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.

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