Thursday, July 28, 2005

Farewell, "Teach Poetry"; Hello "Say Something Wonderful: the Listserv"

Well, today was the last day of "Say Something Wonderful," the 2005 NEH Summer Seminar. Although the seminar itself was a blast, I feel I failed miserably at "blogging the seminar" as I planned and promised. By the time I got home from most days, at least after the first two weeks, I was just too talked-out to post, well, just about anything! On the other hand, this does mean that I have lots and lots of material saved up to post over the rest of the summer, so I suppose it's not really a loss.

My son is peering over my shoulder as I type this, either hoping to get on the computer to visit or to challenge me to a game of foosball, so I'll keep this brief. As a way to continue the discussions of our seminar more broadly, and to draw in as many poetry teachers as possible, from whatever level, I have started up a Yahoo Group called (what else?) "Say Something Wonderful." Here's the description posted for that group:

"Say Something Wonderful" is an on-line forum for anyone who teaches poetry, whether at the K-12, community college, or college level. On it you can share poems, lesson plans, study questions, creative writing exercises, and other poetry-related resources. You can also ask questions about poems and poets you currently teach, or would like to teach, or have been suddenly asked to teach (help!), from the most elementary to the most arcane. Think of this group as a teachers' lounge with one heck of a bookshelf in reach.

If you teach poetry, this group is for you!

Pull up a chair, join the fun, and tell your colleagues, too.

My goal is to start a conversation that spans the various grade levels that currently divide the poetry-teaching community, so that we can all draw on one another's interests and expertise. If you're reading this, you should probably sign up--and if you don't want to, for whatever reason, I bet you know a colleague / lover / student / teacher-of-your-own-cute-kids who would! (Prospective teachers are welcome, too.)

"Say Something Wonderful: the Listserv" replaces my earlier attempt to start a listserv: "Teach Poetry." I'm about to send a message to everyone on the earlier discussion board encouraging them to switch over; actual messages on the new board should start tomorrow. This blog, however, isn't going anywhere. It's too much fun, even if it does occasionally drive my children crazy.

OK! OK! It's yours!

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

New Links, Plans in Progress

Sorry so silent, everyone--it's the final week of the seminar, and my head is awhirl.

I've added two new links: one to the Wondering Minstrels annotated poetry archive, where I found the Faiz poem from last week; the other to Language Is A Virus, which features more poetry-writing games and "gizmos" than you can shake a stich at.

Am at work on a Yahoo group to hook up us poetry teachers, K-12 through college level, to build on the work of the seminar. Stay tuned.

More soon, I promise! Must run.

Friday, July 15, 2005

NEH Seminar: the Taxi Driver's Poet

Thursday morning, one of my NEH teachers showed up just a little late. Her car, it seemed, had been towed overnight from the University lot; she had scrambled to find a taxi to class.

On the way, her driver asked what she was doing in Chicago. When she said she was studying poetry, he told her, "I haven't had a very happy or successful life, but since I've come to the U.S., poetry has sustained me." (I paraphrase--but it was close to that.) He told her she should read his favorite poet. "So who was it?" I asked. (The poetry gods are rarely so clear in asking for one's attention.)

"Someone named Ahmed Faraz? Fariz?" She wasn't sure.

A little sleuthing suggests it was Faiz Ahmad Faiz, the great Pakistani poet, who turns out to be widely recorded as a lyricist as well. More information about him, along with this translation by Agha Shahid Ali, at the handy Minstrels site:

A Prison Evening

Each star a rung,
night comes down the spiral
staircase of the evening.
The breeze passes by so very close
as if someone just happened to speak of love.
In the courtyard,
the trees are absorbed refugees
embroidering maps of return on the sky.
On the roof,
the moon - lovingly, generously -
is turning the stars
into a dust of sheen.
From every corner, dark-green shadows,
in ripples, come towards me.
At any moment they may break over me,
like the waves of pain each time I remember
this separation from my lover.

This thought keeps consoling me:
though tyrants may command that lamps be smashed
in rooms where lovers are destined to meet,
they cannot snuff out the moon, so today,
nor tomorrow, no tyranny will succeed,
no poison of torture make me bitter,
if just one evening in prison
can be so strangely sweet,
if just one moment anywhere on this earth.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Neruda! Thou shouldst be living in this hour....

In the immor(t)al words of Alan Jackson, "I'm not a real political man." Nevertheless, even I have noticed a few stories in the news the last few days.

Hence, last night, rereading Neruda's Spain in our Hearts, these lines leapt out: "Y por las calles la sangre de los ninos / corria simplemente, como saangre de ninos": "and through the streets the blood of the children / ran simply, like children's blood."

(Viva la muerte, those fascists cried on their way to Madrid. "You love life, and we love death," said the new ones, after Madrid no less. Neruda would have recognized the line.)

I liked this poem, last night, too, from Mahmoud Darwish:

I Have a Seat in the Abandoned Theatre

I have a seat in the abandoned theatre
in Beirut. I might forget, and I might recall
the final act without longing . . . not because of any thing
other than that the play was not written
skillfully . . .
as in the war days of those in despair, and an autobiography
of the spectators’ impulse. The actors were tearing up their scripts
and searching for the author among us, we the witnesses
sitting on our seats.
I tell my neighbor the artist: don’t draw your weapon,
and wait, unless you are the author!
- No.
Then he asks me: and you are you the author?
- No.
So we sit scared. I say: be a neutral
hero to escape from an obvious fate.
So he says: no hero dies revered in the second
scene. I will wait for the rest. Maybe I would
revise one of the acts. And maybe I would mend
what the iron has done to my brothers.
So I say: it is you then?
He responds: you and I are two masked authors and two masked
I say: how is this my concern? I’m a spectator.
He says: no spectators at chasm’s door . . . and no
one is neutral here. And you must choose
your part in the end.
So I say: I’m missing the beginning, what’s the beginning?

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Poetry and Pop Songs

Several of the teachers in my NEH seminar have asked about teaching the lyrics to popular songs--and still more, rap--as poetry.

No time to weigh in on this right now, except to note that we might be shamed into this not only by Sappho, but by Donne, at least according to this piece in the London Times. "Four musical scores by various composers of the day," it tells me, "reveal that Donne intended some of his words to be sung rather than read." At least seven composers in Donne's day set his words to music, with one poem, "Break of Day," "set and printed simultaneously by three composers — John Dowland, Orlando Gibbons and William Corkine."


’Tis true, ’tis day; what though it be?
O, wilt thou therefore rise from me?
Why should we rise because ‘tis light?
Did we lie down because ‘twas night?
Love, which in spite of darkness brought us hither,
Should in despite of light keep us together.

Light hath no tongue, but is all eye;
If it could speak as well as spy,
This were the worst that it could say,
That being well I fain would stay,
And that I loved my heart and honour so
That I would not from him, that had them, go.

Must business thee from hence remove?
O! that’s the worst disease of love,
The poor, the foul, the false, love can
Admit, but not the busied man.
He which hath business, and makes love, doth do
Such wrong, as when a married man doth woo.

This makes me very, very happy somehow. Anyone have an mp3 out there?

Oh, My...

(as Annie Savoy sighs in Bull Durham): will you look at this site? It seems to be a compendium--a link-based blog, or some such name--of articles on poetry and poets from throughout the English-speaking world, with a sidebar column of poetry blogs, journals, author and organization home pages, full-text essays, the works! I'm adding it to the links page immediately.

So tell me--what does a boy have to do around here to get linked to a page like that?

Saturday, July 09, 2005

Daily Poems (Dictated, even?)

As we discussed Baron Wormser & David Cappella's A Surge of Language two weeks ago, and again last week at my NEH seminar, two teaching tips surfaced that seem particularly appealing. The first comes from this passage:
Frequently I will ask a student to justify a word in a poem I speak aloud or dictate: "Why is that word in the poem?" Because one word is connected inteimately with all the other words in a poem, students come to see how a poem is an articulate tangle: Pull one thread and all the other threads are influenced (8).
Over and over, as we've read subsequent poems, we've found ourselves tugging the thread of a single word, trying to justify that word--and, in the process, trying to see what other threads move when we tug it. It always, always, leads to interesting results.

(Is anyone else bothered by the mixed metaphor in W/C's last sentence there? In my book, "threads" don't get "influenced," etymologically or otherwise. A quibble, but still!)

The second teaching tip lies hidden in that first one: "a poem I speak aloud or dictate...." Wormser/Cappella's fictional teacher doesn't just read a poem a day to his students; he dictates the poem, and has them write it out by hand, as a lead-in to discussion. "It takes some time," they write, "but it's time that is well spent. They have to ponder each word and comma. I grade them on their dictations. [...] What I (and they) discover is that they tend to be careless. They aren't used to paying minute attention to another text."

A challenge, then, to all of you out there reading. What are some short poems--no more than, say, a dozen lines, and better still, eight or less--that teachers could use for their dictation / close listening / discussion sparking exercises? Mordant, musing, imagist, formal, free.... It's time for someone to compile an anthology of Poems to Dictate, and dammit, we're just the folks to do it!

Send 'em along, now or later, and I'll assemble and send out (or post) the file as it grows.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Arabic Poetry, Aloud and in Translation

Hey, everyone--

Check out this link, to a Princeton University site where you can watch and listen to classical Arabic poetry, while viewing a translation next to the lines themselves. It's pretty wild stuff; I'm a newfound Abu Nuwas fan!

The site has material in Romance languages, too, but you can't access them except from within the Princeton system. It has Russian poetry, but I can't find a translation button. For now, for me, it's just the Arabic.

(A shout out to Nancy Coffin, the translator, whom I think I knew at college! If you see her, say hello.)

NEH Seminar: Week 1 Wrapup

I'm a few days behind in my seminar blogging, for which I hope you'll forgive me. After three hours of discussing poetry, and another hour or two of lunchtime conversation, I seem talked out these days. At night I'm more likely to curl up with the new Julia Quinn or stalk an oud on ebay than post about poetry--BUT I do have a few minutes here before the kids get home to catch you up on the seminar in progress.

After we finished our Koch discussion, we turned to three books that introduce poetry to students and teachers at the elementary, middle / high school, and college levels: to wit,

  • Sharon Creech, Love that Dog
  • Baron Wormser / David Cappella, A Surge of Language, and
  • Helen Vendler, Poems, Poets, Poetry (2nd edition).
Of these, the first is a novel in verse, the second a fictional "teacher's diary" from a "poetry-centered classroom," and only the third a textbook per se. We tried to talk about all three in a single day, which was something of a joke, but we've kept coming back to ideas from all three since, and all deserve some attention here.

Let me start with the Creech, and come back to the others tonight or tomorrow, as the evening allows.

For those of you that don’t know it (and I didn’t), Love That Dog is an 86 page novel in verse for kids—although, if that sounds intimidating, you should know that the verse is free verse mostly of the thinnest and chopped-prosiest sort, and the book is in the voice of a boy named Jack whose teacher, Miss Stretchberry, has begun a unit on reading and writing poetry. The book seems to me extremely interesting, both for what it says about that unit (the poems read and quoted in the book) and for what it says, explicitly and implicitly, about poetry as an art.

The book starts like this:


I don’t want to
because boys
don’t write

Girls do.
This is, I think, a very interesting and provocative way to start the book. Certainly the modernists struggled with this question of poetry’s gender (“boys / don’t write poetry”), and my sense is that this anxiety goes back much, much farther. (I’ve seen it talked about in Sidney’s “Apology for Poetry,” for example.) Where did the boy get this idea that poetry is what girls write, I wonder? Will the plot of the book resolve this tension so that Jack realizes that boys do write poetry? Or will Jack be “feminized” over the course of the novel, so that the opposition between boys & girls begins to break down? (We don’t know yet what age or grade we’re dealing with…) Such questions stay in the back of my mind, although they're never addressed directly in the book itself, which moves on to other matters.

(I'm curious, though, whether this remains part of your students’ response to the art. Have the worlds of performance poetry, rap, or Shel Silverstein and Jack Prelutsky, etc., changed matters somewhat? Does it vary by age? Come to think of it, is poetry cast as feminine, or literacy in general? I know I got my start as a writer—imagined myself as a writer, a poet, etc.—by crossing genders; I identified with Jo March and Harriet the Spy, and didn’t start associating writing with masculine achievement until I hit, I don’t know, Robert Heinlein. Is this, though, a thing of the past? If not, how do you address it?)

In any case, the question of gender drops out of view in the novel, to be replaced by questions of aesthetics. The teacher, it seems, has assigned Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow.” “I don’t understand / the poem,” Jack complains; “If that is a poem…then any words / can be a poem. / You’ve just got to / make / short / lines.” He then writes a poem of his own, about a blue car, modeled (at least slightly) on the Williams, only to have his teacher ask him why, in his poem, so much depended upon the blue car. “The wheelbarrow guy / didn’t tell why,” he objects.

We spent a good deal of time in the seminar talking about this episode, although I was left with a couple of lingering questions. We talked about using “The Red Wheelbarrow” as an early poem—a poem for those unused to poetry. (Some teachers in the seminar do this all the time, and swear by it, others never would, and swear AT it.) What is served by teaching it? What do we, and our students, get out of it?

I don't think any of the seminar participants knew the poem in its original context, Williams's Spring and All, or in the context of WCW's quarrel with T. S. Eliot. We focused our discussion instead on how one could find, and demonstrate, the artistry of the poem--lessons I learned from Hugh Kenner decades ago, although I'm not sure I've ever been entirely convinced. (I’ve long wished that this damned wheelbarrow wouldn’t cart off other, better, more interesting and moving Williams poems, like “This is Just to Say” and “Waiting” and any number of others.)

In Creech's novel, it seems to me the primary “lessons” of the Williams are 1) that men (as well as “girls”) write poetry; and 2) that “any words / can be a poem” as long as you write them in lines: which is to say, that students don’t have to write in any particular diction (flowery, “poetic,” etc.) and don’t have to use meter or rhyme (which are, God forbid, rather HARD to do well).

I notice, in regard to the latter of these, that the teacher seems not to have said anything about Williams’s linebreaks or stanza breaks. Jack’s poem breaks up “depends / upon,” as the original does, but then shifts into simple phrasal units (“splattered with mud / speeding down the road”) in a way that Williams studiously avoids. What art and interest there is in the Williams, at least formally, vanishes from sight. What replaces it is an issue of meaning—or, rather, of biographical “hidden meaning”: the “why.” For Jack, as the novel will reveal, something specific and biographical depends upon that car, and the novel will move on to pin that “something” down through future poems. Is the implication, then, that the same is true of Williams, but he plays hide the ball?

Damn! Must run. More soon, when I get back from being a house elf. --E

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

"Hey, baby...'s the 4th of July"

A great song, that, by my favorite LA punk band, X. They don't play it much these days, but it's worth knowing.

So many poetry blogs had grim tidings of great distress this weekend that I was tempted to post something rousing and patriotic, just to buck the trend, but even I felt a chill or two as the bombs burst in air over Skokie, and I remembered how lucky, very lucky, I was to be sitting back in a plastic chair enjoying the show, and not fearing for my life, or my wife's, or my daughter's or son's.

Here's this, then, which I stumbled upon in some reading for the seminar. We haven't talked about it yet, but it's a poem to know, by Robinson Jeffers. Read it and weep, as they say?

(It's in couplets of very long lines--I apologize for the formatting screw-ups!)

Shine, Perishing Republic

While this America settles in the mould of its vulgarity, heavily thickening to empire
And protest, only a bubble in the molten mass, pops and sighs out, and the mass hardens,

I sadly smiling remember that the flower fades to make fruit, the fruit rots to make earth.
Out of the mother; and through the spring exultances, ripeness and decadence; and home to the mother.

You making haste haste on decay: not blameworthy; life is good, be it stubbornly long or suddenly
A mortal splendor: meteors are not needed less than mountains: shine, perishing republic.

But for my children, I would have them keep their distance from the thickening center; corruption
Never has been compulsory, when the cities lie at the monster's feet there are left the mountains.

And boys, be in nothing so moderate as in love of man, a clever servant, insufferable master.
There is the trap that catches noblest spirits, that caught – they say –God, when he walked on earth.

Friday, July 01, 2005

NEH Teaching Tips: A Koch-tail of Quotations and Advice

All of these, below, either from or in response to Kenneth Koch's Making Your Own Days: The Pleasures of Reading and Writing Poetry.

“A poem is an experience and not a description of an experience" (115).

When reading poetry--as in many, many other things--pleasure comes before understanding; enjoyment leads to intellectual knowledge.

As you read, note and describe (reflect on, identify) the poem’s immediate satisfactions—they’ll be different for each sort of poem. Those immediate satisfactions are as much what the poem’s about, what the poem does, as any paraphrasable content, so you need to attend to them just as closely, analyze them as mechanisms of delight.

What sort of suspense or unfolding of plot are we dealing with?

What is this speaker like (i.e., who am I like as I say this)?

Is there a pleasure in precision? In mystery?

If pleasures of sound: what sort of sound-pleasure are we talking about? Repetition and variation in sound, especially the use of repeated sounds (alliteration, assonance, consonance, rhyme); Also changes in typical sounds as the poem goes on (or typical rhythms, smoothness to choppiness, bounciness to slow progress, etc.)

Are there pleasures of diction or clashes in diction? (Think of Keats's “lone splendour hung aloft the night”--the contrast between "splendour" and "hung" is delightful, and between "hung" and "aloft.")

If other “inclinations of poetry language” on display—apostrophe, metaphor, simile, boast, wordplay, juxtaposition, wordplay—what sort of fun do I get to have with each as it occurs?

(To answer this, you have to “unpack” it, natch.)

A poem more or less tells its readers how to read it, what questions to ask.

If the poem is difficult, pin down what sort of difficulty we’re dealing with, and use that as a means to pleasure.

If you don’t have to “get it,” or all of it, right away, you can turn difficulty into play, and you can watch for when difficulty begins to resolve (which would be a section shift in the poem).

Remember: poems tend to act out whatever they’re about; if there are moments of difficulty or clumsiness or mystery, those are probably difficult or clumsy or mysterious places / emotions / ideas that the poem is dealing with.

Respect the poem. Respect your own response, even if it's an uncertain or puzzled one. Sometimes understanding a poem depends on going through the uncertainty that the poem offers as it goes, as the speaker (you) work things through or figure them out.

From Koch on "Reading":

“Art seems to be constructed so as to give us experiences, and understanding, by means of the pleasure it gives us. Intellectual understanding is one of the pleasures, but, in a poem, for example, so are the repeated sounds of “Tyger! Tyger!,” the very fact of talking to a tiger, the fact that night is turned into a forest and so on” (110).

“Common mistaken ideas about how to read poetry include the Hidden Meaning assumption, which directs one to more or less ignore the surface of the poem in a quest for some elusive and momentous significance that the poet has hidden amid the words and music. […] It’s not the nature of poems to be clues, or collections of clues, so to read them as if they were is not to properly experience them, thus to be lost. […] A poem may turn out to be a deep and complex experience, but the experience begins by responding to the language of poetry in front of you, not by detective work that puts that response aside” (111).

“Understanding comes from going through it all” (118).

“The pleasures of reading a poem come naturally in a certain order…having one experience after another” (119).

“There are some poems in which the difficulty is so much a part of the meaning that the two can’t be separated: the poem can’t be ‘understood’ without its coming close to seeming incomprehensible. […] The struggle to understand to some extent produces in oneself the violent intensity [ES: or other relevant mood, like hesitancy, tenderness] of what’s being said” (121).

Koch calls this a “necessary difficulty” (121): a difficulty in which “understanding this poem depends on the uncertainty gone through as it’s being read; without that, there is no shock at the end, thus not the experience” (122).

“Reading a poem includes knowing and not knowing. Uncertainty, shock, and surprise, as well as music and knowledge, may be a part of what the reader gets” (123).

NEH Seminar: Kenneth Koch, part 1

On the second day of our NEH Seminar, "Say Something Wonderful: Teaching the Pleasures of Poetry," we honed in on the late Kenneth Koch's book Making Your Own Days: The Pleasures of Reading and Writing Poetry. We read the chapters on "Inclinations of Poetry Language" and "Reading," along with a handful of poems included in the book's anthology.

As you may know, Koch is one of the masters (and inventors) of the genial, playful, "poets-in-the-schools" approach to teaching poetry. His thumbnail definition of poetry as a "language within the language," in which words are chosen, at every moment, as much for how they sound as much as for what they mean (and sometimes more so) certainly takes the pressure off students who want to find the Hidden Meaning. Poems HAVE to make musical sense, says Koch, to work as poems; they have much more leeway in making or not making or remaking logical sense, as a result. "Two plus two / is rather blue" makes poetic sense, from which meanings arise; "Two plus two / is rather green," while just as colorful, doesn't cut it.

Koch's "language in a language" idea may be roughly the same as Charles Bernstein's notion that we teach, really, PSL: Poetry as a Second Language. It also suggests that we need to immerse our students in that second language--after all, our students come into class with far more background in reading fiction, and watching (if not reading) drama, than in reading or hearing poetry. The whole "poem a day" approach of Poetry 180 or Wormser / Capella's A Surge of Language is meant to remedy this difference.

Koch then moves on to talk about various "inclinations of poetry language": his way of discussing what are usually called by colder, technological or pseudo-scientific names like "poetic devices" and "elements of poetry." I like his term better, and his discussion of those inclinations, not least because Koch gets at the pleasurable payoff of each "inclination" in turn.

Here's his list, and then I must run and take the kids to camp:

Comparisons (simile, metaphor, etc.) make things “vivid, exciting, and emotionally appealing”; they bring “more of the world” into the poem; they “can be illuminating and reassuring,” and “give a sense of control, of being in a position of power from which things can be seen and judged, where experience is expanded, and where knowledge is instantaneous and needs no study. It gives strength and pleasure to find likenesses—to write them and to read them.” (Italics mine) Comparisons can be “set” or artificial; they can be “fresh” and seem “organic”; they can be “wrenched” and surreal. They can be used to “elaborate on and linger over physical sensations,” to “give unseizable abstractions a degree of sensuous life.”

Personification makes abstractions, ideas, concepts, non-living or non-human things “easier to talk about.” It adds drama to the poem; it “connects what isn’t known [about Death or Love, say] directly with what is.” Personification is linked to and implicit in apostrophe, the address or “talking to” things or ideas. “Talking to something means assuming it is there and can both hear and respond.” Apostrophe thus “gives a feeling of power and control, at least of being beyond one’s ordinary range.” Both personification and apostrophe “help us to resolve our disconnectedness” from the natural world, the dead, etc., and also from ideas and abstractions (Joy, Love, etc.), helping us to clarify and explain them; personification and apostrophe are linked to animism, and “talking to God is a special case of apostrophe.” “Talking to brings closeness and also, it may be a feeling of power,” making us equal to what we address.

Lies in poems are, usually, the attempt to “state a feeling as if it were a fact,” and thus give “the truth of feeling.” They are a “shortcut,” letting the poet “give a quick impression of something on the borders of consciousness…that doesn’t fit in with ordinary thinking,” an “experiential and sensuous” understanding. Poetic “lies” include “pretending to know more than one does know, or possibly could know, and / or pretending to have more power than one has or possibly could have,” thus “making grand pronouncements” and “exhilarating statements” and declaring “visions of the future.” Related to this are boasts, through which “readers may be buoyed up along with the writer and share the exhilaration of being so grand, of being more than they usually are.”

Telling Secrets turns out to be something poems like to do. Poems create (or create the illusion of) a sort of open intimacy with the reader, as though doing it in art supplies forgiveness

Poetry language carries an impulse to novelty, and an impulse to MAKE WHATEVER IS SAID A WORK OF ART, which is to say something memorable and something that gives pleasure.

Check out his great demonstration with the Pound poem on p. 69: the music, the order, the shape of the whole, and what's lost if we change anything.)

Koch’s insights, and those that we might generate in his wake, let students see that the tropes and rhetorical schemes they find in poems aren't there to be ticked off on a list. They're there to be experienced by the reader; they have effects on us, let us speak in different ways and therefore feel differently, be differently in the world.

OK: more soon on the lessons in reading Koch gives, and what we did with them in class, with particular reference to Auden's "This Lunar Beauty." Stay tuned.