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 5: “Locksley Hall”

Tennyson’s "Locksley Hall" isn’t the Victorian poem I like the most, but it is the one that gave me the publication bug. For a survey class, I was asked to write an analytical paper on something we’d read. I had gotten into the habit of looking up every mythological reference. Early in the poem, the speaker explains:

Many a night from yonder ivied casement, ere I went to rest,
Did I look on great Orion sloping slowly to the West.
Many a night I saw the Pleiads, rising thro’ the mellow shade,
Glitter like a swarm of fire-flies tangled in a silver braid.

I spun the references to Orion and the Pleiads into an explanation of how the mythical figure’s life parallelled that of the speaker. When the graded paper was returned, Professor Peter Graham had written in the end comment that he thought the paper was publishable. Two years later (damn you, slow print publication world), I had my first vita line: 

"Tennyson’s ‘Locksley Hall.’" Explicator 44.2 (Winter 1986): 23–24.

It’s one of those papers that I reread and wonder whether that was really me. I guess my voice and style have developed a good bit since then. But one thing hasn’t changed—I still want to see my name in print. A lot. Thank you Tennyson (and Dr. Graham).

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 3: Green Eggs and Ham

Weren’t expecting this one next, were you? I confessed my love for Dr. Seuss a couple of years ago, so I may as well admit that Green Eggs and Ham is one of my favorite poems. How can you look at these lines and not smile?

Do you like
green eggs and ham?
I do not like them,
I do not like
green eggs and ham.

My favorite Dr. Seuss video ever isn’t the classic How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Admittedly I love that to, but I delight far more in Jesse Jackson’s reading of Green Eggs and Ham.

Why do I like Green Eggs and Ham? I KNOW Green Eggs and Ham. At any moment, you might hear me adapting the situation in front of me into the rhyme and rhythm of the poem. Don’t believe me? Just a few minutes ago, the local NPR talk featured Virginia Governor Kaine’s veto of a bill that would "allow gun owners with concealed-carry permits to have firearms in establishments that serve alcohol, as long as they don’t drink."

At the end of a related interview, a state legislator who opposed Kaine’s decision said, "People should be able to carry their guns in a bar. Or in a car." I have no idea why he tacked on that "in a car," but I was off, creating a little dialogue for Sam and the governor:

Do you want
to hide a gun?
I do not want to,
I do not want
to hide a gun.
Would you hide
one in a bar?
Would you hide
one in a car?
I would not hide
one in a bar.
I would not hide
one in a car.
I do not want to
hide gun.
I do not like them

I know. I know. Not really much of a children’s book. For it to fit the plot, the governor character will have to hide a gun, use it in some life-changing way, and then he can exclaim, "Say! I like to hide a gun! I do! I like to, Sam-I-am!"

Pathetic, huh? I can summon the opening lines of The Canterbury Tales or The Waste Land effortlessly and I can allude to passages from hundreds of other poems—but Dr. Seuss is what comes to me most simply. It’s probably not shocking to anyone to hear that I wish I could write children’s and young adult books.

Yes, I’m an amateur medievalist who wants to be both a modern poet and Dr. Seuss. It’s a curse really. Every poem I try to write ultimately takes on a Dr. Seuss cadence:

Do you want to
eat a peach?
Do you want to
walk the beach?

It just doesn’t fit the imagery does it? Probably best for me to just read Green Eggs and Ham (and keep my Seussian poetry to myself).

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.

Poem 1: The Canterbury Tales

It’s terribly obvious to begin with Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, but it’s not here for the obvious reasons. This is the poem I think of every April. It doesn’t matter that I haven’t opened my Chaucer texts in years. These are the lines that I whisper to myself every Spring:

Whan that Aprill with his shoures sote
The droghte of Marche hath perced to the rote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his swete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours y-ronne;
And smale fowles maken melodye,
That slepen al the night with open yë—
So priketh hem Nature in hir corages—
Than longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,
To ferne halwes, couthe in sondry londes;
And specially, from every shires ende
Of Engelond to Caunterbury they wende,
The holy blisful martir for to seke,
That hem hath holpen, whan that they were seke.

I never think of a modern English translation. A college professor had us memorize those 18 lines when I was an undergraduate, so they’ve been tucked away in my memory ever since.

I had changed my major to English (from Elementary Ed) by the time I met up with Chaucer in college. He turned me into what I’ll call an amateur medievalist. I would never claim to be a true medieval scholar. I just don’t know enough to wear that title gracefully, but in my heart, I am a medievalist.

Everyone knows (well, at least those of us who are English teachers know anyway) that The Canterbury Tales is a great poem for beginnings—the start of spring, the start of an epic pilgrimage, the start of a classic poem.

For me, The Canterbury Tales kicked off my love for all things medieval. Occasionally I daydream about getting a PhD in medieval studies. It’s not that I have any great desire to have a PhD in literature at this point. Instead, I know that would be the only way I could justify spending days lost in medieval texts.

It’s certainly the only way that I’d ever get access to a real medieval manuscript. I’ve seen wonderful facsimiles, but if I ever had an actual Chaucer manuscript on the library table in front of me, I’m certain I’d break down in tears. The idea of it even makes me weepy. I’ve tried to resign myself to the fact that it will never ever happen, but on the first day of April, as I recall the poem that started me down this path, I think it’s okay to dream on it a little more.

Daily Poetry Musing

If you’re a teacher, you probably know that April is National Poetry Month. It’s that month when we pretend that we haven’t been reading poetry all year long and for some reason we need to champion rhythm and rhyme. Charles Bernstein protested 10 years ago that we shouldn’t even have such a month, arguing that it’s about selling poetry books and not about loving poetry. It’s also about donations to (and prestige for) the Academy of American Poets if we’re realistic.

Still, the month is popular with teachers, librarians, and the media. Even TYCA is publishing poetry this month. You can’t escape the event’s success. You’ll see the poster up in your local library. You’ll hear the NPR call-in shows talk to more poets. You’ll see stories in the paper that hail local poets. You’ll pass by a table of poetry books in every book store. You will recognize that this is National Poetry Month.

Setting aside the marketing steamroller Bernstein says is behind the event, much of its success has to do with a key stereotype we hold about the genre. People tend to think of poems as short pieces. We think of haiku and sonnets—not epics. Once you decide that poems are short, manageable things, it’s an easy leap to throwing a poem into whatever you’re doing in April: start your April meeting with a poem, publish a poem a day, teach a poem a day, and so forth.

There’s nothing wrong with adding poetry. I love poetry. I know that I should revel in the notion of a poem for every day. But I just can’t get excited about all these poems people are sharing. I thought for a while that it was the commercial bandwagon of it all that bothered me. I’m sure that’s part of it. I don’t like poetry because it’s cool this month. I just like poetry, no matter what month.

Perhaps it comes down to the fact that I am a poetic hermit. Everyone else is singing Ars Poetica in the cathedral, and I’d just as soon be in my cell quietly contemplating a few favorite poems. It confused me as much as anyone when some inner voice firmly and insistently told me to write about a poem every day this month. I even sent myself a text message reminder: 

———- Forwarded message ———-
From: <TENGRRL@###.com>
Date: Wed, Apr 1, 2009 at 3:54 AM
Subject: Post a poem a day

Post a poem a day & say why u chose it

Today, I think it’s an attempt to give myself structure and voice again. I’ve been lamenting for weeks now that my personal blog is so empty. I used to post regularly and even had some friends who followed what I said. Now analytics frequently say that no one goes there. I literally get 0 hits recorded. The reason is obvious. I stopped writing. Commands were issued, and, as I wrote to someone yesterday, I shut up for the last three years. I was allowed silly status comments, but I’m not allowed to be myself or say what I want.

It’s not being alone with my thoughts that bothers me. I’ve always been a hermit. It’s that I stopped letting myself think. I stopped saying what I wanted and needed to. Last night, poetry seemed like the best way out. After all, I find myself in my favorite poems. So for the next 30 days, I am going to try very hard to say something daily. Maybe the hits will remain at 0, but in the end, I hope to have my voice back—and perhaps the courage to never let anyone shut me up again.


Using Wordle Images to Hear What’s Said

Elizabeth Alexander’s inaugural poem "Praise Song for the Day" didn’t really impress me. It was what it was: an occasional poem that tried very hard to sum up a moment of emotion and history.

The poem was quite suitable, but I wanted something that would make me cheer or smile or weep (even if it was with tears of joy). But the reading brought nothing. It was just a poet, sharing a nice little poem.

Maybe I’m spoiled. I worked in the same English Department as Nikki Giovanni when I was in the classroom. Nikki can knock you on the ground when she recites her poetry. That’s what I wanted, but the closest I got that day was that sassy benediction from Rev. Joseph E. Lowery.

Alexander’s poem didn’t give me what I wanted, so I politely tucked it away and made no plans to return to it. That was until I ran across the ReadWriteWeb post sharing word clouds of presidential inauguration addresses.The highlighted words in the Wordle images so clearly communicated a specific moment in time. President Bush’s 2005 address had to defend a war on foreign soil. Was it any wonder that freedom was the most heard word? President Clinton, the president who lead the nation into the 21st century, repeated the word century more than any other in his 1997 address.

My thoughts on the word clouds grew into my Inbox blog for this month, Wordle and the Inauguration. I found the text for four inaugural poem online and created Wordle clouds for each of them:

The way the words fell together for each poem was random. The size of the words is based on the number of times they were repeated, but the relationship among the words wasn’t something I controlled. The computer algorithm behind Wordle laid out the words in the "Half and Half" pattern. In other words, a relatively even number of words are shown with horizontal alignment versus vertical alignment:

Wordle: Praise Song for the Day by Elizabeth Alexander

When I looked at Alexander’s poem, I saw so much more than I had heard. Suddenly, I had a "love song" and thought of how we all "need words [of] praise." Or the poem might be a "song [of] praise"  for "love" and "need" and how the two are inevitably linked. Smaller words in the image told me, "Consider struggle, walking, patching, darning. Begin. Repair thyself, teacher."

"Aye," I thought, "repair yourself." I had dismissed a perfectly lovely and meaningful poem because  my first experience with it wasn’t monumental enough. Maybe it wasn’t a great reading last Tuesday, but it is a good poem for the moment. The Wordle image reminded me that there are deeper ways to read and things to see that a video or a single reading can never capture.