A Teacher's Writes

One teacher's thoughts on life, literature, and learning

Category: Poetry

Treasure hunting and finding Robert Louis Stevenson

On a date with my eldest daughter today we went to the used book store and I drilled her on part of the fun of a used bookstore–hunting for treasures. What I didn’t tell her was that part of the fun of looking for treasures is knowing what is a treasure and what is simply twaddle. She’s not ready to make the distinction at a glance, and, quite honestly, now that I think about it, neither am I. It is very difficult to wander into a used book store (or a new book store–is that how you say it? Suddenly the phrase used book store seems odd) and find something wonderful just by browsing. It can happen, I suppose, but it is much more helpful knowing something about the world of books and writers.

Thus, my being the one who knows something, I helped us hunt for treasure this morning. We found way up high, on the top shelf, a copy of Meindert Dejong’s The Singing Hill and grabbed it, knowing nothing of the plot of the story but knowing that Dejong’s The Wheel on the School was wonderful and that, so far, his The House of 60 Fathers is wonderful too (I’m reading it currently and will report on it later).

We also found a copy of A Child’s Garden of Verses, a picture book made of Robert Louis Stevenson’s book of poetry. I’ve stumbled across a number of Stevenson’s poems from this volume and brought them home for my children. They are wonderful, and my middle child, who is three, has basically memorized “The Swing.”

How do you like to go up in a swing,
Up in the air so blue?
Oh, I do think it the pleasantest thing
Ever a child can do!

My eldest and I read through a number of these poems in the coffee shop (the second half of our date) and my hunch about the appeal and quality of these poems, based on those few I’d read, was right. Their content works for children, even though it was written in the 19th Century, and the rhyming sings (see Give her rhymes, not poetry, for more on the importance of that). If my children are to love and enjoy poetry, and I hope they do, not because it will make them smart but because it can bring them joy, it seems to me that this is the kind of poetry to start on. Our favorite today was “Block City,” which I’ll post in full here for your pleasure, knowing Stevenson’s copyright has long disappeared.

WHAT are you able to build with your blocks?
Castles and palaces, temples and docks.
Rain may keep raining, and others go roam,
But I can be happy and building at home.

Let the sofa be mountains, the carpet be sea,
There I’ll establish a city for me:
A kirk and a mill and a palace beside,
And a harbour as well where my vessels may ride.

Great is the palace with pillar and wall,
A sort of a tower on the top of it all,
And steps coming down in an orderly way
To where my toy vessels lie safe in the bay.

This one is sailing and that one is moored:
Hark to the song of the sailors on board!
And see on the steps of my palace, the kings
Coming and going with presents and things.

Now I have done with it, down let it go!
All in a moment the town is laid low.
Block upon block lying scattered and free,
What is there left of my town by the sea?

Yet as I saw it, I see it again,
The kirk and the palace, the ships and the men,
And as long as I live and where’er I may be,
I’ll always remember my town by the sea.

Thanks for reading.

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.

Perhaps.

Thanks for reading.

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  • 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.

Give her rhymes, not poetry, and they’ll likely stay with her

I dropped a link last week to an article from Sally Thomas on poetry–“Re: Is Billy Collins Killing Poetry?“–because I was intrigued by her thoughtful explanation of the oral tradition in poetry. She draws attention to the link between the sound of a poem and our ability to remember it:

I’m an avid reader-aloud of poetry, especially to my children, and I’ll tell anyone willing to listen (again, my children, who really have no choice) that it’s our ears primarily, not our eyes, which remember poems.

When I teach poetry to my freshmen and we ask the question, “What is great poetry?” one of the sub-questions we ask is, “Is it the sound of a poem?” The question is an important one for me, and students can tell I love the sound a poem makes. I suppose they pick this up from my passionate readings of every poem we encounter–I usually read as if I were auditioning for a the book-on-tape version–but I also like to tell them about my love for John Keats, a love borne almost entirely out of the sounds of “Ode on a Grecian Urn” and “Ode to a Nightingale” (admittedly a fascination with his early death helped). These were my favorite poems before I comprehended half of what they said.

Not that I remember them that well–they’re a bit too long to remember without expending actual effort, and I have yet to try–but what I do recall, I recall through my auditory experience.

Thinking about the poetry I have memorized, the rhyming appears to be the dominant thread of success. Mrs. Sutton had us memorize  “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” in fourth grade, and when I walked into my student-teaching 17 years later and heard a class reciting it, I had it down again within two minutes. Could I have done so without the rhyme or the meter to guide me? I highly doubt it.

I also remember a handful of poems from William Carlos Williams, but that’s mostly because it’s not that difficult to recall one sentence. Even then, I can’t say with confidence whether so much depends upon a red wheelbarrow glistening with rain water beside the white chicken or whether it depends upon the red wheelbarrow glazed with rain water beside the white chickens (by the way, it’s neither). And as much as I enjoy Billy Collins and Jane Kenyon, I keep losing “An Introduction to Poetry” despite opening my poetry unit with it every year, and I am so bad at remembering “Whirligigs” that I haven’t ventured to commit any of Jane’s more powerful work to mind.

Yet I spout off Puck’s last words in A Midsummer Night’s Dream with nary an effort and accidentally memorized the prologue to Romeo and Juliet. What a mess I am.

Or rather, what a fool I would be to give up on the power of the rhyme and consistent meter, which is exactly what I have done in recent years while reading poetry. I tend to develop an obsession with a new poet each year, usually beginning the affair about a month before my teaching of poetry (this is why poetry is consistently my favorite unit), and as I think back to the last five or six obsessions, I can’t recall anyone who used rhyme more than sporadically. Not surprisingly, I also cannot recite any poems that I encountered for the first time within the last five years. For the most part, I have gravitated towards the insight and the image, neglecting the meter and the rhyme almost completely.

I don’t use meter or rhyme in my own poetry–I tend to mimic  Collins and find that he is right: when I read his poetry, “it encourages the writing of more poetry.” Not being a poet, I imitate that which is possible for me to imitate. That does not compliment Collins, a man whose poetry has brought me much pleasure, but it is the truth. For me, rhyming simply alerts me of the limits to my vocabulary, so I avoid it. It is easier to build a poem off one image and to tie that image to a more general insight, letting the lines break where they will, than to make the poem regular or rhyming. Saying that reminds me of an admired colleague who always discourages her students from using rhyme in their own poetry–perhaps she discourages it because their vocabularies cripple the first couplet and then paralyze the work that follows.

But, oh, this is not the fault of the device! Inspired by Thomas’s stories about her children’s favorite poets, I have been reading poetry to my daughters this week. I like Jack Prelutsky a lot and we did listen to Shel Silverstein’s “A Light in the Attic” readings, if for no other reason than to let me recall the cassette of Shel I wore out in my Fisher Price tape deck. What my eldest has begun to do is ask me for more. That’s nothing notable, I realize. What is notable is that she doesn’t ask for another poem. She asks “for another rhyme.”

Prelutsky’s vocabulary is frequently beyond her ability to comprehend. A tomato’s “unmitigated rancor” would stupefy most of my freshmen, let alone a four-year old. Yet she knows enough to follow it (I help with the details) and worries none about the words she doesn’t understand.  To her, language is play. She wants the silly situations, the wild characters, and the playful words we encounter. Ultimately, she wants “rhymes,” not poetry.

She’s not quite five, but she is more in tune with Sally Thomas than I have been for the last few years. I plan to remember both of their opinions the next time I head to the library to discover my next poet of obsession.

Thanks for reading.

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