Tag Archive: What Learning Leaves

Apr 16

Book Review: What Learning Leaves by Taylor Mali

If you have never heard the spoken word poetry of Taylor Mali performed by the man himself, you owe it to yourself to stop what you’re doing and go to Youtube.  Mali is a master of slam poetry, having been the champion of the National Poetry Slam four different times.  Maybe this is my own ignorance, but I was unaware that he ever wrote and published his work because I’ve only ever seen it in performance.  This new edition is a great chance to reintroduce both new and old readers alike to the written word of one of America’s best spoken poets.

The collection contains many staples of Mali’s work that have become well-known around the Internet including “What teachers make,” “Totally like, whatever, you know?” and “The the impotence of proofreading.”  As anyone familiar with Mali might expect, a good chunk of the collection is made up of poems related to his experience teaching middle school students.  With subjects ranging from the abilities of children to the complications in lending pens to the dynamic detritus that accumulates when learning is happening, this section encompasses the speed and wit and vigor that is characteristic of Mali’s performance style.  The lines flow together with ease, and his ideas spill across the page, all wound up around the idea that while teachers can make a sustained difference in the world, their students are individuals who are just as likely to cause some change.

Because I was more familiar with Mali’s educationally-bent work, I was a little surprised at the last two sections of the collection “The body craves” and “Going on from there” which dealt with love and grief, respectively.  “The body craves” nimbly employs the word play and lightheartedness of the first section while dealing with subject matter removed from the school yard.

However, I was particularly drawn to the section “Going on from there” because it didn’t sound like Mali’s other work.  It was more subdued, and a bit more visceral.  These poems cover topics like preparing for an old dog’s death in the fall because the ground may freeze in winter and a burial may not be possible and the loss of family members and sickness.  Mali masterly evokes a sadness that I wasn’t expecting from him. In the poem “Going on from there,” he says “At my father’s memorial service, I read a poem about him and it wasn’t until the fifth line where I said he had an infectious laugh, but the body of a giraffe, that the Congregation realized it was okay to laugh.”  Mali reminds us that even though there’s sadness, life does not stop at those moments (something particularly noteworthy in this time of school shootings and marathon bombings).

I’m a Mali fanatic, and I think everyone should read this book.  It’s accessible.  It’s fun.  It’s poetry unlike what you were forced to read in school.  And I think it would be perfectly appreciated by any teacher’s on your shopping list, since I’m looking out for everyone’s gift giving needs these days.

JMF Rating: 7.5/10

‘Til next time,


FYI:  This book is an Advanced Reader Copy received from the publisher in conjunction with netgalley.com