Friday, April 11, 2014

#NPM14 Day 11: Poem! Preparation

from Twitter


Spy specks
Flick flecks
Lift lint
Stare spent
Face face
Grieve grace
Dodge death
Breathe breath
Pick page
Seize stage


Thursday, April 10, 2014

#NPM14: Poems I Teach: Sumo by Gabriel Spera

Check out Gabriel Spera's work!


Such a figure must confound and torment
the shrewdest tailor. Better simply to go swaddled
in next to nothing, a loin cloth, a bath garment.
And forget shoes--that pendulous waddle

would defeat them. Even the flagstones seem depressed
by their near failure, and benches sulk
beneath those buttocks, exuberantly fleshed.
What fool would hurl his will against such bulk?

To try is to be rebuked, repulsed, mocked
as something trifling, a mere pinch, a penny's worth,
deluded to believe oneself a man of stock
and substance without such gravitas, such girth.

Will those limbs find rest in any spot?
Do they even build bedframes so vast, so strong?
How does one person grow so huge? Ah, but she’s not
one person, now is she. Not quite. Not for long.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

#NPM14: Poetry is Important: How to Teach It

Before you commit to reading 2,200 words on how and why to teach poetry, this is way teaching poetry looks in my class:
  • The students sit at their tables to find page with a poem in front of them. 
  • At the bottom of the page, there are a few questions about either form, sound, or image. 
  • I read the poem to them.
  • Then I give them 8 minutes to talk with their group and fill out the answers to the questions.
  • Then they get up and go to another table with a different set of questions and get another 8 minutes to answer questions. 
  • Finally they move to the third set of questions.
  • After they've answered the questions on their own paper we discuss the poem in the light of the questions.
Interested? Read on!

I don't know if you've seen it but there's an impotent article over at The Atlantic titled "Why Teaching Poetry is So Important".

It's impotent because 1) the author doesn't actually teach poetry to high school students (or anyone) and 2) he doesn't give you a bit of an idea how you should go about doing this, though he at least tells you why you should. Let's start there, shall we?
Poetry enables teachers to teach their students how to write, read, and understand any text. Poetry can give students a healthy outlet for surging emotions. Reading original poetry aloud in class can foster trust and empathy in the classroom community, while also emphasizing speaking and listening skills that are often neglected in high school literature classes.
This meshes very well with the thoughts of those crazy standardized testers over at The College Board:
Readers of the AP English Literature and Composition Exam continue to believe that close readings of poetry in AP classes--in teachers' presentations, in class discussion, in students' group presentations, in written assignments, and on exams--are the single best preparation for success, not only on Question 1 specifically and the AP Exam generally, but also in college course work.
Philosophically, both Mary Midgely (Science and Poetry) and Iain McGilchrist (The Master and his Emissary) would tell us that poetry exists to help us make sense of our vision of and relationship to the world. Surely children and adults alike need this skill. For a continual updating of the ways that poetry improves us on a mental and physical level, just keep up with Helen Mort's blog: Poetry on the Brain.

So yeah, teaching poetry is important. But most teachers (like Mr. Andrew Simmons) have no clue how to teach poetry. Imma learn y'all:

1) Teach poetry. Decide to teach poetry and teach it. That may sound stupid and obvious but we've got to start somewhere. You're a teacher of literature. Literature is poetry, prose, and drama. Where do you get off neglecting one third of literature? What kind of teacher are you, anyway?

2) Find poetry. Do you have poems you loved once? They're probably on line. Use them. Print them out for the kids. Make them look them up on their smartphones. If you don't know where to start or want to see an example, check out the site I use for my classes here. It's got contemporary (21st century) as well as canonical poetry.

3) Recite poetry. Not a confident reader? I find that hard to believe because you're a teacher but PRACTICE and become one! Even adults enjoy hearing "high language well-spoken." Kids love it. But give them the text so they can read along as you're reciting the lovely words. And make sure you know how to pronounce "concupiscent" when you read them "The Emperor of Ice Cream."

4) Discuss poetry. Here's where folks get terrified. And here's where I'm going to spend the bulk of this post.

Let's get some things straight: poetry is not in need of a secret decoder ring. Everything that you need to know is in the poem. Now, what poetry doesn't have time for that prose always does is context. If there is an allusion to Athena or, Homer help you, Astarte, you're probably going to need to look that up for the kids (or better, have them look it up--they're all carrying the Library of Alexandria in their pockets--make them use it for something more than snapchat and plagiarism). That's okay. Poets are always going around assuming that folks know what they know because what they're trying to do is evoke emotion in the audience. Sometimes you've got to build background knowledge. Poets aren't generally writing for children. But all that means is that, sometimes, to love poems you've got to learn more. Learning is great!

I would caution you, however, from giving too much information. No one needs to know Sylvia Plath and John Berryman committed suicide to understand and love their poems; let the kids find that out later. You're teaching poetry, not The Lives of the Poets. Stick to the words.

Finally, assume that everything the poet did was on purpose and contributes to the meaning of the poem. Students often balk at this. Even poets sometimes do. I prove my point through music. I play the kids a minor chord progression on my guitar and ask them how it sounds. They say sad. Then I play a major chord progression and ask the same. They say happy. I ask them why this is so. They have no idea other than "that's how it sounds." I tell them that poets work in the same way. Words and structures and images "read sad" or "read happy," etc. An excellent poet (and of course, all the poets we teach are excellent poets, aren't they?) either consciously or instinctually uses these constructions to evoke the emotion they intend to in the poem. So even if the poet isn't saying "I'm going to use this image because it is sad" that is what they are doing because they're good at their art. So it is on purpose.  This is an easy and quick lesson to teach and you absolutely must teach it. Tell the students to take each poem on good faith that it is a great poem and something worth studying. That's just a good attitude to have.

So once we're comfortable with the idea that sometimes you've got to look up vocabulary words or allusions in poetry, we can forge ahead with how to discuss poetry in the classroom.

Poetry has three dimensions: Form, Sound, and Image. Discuss poetry in these terms. This is how a discussion can go:

1) You've picked a poem, given it out, and read it to the class, giving them the allusion/vocabulary knowledge they need to understand the poem.

2) Ask them what they think the poem is "about." That is, ask them something along these lines:
What's the theme?
What's the emotion the poet is trying to convey?
Why does the poet want us to read this poem?
What does the poet want us to know or understand?
While there are absolutely wrong answers, there can be more than one "theme" or a variation of said "theme" in a poem. Students might say "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" is about the terror of social anxiety or the exhaustion of being around uninteresting people or about the dangers of escaping into fantasy. All of these are good themes for Prufrock. What they say and how they say it isn't nearly important as the fact that they are making statements about the poem and that these statements make sense.

3) Ask them about the form of the poem. I'm not talking about meter. Don't expect them to know the first thing about prosody if you haven't taught it to them. In fact, you probably don't ever need to go into the mechanics of meter unless you're really giving them the full Monty. But if you yourself are uncomfortable with prosody, you can start here.

Ask questions like these, following each one with "how" and "why" and always point the discussion back to your "essential question: how do each of these things add to the experience of the poem (discussed above in point 2):
What does the poem look like on the page? 
That is, is it "skinny and on the left"? Is it a prose poem? Does it look like what it's talking about? For instance: E.E. Cummings' grasshopper poem jumps all over the page; the stanzas of "The Red Wheelbarrow" look like tiny wheelbarrows. "Mending Wall" is itself a wall of text.
Is it in stanzas or strophes?
Stanzas are groups of lines that are consistent in number (couplets, tercets, quatrains, etc.). Strophes are lines separated by spaces that are not consistent in number.
Does it use enjambment?
Enjambment, besides being an awesome word, is the breaking of meaning over more than one line of poetry. Most poems do this and frequently the result is awesome. "The Lifeguard" by James Dickey is a master class in enjambment but all you have to do is see how he breaks the meaning with the broken child in the final two lines to understand why enjambment gets its very own question.
Is it in a fixed or regular structure?
While kids don't necessarily need to know their trochaic trimeters from their iambic hexameters, they should probably be able to recognize sonnets, villanelles, sestinas, ballad stanzas, terza rima, and the like. A great example of why this matters is how Frost uses terza rima to evoke the bleakness of Dante's Inferno in his sonnet "Acquainted With the Night."

4) Ask them about the sound of the poem, using questions like this, following up with how and why, and always returning to a discussion of the overall theme:
Does it use rhyme? 
Internal? End? Slant? Please tell your students about slant rhyme. If you don't know what this means, read "Blackberry Picking" by Seamus Heaney or 428 by Emily Dickinson or "A Whippoorwill in the Woods" by Amy Clampitt or "Here" by Philip Larkin or "Easter" by Jill Alexander Essbaum.
Does it use repetition?
Repetition is for emphasis. Repetition comes in alliteration, both assonance and consonance; the repetition of phonemes (rhyme); the repetition of words, the repetition of phrases, and repetition of repetition. Sylvia Plath is the queen of repetition and "Daddy" is a pile of fun to teach.
Does it sound pretty or ugly?
I use the terms "cacophonic or euphonic" because they are awesome words but the point in asking is to get the students to think about why the poem sounds one way or another and how that reinforces the poem itself.

 5) Ask them about the images in the poem. It should be stated first that, in literature, an image is a concrete representation of a sensory impression, feeling, or idea. It's not just daffodils and pretty girls. Using questions like this, following up with how and why, and always returning to a discussion of the overall theme:
What are the images in the poem?
Again, this may seem like an obvious question, but it gets the students thinking about what's right there on the page. Don't worry about "unpacking" the images yet. Just have them answer what's there and why.
Which image is most meaningful, striking, or important to you? 
While Mr. Keating overstates this by a mile in Dead Poets Society and there absolutely is such a thing as a bad or wrong answer, it is still important that students engage in analysis on a personal level and knowing you're going to ask this question in advance forces the students to do so.

Like I said, this is way teaching poetry looks in my class:

  • The students sit at their tables and there's a poem in front of them. 
  • There are a few questions about form, sound, or image at the bottom of the page. Each table has questions about one of the three. 
  • I read the poem to them.
  • Then I give them 8 minutes to talk with their group and fill out the answers to questions that are very much like the ones above.
  • Then they get up and go to another table with a different set of questions and get another 8 minutes to answer questions. 
  • Finally they move to the third set of questions.
  • After they've answered the questions on their own paper we discuss the poem in the light of the questions.

You don't have to have them get up and move but I find it keeps them thinking about one aspect of the poem at a time.

This method has been incredibly successful. After modeling this method for a few poems, I've had seventeen-year-olds who have I-am-serious-never-before-they-got-to-my-class-analyzed-poetry understand and intelligently talk about Canto 1 from Paradiso and "The Emperor of Ice Cream" and "Morning Song" with little-to-no prompting on my part, other than frontloading some historical information, allusions, and vocabulary.  And with every poem they analyze their reading skills, both analytic and epicurean, markedly improve, even to the point where kids who groaned at the prospect of reading poetry in August look forward by September to reading new poems.

#NMP14 Poem! Day 9

Gettin' a little crazy for Number Nine Number Nine Number Nine Number Nine Number Nine Number Nine Number Nine:

(Poetry is important)-ra+e=
(Poetry is impotent)
(Poetry is potent)
(try sin)
ANS+(line break)=

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

#NPM14: Poems I teach: Thick as Thieves by Emily O'Neill

Because oh God yes.

Thick as Thieves

You fall asleep in the middle of a party.
Not an invitation to most girls, but I buckle
under the weight of stillness. Hover. One stolen
moment given wings. Would’ve been easier keeping
sunlight on my tongue than not touch. You,
Puck spilling flowers into eyes. Call the beginning
apple core. Beneath that beard-softened jaw,
a clutch of teeth. You are still unbruised: what
the snake gave, the one I dream most often, doorway
in my sleep. A dare rises in our throats. I cast a girl off a cliff,
skin the neighbor’s cat, leave my scarf at the bar, handprints
on your car’s hood, fingers hooked in each buttonhole.

The dream shifts—weather strips the tree line, each limb an avenue
of blood. We run though corn on bare city feet, syrup season
long gone, die naked as the branches. You kiss me under
Dickinson’s window—the Amherst spook blushes waxed,
sacred as sin. Only place I still find you naked,
sleep. That cruel tyrant feast: rich, rotting.
Before I can eat, some will spoil. How can I
wrap you in lip like a secret? You change
from a plug of tobacco to a skipping
rock to a handful of seed. The places you’re harbored
spin through me like a zoetrope. You are not a man
but an idea, a flicker. I am a silly young thing
asking after answers. The trees remind me of nothing
when they bloom. We abandon fire like criminals.

#NPM14: Poem! Day Eight

An Ars Poetica for National Poetry Month.

See 'em born on Twitter!

This ragged hangnail
fails here; the pencil
still rubs where words fall;
call the rollers: roll
stolen lines to steel
feelings into file.

Monday, April 7, 2014

#NPM14: Poem: Trebuchet originally at Loch Raven Review

Hi folks! Here's a poem that appeared back in 2006 at Loch Raven Review. Enjoy!


What castle rises bone above black bone
from solar fields of wheat and barley-grain
where poor men flee the breath of wars that hone
their great white teeth on profit, death, and pain?

What tower climbs the hill with such a glow
that peasants, blinded by its brilliant rays,
grope naked-armed in valleys far below
where darkness falls to greyness for their days?

What wall impregnable stands around the world
with stretching arms that span from sea to sea
where children crouch in holes with fingers curled
'round rocks that crack and crush skulls easily?

O Trebuchet! Swing high with all your weight
and match them, stone for stone and hate for hate!

#NPM14: Poems I teach: Church Street by Ernest Hilbert

Check out Ernest Hilbert's other amazing work!

Church Street 

My friends quietly dropped out of high school.
It seemed each week we had parties for some guy
Going into jail or getting released.
It’s not that anyone thought this was cool,
Only good wishes that the time would fly,
And after twenty beers he might find some peace.
Now that I look back, with no emotion,
We needed parties. We liked company.
We hardly needed a reason at all:
Never sweet-sixteen or graduation,
But funeral, fresh hitch in the army,
Baby soon for the sad girl in the hall.
We’d vent, catch any reason to not grieve,
Revel down days torn from the years we’d leave.

#NPM14 Poem! Day Seven

There's no contention
In contention
When it's everyone's
At some point
Defying convention
Becomes convention.

#NPM14 Weekend 1 Twitter Poems

I don't know about y'all but it's awfully difficult to carve out writing time during the weekend, miles away from any desk.

Ah well. Here are my two National Poetry Month poems from this weekend. As always, you can see them first on Twitter!

Saturday, 4/5:

8:30 A.M.
Saturday slumber ruined
Hedge-trimming neighbors

Sunday, 4/6:

Write lies
To husbands
Whose bends
Turn youth
From truth
To bills
And pills
Drama can