Poetry

My continuing troubled relationship with poetry

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“A Sober Poetry Reading at Brickbat 09” by Jeremy Tenenbaum. Used under CC license.

April is National Poetry Month.  The only significance to this post is that I remembered that last night and found myself falling down one of my favorite YouTube rabbit holes–spoken word poetry.  Otherwise, that’s about it.

Okay, not entirely.  After finally shutting my computer down, I picked up my notebook and began scribbling some verse, which is something I don’t do very often.  I consciously stopped writing poems in college when I realized that I was really aping my professor’s style so I’d get an A and even then, the poetry wasn’t particularly great.  But I will admit that every once in a while, I jam one out in the notebook because it’s a way for me to write something personal that isn’t about pop culture or isn’t about teaching.  It’s also nothing that will see the light of day unless you bug me enough (although funny enough, I threw one into an “anonymous poetry” assignment last December, so my 10 advanced class read one of my poems aloud without knowing it).  And I will admit that watching poetry being read or recited makes me want to get behind a mic and do it, although then I realize that despite my current job I have a low threshold for embarrassment.

Anyway, the other reason that I had been finding it hard to write poetry (and honestly some more personal types of essays while we’re at it) is that when I look at the poetry I have written over the now many years, I see that many of my topics were well-suited to someone who is in their formative years and not on the brink of middle age.  Granted, I probably have the maturity of a 15-year-old at times (and some of the people in my life have seen me demonstrate this in spades), but writing poetry about having crushes on girls when you’re 39 is kind of weird.  However, I don’t know how ready I am to go down the road of saying that the woods are lovely, dark, and deep and all that.

At a glance, poetry really seems to fit those who are young or those who are old because they either have the fire and passion that comes with inexperience or they have the flicker of a long-used candle.  And I never actually thought that there would be a point where I felt that I had lost my voice.  I mean, despite all of the business and stress in my life, I still find time to write and some of those blog entries and podcast episodes get personal, but even then it’s personal reflection within the context of nostalgia.  So I’m not actually getting personal so much as sharing personal memories.

I’ve tried to remedy some of this by finding inspiration in reading a variety of poetry.  I enjoy the passion and the idealism found in a Brave New Voices or Button Poetry video, but I also enjoy the simplicity and wit found in a poem by Billy Collins or Ted Kooser.  Still, I don’t know if anyone one will find it inspiring or even interesting if I wrote about a life of suburban domestication.  Do these lines inspire you?:

I make sure to wash my hands
after pouring bleach
into the washing machine.
This is my favorite T-shirt
and I don’t want to ruin it.

Yeah, not exactly.

All this, however, begs the question with which I am going to close this post.  Does poetry … does writing have to come from a source that appears “interesting”?  Can the mudane, the everyday be inspiring?  Have thousands of “writer types” in undergrad and MFA progams who flock to readings with the pretense of “being deep” ruined the act of writing for those who don’t fit their mold?

Maybe I’ll write about that.

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Short But Sweet: Thinking About You

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.

I’ve shown a lot of spoken word poems in class over the last few years and this one always seems to be one of my students’ favorites. That may seem odd considering it’s unlike a lot of spoken word poetry that you would normally see, especially since that most of the poetry that I see shared, while honest, is often about pain or loss or is angry or activist.

Not that I find anything wrong with using poetry to describe pain or loss or poetry that is angry or activist. I just think that my students like this poem because it’s funny, light, and positive in a way that if you think about it is very hard to pull off.

Love songs are a dime a dozen. So are love poems. But there’s a fine line between the all-time greatest love songs or poems and the sappy sort of pap that you find printed on a poster that you’ll buy at the mall (probably from the same place that sells Successories posters). “Thinking About You” has the feel of having struck that balance in the same way that George Harrison did when writing “Something” or Paul McCartney did with “Maybe I’m Amazed.” Plus, they can relate to sitting in class with their minds wandering and then texting that guy or girl to tell them they’re thinking about them. And if that’s not a good gateway to good poetry, I don’t know what is.

Short But Sweet: After the Disaster

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.

After the Disaster
By Abigail Deutsch

New York City, 2001

One night, not long after the disaster,
as our train was passing Astor,
the car door opened with a shudder
and a girl came flying down the aisle,
hair that looked to be all feathers
and a half-moon smile
making open air of our small car.

The crowd ignored her or they muttered
“Hey, excuse me” as they passed her
when the train had paused at Rector.
The specter crowed “Excuse me,” swiftly
turned, and ran back up the corridor,
then stopped for me.
We dove under the river.

She took my head between her fingers,
squeezing till the birds began to stir.
And then from out my eyes and ears
a flock came forth — I couldn’t think or hear
or breathe or see within that feather-world
so silently I thanked her.

Such things were common after the disaster.

 

I discovered this poem last year during our Poetry Out Loud competition.  I can’t exactly remember how I found it–more than likely, a student had chosen to recite it or it was in a list of poems that someone had been trying to choose from–but it was a poem that I took note of because of its subject matter.  More specifically, what drew me to the poem was that it was about September 11, 2001 but not wrapped up in the jingoistic patriotism that tends to typify 9/11 “tributes” you’ll be seeing on social media today (I’m posting this on 9/11/16).  Granted, it was only a poem that I remembered because of its 9/11 reference and a poem that I really didn’t “get” at first.  in fact, I’m pretty sure that I read it, filed it away, and then moved on to other things.

I came across it in a filing cabinet and remembered its first lines because of the way they rhyme, but also because I was familiar with both the geographical and familial reference found within the word “Astor” (my part of Long Island was once a place where a number of Astors vacationed in the summertime).  That was a hook enough to get me to want to read it again, and even then I didn’t completely get it and I had to read it a few more times to see what it was really about, or at least to come up with enough to give the poem a solid interpretation.

There’s something ethereal about the girl that the speaker encounters.  I want to ask my students, “Who is she?” and try to see if they’ll work beyond trying to give me literal answers.  Because there is an intangibility to poetry that teenagers often don’t get and any chance that I get to demonstrate that is a chance I’ll take.

Then, there’s the last stanza.  It’s where the narrator’s grief finally comes to the front and it all finally hits her.  Furthermore, with the last line, “Such things were common after the disaster,” she implies that she is not the only person who has had such things (i.e., breaking down on a subway train) happen to her, and I find this so honest in a way that so much other sentiment surrounding September 11 isn’t.

One of the things that always bothered me about the way many people remember the September 11 attacks is that there has always seemed to be an “acceptable” way to react.  And not to sound provincial about it, but so much of it has always seemed to come from people who had a significant amount of distance from the events in New York, Arlington, and Pennsylvania.  What Deutsch does here is give grief some reality and shows the humanity of the tragedy and the period after a tragedy.  And while I’ve never had the opportunity to use this is an English class yet, it’s my hope that when I do, they’ll understand how powerful it is.

The Object of Poetry

PHOTOGRAPH
Michael Stipe & Natalie Merchant / Night Garden Music ©1993
I found this photograph
underneath broken picture glass
tender face of black & white
beautiful, a haunting sight
looked into an angel’s smile
captivated all the while
from her hair and clothes she wore
I’d have placed her in between the wars

Was she willing when she sat
and posed a pretty photograph
to save her flowering and fair
for days to come
for days to share
a big smile for the camera
how did she know
the moment could be lost forever
forever more

I found this photograph
in stacks between the old joist walls
in a place where time is lost
lost behind where all things fall
broken books and calendars,

Letters script in careful hand,
the music to a standard tune by
some forgotten big brass band

From the thresh hold what’s to see
of our brave new century
television’s just a dream
of radio and silver screen
a big smile for the camera
how did she know
the moment could be lost forever
forever more

Was her childhood filled with rhyme
or stolen books of passion crimes?
was she innocent or blind to the
cruelty of her time?
was she fearful in her day?
was she hopeful? did she pray?
were there skeletons inside
family secrets sworn to hide?
did she feel the heat that stirs
the fall from grace of wayward girls?
was she tempted to pretend
in love and laughter until the end?
Over spring break, I was talking about R.E.M. with a friend of mine for a future episode of his podcast, and over the course of our conversation, this song that the band recorded with Natalie Merchant in 1993 (which is around the time the band was riding the success of Automatic for the People and Merchant was nearing the end of her tenure as the lead singer of 10,000 Maniacs) was mentioned and while we didn’t spend too much time analyzing it, we both agreed that the song is excellent

After the conversation, I wound up listening to “Photograph” again, and while there are a lot of times when R.E.M.’s lyrics border on the indecipherable, the lyrics here are actually more clear even if they are pretty complex. My first thought, upon first hearing it, was to compare it to the Jackson Browne song “Fountain of Sorrow,” but giving it another listen, I realized that the beauty in this particular song is that neither Merchant nor Michael Stipe know who the person in the photograph is.

It all reminds me of the early 2000s when I would waste time at work by looking at things posted to Found Magazine, which was devoted to trying to tell the story of objects that users had found. Many times, they related the circumstances that led to finding and keeping the object; other times, they were more about trying to tell that object’s story, in the same way that the lyrics are doing here.

The English teacher side of me loves this song, as does the writer side, because it lends itself to such a great multifaceted writing exercise. Of course, there’s the idea that I could take the time to tell the story of the photograph and answer the questions that they’re asking, similar to how I have often used Ted Kooser’s “Abandoned Farmhouse” as a springboard for a writing assignment. There’s also the possibility of describing the photograph based on the questions–as in, what about that photograph would lead someone to ask those questions?

And then there’s the objects that we own or don’t own that have stories behind them. Granted, you don’t need to study this song in order to create that assignment, but this would serve as a great model for any student looking to write the story of an object. If it’s something a student already owns, there is description and there is reflection; if it’s something the student doesn’t own (i.e., I gave them a photograph of people they didn’t know without any context), there is indulgence of curiosity and creativity, and also perhaps some self-reflection of the way that we judge people based on what we see.

I think poetry as a genre works really well, especially in this case, because it forces a person to stretch themselves. I could provide a prompt with a journal response, but that’s too simple and might result in some sort of bland description. This song, “Photograph,” and other poetry about the objects in our lives, goes deeper than that, asking questions that may not have answers and providing answers because it’s in our nature to want to do that.

Poetry on Paper

I’m standing here at 7:15 on a Wednesday morning. I should be getting my classroom ready for the day but instead I am reading a book of poems by Billy Collins that I have borrowed from the public library. It’s been taking me a while to finish it–not because the poetry is difficult, but because I like the idea of absorbing each poem after I read it. It sounds pretentious as hell, but there is something to be savored in those moments after you read the last line and are still in that poem’s world.

As I read these poems, or any collection of poetry for that matter, I make a mental note of those poems that I think my sophomores would enjoy or understand and other poems that would make good companions to the literature we are reading. If it’s something I will definitely use, I make a photocopy and pass it out.

Now, I realize that last sentence constitutes a major copyright violation on my part, but as I stand here reading poetry, basking in its glow, and thinking that my students may enjoy it, I’m also reminded of why we still use paper in this age of Innovative Educators doing everything in a virtual, paperless world.

I was introduced to poetry what seems like a billion years ago, when one of my elementary school teachers read selections from A Light in the Attic and Where The Sidewalk Ends. From there, it was photocopies of poems by Ogden Nash, Robert Frost (who is still a favorite), and Edgar Allan Poe. As I reached high school, I found myself poring over beat-up copies of random poetry by writers I had never heard of, none of which came from a text book. In fact, I don’t think that I had a “textbook” of poetry until I had to buy a Norton anthology in college (and that’s not a bad thing–between my wife and I, we have four Nortons in our house). It sounds weird to put it this way, but I have always felt that the way those poems were shared with me made them special. Yes, we eventually read a lot of them for analysis in class, which makes it all one big inauthentic experience, but for whatever reason, those photocopies meant something more in the way that my friend giving me a mix tape and saying, “You’ll like this” always meant more than my buying a CD at The Wiz.

This is a tradition that I am happy to continue, and I am happy that I still have paper to do it. Most of the time, if I were to tell a student “You really should download this book to your Kindle” or “You should google this writer,” they won’t do it. And yes, I realize that there are many times when I distribute a poem to the class and we read and talk about it, the copies of the poem are left on desks or fall to the floor at the end of class and I pick them up and put them in my filing cabinet. But there are also those students for whom that poem is a gateway and they find themselves on the computer that night falling down rabbit hole of poetry, something that started with a photocopy of a poem from a collection I was reading one morning.

So I’ll continue to do it, no matter how antiquated (and yes, borderline illegal) it may be. And I hope it’s not too arrogant to think that maybe there are a few of my students out there who are savoring those moments after finishing a poem, then taking a sip of coffee and going about their day.

Short But Sweet: “Scissors”

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.

A few weeks ago, I had a sub, and I needed something for my advanced English class to do.  We had been discussing some poetry, so I made a packet out of several poems with some questions.  I know that a worksheet attached to reading is fairly sacreligious these days, but it was a sub plan and these were questions I probably would have used in a discussion anyway.

So one of the poems that I used was a poem by Sarah Kay called “Scissors.”  It’s from her 2014 collection No Matter the Wreckage and goes as such:

 

Scissors

When we moved in together,
I noticed–

You keep your scissors in the knife drawer.
I keep mine with the string and tape.

We both know how to hide our sharpest parts,
I just don’t always recognize my own weaponry.

 

That’s it.  The poem is six lines long.  How do you even analyze a poem that is only six lines long in a high school English class?  Poetry analysis is what you do to Whitman, Frost, Shelley, or Keats.  you work and you wind your way through “Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey” or “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (the poem or the Iron Maiden song, take your pick), not six lines.

Yet here were my questions:

  1. Who is the “we” in the first line?
  2. Why is she comparing where they keep their scissors?
  3. What do the last two lines of the poem mean?
  4. How does this poem manage to be effective even though it’s only six lines long?

I have no idea if any of this is at all pedagogically sound, but I will say that I was at least trying to build up to that last question because it’s the big one:  how do you say so much with so little?

One thing that I usually emphasize when teaching poetry is word economy, and this is not an easy principle to grasp.  Very often, students are told to elaborate and write using greater detail because the writing curriculum is essay-focused. I have no problem with essays–if you read either of my blogs, that’s obvious–but at the same time, there is something to be said for the brevity that comes with writing a poem.  It’s ironic, in a sense, that the six lines of this poem are incredibly elaborate and provide a significant amount of vivid detail, so much so that I can see what the scissors mean and what happens to the couple she is describing.  This is a painful poem in a sense, one that cuts (pun intended) deep because of the way the reader can see those people as well as themselves.

So if we’re going to take this whole thing to its inevitable conclusion on the taxonomy of Bloom, we should ask our students to create six-line poems.  But is that easier said than done?  I mean, I’m sure that any teenager anywhere could crap out a six-line poem if they were asked to with the same lack of effort they use when asking me, “Can I write a haiku?” during a poetry writing assignment.  But I don’t want poetry that was crapped out.  Even if it’s not the best poem ever, I’d at least like to see some sort of effort put into a student’s poetry.

Perhaps–and this is probably going to blow your minds–you actually assign writing a poem that is longer than six lines and then the students have to edit the poem down to just those six lines?

Whoa.

I KNOW!

Seriously, though … wouldn’t it be a great way to not only teach creative writing, but vocabulary, word meaning, grammar, usage, and mechanics?  By trimming off all of the fat and getting down to the words that really matter or really mean something, maybe we’ll not only teach how to refine writing but teach an appreciation for the language it uses.

I Can’t Even Poetry Right

While I was sketching out my calendar for the rest of the school year, I realized that it won’t be until the end of April that I’ll be doing any poetry in any of my classes.  This is somewhat of a small travesty because I’m an English teacher and this is National Poetry Month.  Not only that, but the unit where I am doing poetry–a spoken word poetry unit–is where it is because that’s where it is in the schedule.

So yeah, I’m totally not doing National Poetry Month right.

Then again, I’ve been doing poetry all year, bringing it in whenever the mood strikes me and even coordinating our school’s Poetry Out Loud competition.  So it’s not like I don’t do poetry right.  I just am not very good at getting my act together when it comes to officially designated periods of time wherein academic celebrations can occur (although I’m sure that missing The Ides of March was a good thing).

Plus, I’m barely even planning on writing any poetry this month.  I mean, I have friends and people I follow on Twitter who are posting all sorts of poetry to blogs and other places where authentic audiences can read them.  In the past fifteen years, I have written maybe five poems … six poems?  I’m not sure.

So yeah, I’m totally not doing National Poetry Month right.

If you really think about it, something like National Poetry Month is a bit of a double-edged sword.  I have my students read poetry all year and read or watch quite a bit of it myself, and I love the idea of an entire month where poetry is getting attention.  At the same time, however, I wonder if it’s the right attention.  How many teachers are grabbing something off of a “20 Things to Do for National Poetry Month” pin they saw on Pinterest last weekend?  How many are saying, “Well, songs are poetry set to music so let’s listen to some songs in class?”  How many are really just paying it all lip service because they never really got around to poetry and this is as good a time as any?

I guess that begs the question: how do you do National Poetry Month right?

Unfortunately for you, I have no idea.  Then again, I never claimed that I did.

I mean, I’m sure you can turn your classroom into a Maker Space™ or something and do something that will get you retweeted a billion times, and if that’s what you want, go for it.  Personally, I think I’d rather just read and talk about and show it and see where it goes.

Oh, and here’s a cool poem.  Enjoy!