Ever sigh and say, “I wish I could teach poetry but I … a) can’t find anything good, or b) don’t have the time.”? This occasional series of posts will focus on specific poems that I like and have even used that I find to be both engaging and amazing.
These Poems, She Said
BY ROBERT BRINGHURST
These poems, these poems,
these poems, she said, are poems
with no love in them. These are the poems of a man
who would leave his wife and child because
they made noise in his study. These are the poems
of a man who would murder his mother to claim
the inheritance. These are the poems of a man
like Plato, she said, meaning something I did not
comprehend but which nevertheless
offended me. These are the poems of a man
who would rather sleep with himself than with women,
she said. These are the poems of a man
with eyes like a drawknife, with hands like a pickpocket’s
hands, woven of water and logic
and hunger, with no strand of love in them. These
poems are as heartless as birdsong, as unmeant
as elm leaves, which if they love love only
the wide blue sky and the air and the idea
of elm leaves. Self-love is an ending, she said,
and not a beginning. Love means love
of the thing sung, not of the song or the singing.
These poems, she said….
You are, he said,
That is not love, she said rightly.
As is the case with most of the poetry I love, this came about by accident. Well, not so much by accident as through … serendipity, is maybe the word? Several of the students in last year’s advanced English class used this for their recital in our classroom Poetry Out Loud competition and when our school’s winner–who also happened to be one of my students–went on to the regional and state rounds in Richmond, she chose this as one of her recitations. So by virtue of my coaching her (well, co-coaching … I want to give credit where credit is due and one of my colleagues was awesome at coaching her on the three poems she had to work with), I got to know this very well.
A couple of days ago, I chose to use it for an opener in my advanced English class’s last class about Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. We’d reached the point where we had discussed–and some would say discussed to death–the play’s ending. Nora leaves Torvald because she realizes that they never really had a true marriage; in fact, she’s not sure she was ever in love with him because she honestly doesn’t know who she really is. It’s a bit of a gut-wrenching scene when you think about it, especially because of the fact that she does leave him (a scene that is definitely fodder for another post). I didn’t have any specific activities planned with the poem; no breakdown of lines, no word searches, no identification of literary devices … I’m sure that you could have done something like that, but I just wanted to share the poem, get someone to read it for us, and talk a little bit about what they thought of it.
Having a student read the poem out loud wound up being a good idea because the reading was completely flat and I had a chance to point that out and talk a little bit about how tone is so important to poetry, especially speaking poetry. I did my best not to pick on the guy or at least seem like I was being mean, but even he seemed to acknowledge that his rather deadpan reading didn’t really do the poem justice. After all, the woman in the poem says some pretty scathing stuff. I’m sure that you could completely overact when reading this–I picture a few overwrought performances by kids who are just trying way too hard–but I like how with this, we are getting to the bottom of an emotion or the definition of an emotion.
Not only that, we can see the people, we can see this conversation, and it is presented in a way that is so clear that we don’t get bogged down in metaphor or language. In fact, I think one of the reasons it worked was because it presents such a mature subject in such a straightforward way. There was no reason to “fear” this poem. I know that sounds weird, but we all know that poetry’s reputation often precedes it when you’re talking high school English. But here we’ve got one piece by one poet that took roughly ten minutes of my time and hopefully showed my students why poetry can be so great.