Sunday, August 31, 2008

'Nuff Said

`In our time the destiny of man presents its meanings in

political terms' - Thomas Mann

How can I, that girl standing there,
My attention fix
On Roman or on Russian
Or on Spanish politics?
Yet here's a travelled man that knows
What he talks about,
And there's a politician
That has read and thought,
And maybe what they say is true
Of war and war's alarms,
But O that I were young again
And held her in my arms!

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Grumpiness; Darwish

Glum this morning, or at least exhausted. My son up most of the night, my daughter from 1-3, my wife afflicted with kicking, twitching nightmares. I blame Hillary, although I suppose the real culprits are the start of school (for the kids) and a slough of new client work (for the missus). Either way, I'm done in, and it's scarcely 9 o'clock.


After 17 days of heaven in Ireland, earlier this summer, the rest of the season has been hard. Too many projects (heard that before?), too little sleep, a summer class that thrilled me while I taught it, but had me scrambling to keep up with my own syllabus, reading-wise, for the past five weeks. I have until the 10th, thank God, before my own courses begin, but so much to read, write, think about before then, it's a bit harrowing.

I've also been suffering from a serious case of the blues these past few weeks--unusual for me, and a bit disconcerting for the wife & kids, as well as for me. I blamed the work, my insomniac family, and other outside sources, but the real culprit, I've since decided, was my ill-conceived notion that to deal with all this stress I had to cut back on caffeine. En vacances I could get away with little more than mugs of Irish tea, but trying to do that here at home left me in a horrid state. Since I ramped up the dosage, I've been feeling better. Embarrassing, how easy that was--a tribute to how little the conscious, deliberative self is really in charge of one's life.

"Not I, not I, but the joe that blows through me," as D.H. Lawrence would say.


So, anyway, I need to go work. Here's today's poem--actually a few parts of a longer poem, but the work comes in numbered sections, and although it's best as a whole, each part works well on its own. The poem is "Ruba'iyat" ("Quatrains") by the recently deceased Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish; I don't know whether the original Arabic followed the AABA quatrain form, but the translation I have in hand, done by Noel Abdulahad and collected in The Adam of Two Edens, leaves that Persian form aside and gives us free verse stanzas like these instead.
I've seen all I want to see of the field:
tresses of wheat combed by the wind.
I close my eyes:
this mirage leads to the music of Nahawand--
this silence leads to a blue twilight.

I've seen all I want to see of peace:
a deer, a pasture, and a stream.
I close my eyes:
the deer is asleep in my arms--
his hunter is asleep in a faraway place
near his children.

I've seen all I want to see of death:
in love, my chest splits open
and the white horse of Eros bolts out of it,
gallops above infinite cloud,
races with the eternal blue.
Don't stop me from dying!
Don't return me to an earthly star.

I've seen all I want to see of poetry:
we used to wear garlands of flowers
and follow the funeral processions
of our martyred poets, then come back
safe and sound to their poems.
But in this tabloid age of cinemas and loud buzzing noises
we jeer as we bury their poems in heaps of dust
then see them waiting in doorways
when we get home.

I've seen all I want to see of people:
their nostalgic desire for anything and everything,
their slow pace going to work,
their fast pace coming home,
their incessant need to hear the words:
Good morning!
I love that last one, so deliciously grumpy. A good poem to get this morning out of my system, so that I can get some work done--or at least begun.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Two Short Poems

Two short poems by Samuel Menashe, both good for dictation, I think.




The tide ebbs
From a helmet
Wet sand embeds


Hey! Who knew? He's on YouTube, too. This could be useful in class, or just for your own enjoyment.

Monday, August 11, 2008

A Little Han Shan (ish) for Your Classes

We've been watching the Olympics here pretty much non-stop since Friday. Four years ago, when my kids were younger, they were inspired to stage their own "games" in the family room, which was about as adorable as it gets. This year they slump on the couch, but who can blame them? Exhaustion aplenty, chez nous: insomnia here, a virus there, lassitude and ennui.

And that's the pre-teen set! We grown-ups have our own crosses to bear, more on which (no doubt) anon.

In honor of the Games, here's a Chinese poem--or, rather, a poem written "after" one by the great Chinese poet Han Shan. Like some of you, I read him first in Gary Snyder's translations, which you can find (with an introductory essay) here; more recently the poet Red Pine has published a set of translations (well, Copper Canyon did the publishing, but you know what I mean), and there are other respected versions in English, most of which you can find linked here. (To show your students variant translations of another poem, check out the essay on the challenges of translating Han Shan here.)

The text this poem is based on comes from Burton Watson's Cold Mountain: 100 Poems, which came out back in the 1970s. In that collection, it's number 28, a little riposte by Han Shan to a scholar who's dissed his efforts. (Specifically, it's all about an error in prosody.) In his version, which was published in the endlessly heartening "Bliss" issue of Poetry East (number 60), James P. Lenfestey turns the text into a debate over what is of value in poetry, and by extension in literature more generally:

Making Poems

I laugh when I make a poem, I go to bed
at night chuckling to myself, reading and writing.
I wake in the morning chuckling to myself, reading and writing.
Years later I wonder: Why no prizes, why no money?
Maybe it's true, only sighs and tears make critics smile.
Must I now grieve for the joy I feel every day,
the fern dripping with dew,
the basket of sunshine placed every day before me?

Lenfestey has a book of these responses: A CARTLOAD OF SCROLLS: 100 POEMS IN THE MANNER OF T'ANG DYNASTY POET HAN-SHAN. Worth a look--there's probably more to be mined for classroom use, as well as for simple enjoyment.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Another Dictatable Poem

Here's one I've liked for a while, by the Jewish American modernist Charles Reznikoff:
Scrap of paper
blown about the street,
you would like to be cherished, I suppose,
like a bank-note.
Plenty to do with this in terms of sound and diction and lineation, as with most of Reznikoff's limpid short poems. If you like it, the complete Poems came back into print a couple of years ago now, and his harrowing volume Holocaust, which condenses poems out of testimony at the Nuremburg Trials, came back into print last year.

Good stuff, worth knowing, and great in the classroom.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Dictatable Poem: Yeats

Here's an early short poem by Yeats: a lovely boast, if you want to talk about it via Kenneth Koch's ideas about the "inclinations of poetry language" (of which boasting is one). The repeated phrase ("the great and their pride") might spark an interesting discussion of how much novelty, line by line, a poem demands--or, conversely, about how much repetition it can sustain. (Easier to memorize something with repetition in it, natch. Ask Homer.)

He Thinks Of Those Who Have Spoken Evil Of His Beloved

Half close your eyelids, loosen your hair,
And dream about the great and their pride;
They have spoken against you everywhere,
But weigh this song with the great and their pride;
I made it out of a mouthful of air,
Their children's children shall say they have lied.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Dictatable Poems

Many of the teachers I worked with last year had great success with a classroom strategy based on dictation. It comes from the invaluable book A Surge of Language: Teaching Poetry Day by Day, by Baron Wormser and David Cappella, which I've praised here many times. When Wormser and Cappella came out to Chicago for a two-day workshop at DePaul last August--ye gods and little fishies, that was nearly a year ago!--they started out with this approach, and it dazzled the middle and high school teachers who took part.

For a full description of the strategy, you'll want to look at the book--the first 15 pages will give you a few examples, along with some robust, reflective discussion of how and why it works. But the gist of it is this: you (the teacher) dictate a short poem to your students, who then write it down, line by line, word for word, comma for comma, etc. You make sure they know the details: "Title--each word capitalized..."; "First line, first word begins with a capital letter"; "does everyone know how to spell [this word]? No? it's [...]." In the book, they say that they tell the students to double-check any spellings they're unsure of in the dictionary before they turn in their poetry journals at the end of the week. "Sometimes they check, sometimes they don't," they write. "When their grade comes back a 'C,' they tend to start checking."

By dictating the poem, the book explains,
I can slow time down and get the words into my students' bodies. Poetry is physical and I want them to experience that physicality. By writing the words down--and I make allowances for students who are challenged in various ways, such as being hearing impaired--they have to grapple with the physical nature of each word. I told them today how "apparition" is spelled [they were doing Pound's "In a Station of the Metro"] but sometimes I let them write down a word and then we check on it as a class to determine how to spell that word. It's not that I am on a crusade about spelling; it's that I want them to have to apprehend words in various situations--some more structured that others. I want them to be alive to words, and spelling is part of that alive-ness. (7)
Notice how this approach differs from the more subject-matter-focused, linguistically insouciant poem-to-prompt approach I wrote about yesterday, or two days ago, or whenever the hell that was. (Sorry--my son has insomnia and woke me up at 1, and again at 5, this morning. Am a bit fuzzy on details.) In that prompt, there was much less "aliveness to words," or at least that aliveness was limited to attention to meaning, not to sound or graphic elements. But I digress.

Once the poem has been dictated and taken down, the discussion can begin. You can start with a general question: "I ask them what they noticed as they were writing the poem down. (Dictation is not mechanical; it's focusing.)" Or you can start by asking specific questions about the words in the poem. "Poems are not hierarchical," Wormser and Cappella write: "every word matters. This means the doors into a poem are as numerous as the words in the poem" (12). Here are ten questions they list that might be useful to spark discussion, from page 12:
Ten Questions to Ask About Words
  1. What word intrigues you most?
  2. Is there a word that confuses you?
  3. What word surprises you?
  4. What word seems most metaphorical?
  5. Is there a word that seems unnecessary?
  6. What word is most important?
  7. What is the most physical word in the poem?
  8. What is the most specific word in the poem?
  9. What is the strongest sound word in the poem?
  10. What is the most dynamic verb in the poem?
These questions aren't aimed at getting at "the meaning" of the poem--a clumsy, reductive question, as you know if you're reading this! Rather, they're aimed at getting the students to "think about the near-infinite particularities of this one poem" (14) so that they begin to appreciate "the poem's deep individuality" (15). Here's a passage from the book that sums this up quite nicely:
If you make students aware that literature is art they respond to it as art. They come to see that art is a process, and that once upon a time the great poet was scratching out words and putting in new ones just as they do in their own writing. If you teach literature as knowledge then they start looking for the write answers. If you teach literature as art what they come to understand is that there aren't right answers; there are thoughtful and articulate and intuitive answers, but a poem can't be solved; it isn't a problem. It's a form of being and we would no more ask a poem what it means than ask a friend what he or she means by existing. (14)
I haven't done justice to these sections of the book, and there's much more to be found there, but this will give you the gist of the approach. If you've used it yourself, please drop a comment about what you've done and how it worked! In the mean time, I'm going to start posting short poems here that are useful for the dictation exercise: poems that aren't too long, and seem to me the sort that would spark useful discussions of literature as art.

Starting tomorrow. Enough for today.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

"Where I'm From" Assignment

"Make yourself useful, and try to have fun." That was my dad's idea of a family motto, or so he told me, late in his life. (I wonder how it would sound in Latin? Properly impressive?) Anyway, it's time for me to make this blog a bit more useful--at least to the teachers I work with, and who read it. Maybe in the process it will be more fun again, too.

Last winter Eileen Murphy came to visit my workshop series "How to Teach a Poem (and Learn from One, Too)." She's a Say Something Wonderful alum--the NEH seminar, not the blog--and the two or three-time coach of Illinois state champions in the Poetry Out Loud competition. A master teacher, in short, who always brings great stuff to my attention. This time, she taught me (taught us) an assignment that works well for the early days of a Language Arts or English class--or, come to think of it, for the later days, especially as a substitute for the old "personal narrative essay." It's not her assignment: I've found many versions of it on line, including here and here and (as a thoughtful article from New York City) here, and again here, a West Virginia site which pegs it to a teacher from rural North Carolina. (Go Appalachia!) Now it's here, for you.

The assignment begins with a poem by George Ella Lyons called "Where I'm From," which was featured in the United States of Poetry video series a decade or so ago; as she says in a lovely piece on her website (with audio) it's travelled a long way since then, especially as a writing prompt.

Where I'm From
by George Ella Lyon

I am from clothespins,
from Clorox and carbon-tetrachloride.
I am from the dirt under the back porch.
(Black, glistening
it tasted like beets.)
I am from the forsythia bush,
the Dutch elm
whose long gone limbs I remember
as if they were my own.

I'm from fudge and eyeglasses,
from Imogene and Alafair.
I'm from the know-it-alls
and the pass-it-ons,
from perk up and pipe down.
I'm from He restoreth my soul
with a cottonball lamb
and ten verses I can say myself.

I'm from Artemus and Billie's Branch,
fried corn and strong coffee.
From the finger my grandfather lost
to the auger
the eye my father shut to keep his sight.
Under my bed was a dress box
spilling old pictures,
a sift of lost faces
to drift beneath my dreams.
I am from those moments-
snapped before I budded-
leaf-fall from the family tree.

You can read different versions of the discussion that ensues at the links above--obviously it's a chance to talk about what can be inferred about the speaker from the specifics she gives, but really there are a number of ways you can go with it, which I don't have time to detail right now. (See the links above, or suggest them to each other in the comments!)

You can then turn it into a prompt like this--a sort of poetry mad-lib, if you like:

I am from __(specific ordinary item)____ from __(product name) and (?)

I am from the __(home description)___. (adjective, adjective; sensory detail.)

I am from the __(plant, flower, natural item)___, the __(plant, flower, natural item)___ (description of the natural item).

I’m from ___(family tradition)___ and ___(family trait)___, from ___(name of family member)___ and ___(another name).

I’m from the ___(description of family tendency)__ and __(another one)___,

From ___(something you were told as a child) and __(another)__.

I’m from __(representation of religion -or lack of it) (further description)

I’m from ___(place of birth and family ancestry), ___(two food items representing your family)___.

From the ____(family story about a specific person and a detail) the ___(another detail of another family member)___.

I am from (Location of family pictures, momentos, archives, and several more lines indicating their worth).

That's it, as she taught it to us, and as you'll find it on line. Google the search terms ["I am from" "(specific ordinary item)"] to find an array of instances, drawn from any number of cultures and community groups.

What's missing from this prompt, of course, is any sense of langauge as such: sound, rhythm, wordplay, the line as a unit (as a frame for language). That could be brought into a revision, or could be discussed as a lacuna: i.e., "what's in the poem that's missing from the prompt?" So adapt this, tweak it, and let me know how it goes!