Betty Bonham Lies

Betty Bonham Lies is the author of three volumes of poetry and four other books. She is the senior poetry editor of US 1 Worksheets. A Geraldine R. Dodge poet, she also teaches at the Princeton Senior Resource Center.

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(Photo by Linda Arntzenius)

“Inspiration will come from images or scraps of language. I try not to write about ideas because that never works. If I know what I’m thinking it doesn’t work; you have to discover that by writing. I tell a child: surprise yourself, don’t try to control the poem, take your hands off the controls and let your poem soar.”

Betty Bonham Lies

Profiles in Education
Betty Bonham Lies

Linda Arntzenius

Although Betty Bonham Lies wrote poetry all through childhood, she more or less gave it up when she reached college. In the “dark ages” of the fifties, she said, “We read only dead, white, European and American male poets. We were told, in effect, you can’t write poetry unless you’re a man.”

It wasn’t until the late eighties when the Princeton Township resident was a seasoned teacher, that Ms. Lies re-discovered her muse. After inviting poet Lynn Powell into her English class at Stuart Country Day School and working together with her students on assignments set by Ms. Powell, Ms. Lies came back to poetry.

Ms. Lies believes that “Poetry is an important discipline for children. It is the most precise use of language.” She has found that the close reading and attention to detail demanded of poetry benefits her students’ expository writing.

With 28 years of teaching experience, 25 of them at Stuart, primarily at the high school level, she has also found that a good number of people are afraid of poetry and that children and adults often think that it is tougher than it is. One source of this fear, Ms. Lies believes, was the “new criticism” of the fifties, which “made people believe that a poem was a riddle for which there was a single correct answer.”

Ms. Lies met this fear when she was teaching Methods of Teaching English at The College of New Jersey, where her student teachers appreciated learning from a high school teacher with first hand experience “in the trenches,” so to speak. “They were terrified of teaching poetry because they felt that they had to know the right interpretation of the poem.”

Poet in the Schools

Since 1996, Ms. Lies — who has a New Jersey Supervisor’s Certificate at Rider University and taught in both Michigan and Connecticut before moving to Princeton in 1961 — has been an Artist in Education for the New Jersey Writers’ Project.

Named a Distinguished Teaching Artist in 2000 and in 2003, she has also earned the Governor’s Award in Arts Education and been awarded several fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Ms. Lies is a poet in the schools for the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, as well as a Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation Poet. As such, she goes wherever she is sent, traveling throughout New Jersey, primarily in Hunterdon County and to Voorhees in Camden County. Each year, however, she returns to Stuart Country Day School and now also to the Princeton Academy of the Sacred Heart.

Used to teaching at the high school and college level, Ms. Lies was daunted by the prospect of a second grade class. “I was terrified at first, but they were wonderful. The older children get, the more they learn the habit of school. They start asking: ‘Have I done it right?’ In second grade they don’t worry about that, they just do it.”

Reading poetry produced by a student with poor prose-writing skills proved to be a revelation. “She had incredible voice and language in poetry. I realized that the students’ prose-writing was getting better because they were writing more poetry.”

Ms. Lies also discovered that, very often, the best poets are not the A students. When she goes into a public school as a poet, she will ask that the kids in the resource room participate in the program. “They often write wonderful poetry and dazzle their peers. The opportunity to be recognized provides a great psychological boost for some of our academically weaker students.”

Fascinated by the connection between poetry and expository writing, she went to Columbia University’s Teachers College on a Klingenstein Fellowship to research the subject. Finding that very little scientific research had been then done on this, she produced instead a book for teachers of creative writing: The Poet’s Pen: Writing Poetry with Middle and High School Student. The book gave her a chance to work with her son Brian Lies, a children’s book writer and illustrator whose latest book Bats at the Beach was published recently.

Another book by Ms. Lies, Earth’s Daughters: Stories of Women in Classical Mythology, was facilitated by a stay at the Vermont Studio Center where she channeled the irritation she felt on finding that books on mythology featuring gods, heroes and monsters seem to feature women only marginally. “That was great fun.”

Cool Woman

Having done so much academic writing, however, Ms. Lies sometimes found it difficult to “let go and write poetry.”

At the urging of Lynn Powell, then living in Princeton, she joined the U.S.1 Poets’ Cooperative, the nation’s oldest extant poetry group, which was founded by Alicia Ostriker and Rod Tulloss in 1973. Attending the weekly critique sessions kept her writing and eventually led to her founding, along with several other U.S.1 members, another group now known as Cool Women.

“We thought it would it be fun to have a small group of just women who are all good critics and so we met, and still meet, every month on a Sunday afternoon to critique each others works. Critiques are still the most important part by far. We are very detailed and that’s very helpful. The small size of the group is part of what makes it work, also the fact that everyone is good at critiquing.”

Invited by Micawber Books to give a reading one Valentine’s Day, the group needed a name for itself. Someone suggested, rather flippantly, “hot poems from cool women.” Cool Women has evolved into a performance group that appears regularly in bookstores in the area as well as annually at Grounds for Sculpture. “It’s fun and very energizing,” said Ms. Lies. “I write sassier poems to use at performances.”

Tonight at 7:30 p.m. in the Community Room of the Princeton Public Library, Ms. Lies will present her poetry with fellow poet Richard St. John as part of the U.S. 1 Poets Invite series.