomfortable. To begin, first we have to admit to “I don’t know” or “I need guidance.” But that utterance frees so much new potential. In the pain and sensitivity in those tender spots, the not-yet-developed state, there’s this excitement of what will be. When we begin to feel that “click” or resonance of new knowledge, seeing in a new way, how good that process of work and becoming feels, even when it’s a struggle. We can hide in defensiveness and protection, or we can open up those raw spots to air and move forward, imagining the small seedling one day bloomed.


See more about my work with learning: language, literature, mindfulness.

How Poetry Can Heal Language Learning Anxiety

A student recently reminded me of something unique about poetry. We were reading a poem out loud, and her first observation was, “You read that much more slowly than I did.” She explained that when she speaks or reads in English, she feels pressure to be “fast,” to not make any mistakes, to pronounce everything “correctly.”

Her observation reminded me of my own language learning anxiety. When I speak Spanish, sometimes I can feel my whole body tensing up with that fear of not being able to understand, or speaking too slowly, or making mistakes and “sounding stupid.” Sometimes I become so self-conscious that I make even more mistakes, constantly correcting myself as I’m speaking. Fue, no fui, a la, no, a el, supermercado. A simple sentence can turn into a stuttering mess — on top of my frenetic, hurrying energy, imagining an impatient listener.

Yes, I admit to this constant anxiety, even as I reassure English students that native speakers of any language make “mistakes” all the time, or that communication is about so much more than just the words you’re using, or that the listener isn’t thinking about your grammar; they just want to understand what you’re expressing. I know all this, and yet the anxiety of speaking in a non-native langauge is real.

Some people find poetry intimidating. And yet, poetry is supposed to be slow and savored. That quality alone can make reading poetry a welcome respite for the English leaner. Unlike the point-A-to-point-B goal of everyday conversation that is supposed to rattle on quickly, in poetry every word counts, is chosen carefully. Poets can spend years working on one poem, playing with words until it sounds right. So as readers, when we read slowly, we honor and appreciate that work. We take time to sense the meaning that lies under the words, like taking in music. We can pronounce slowly, even play with pronunciation, take time to decipher a new word, linger on each line, each space or pause on the page. We can read several times and take in a little more understanding each time, not pressured to “get it” all on the first read-through.

Poetry slows us down, in the midst of a fast-moving, impatient daily life, daily interaction. What a relief for those of us immersed in foreign sounds everyday, challenged with the pressure of a still uncertain language every time we go to the supermarket or say hello on the street. A relief, too, for those committed learners battling with grammar textbooks, with getting it “right.” The pleasure of curling up with a short poem with only the goal to listen and appreciate and soak in language, to love language, is a welcome balm.


Here are a few suggestions of poems to savor today. Look for lessons on these soon.


For more on how to read poetry and savor it, check out my course “How to Read Poetry With Your Whole Self.”

For poetry, literature, creative writing help in English, contact me about tutoring.

If you’d like to join others reading poetry around the world, follow the Global English Book Club on Instagram.