Poem 8: “We Real Cool”

Another poem I enjoy teaching, Gwendolyn Brooks’s "We Real Cool" has been a powerful tool for discussions of voice and style in the classroom. Like "The Writer," this poem inspired a ReadWriteThink lesson plan, Many Years Later: Responding to Gwendolyn Brooks’ “We Real Cool.”

The activity that I describe in the lesson, and also in a related English Journal article, “Write Like You Talk (Snapshots),” demonstrated to me how important it is for students to writing from authentic subject position and in their own voice. (You can find out more by reading the EJ article.)

Okay, I admit though, choosing this poem is probably prideful. It’s a poem I like and that I teach well. Further, it led to my first publication in English Journal. Who wouldn’t be pleased about that? 

But there’s more. I found about a month ago that the Library of Congress’s Web Guide, "Gwendolyn Brooks: Online Resources," points to my lesson plan. Seriously, scroll down to the lesson plan section and there it is. Okay, it’s just a link, but hey, someone at the Library of Congress thought my lesson was good enough to point to. And it’s all because of that great poem by Gwendolyn Brooks.

Poem 7: “The Writer”

I’ve liked Richard Wilbur’s "The Writer" since I came across it my first year as a teacher. I may have read the poem earlier, but I don’t have any memories of it.

Instead I remember teaching with it. I guess I’m realizing I have a pattern—I like teaching narrative poems. But this poem in particular always seemed perfect for the writing classroom, with it’s metaphor for what it’s like to be a writer and struggle through attempt after attempt at the right word and the most effective phrase.

If you want to see how I used the poem in the classroom, check out my ReadWriteThink lesson plan: Writing about Writing: An Extended Metaphor Assignment.

Poem 6: “Concord Hymn”

Today would have been my grandfather’s 94th birthday. He passed away November 2006, and it wasn’t until the funeral that I heard some of the stories of his time in the U.S. Navy during World War II. I knew that he was in Panama for part of his service, but I didn’t know that his ship was the escort for the ship that carried the bomb that was dropped on on Hiroshima.

I chose a patriotic sort of poem in his honor, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s "Concord Hymn":

By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
     Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled;
Here once the embattled farmers stood;
     And fired the shot heard round the world.
The foe long since in silence slept;
     Alike the conqueror silent sleeps,
     And Time the ruined bridge has swept
     Down the dark stream that seaward creeps.
On this green bank, by this soft stream,
     We place with joy a votive stone,
That memory may their deeds redeem,
     When, like our sires, our sons are gone.
O Thou who made those heroes dare
     To die, and leave their children free, —
Bid Time and Nature gently spare
     The shaft we raised to them and Thee.

It’s a nicely patriotic little poem that fits my grandfather’s outlook on the world. Besides, I can trace a direct connection from myself through my grandfather to the poem. I am related to Ralph Waldo Emerson, through my great-great-grandmother Anne Emerson, Ralph’s third cousin.

If Wikipedia’s entry on the poem can believed, "One source of [the poem’s] power may be the author’s personal ties to the subject. Emerson’s grandfather was at the bridge on the day of the battle; their family home, The Old Manse, is next to the bridge; and Emerson is known to have written the hymn while living there."

It’s a fitting memorial then—a poem for my grandfather, written by my distant cousin to honor his grandfather. And if that wikifact isn’t 100% correct, don’t tell me. I like it better this way.

Poem 4: “Those Winter Sundays”

Robert Hayden’s "Those Winter Sundays" is one of those poems that can be very easy to teach. It’s short. The diction is lovely. Its narrative is easy to understand, even for younger student.  It’s an easy success in the classroom, but I’ll probably never teach it again.

My father got up every morning. The rest of us were still in bed for hours while he was busy at one kind of work or another. Weekdays he was at the office. Weekends, he might be out at the lumber yard, dumping off recycling, or working on the latest project out in the garage. In the winter, he too got up and woke the embers into a fire before the rest of us were out of bed.

I read Hayden’s poem from time to time now, but I simply can’t get through it without breaking down. I wonder if my father began to know how much we all love him.


Poem 2: The Waste Land

Because of the opening lines below, the other poem that everyone expects to hear at the beginning of April is T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land:

APRIL is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain. (I., 1–4)

It’s been dark and rainy all day here.  I had to ford a huge puddle, cursing myself for wearing the Crocs with the holes on the sides, just so that I could drag the garbage can back from the street.

The forsythia in the yard is making a showy splash of yellow,  I really should take some pictures of that forsythia, but I digress. Not even the thousands of little yellow flowers can brighten up all the dark, rain-soaked twigs and leaves that lie about, having lost the battle to a recent wind storm. The yard here is as much a waste land as any Eliot might journeyed.

It’s been more than a decade since I’ve studied The Waste Land as a real reader. All my notes and research are still in Illinois, so I can’t even pull them out. Once I could read the lines and round up all the connections in my thoughts, but it’s been too long. The poem is a mass of allusions and biographies and mythologies that I have to check. I wish so much that I could grab my copy of The Golden Bough and my facsimile of the edited manuscript with Pound’s editorial notes. But none of that is within reach.

If I tell truth, at this moment, the poem is lost for me. I can’t read it as a knowledgeable reader. I can’t read it with the joy I once could. That fact breaks my heart. There are so many pieces of literature I laid aside in the past 15 years that I want to spend time with, that I miss.

Yet some essence of the poem has always stayed with me. Eliot speaks to some deep inner place in my soul, though The Waste Land is not my favorite of his poems. I’ll share that another day. For me, I think The Waste Land, moreso than, say, "Prufrock," represents modern poetry. While I’m a medievalist at heart, the poet in my soul wants to be a modernist. I’ve tried my hand at poetry, but all I muster are soulless heavy lines and "A heap of broken images" (I., 22). April does seem a cruel month at times.