Peering into ourselves with a poem of the day
This year I have begun each class with a poem of the day. I type the poem into a document and run off a class set, filing it in my cabinet in the order we read the poems. I thought by setting poetry free from the fetters of the unit, I might help my students grow a more significant familiarity with the genre. By the time the end of the year comes, my students will have seen more poems than any of my previous students have ever read with me, and I would hope the edge of intimidation that poetry, and language, often presents to my students will have worn off a bit by then.
Plus, poetry provides me with countless opportunities to talk about the characteristics of literature in a small and recurrent form: a nice use of irony in the poem yesterday, a wonderful trick of suspense in the poem today, a touch of satire in the poem tomorrow.
It is the first year I have done this, so I spend a lot of time chasing down poems, which has proved to be one of the joys of my year. When things get slow or my supply grows slim, I set aside a half hour to mine poetry books or my favorite poetry websites (I prefer Poetry Foundation and The Academy of American Poets). I then accidentally spend an hour and a half reading poetry.
The poems I have chosen vary greatly. I have chosen cultural keystones like “O Captain, My Captain” and “The Lamb,” poems about which educated people should be able to say, “Hey, I read that once”; modern intrigues like “On Cooking a Symbol at 400 Degrees” and “Deer Hit,” which utilize the same poetic devices as the classics to communicate messages in familiar settings; and socially tied messages like “Mother to Son” and “The Powwow at the End of the World,” which cut deeply into our shared history. Perhaps at the end of the year I will publish a list of all the poems I have shared.
Originally I had not known whether this poem of the day idea would stick, but it has. The trickiest part has proved to be how to fit it in on busy days, when students need to use every moment for things like writing research papers. (I should mention too that my school is on a block schedule, which means when I occasionally use 20 minutes to discuss a poem, it’s not half the period, but 20 minutes of 95.) This year, when crammed for time I have dropped the poem for the day; next year on these days I plan to reach to a stock pile of “light verse.” We can then begin each day in the same way and I can slip in poems that are exceedingly accessible and do not require discussion. If it is funny, discussion will not likely help students’ enjoyment anyway, as E.B. White pointed out in his introduction to A Subtreasury of American Humor:
Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind.
The light verse may provide relief from some of the deeper conversations I push on students for certain poems (we spent more than an hour on “Unknown Citizen” and “Still I Rise”), but that does not mean it is a lower form of poetry. I stumbled across wisdom from Charles Causley in his introduction to Modern Ballads and Story Poems, a collection he edited. He defends the importance of simple verse :
The fact that a poem may read simply should never deceive us as to its fundamentally deep and serious nature. If we are sensitive to the feel of such a poem, there is more than a hint of the powerful and frequently terrible currents that accompany its course, as they accompany the course of daily life.
That simple verse can be more substantial than it looks is no more perfectly illustrated than with Ogden Nash, the poet that gets my wife’s eyes rolling more than any other. About once a year I check out a volume of Nash’s poetry from the library and follow her around the house with it, attempting to recite lines through my own giggles and laughter but mostly botching the delivery by laughing at a joke when I spot it but before she hears it. She rolls her eyes at these moments because she can barely understand the poem when I read it this way, and also because I often begin this as she is brushing her teeth and getting ready for bed. While she attempts to lay her head to rest, I insist, “Wait, this one’s great. I love this one” and launch into “Lather as You Go”:
Beneath this slab
John Brown is stowed.
He watched the ads,
And not the road.
Can depth lie in verse like “The Parent”?
Children aren’t happy with nothing to ignore,
And that’s what parents were created for.
The answer is yes, and Dana Gioia explains it nicely in a forward to Douglas M. Parker’s biography of Nash (available on Gioia’s website):
He was an inveterate experimentalist—a congenial one, to be sure, but also a wildly inventive artist. In terms of technical experimentation, his work sits comfortably beside that of his critically acknowledged revolutionary contemporaries
Not that my students are ready to consider this light verse on such a level. I would be happy if they simply laugh at it. Such openness towards poetry would be a good place to start; it suggests they are bringing something to the poem, a crucial step, as Causley explains in the same paragraph I quoted above:
A poem will keep something of itself permanently apart. It will always reveal, at a fresh reading, some new mystery. And it will reveal only as much as the reader is prepared to bring of himself. “A book, said the German physicist and astronomer G.C. Lichtenberg, “is a mirror: if an ass peers into it, you can’t expect an apostle to look out.”
It is here I am convinced my job as an educator enters. If the poem of the day helps to remove any edge of intimidation present on poetry, if it helps students to acquire skills for approaching a poem and helps them add their own experiences to a poem’s significance, perhaps they will be able to discover a new mystery in poetry and find that someone worthy is looking out of that mirror.
Thanks for reading.
- Making Poetry on Flickr by: aurelio.asiain
- White, E.B., ed. A Subtreasury of American Humor. New York: Modern Library, 1941.
- Causley, Charles, ed. Modern Ballads and Story Poems. New York: Franklin Watts, 1964.