The Object of Poetry

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.


Glory Days for an Ex-Basketball Player

I think that my wanting to incorporate Bruce Springsteen into my English class began as kind of a joke, or just me trying to see if it would work.  And yet there I stood in front of my advanced tenth class, talking about the lyrics to ‘Glory Days:”

“So what’s the connotation here?” I asked as we looked at the first verse …

I had a friend was a big baseball player
Back in high school
He could throw that speedball by ya
Make you look like a fool, boy.
Saw him the other night at this roadside bar
I was walkin’ in, he was walkin’ out.
We went back inside, sat down, had a few drinks
But all he kept talkin’ about was … glory days …

“It’s actually negative,” one of my students said, “They meet up and hang out, but the line is, but all he kept talking about …”

I tried as hard as I could not to sound like Jack Black in High Fidelity and reply, “That word, but …”

Granted, this isn’t the hardest song to analyze because if there is one thing The Boss is not, it’s a master of subtlety.  Although I give him credit when I play the song and point out the irony contained within–“Glory Days” is a bar rocker of a song (and the video is the same way) but the lyrics suggest a wistfulness on his part, or a resignation that we all get as we approach middle age:

Think I’m goin’ down to the well tonight
Gonna drink ’till I get my fill
And I hope when I get old I don’t sit around thinkin’ about it
But I probably will
Yeah just sittin’ back tryin’ to recapture
A little of the glory of
But then time slips away and leaves you with nothin’ mister
But boring stories of glory days.

When I use this in class, I jokingly say that this has become one of those anthems for people who are too old to get that drunk at a wedding and embarrass themselves by belting every lyric, completely unaware of the irony.  Sometimes, the joke gets a laugh.  What’s more important, though, is how it connects to the poem that is the major topic of study for the day, which is John Updike’s “Ex-Basketball Player:”

Ex-Basketball Player
Pearl Avenue runs past the high-school lot,
Bends with the trolley tracks, and stops, cut off
Before it has a chance to go two blocks,
At Colonel McComsky Plaza. Berth’s Garage
Is on the corner facing west, and there,
Most days, you’ll find Flick Webb, who helps Berth out.

Flick stands tall among the idiot pumps—
Five on a side, the old bubble-head style,
Their rubber elbows hanging loose and low.
One’s nostrils are two S’s, and his eyes
An E and O. And one is squat, without
A head at all—more of a football type.

Once Flick played for the high-school team, the Wizards.
He was good: in fact, the best. In ’46
He bucketed three hundred ninety points,
A county record still. The ball loved Flick.
I saw him rack up thirty-eight or forty
In one home game. His hands were like wild birds.

He never learned a trade, he just sells gas,
Checks oil, and changes flats. Once in a while,
As a gag, he dribbles an inner tube,
But most of us remember anyway.
His hands are fine and nervous on the lug wrench.
It makes no difference to the lug wrench, though.

Off work, he hangs around Mae’s Luncheonette.
Grease-gray and kind of coiled, he plays pinball,
Smokes those thin cigars, nurses lemon phosphates.
Flick seldom says a word to Mae, just nods
Beyond her face toward bright applauding tiers
Of Necco Wafers, Nibs, and Juju Beads.

Believe it or not, it takes a while for students to understand exactly what is going on in this one.  I’ve had a student point out that 38 or 40 in one home game is “beast” and a number ask if his career was cut short by an injury.  That’s some pretty good creative prediction, although I have to admit that I’m more impressed by the person who realizes taht the answer to my question of “What happened to Flick?” is “Nothing.”

What I love about poetry is the concept of word economy.  In “Ex-Basketball Player,” Updike describes this person and his life so incredibly well in such a short amount of space.  From a teaching point of view, it’s an example of how poetry and analysis of poetry really helps cultivate critical thinking.  Many of the skills that we ask students to use: describing characters and situations, evaluating a situation, and making predictions, are used by just reading and talking about these lines.  But more importantly, through the story of Flick Webb, we can also see a real person as well as how that real person has a story, even if it is one of regret and sadness.

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.