Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Passover, 2005

Well, it's officially the third day of Passover now, and my left wrist is starting to heal. Still can't play guitar, but the mando's back--and, as my daughter reminds me, I might as well take this as my opportunity to take up trumpet again. And to get back to posting.

In the spirit of the season, here are some Passover poems you could use in classes, or just for your own enjoyment. The first is by George Oppen, and I love the way it turns back on itself, repeatedly, to savor and meditate on its own language, repeating in its form the happy shock of discovery that it talks about via a child's misreading of a time-worn Biblical phrase:

Miracle of the childrenxxxxxxthe brilliant
Childrenxxxxxthe word
Liquid as woodlandsxxxxxChildren?

When she was a child I read Exodus
To my daughterxxxxx'The children of Israel. . . '

Pillar of fire
Pillar of cloud

We stared at the end
Into each other's eyesxxxxxWhere
She said hushed

Were the adultsxxxxxWe dreamed to each other
Miracle of the children
The brilliant childrenxxxxxxMiracle

Of their brilliancexxxxxMiracle
And there it stops--but how many things we could fill in after that "of"! (My friend Maeera Shrieber is, I gather, writing a book that will talk about Oppen's use of words and phrases that call out for commentary, like that dangling "of.")

One of my guests for Passover this year--Irish, Catholic, new to the holiday--asked, quite amiably, whether anyone ever talks about politics at a seder. Well! Next year I'll be ready with this poem, by the extraordinary Israeli poet Aharon Shabtai, from his collection J'Accuse (translated by the master, Peter Cole).

Passover 2002

Instead of scalding
your pots and plates,
take steel wool
to your hearts:
You read the Haggadah
like swine, which
if put before a table
would forage about in the bowl
for parsley and dumplings.
Passover, however,
is stronger than you are.
Go outside and see:
the slaves are rising up,
a brave soul
is burying its oppressor
beneath the sand.
Here is your cruel,
stupid Pharaoh,
dispatching his troops
with their chariots of war,
and here is the Sea of Freedom,
which swallows them.
What haunts me about this poem isn't its politics, which are pretty standard-issue in the left-leaning circles I know best. Rather, it's the way those politics are shadowed by the poem's title. Passover, 2002, you may remember, was the holiday in which one "brave soul" heroically "buried its oppressor" by blowing up a senior-citizens' seder in Netanya, which blow for freedom swallowed up such formidable troops as Alter Brivitch (88), Frieda Brivitch (86), Michael Karim (78), Sarah Levy-Hoffman (89), and a dozen or so more. I don't know whether the poem was written before the attack or after, but it's certainly been republished since then, which means Shabtai stands by it--and the poem thus shivers with a moral ambiguity that mirrors and amplifies that of the seder itself. Brrrr!

As if to balance out the public politics of "Passover 2002," Shabtai includes a second poem, "I Love Passover," beside it to close out J'Accuse. Here we see him as a poet of eros, which is the side of him I generally prefer to the poet of eris, or struggle; he's the poet of private rebellion, ardently withdrawing his consent from the public realm:

I Love Passover

I love Passover,
since that's when you'll be back.
Like every year,
we'll take the car to Kiryat Motzkin
and, over glasses of wine
and bowls of charoset,
Zvi will tell us
of the March of Death.
Then we'll return to Tel Aviv,
and as you drive in the dark,
the car's windows
will fog up,
and I'll put my hand on your knee.
At home, we'll get into bed
and celebrate our own
private Seder.
I see myself putting
my lips to your belly
and thinking of honey,
while in the street below
our angel passes.

The "March of Death" was a forced march of concentration camp inmates the Nazis were determined to keep out of the hands of the Red Army, advancing towards Auschwitz and Cracow in January, 1945. (About 58,000 Jews "were murdered or died en route," says the translator's note.) Against which horrors, the poem sets the sweetness of friendship and making love. It's traditional to read the Song of Songs at Passover time, to celebrate (among other things) the sexual resistance of making new babies in the face of Pharoah's murderous decrees. In this poem, the "honey" of the beloved's body repeats and varies the earlier wine and haroset, just as the fog in the windows of the car is a cozy, bloodless version of the marking of doorposts to keep the Angel of Death at bay. If the public rhetoric of freedom and rebellion in "Passover 2002" is compromised, all-but-fatally, by the unstated murders recalled by its title, this poem offers a contrasting vision of private protest, private freedom, which eases the sting of its comrade-in-verse.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Poems to Know: Radi Os

If you teach Paradise Lost, you owe it to yourself and your students to teach at least a page or two from Radi Os, Ronald Johnson's extraordinary "rewriting by excision" of the first four books of the Milton.

Newly republished by Flood Editions, here in Chicago, Radi Os consists of pages from Paradise Lost with most of the words erased, so that an elegant constellation or lace of poetry remains. The first page of Radi Os thus revises Milton's famous invocation "Of man's first disobedience, and the fruit / Of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste / Brought death into the world, and all our woe," etc., into this: "O / tree / into the world / Man / the chosen / Rose out of Chaos: / / song."

It's quite a revision! Along with the dense syntax of Milton's sentence, Johnson has thus erased the divine Sentence (of death, of punishment) that Milton so reveres. There's no disobedience anymore, no death, nothing forbidden about the Tree, nothing greater about the "Man" (Christ, in the original) that arises. Here "Man / the chosen" simply "Rose out of Chaos," not by the fiat of his Creator, but according to the universe's own blessed rage to order, to beauty, and to song. Think of it as Blake crossed with complexity theory, all discovered as the hidden or latent argument of Paradise Lost. (Johnson once said in an interview, "I was taken over by Blake, but with my vision of the physical universe and...able to try to figure out how we order the universe now. Blake couldn't even look at Newton. I felt if I were to do this, I would have to be a Blake who could also look at what we know of modern cosmology.")

As a teacher, you could have students figure out Johnson's argument with Milton by comparing his pages with the originals from Paradise Lost, or you could have them compose their own rewritings-by-excision from the same passages, or from later in the book, and then figure out what arguments they have advanced. My old friend Nick Lawrence thus once composed, on a lark, two new versions of that opening gesture, using what Johnson left out. The first was called Par se Lot, and started something like "disobedience, and / taste / Restore us / that secret / Seed"; I don't remember the second off-hand, but it seemed pretty frisky, too.

Or, if you like, you could have them do a rewriting-by-excision of some other book entirely! I have been working on my own rewriting-by-excision of Pride and Prejudice for a while now, off and on, but still can't decide whether to call it ride and dice or id and ice. (Byron's Manfred, though, is an easy one: Fred.)

I'm a big fan of Johnson, and actually wrote the Dictionary of Literary Biography essay about him, once upon a time. More on him anon, no doubt, now that I'm home.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Lesson Plans: Robert Hayden, Full of Grace

This post has been...well, not deleted, but hidden.  I'm going to have some students work on the poem soon, and I don't want them to be able to crib my notes on it.  Let's see what they can do without them, for a while.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Poems to Know: Praise Poems

One thing I get to do on this blog, I guess, is plump for poems that I'd love to see taught more widely in schools, at whatever level. Since I've been grinding my way this morning through Susan Stewart's essay "What Praise Poems are For" in the January, 2005 PMLA , let me make the case for praise poems as a genre, and for a couple of them in particular.

The praise poem--the ode, the homage, etc.--is one of those genres that does work you can actually feel. To praise increases your savoring and satisfaction in things; it cultivates admiration and gratitude, which generally increase your happiness (as "science has shown," etc.) ; indeed, says Pindar, in a line that Stewart quotes, "Joy is the best healer." On a more practical level, the praise poem makes sense to even the most unschooled readers, as a job worth doing. You see something you admire, you write a poem to praise it, and in so doing, you bring forth something in or from yourself that is worthy of the thing that you admire, sharing its qualities of sass or dazzle, flavor or prowess, all of which makes you admirable, too!

One praise poem that is now readily available as a children's book, illustrated and everything--heck, I've even seen it at Target!--is Quincy Troupe's wonderful "Take it to the Hoop, Magic Johnson," originally entitled "Poem for 'Magic.'" (Some of the lineation may be off below, since the blog wipes out indentation, so find it yourself before using, or email me and I'll send you the corrections.) Troupe is, or was (I'm not sure) the Poet Laureate of California, and he's written a number of fun poems in homage to sports and to athletes, in both formal and free verse.
Quincy Troupe, “A Poem for Magic”

take it to the hoop, “magic” johnson,
take the ball dazzling down the open lane
herk & jerk & raise your six-feet, nine-inch frame
into the air sweating screams of your neon name
“magic” johnson, nicknamed “windex” way back
in high school
cause you wiped glass backboards
so clean, where you first juked and shook
wiled your way to glory
a new-style fusion of shake-&-bake
energy, using everything possible, you created your own
space to fly through--any moment now
we expect your wings to spread feathers for that spooky takeoff
of yours--then, shake & glide & ride up in space
till you hammer home a clothes-lining deuce off glass
now, come back down with a reverse hoodoo gem
off the spin & stick in sweet, popping nets clean
from twenty feet, right side

put the ball on the floor again, “magic”
slide the dribble behind your back, ease it deftly
between your bony stork legs, head bobbing everwhichaway
up & down, you see everything on the court
off the high yoyo patter
stop & go dribble
you thread a needle-rope pass sweet home
to kareem cutting through the lane
his skyhook pops the cords
now, lead the fast break, hit worthy on the fly
now, blindside a pinpoint behind-the-back pass for two more
off the fake, looking the other way, you raise off-balance
into electric space
sweating chants of your name
turn, 180 degrees off the move, your legs scissoring space
like a swimmer’s yoyoing motion in deep water
stretching out now toward free flight
you double-pump through human trees
hang in place
slip the ball into your left hand
then deal it like a las vegas card dealer off squared glass
into nets, living up to your singular nickname
so “bad” you cartwheel the crowd toward frenzy
wearing now your electric smile, neon as your name

in victory, we suddenly sense your glorious uplift
your urgent need to be champion
& so we cheer with you, rejoice with you
for this quicksilver, quicksilver,

quicksilver moment of fame
so put the ball on the floor again, “magic”
juke & dazzle, shake & bake down the lane
take the sucker to the hoop, “magic” johnson,
recreate reverse hoodoo gems off the spin
deal alley-oop dunkathon magician passes
now, double-pump, scissor, vamp through space
hang in place
& put it all up in the sucker’s face, “magic” johnson,
& deal the roundball like the juju man that you am
like the sho-nuff shaman that you am, “magic,”
like the sho-nuff spaceman you am

I love the way the ending of this poem captures, in that colloquial "you am," the way that a praise poem elevates its speaker, identifying him or her with whatever has been praised.

Another praise poem worth knowing comes from Lucille Clifton.

Homage to My Hips

these hips are big hips
they need space to
move around in.
they don't fit into little
petty places. these hips
are free hips.
they don't like to be held back.
these hips have never been enslaved,
they go where they want to go
they do what they want to do.
these hips are mighty hips.
these hips are magic hips.
i have known them
to put a spell on a man and
spin him like a top!
What's wonderful here is partly the timing (that pause before "move around in," for example), and partly the way the poem starts out about size and motion, in a splendid brag, then shifts gears into political speech ("free," "enslaved") that is confidently sexual at the same time ("don't like to be held back," "do what they want to do," etc.), then shifts from that pairing into a discourse of power (might) which isn't quite enough, so she tries a discourse of enchantment (magic), which is so much fun, so right that enables the speaker to utter her first "i," and thus bring the poem to its delightful close. Listen, too, to the way that "spell" and "spin" bring the poem to a close in sound, as they pick up the "sp" left over from "space" in line 2. And, of course, where the hips were moving around themselves at the start of the poem, by the end they're transmitting that motion to someone else, that spinning man.

Yum, yum, yum. I like to read that poem, be that speaker, and tease my male students with the challenge of what, exactly, they would like to write an homage to.

Monday, April 11, 2005

It's the Subject Matter, Stupid

From the irresistably titled "Poesy Galore" blog of Emily Lloyd--whose last name, thanks to my daughter, I now know to pronounce with the proper Welsh soft "th"--this reminder about why most of us read poetry in the first place.
We lose poetry consumers (or readers, depending on your beef) after elementary school. If we want masses of people to love (and buy) poetry into adulthood, we need to change the way it's often taught in middle and high schools. And to be honest, while I'm all for exposure to the classics, I think it's often their subject matter (and yes, some inaccessibility) that turns young adults off. Very few kids are going to give a flying fuck about some ancient mariner, however archetypal. Does this mean we have to replace Coleridge with Tupac, as some are now doing? Absolutely not. This means, instead of focusing on Poe's "The Bells"--maybe even "The Raven," at this point--focus on his "Alone." Sheesh, I copied that poem into my diary as a preteen. Crane is great for teens, but stress "In the desert," not "War is Kind." My heart is bitter; I'm eating it--yippee! Frequently-taught poems often seem Other to kids--do not speak to them--and that's what dulls them on it, I bet, before the accessibility of the language or the "tie the poem to a chair and torture it" (according to Collins) method. A teaching listserv I belonged to gave good evidence that pretty much ALL high school kids dig "Richard Cory" (he's popular; he's gorgeous; he's rich; he hates himself)--great. But must the lesson continue on with "Mr. Flood's Party," which almost none of them like? (Note to self: propose anthology of dead people's poems with teen-friendly subj matter to educational publisher for teachers who want to teach canonical verse that doesn't deaden kids' nerves forever)
Now if only I could find that "teaching listserv" she mentions....


Books to Know: A Surge of Language

If you teach poetry, you owe it to yourself (and your students) to know A Surge of Language: Teaching Poetry Day by Day, by Baron Wormser and David Cappella. Wormser is Poet Laureate of Maine, and teaches workshops on teaching poetry (among other things) at the Frost Place in New Hampshire; Cappella, also a poet, currently teaches at Central Connecticut State, but he has apparently taught at everything from the middle school level on up. Their book isn't a textbook; rather, it's the fictional journal of a 7th-12th grade English teacher who has put poetry--both reading and writing it--at the center of his curriculum. I read the book this fall, and keep returning to its mix of poems, close readings, sample assignments, and meditations on the how and what and why of teaching poetry.

"When I ask questions," their "Mr. P" muses in the September 12 entry,
I ask questions about the poem's art. Because any given poem has so many facets, I find that I never really repeat a question. I also find that I don't have to ask questions that put the student on the spot by making presuppositions and creating anxiety. This means I never ask what a line or a poem means nor do I ask what the students think the poet had in mind. If you talk about art, meaning will take care of itself because art creates meaning. To talk about what the poet had in mind is to practice mind reading. I am interested in the text not in hypotheses about the poet's mind.
("Gimme that Old Time New Critical Religion!" part of me wants to shout--or say "Amen." But wait, it goes on, gets nicely practical.)

Poems are not hierarchical--every word matters. That means the doors into a poem are as numerous as the words in the poem. Accordingly my first question to the class will usually be about word choice. As my students say, "When we talk about poems, we talk about language." In the case of [the poem for that day], this means I might ask what word is most suprising to my students or what word doesn't seem to belong or what word doesn't make sense to them or what word moves them the most. What I want is for my students to respond to the words in the poem as words. Poetry affords me the opportunity to focus on the lives of the words.
This is less systematic than my "divide and ponder" approach, but that's also a strength. Systems feel less intimate, somehow, than one many students like to be with a text; they appeal to students who think of themselves as "not poetry types," but can turn off some of their more enthusiastic colleagues. (I think of these, Judaically, as the Mitnagim and Hasidim of any given classroom--I'd call them Apollonian and Dionysian, but such terms are Greek to me.)

Here's a sweet little piece of Victorian marriage advice that opens up nicely to Mr. P's questions, "Constancy Rewarded," by Coventry Patmore. It's from Canto XI, , Book II, of The Angel in the House, and I found it online at the indispensible Victorian Web:

I vow'd unvarying faith, and she,
To whom in full I pay that vow,
Rewards me with variety
Which men who change can never know.

When I ask my students to think about this as art, rather than as advice, it doesn't take long before someone notices the lovely play in it between monosyllables and polysyllables, which is to say between sameness ("To whom in full I pay that vow"--how dull and dutiful monogamy must be!) and variety. There are two words with four syllables, which are thus paired, and which share a common root--"unvarying" and "variety," natch--and two with two syllables--"rewards" and "never"--which also ask to be paired and compared. Someone else might pick up on the monetary language ("pay" and "change") and the differences between what it means to "vary" and to "change," and where "reward" comes from in discourse and in etymology. Some, with better ears, pick up on the rhythmic twist of "unvarying" (which threatens to vary the iambic tetrameter, unless you elide "un-va-ry-ying" into "un-var-ying") or on the way Patmore parcels out 8 syllables in lines of 8, 4, and 7 words in the last three lines.

It's the sort of poem that students rarely read these days, I find--too pat, too moralizing, or at least moralizing along the wrong lines--yet it turns out to be a real playground for the mind. (Which, ahem, may be part of Patmore's point.)

More soon,

Friday, April 08, 2005

Follow the Myrrh (Lesson Plans)

It being almost Friday night here, I thought I’d post one of my favorite passages from my favorite book of the Bible, the Song of Songs. I like the translation by Chana and Ariel Bloch, and teach it regularly in my Love Poetry classes; this passage, though, I like to use in my introduction to poetry courses, too, with a question or two to guide (and tease) the students.

First, the passage: Chapter 4:1-7

How beautiful you are, my love,
my friend! The doves of your eyes
looking out
from the thicket of your hair.

Your hair
like a flock of goats
bounding down Mount Gilead.

Your teeth white ewes,
all alike,
that come up fresh from the pond.

A crimson ribbon your lips--
how I listen for your voice!

The curve of your cheek
a pomegranate
in the thicket of your hair.

Your neck is a tower of David
raised in splendor,
a thousand bucklers hang upon it,
all the shields of the warriors.

Your breasts are two fawns,
twins of a gazelle,
grazing in a field of lilies.

Before day breathes,
before the shadows of night are gone,
I will hurry to the mountain of myrrh,
the hill of frankincense.

You are all beautiful, my love,
my perfect one.
Yum. Oh, yes, the assignment. A simple one, based on the "divide and conquer" model. I ask them to spot any patterns in this wasf (list of praised body parts), stanza to stanza, and then see where any pattern they have spotted seems to break. Here's a hint for you: the one I like to make sure they spot involves a body part being named and identified, by simile or metaphor, with something else. The break comes when the identification happens without any part being named: a moment of erotic decorum that I find both inviting and delightful.

In chapter 5, verses 9-16, the Shulamite returns her beloved's complements with a blazon of her own, likewise moving top to toe. "How is your lover different / from any other?" the daughters of Jerusalem demand. Her response:

My beloved is milk and wine,
he towers
above ten thousand.

His hair is burnished gold,
the mane of his hair
black as the raven.

His eyes like doves,
by the rivers
of milk and plenty.

His cheeks a bed of spices,
a treasure
of precious scents, his lips
red lilies wet with myrrh.*

His arm a golden scepter with gems of topaz,
his loins the ivory of thrones
inlaid with sapphire,
his thighs like marble pillars
on pedastals of gold.

Tall as Mount Lebanon,
a man like a cedar!

His mouth is sweet wine, he is all delight.

This is my beloved,
and this is my friend,
O daughters of Jerusalem.
Now that's what I call saying something wonderful.

(*Another assignment, when you have the whole poem at hand: follow the myrrh.)

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Lesson Plans: Divide and Ponder

P writes: "So, Pro-fessor"--she likes to call me that, like Katherine Hepburn needling Jimmy Stewart in The Philadelphia Story--"much as I love your mando-meditations, when do we get some teaching tips? Isn't that what this blog was for?"

Fair enough, P. Today's lesson: divide and ponder.

The best "first move" I ever picked up for reading poetry, which it took the combined efforts of Helen Vendler, Michael Colacurcio, and about 200 impatient undergraduates to drill into my head, is also probably the simplest:
1. Divide the poem into sections.
Poems, you see, tend to come in sections. Sometimes they're visible, marked by stanza divisions; sometimes the fault lines fall between sentences, rather than stanzas; sometimes they come between groups of stanzas or sentences, especially in longer poems. In any case, come they do, because most poems are a series of moods and ideas, in response to whatever sparks the speaker into speech.

Once you've found a way to divide the poem into sections, you can do two very easy, very familiar things:
2. Compare the sections, watching out for repetition and variation or contrast and change; and
3. Figure out the logic (emotional, associative, whatever it may be) that motivates each turn from section to section.
Neither of those is rocket science, brain surgery, or even sophisticated critical practice. Neither is particularly AP or college level stuff. In fact, you can use these moves on just about any poem, at just about any age, and come up with something sharp-eyed and interesting to say.

Consider, for example, this little poem, by Beatrice Schenk de Regniers, "Keep a Poem in Your Pocket." My son brought it home in 2nd grade, as the first of his "Poem of the Week" assignments.

Keep a poem in your pocket
And a picture in your head
And you’ll never feel lonely
At night when you’re in bed.

The little poem will sing to you
The little picture bring to you
A dozen dreams to dance to you
At night when you’re in bed.


Keep a picture in your pocket
And a poem in your head
And you’ll never feel lonely
At night when you’re in bed.
What are we to say about this? Aside from being a pretty good 2nd-grade gloss on the method of the Pisan Cantos (how's that, P? Sound like a professor?), it's not a terribly appealing or interesting poem at first, at least to me. A little twee and twittery; for children's poetry, I'll take Susan Cooper's "On the Day of the Dead, when the year too dies / Shall the youngest open the oldest hills," or anything from the Lord of the Rings, from "Sing Hey! for a bath at the close of day" to "Ah Elbereth! Gilthoniel! / A silver pen for Muriel," or however that one went. However, let's dip that little sucker in a quick bath of "The Method" and see what develops.

Sections: three stanzas, three sections, no kidding.

First section: a stanza of advice--"Keep a poem in your pocket / and a picture in your head"--and a reason, a rather striking one, really, for that advice: "And you'll never feel lonely / At night when you're in bed." We have two characters, then. There's me, the speaker, and there's some "you" who feels lonely in bed. That's a real threat, actually. My daughter keeps, at last count, 26 stuffed animals in her bed for precisely that reason, and would keep me there too at bedtime, if I let her. We all know what grown-ups keep around for similar reasons. (Is that a poem in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?) What does the second section look like?

"The little poem--" Wait a minute! In the last staza, it was just a poem, not a "little poem." "The little picture--" Ahem! Do I smell a pattern here? We now have something to talk about, namely the sudden use of diminutives. (Ah, sure, they sound even better in a thick, fake brogue, don't ya know.) They're like a stuffed poem and picture now, snuggly and companionable: a first cure, as imagined, for that loneliness.

And what, sir, are those little fellows doing? "The little poem will sing to you / The little picture bring to you / A dozen dreams to dance to you / At night when you're in bed." No advice now, clearly: the speech act has shifted from advice to predictive narration. The picture and poem aren't being kept by you anymore; now they're active, and the you so far is passive, the object of their actions. (I call that, following Vendler, a change in agency.)

As for that threat of existential loneliness, it's harder and harder to feel, now that there seem to be not one, not two, not three, but FIFTEEN characters cavorting in that bed: you, the poem, the picture, and a dozen dreams! And they're not just there--the verb "to be" drops out--they're singing and dancing and bringing things "to you" and "to you" and "to you." It's almost as if there are three yous there, too; there certainly are in the stanza itself.


What about the final stanza? The speech act goes back to advice; the verbs are back to an imperative / future pattern; in fact, everything is back the way it was in stanza one, except that the poem and picture have been switched. Now you're supposed to keep the picture in your pocket and the poem in your head. On my reading, this means that the poem ends up more important: it gets the crucial framing spots, first and last; and, of course, this is a poem we're talking about, after all. It probably wants to be the poem you keep in your head, don't you think? It's sure been stuck in mine, ever since I figured out you could polka around singing it to the tune of "Do Your Ears Hang Low," more or less. Your reading, like your mileage, may vary--but whatever that reading is, it had better notice at least everything I've pointed out here, and come up with some motivation for it.

Class dismissed, P. Go in Peace.


Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Lesson Plans: Poetic License Assignment

Which to do, then? Post something here, or practice mandolin?

"Whatever you practice, you will get good at," I warn or promise my students and kids, depending on the tone to make the difference. Hmmm...

A compromise: here's a little quatrain, short and stout, that I've always thought would make a fine assignment for students of just about any age, by the charming second-generation New York School poet Ron Padgett, from his out-of-print book Toujours l'amour:
Poetic License

This license certifies
That Ron Padgett may tell whatever lies
His heart desires
Until it expires
The assignment would be, more or less, to write your own "Poetic License." No more than four lines, rhyming AABB, lines expandable ad libertam until the rhyme arrives (in manner of Ogden Nash, if slightly less graceful under pressure). "This license VERB / That YOUR NAME HERE may..." etc.

As this blog will no doubt soon show, I love quatrains, epigrams, short poems of almost all kinds. Hence my much-loved mandolin, that epigram of instruments. (As oud is the ghazal!)

More soon--

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Introducing Poetry (Acrostic Dept.)

My son came home from school this afternoon and announced that his third grade class has started its Poetry Unit. "You'll be glad, Dad!" says he. Maybe, says I, to myself at any rate.

I'll write another time about my son's last poetry unit, or rather about the "Poems of the Week" his teacher sent home last year for discussion--free form, no questions asked--with family and friends. For now, let me focus on this year's unit, which evidently began, just like last year's, with acrostics.

Why acrostics? Hmmm... My guess is, because they're easy. Easy to explain, easy to do, easy to use (in the best of cases) to show how poetry is, at heart, formalized language: language on which some sort of pattern or shape has been imposed; language which has been made "formal" (as manners might be); language which has, therefore, been somehow made different, "defamiliarized," as the Russian Formalists said. It's the same appeal we find, for teachers, in haiku: a simple rule that, when applied, produces a made thing, a poem. Why, then, don't I like the assignment? Why does it make me, not "glad, Dad," but grumpy?

Two reasons come to mind.

First, the acrostic is a silent form. It's not as satisfying as a form based on sound (rhyme, meter, alliterative verse) or on syntax and word-order (parallelism, antithesis, chiasmus, etc.), or even on those "inclinations of poetry language" that Kenneth Koch talks about so ably in his book Making Your Own Days: comparison, personification, apostrophe, lying, boasting, and so forth. The poem you end up with, by and large, is therefore pretty dull, pretty informal, pretty familiar, in all the really audible ways. Unless, of course, you double up the forms, and write an acrostic that's also a sonnet, or also in rhyming couplets, like that old Tony Bennett song ("L-is for the way you Look at me / O is for the Only One I see....")

Second, the acrostic doesn't take you anywhere, at least in the classes I've seen. That is, although there is in fact a tradition of acrostic verse out there--the book of Lamentations and a couple of the psalms are acrostics on the Hebrew alphabet, and some medieval Jewish poets did the same but with their names--those poems don't often get brought to the table in a second or third grade class. At least with haiku there are masterful, memorable poems you can hitch to your assignment: poems that will linger in the mind until you're old enough to make the most of them. (Links to follow, I promise.) Name me one, ONE acrostic that holds up to more than a second-grade parents' night reflection, I ask you!

Hmmm... Actually, I can think of one, but it's so daring, so harrowing, so brilliant, I've never actually taught it myself. It's called Darkling, by Anna Rabinowitz, and it's a book-length poem about the Holocaust, written as an acrostic on--I kid you not--the 32 lines of Thomas Hardy's "The Darkling Thrush." A book worth knowing, published in a gorgeous paperback by Tupelo Press. If you currently teach Night, by Elie Wiesel, this would make a perfect companion text in verse; it would fit a Facing History and Ourselves-inspired curriculum as well.

I don't "dislike it," actually

When I was a sophomore or junior in college, I went to the first class meeting of a course on "Lyric" taught by Barbara Johnson, the critic and literary theorist. She opened it by reading Marianne Moore's poem "Poetry," and by the time she got through the first line ("I, too, dislike it") I was already itching to drop out. Her later deconstructive riff on how "the genuine" was clearly ungraspable, since it came after both the first and second "hand" mentioned in the poem, sent me to the door, never to return. Ah, youth!

Perhaps I'm alone in disliking that poem, but I can't be the only one who bristles when poets invoke it, as though to distinguish themselves from those gushy or fey enthusiasts who Love Poetry Too Much And For the Wrong Reasons. When I saw Robert Pinsky, of all people, run up its red, red flag in Slate this morning, my heart sank--but it turns out to be a reasonably entertaining column, featuring a Ben Jonson poem I teach from time to time, "A Fit of Rime Against Rime." You can click over for Pinsky's commentary, which says some useful things about the history of rhyme in English poetry, about which my students generally don't know much. Here's the poem, and I, too, like it.


Rime, the rack of finest wits,
That expresseth but by fits,
True Conceipt,

Spoyling Senses of their Treasure,
Cozening Judgement with a measure,
But false weight.

Wresting words, from their true calling;
Propping Verse, for feare of falling
To the ground.

Joynting Syllabes, drowning Letters,
Fastening Vowells, as with fetters
They were bound!

Soone as lazie thou wert knowne,
All good Poetrie hence was flowne,
And Art banish'd.

For a thousand yeares together,
All Pernassus Greene did wither,
And wit vanish'd.

Pegasus did flie away,
At the Wells no Muse did stay,
But bewail'd

So to see the Fountaine drie,
And Apollo's Musique die.
All light failed!

Starveling rimes did fill the Stage,
Not a Poet in an Age,
Worth crowning;

Not a worke deserving Bays,
Nor a line deserving praise,
Pallas frowning.

Greeke was free from Rime's infection,
Happy Greeke, by this protection,
Was not spoyled.

Whilst the Latin, Queene of Tongues,
Is not yet free from Rimes wrongs,
But rests foiled.

Scarce the hill againe doth flourish,
Scarce the world a Wit doth nourish,
To restore

Phoebus to his Crowne againe;
And the Muses to their braine;
As before.

Vulgar Languages that want
Words, and sweetnesse, and be scant
Of true measure;

Tyrant Rime hath so abused,
That they long since have refused
Other ceasure.

He that first invented thee,
May his joynts tormented bee,
Cramp'd forever;

Still may Syllabes jarre with time,
Still may reason warre with rime,
Resting never.

May his Sense, when it would meet
The cold tumor in his feet,
Grow unsounder,

And his Title be long foole,
That, in rearing such a Schoole,
Was the founder.

Monday, April 04, 2005

Why "Say Something Wonderful"?

Well, I almost called this blog “The Long Schoolroom,” not so much after the line from Yeats (“I walk through the long schoolroom questioning,” from "Among School Children") as after the book of essays by Allen Grossman, a poet whose work I don’t know all that well, but whose passion and talents as a teacher of poetry, first at Brandeis and then at Johns Hopkins University, are legendary.

In the end, though, "The Long Schoolroom" sounded just a smidgen too serious--too grim and forbidding a classroom to visit--for anything written by a far-from-legendary guy like me. (As I’ve quipped on Mark Scroggins’ lovely blog Culture Industry, I’d rather read a stack of romance novels than a page of Adorno, and I have the bedside table to prove it.) Grossman's “Lessons in the Bitter Logic of the Poetic Principle” seemed the wrong curriculum to invoke, somehow. Instead, I’ve borrowed the phrase “say something wonderful” from an early poem by Edward Hirsch. He, too, gets a little high-church for my tastes, nowadays, but he wowed me when I was a 10th grader and first encountered his work. In fact, I think For the Sleepwalkers was the first book by a living poet I ever purchased.

“Tonight I want to say something wonderful / for the sleepwalkers,” the title poem begins,

who have so much faith
in their legs, so much faith in the invisible

arrow carved into the carpet, the worn path
that leads to the stairs instead of the window,
the gaping doorway instead of the seamless mirror.

That the impulse to “say something wonderful” spurs poets to write is obvious, perhaps. For me, though, it lies at the heart of reading poetry as well. Faced with those moments when love or death, joy or catastrophe, a really good burger or a hit-and-run flirtation shakes up our lives, we look for words that are up to the occasion: words that instill the cockiness, charm, or “faith in the invisible” that only shaped and patterned language can supply. Examples abound, from the oft-cited flurry of poems quoted and e-mailed after September 11th to those moments in the novels of Jennifer Crusie (plug, plug) when the male lead mutters a scrap of Donne or Roethke, kindling our startled heroine’s interest.

To bring this faith in poetry to students, however—and here comes the part where even I get serious—we teachers can’t be “sleepwalkers” ourselves, unable to articulate just how we can tell “seamless mirror” from open door. Nor can we afford to dismiss such questions as “what does this poem mean?” or “why is your interpretation any better than mine?” Like physics or chemistry instructors, that is to say, we must be able to explain both results and method, to show our students why certain questions make a poem more instructive or delightful, while others set blinders on the reader’s eyes. We need an informed and confident sense of how to introduce poetry to our students—its nature, its pleasures, its difficulties—and of how to read a poem closely without (as Billy Collins infamously warns) “beating it with a hose / to find out what it really means.” Above all, I guess, we owe it to our students to model how reading—reading closely, reading aloud, reading in bed—can bring poems to life, in every sense of that fine phrase.

More about which—and about much else—in my next posting. Stay tuned.