Sunday, April 30, 2006
National Poetry Month
Whan that April with his showres soote
The droughte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veine in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flowr...
— The opening lines of The Canterbury Tales by Chaucer
April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
— The opening lines of “The Waste Land” by T.S. Eliot
Considering April is National Poetry Month and the month is nearly over, I’d be remiss if I didn’t post at least one poetry entry!
The blogroll to the left features several good poetry sites. Poetry Daily offers, shockingly, a new poem every day. Poetry 180 offers a poem a day for the typical high school year.
The Academy of American Poets spotlights a few poems and an essay on poetry every week. It also hosts a poetry database. The Library of Congress’ Poetry site is full of resources (Poetry 180 is actually a subset of it). Bartleby.com also features a wealth of great poems. The Dover Thrift series provides a cheap way to obtain some great poetry, although in that category it can’t compete with a good public library!
Former National Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky picks a poem per week for Slate. This year, one of his essays for National Poetry Month focuses on insult poetry. It’s a fun read. Pinsky also recently participated in a Washington Post chat online that you can read here.
Robert Pinsky and Maggie Dietz founded the wonderful Favorite Poem Project. Longtime viewers of The News Hour with Jim Lehrer will remember seeing some of the videos shot for the series (you can view them on their site). They’ve also published several excellent poetry anthologies (one, two and three). Each summer, Boston University, where Pinsky teaches, hosts a week-long program currently called The Poetry Institute (or Summer Poetry Institute) for educators. It also features readings by prominent poets that are open to the general public. This year’s application deadline is May 30th. The original plan was to start similar programs at major universities in other regions of the country, and I hope at some point that comes to pass.
Somehow, I was lucky enough to scam my way into the first annual Poetry Institute, and it remains one of the great, life-enriching experiences I’ve had. While we all have our favorite poems, and poems we may feel we know intimately, studying with Pinsky, several other prominent poets and a set of inspired fellow teachers gave me a new love for and insight into poetry.
There’s a saying that if you want to have a good conversation about education, ask someone about the best teacher he or she’s ever had. Anyone who thinks public education is dead should meet the teachers I had the privilege of working with that summer (almost all were on the high school, middle school or elementary school level). About a year after our session, Boston University hosted a reunion for us to compare notes and share new lesson plans. I went in thinking, “my class is pretty good,” but in the face of the amazing lesson plans I heard, I wound up thinking, my god, I have the most boring class ever! Honestly, it was a great feeling. The most dangerous pitfall of teaching is getting burnt out, and listening to an enthusiastic colleague or sitting in on a good class is inspiring. Hearing a good poem read by someone who really loves it does much the same thing.
Pinsky himself is of course incredibly bright and well-read, but is also a superb teacher with a great sense of humor. He puts a premium on choice for students when assembling a “favorite poem portfolio” or working on other poetry-related projects. He also stresses reading poetry aloud. (And any National Poet Laureate who’s appeared on The Simpsons and loves South Park can’t be all bad!)
I’ve become convinced that the Favorite Poem Project is one of those Unqualified Goods that is worthy of a life’s work. The Project can take many different forms in a school setting, but as a community event it typically takes a very simple and effective form. Everyone who wishes to brings in a favorite poem, something not written by him or herself. People read their poems aloud and explain why it means something to them. Formal analysis is discouraged; the emphasis is on the personal. Of course in a school setting students will discuss, at some point, meter, method, and the different sonnet forms, but these ground rules have proved to be the most successful for community events.
At the schools where I taught, everyone got to know students, teachers and parents ridiculously well, but nevertheless, there’s a special insight and intimacy one gains from hearing someone read their favorite poem and explain what it means to them. I know I barely scratched the surface of what can be done with the Favorite Poem Project, but a few memories stand out. For a family weekend the April after I had attended the Poetry Institute, I asked students and parents to bring in their favorite poems. Students split up and met with other students’ parents to read and discuss their poems in small groups. I’ll never forget listening in on the animated discussion of a baby boomer parent with a student who read a selection from “Howl.” Earlier that school year, after 9/11/01, I handed out a copy of William Ernest Henley’s poem ”Invictus.” Two students from New York City really took to it, and I’ll always remember one of them reading it in front of the school and how she spoke that line, “My head is bloody, but unbowed.”
Studying a fine poem with a good poet or great teacher makes one appreciate its art and craft all the more. Still, as Robin Williams’ character John Keating says in Dead Poets Society, the reason many a poem was written was to “woo women.” Studying the craft is essential, but as with most human endeavor, it’s often best to start with the love. Otherwise, it’s easy to veer into the territory described in Billy Collins’ brilliant ”Introduction to Poetry”:
I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide
or press an ear against its hive.
I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,
or walk inside the poem's room
and feel the walls for a light switch.
I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author's name on the shore.
But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.
The Favorite Poem Project anthologies linked above, culled from thousands of submissions, really are superb. But I’ll end with links to two of my favorites poems, T.S. Eliot’s well-known ”Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and Pablo Neruda’s lesser known ”Ode to My Socks.” Oh hell, since I mentioned Neruda, despite the fact that like “Socks” it’s a translation, let me throw in a third, and end with Neruda’s poem “Your Laughter”:
Take bread away from me, if you wish,
take air away, but
do not take from me your laughter.
Do not take away the rose,
the lance flower that you pluck,
the water that suddenly
bursts forth in joy,
the sudden wave
of silver born in you.
My struggle is harsh and I come back
with eyes tired
at times from having seen
the unchanging earth,
but when your laughter enters
it rises to the sky seeking me
and it opens for me all
the doors of life.
My love, in the darkest
hour your laughter
opens, and if suddenly
you see my blood staining
the stones of the street,
laugh, because your laughter
will be for my hands
like a fresh sword.
Next to the sea in the autumn,
your laughter must raise
its foamy cascade,
and in the spring, love,
I want your laughter like
the flower I was waiting for,
the blue flower, the rose
of my echoing country.
Laugh at the night,
at the day, at the moon,
laugh at the twisted
streets of the island,
laugh at this clumsy
boy who loves you,
but when I open
my eyes and close them,
when my steps go,
when my steps return,
deny me bread, air,
but never your laughter
for I would die.