Short But Sweet

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.

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.

Short But Sweet: “Turning the Tables”

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 was out last week and assigned my advanced English classes a packet of poems with questions for analysis.  All the poems were of fairly recent vintage and deliberately came from a wide variety of sources that weren’t the usual suspects.  One of them was called “Turning the Tables” and was written by Joel Dias-Porter aka DJ Renegade:

Turning the Tables
(for Eardrum)

First hold the needle
like a lover’s hand
Lower it slowly
let it tongue
the record’s ear
Then cultivate
the sweet beats
blooming in the valley
of the groove
Laugh at folks
that make requests
What chef would let
the diners determine
Which entrees
make up the menu?
Young boys
think it’s about
flashy flicks
of the wrist
But it’s about filling the floor
with the manic
language of dance
About knowing the beat
of every record
like a mama knows
her child’s cries
Nobody cares
how fast you scratch
Cuz it ain’t about
soothing any itch
It’s about how many hairstyles
are still standing
At the end of the night.*

This poem is flat-out amazing and it can be found in an equally amazing collection of poetry called The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop, which I picked up because I recognized the name of one of the editors, Nate Marshall, from Louder Than a Bomb, the 2010 documentary about spoken word poetry.  The questions that accompanied the poem were as follows:

  1. What is the setting of this poem?
  2. Why would he compare himself to a chef?
  3. This is a free verse poem, which means it’s consciously without rhyme and meter.  However, he still seems to give it a sense of rhythm and flow.  How does he do that and how would you describe it?
  4. What do you like about this poem?

At best, I’d say these questions range from very basic to slightly analytical, and I’m not sure that I entirely do the poem justice.  Like I said, this was one of several poems in a packet for sub work that usually has to be straightforward, although we did talk briefly about the poem the next class.  Anyway, I was grading the packets the other day and the responses to question #1 stood out:

  • A gala
  • A fancy restaurant
  • An ’80s diner
  • In the past, like the 1950s.

Very few of my students actually answered that this was in a club, or seemed to realize that the main character (as it is) of the poem is a deejay (yunno, even though “DJ” is part of the poet’s pseudonym).  In fact, one student identified records as being from the “late 1800s/1900s.”

I let all of that slide because I honestly wound up laughing as I was reading those answers.  I never realized how far removed from the idea of a deejay spinning records in a club is from my students’ lives.  Sure, I teach in a district that is quite rural in places and the predominant flavor of music among the student body is country, but based on the amount of hip hop and rap I hear blaring from car stereos in the student parking lot and the amount in which they are connected to the world and popular culture via the cell phones to which they are umbilically attached, I assumed they had at least some idea of the poem’s setting.

Of course, when you assume … and I apparently did–although, an “’80s Diner?”  Is that like The Max from Saved By the Bell?  I mean, I grew up in the ’80s and ate at plenty of diners.  They were pretty much like diners we have today except with a slightly more pastel color scheme.

Anyway, instead of spending the rest of this post ragging on the kids these days for their lack of cultural knowledge, I’ll highlight two things I learned from this.  First, there is a reason why we will dive into poetry and really try to get deep within it, even though most poems are not very long.  There’s so much imagery in this poem that a few questions on a worksheet (when you have a sub) don’t do it nearly enough justice.  The poem also has its own feel, one that is nearly tangible.  Plus, it clues you, the reader, into a culture or scene that’s outside your realm and gives you a taste of that, which is so hard to do in so few words.

Second, it continues to prove the point I’ve made more than once, which is that there is nothing wrong with assigning reading.  I see post after post about letting kids do what they want when it comes to reading, as if dropping a book in their lap and telling them we’re going to discuss it is like putting a chain around their neck (no, really, I’ve seen the metaphor in use on Twitter) and while you should always be able to read what you want to read, if you never branch out of one genre or step away from one particular author, your view is going to be so narrow, you’ll never actually experience much of anything.  Part of my job as an English teacher is to broaden literary horizons, which is why I go for genres and authors they may not be familiar with.  I want them to grow as readers, and if I can’t give them the opportunity to see what’s out there beyond the YA or manga shelves at the library, then I’m not doing it right.

*A quick note:  I tried to recreate the formatting of the poem as found in the collection, but apparently WordPress doesn’t like it when you do that.  My apologies to the writer; any misrepresentation is unintentional.

Short But Sweet: Cat’s in the Cradle (or, How Nissan Proved That I Need to Teach Poetry Analysis)

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 have been using Harry Chapin’s “Cat’s in the Cradle” in my tenth grade English class for a number of years now, usually as a companion with E.B. White’s essay, “Once More to the Lake.” Both are subtly complex looks at the relationship between a father and a son and at another time, I will go into more detail on White’s essay, which happens to be a personal favorite of mine.

Chapin’s song is a story song (and was covered wonderfully and to hilarious effect on The Story Song Podcast) and tells the story of a father who is never there for his son. Not in the deadbeat dad sort of way, mind you, but in the always-working, semi-detached way that many parents can be (and that even I have admittedly been from time to time). He begins with his son’s birth and goes through his childhood, never having time to play with him and in the last two verses, the tables turn as his son grows up and doesn’t have time for his dad:

My child arrived just the other day
He came to the world in the usual way
But there were planes to catch and bills to pay
He learned to walk while I was away
And he was talkin’ ‘fore I knew it, and as he grew
He’d say “I’m gonna be like you, Dad
You know I’m gonna be like you”

And the cat’s in the cradle and the silver spoon
Little boy blue and the man on the moon
When you comin’ home, Dad
I don’t know when, but we’ll get together then
You know we’ll have a good time then

My son turned ten just the other day
He said, “Thanks for the ball, Dad, come on let’s play
can you teach me to throw”, I said “Not today
I got a lot to do”, he said, “That’s ok
And he walked away but his smile never dimmed
And said, “I’m gonna be like him, yeah
You know I’m gonna be like him”

And the cat’s in the cradle and the silver spoon
Little boy blue and the man on the moon
When you comin’ home, Dad
I don’t know when, but we’ll get together then
You know we’ll have a good time then

Well, he came from college just the other day
So much like a man I just had to say
“Son, I’m proud of you, can you sit for a while”
He shook his head and said with a smile
“What I’d really like, Dad, is to borrow the car keys
See you later, can I have them please”

And the cat’s in the cradle and the silver spoon
Little boy blue and the man on the moon
When you comin’ home son
I don’t know when, but we’ll get together then, Dad
You know we’ll have a good time then

I’ve long since retired, my son’s moved away
I called him up just the other day
I said, “I’d like to see you if you don’t mind”
He said, “I’d love to, Dad, if I can find the time
You see my new job’s a hassle and kids have the flu
But it’s sure nice talking to you, Dad
It’s been sure nice talking to you”

And as I hung up the phone it occurred to me
He’d grown up just like me
My boy was just like me

And the cat’s in the cradle and the silver spoon
Little boy blue and the man in the moon
When you comin’ home son
I don’t know when, but we’ll get together then, Dad
We’re gonna have a good time then

There is a sadness to the irony in the song’s last few lines that has always gotten me. Throughout the first half of the song, Chapin has the child say, “I’m gonna be like you, dad,” with wide-eyed admiration that only comes from the unconditional love that a little kid can give. Then, in the end, he is like his dad but the way he is is completely to the point–always busy, no time. Dad’s gone from a hero to a person and that means that what he’s learned is an altogether different lesson. Plus, it’s not a sad ending per se. It just deals with reality.

Too bad the ad agency that licensed the song for a recent Nissan commercial completely missed the point.

If you didn’t see it (it aired during the Super Bowl shortly before the Dead Nationwide Kid), here it is:

The message here is that … driving a Nissan makes you a better dad? Dad eventually learned a lesson? Dad actually showed up for something? I’m not exactly sure, and I don’t know if it is because I don’t see how this sells cars as much as how I don’t see why anyone thought using this song was a good idea when its singer died in a car crash.

What this commercial does is turn Chapin’s song into an upbeat pop song with a happy ending, which is exactly the opposite of what it is. All things in the melody of “Cat’s in the Cradle” point to a happy ending in the last verse, but Chapin completely subverts that in what is a brilliant piece of folk-pop songwriting. Yes, dad learns his lesson but it’s after the tables are turned, after it’s too late and he’s full of regret. Nissan, however, thinks it’s all hugs and lessons learned in your new Maxima.

I often hear about the importance of relevant, authentic texts. I also hear of the importance of non-fiction and functional text in making students college career ready. Poetry tends to fall to the wayside because it seems to be the opposite. And yet, I can think of nothing more relevant or authentic in this situation than teaching the interpretation of poetry.

Songs are misinterpreted all the time; more importantly, so are ideas, and they are often twisted nad warped for the use of anyone from advertisers to politicians. If our culture is going to stand any chance of surviving as we’d like to see it survive, we need to continue to be critical of what we see and read and break it down for what it is. This may be a thirty-second ad and a four-minute song, but perhaps that’s where we start.

Short But Sweet: In Flanders Fields

Inscription of the complete poem in a bronze “book” at the John McCrae memorial at his birthplace in Guelph, Ontario, Canada. (image and caption text from Wikipedia)

In Flanders Fields

BY JOHN MCCRAE

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

I’ve always been of the mind that there are two types of war poetry: the realistic and the patriotic. In fact, I wrote about that a few years ago when I compared Wilfred Owen to Edgar Guest and used both in my English classes around the same time we were reading All Quiet on the Western Front. Guest’s poetry is the type that shares the same sentiment if you were to log onto Facebook today–I wouldn’t be surprised if someone posted “The Things That Make a Soldier Great” with a graphic of a bald eagle and an American Flag.

At first glance, “In Flanders Fields,” which is unarguably one of the most famous poems of the First World War, seems like it would be that type of poem. It has a pretty simple rhyme scheme and was written by a Canadian soldier, as opposed to something more complex that came from the pen of one of the Great Masters or at least someone from the University of Iowa.

But then you hit that line, “We are the Dead.”

Every time I read that poem, I have to pause after that line. McCrae is obviously not subtle here and obviously doesn’t want to be subtle and normally I don’t usually go for poetry that is so direct. But here, it’s absolutely necessary. The dead are asking us a favor, to finish their work, to carry on what they started so that the task can be ended. Whether or not that’s to vanquish the foe or bring peace is, I guess a matter of interpretation.

I bring this up because, obviously, it’s Veterans Day. But as we honor our Veterans, it’s necessary to explore the human condition that leads to all of the death that comes with war. Yes, it’s sacrifice for a cause, but as we have seen in so many wars and so many works of literature, it can be both noble and ignoble, both worthy and useless. And to perfectly encapsulate that in three stanzas is both poignant and amazing.

Short But Sweet: The Coming of the Plague

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.

 

The Coming of the Plague
By Weldon Kees

September was when it began.
Locusts dying in the fields; our dogs
Silent, moving like shadows on a wall;
And strange worms crawling; flies of a kind
We had never seen before; huge vineyard moths;
Badgers and snakes, abandoning
Their holes in the field; the fruit gone rotten;
Queer fungi sprouting; the fields and woods
Covered with spiderwebs; black vapors
Rising from the earth – all these,
And more began that fall. Ravens flew round
The hospital in pairs. Where there was water,
We could hear the sound of beating clothes
All through the night. We could not count
All the miscarriages, the quarrels, the jealousies.
And one day in a field I saw
A swarm of frogs, swollen and hideous,
Hundreds upon hundreds, sitting on each other,
Huddled together, silent, ominous,
And heard the sound of rushing wind.

A perfect poem for Halloween, no? We read this in advanced English the other day and noted how it reminded us of The Walking Dead or The Stand. I’m sure there’s also a deeper meaning to it, but I shared it at the beginning of class and asked about mood and imagery and how imagery can be used to create a mood. In other words, your standard English-teacher questions wherein I am using a work of literature to illustrate literary devices.

Then I read the short bio of Weldon Kees that is featured on the Poetry Out Loud website (which is where I grabbed this poem from). It seems that he disappeared in 1955 and was never heard from again. It’s possible that he jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge because that’s where his car was found; it’s also possible that he disappeared to Mexico.

Reading further, because I’m curious, I came across a 2005 New Yorker Article: “The Disappearing Poet.” Kees seemed to be one of those writers who was absorbed by whatever demons he was fighting. Depression, perhaps? The biography that the writer paints shows someone who is obviously one of those Writers, the ones whose life stories seem to be forever connected to their work. Kees is more obscure than Hemmingway, Poe, Salinger, or Plath, but he’s definitely of that mold or at least seemed to be trying to fit that mold.

As a whole, the story coupled with the poem (and some of his other poetry, which you can find here and there) is fascinating if you take the time to look at it. My students, though they didn’t read the New Yorker article, were at least interested enough in the idea that someone could completely disappear (as was I–then again, I’ve always been fascinated with stories like that of D.B. Cooper).

I write this occasional series of posts to show how poetry is still relevant in English class during a time when all of the Very Important Educators are saying that it really isn’t–after all, how could poetry ever tie into STEM and 21st Century skills? This is the perfect example of why it’s relevant. “The Coming of the Plague” ties directly into what we’re entertained by; its images are Biblical in a sense; and the story of its author clues us into how a piece that is about the world as a whole can also be speaking about the damage of oneself. If that’s not 21st Century thinking, I don’t know what is.