Interpretation

My English I Honors students have just finished up a four-week poetry unit, which is in a way one of my favorite units we do. It’s not just that I love poetry, which I do, or that I hope to instill in them an appreciation of or even love of poetry, which I do, but it’s also a one of the units where we all see real growth in students’ ability to read and think critically.

At the start of the unit, there are the concerns: Some suggest they cannot understand poetry. Some suggest poetry is just about emotions. Some suggest that learning about poetry has no practical value later in life.

To the first concern, I always point out that learning to read increasingly challenging texts with greater levels of intentional ambiguity is just like everything else: it takes time and practice. I assure them that I’ll give them some skills — some tricks, I call them — that will help them ease the process.

To the second suggestion, I point out that while emotion is a critical element in a lot of poetry, it’s not the end of poetry in itself. It’s a means to an end. The emotion one finds in poetry is not what it’s about — except for some confessional poetry, of course. Even then, there’s always something bigger. I don’t tell them then, but what I’m referring to of course is the lyric moment of a poem, that point at which the reader has an epiphany because the speaker has an epiphany. (I am speaking of modern poetry, of course. When we move back into the nineteenth century and beyond, lyric moments tend to disappear a bit. Just a bit.)

The third worry is easy: No, you won’t read and interpret poetry your whole life, but you will need the skills — picking up on connotation, determining tone, reading for changes in mood — your whole life. No matter what you do, I say, no matter what the job, you’ll need these skills.

So we dive in. We read Elizabeth Bishop and Billy Collins, Dylan Thomas and Theodore Roethke, Langston Hughes and Howard Nemerov, Robert Hayden and in preparation for Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare. There are others, but I’ve found it most fruitful to read less and read more deeply than read more and only skim over the surface. We read poems and then go back to them again when we’ve learned another skill. We read poems once, twice, three times — again and again and again.

Then comes the test. A simple, four-question test. “Four questions, Mr. Scott?! Only four?!” they all reply when we prep for it. I give them two poems, both by W.D. Snodgrass: “Momentos, 1” and “A Locked House.”

Momentos, 1

Sorting out letters and piles of my old
Canceled checks, old clippings, and yellow note cards
That meant something once, I happened to find
Your picture. That picture. I stopped there cold,
Like a man raking piles of dead leaves in his yard
Who has turned up a severed hand.

Still, that first second, I was glad: you stand
Just as you stood—shy, delicate, slender,
In that long gown of green lace netting and daisies
That you wore to our first dance. The sight of you stunned
Us all. Well, our needs were different, then,
And our ideals came easy.

Then through the war and those two long years
Overseas, the Japanese dead in their shacks
Among dishes, dolls, and lost shoes; I carried
This glimpse of you, there, to choke down my fear,
Prove it had been, that it might come back.
That was before we got married.

—Before we drained out one another’s force
With lies, self-denial, unspoken regret
And the sick eyes that blame; before the divorce
And the treachery. Say it: before we met. Still,
I put back your picture. Someday, in due course,
I will find that it’s still there.

We read it together, make sure there are no unknown or confusing words, then move on to the second poem.

A Locked House

As we drove back, crossing the hill,
The house still
Hidden in the trees, I always thought—
A fool’s fear—that it might have caught
Fire, someone could have broken in.
As if things must have been
Too good here. Still, we always found
It locked tight, safe and sound.

I mentioned that, once, as a joke;
No doubt we spoke
Of the absurdity
To fear some dour god’s jealousy
Of our good fortune. From the farm
Next door, our neighbors saw no harm
Came to the things we cared for here.
What did we have to fear?

Maybe I should have thought: all
Such things rot, fall—
Barns, houses, furniture.
We two are stronger than we were
Apart; we’ve grown
Together. Everything we own
Can burn; we know what counts—some such
Idea. We said as much.

We’d watched friends driven to betray;
Felt that love drained away
Some self they need.
We’d said love, like a growth, can feed
On hate we turn in and disguise;
We warned ourselves. That you might despise
Me—hate all we both loved best—
None of us ever guessed.

The house still stands, locked, as it stood
Untouched a good
Two years after you went.
Some things passed in the settlement;
Some things slipped away. Enough’s left
That I come back sometimes. The theft
And vandalism were our own.
Maybe we should have known.

The questions:

  1. Identify tone and tonal shift of each poem. Make sure you quote specific passages of each poem in order to provide evidence.
  2. What is the lyric moment of each poem? What epiphany does the speaker have in each poem?
  3. Compare and contrast the two poems. How are the topics, tones, and lyric moments similar? How are they different?
  4. The author of these poems was an early writer of what’s called “confessional poetry,” in which the “I” in the poem is very often the poet himself/herself. It involves writing not about what’s going on in the world but what’s going on in the heart and mind of the poet. What can you infer about the author if we assume that the “I” in each poem is the poet himself?

These are somewhat tricky poems. “Momentos, 1” has a couple of tones in the first part of the poem that are then echoed in mutated form in the second half.

“A Locked House” uses a long, extended metaphor that, being a metaphor, is never expressly explicated. Experienced readers immediately see that the house is a metaphor for the speaker’s and his wife’s marriage, but thirteen-year-olds don’t always see that at first.

Because They Asked

Simple instructions — the starter — great them when they enter the classroom.

Complete: “Poetry is…”. Write at least five facts about poetry. Then complete “Poetry isn’t…” and write five more things poetry isn’t.

They get started scribbling a list, a list we will share and debrief once I’m done checking roll and making sure I have all my materials for the day’s work in order.

1-Fullscreen capture 10222013 20504 PM

Then the poem: “Because You Asked about the Line Between Prose and Poetry” by Howard Nemerov.

Sparrows were feeding in a freezing drizzle
That while you watched turned to pieces of snow
Riding a gradient invisible
From silver aslant to random, white, and slow.

There came a moment that you couldn’t tell.
And then they clearly flew instead of fell.

After reading a couple of informational texts about how to read a poem, students try their hand at Nemerov’s analogy:

prose : poetry :: sleet : snow

It’s slow going at first, for it’s such a strange poem for eighth graders. “It claims it’s going to be talking about poetry and prose in the title,” one student complains, “and then it’s all this stuff about birds and rain and snow.”

Tomorrow I will model the steps of interpretation, relying heavily on the questions and steps in the two texts about reading poetry they went over today, with the hope that they’ll be able to do it for themselves, at some point.

Sick

“‘I cannot go to school today,’ / Said little Peggy Ann McKay.” So begins one of the Girl’s favorite poems, the famous “Sick” by Shel Silverstein. Yet in our case, the sickness is real, and the truism shows itself to be more than mere cliche: When Mama is sick, everyone suffers. Mama is the glue that holds everything together, and when she’s down with the flu, the rest of us start coming apart.

And priorities shift, like this silly blog.

Meter

I try to show the kids the simple fact that much of what we write can feel iambic even when we’re speaking normally.

In the hush of the classroom we read all the lines of the ages, and marvel that “anapest” is a dactyl and that “trochee” is one while “iambic” isn’t. We scan the lines, apply the labels, and admire the Bard for all he did for the iamb.

Literacy, On the Fly

We began a new unit on Nightjohn and literacy in the English Studies class today. Just as the students were starting the kick-off, which was to answer the essential question, “How does literacy change lives?”, I had remembered William Meredith’s “The Illiterate.” It’s always been one of my favorites, a sonnet that takes all the rules about sonnets and bends them slightly. Cursing (internally only), I was frustrated that I hadn’t thought of it earlier. It was one of those moments where the teaching-as-an-art kicked in. I thought about it for a moment, Googled the title, and, finding it available online, decided to improvise.

I thought I’d try a technique I’d learned at the South Carolina Middle School conference at Myrtle Beach last year, but not having printed copies, I had to improvise.

I projected the poem on the whiteboard and read it aloud to the students.

The Illiterate

By William Meredith

Touching your goodness, I am like a man
Who turns a letter over in his hand
And you might think that this was because the hand
Was unfamiliar but, truth is, the man
Has never had a letter from anyone;
And now he is both afraid of what it means
And ashamed because he has no other means
To find out what it says than to ask someone.

His uncle could have left the farm to him,
Or his parents died before he sent them word,
Or the dark girl changed and want him for beloved.
Afraid and letter-proud, he keeps it with him.
What would you call his feeling for the words
that keep him rich and orphaned and beloved?

“Turn to a partner,” I said when I finished, “and select the five to eight most important words in the poem.” As they finished up, we went though the poem line by line, and I circled important words students called out from behind me. In the end, with a few suggestions from me, it looked something like this:

Touching your goodness, I am like a man
Who turns a letter over in his hand
And you might think that this was because the hand
Was unfamiliar but, truth is, the man
Has never had a letter from anyone;
And now he is both afraid of what it means
And ashamed because he has no other means
To find out what it says than to ask someone.

His uncle could have left the farm to him,
Or his parents died before he sent them word,
Or the dark girl changed and want him for beloved.
Afraid and letter-proud, he keeps it with him.
What would you call his feeling for the words
that keep him rich and orphaned and beloved?

“That’s more than five to eight words,” one student pointed out.

“True, but this was what I was aiming for in the long run, so it worked out well.”

I read the poem again, and then we talked about its meaning based on the highlighted words. They quickly saw that the letter contains three options: riches, sadness, and love. We jumped to the last line and reread it.

“Turn back to your partner and come up with three words that might describe his “feeling for the words that keep him rich and orphaned and beloved.” The responses were varied, as I’d hoped:

  • concerned
  • worried
  • mysterious
  • curious

We went back to the poem once more, and I led them to see that the  majority of the poem is an extended simile to explain the poets feeling when touching the unnamed subject’s goodness.

Turning it back to the essential question, I had students write in their journal how literacy would change the narrator’s life. We shared a few, then moved on to the next portion of the anticipatory lesson for Nightjohn.

As I write this, though, it occurs to me that I missed a significant portion of the potential power of the improvised activity. The narrator is not illiterate in the literal sense of the word (pun not intended). He is, however, illiterate. It might have been worthwhile to see if the kids could pick up on the emotional illiteracy that the poem is expressing.

Still, not bad for ninety seconds of planning and another sixty seconds of preparation.

Photograph from September 11

By Wisława Szymborska

Skoczyli z płonÄ…cych piÄ™ter w dół
– jeden, dwóch, jeszcze kilku
wyżej, niżej.

Fotografia powstrzymała ich przy życiu,
a teraz przechowuje
nad ziemiÄ… ku ziemi.

Każdy to jeszcze całość
z osobistÄ… twarzÄ…
i krwiÄ… dobrze ukrytÄ….

Jest dosyć czasu,
żeby rozwiały siÄ™ włosy,
a z kieszeni wypadły
klucze, drobne pieniÄ…dze.

Są ciągle jeszcze w zasięgu powietrza,
w obrębie miejsc,
które siÄ™ właÅ›nie otwarły.

Tylko dwie rzeczy mogę dla nich zrobić
– opisać ten lot
i nie dodawać ostatniego zdania.

They jumped from the burning floors–
one, two, a few more,
higher, lower.

The photograph halted them in life,
and now keeps them
above the earth toward the earth.

Each is still complete,
with a particular face
and blood well hidden.

There’s enough time
for hair to come loose,
for keys and coins
to fall from pockets.

They’re still within the air’s reach,
within the compass of places
that have just now opened.

I can only do two things for them–
describe this flight
and not add a last line.

Translated by Clare Cavanagh and Stanisław Baranczak.

Stage Fright

Ron sits in the front row and raps. Sometimes it’s an audible mumble, but it’s often just a whisper.

Harvey likes to turn his desk into a drum set. He’ll beat, thump, scratch — he’ll get more sound out of a school desk than one would think possible.

Keeping them quiet is a recurring task. It’s not a constant battle, but I do have to ask them a few times a week to stop the disruption.

Working on poetry and teaching meter, I was having students gradually move from dryly reciting the poem (“Cat!”, from yesterday) to rapping it. The idea was to get them to create a rap and “a beat” and point out that it all depends on the pattern of stressed syllables in the poem. I asked Ron to rap; with a nervous laugh, he eventually begged off. When a student finally volunteered, I turned to Harvey to supply the beat. He too said he’d rather not.

Another ironic moment in the classroom.

Choral Cats

Photo by Hannibal Poenaru

Photo by Hannibal Poenaru

We’ve started a poetry unit; as I always do, I began by asking students to do some free writing to answer a simple question: “What is poetry?” Inevitably, the first or second response mentions “feelings.” If I’m lucky — as I was today — they make broader connections, such as “music” or “enlightenment.”

Teaching poetry to adolescents is a trick. Boys don’t like it because, at this age, “feelings” are not something they generally care to delve into. Poetry has to seem alive and less academic. Today I rediscovered that a poem that is strongly rhythmic and filled with fun sound devices (onomatopoeia, alliteration, a bit of assonance) combined with some choral reading makes for a great start to a poetry unit.

“Cat!” by Eleanor Farjeon fit the bill perfectly.

Cat!
Scat!
After her, after her,
Sleeky flatterer,
Spitfire chatterer,
Scatter her, scatter her
Off her mat!
Wuff!
Wuff!

Treat her rough!
Git her, git her,
Whiskery spitter!
Catch her, catch her,
Green-eyed scratcher!
Slathery
Slithery
Hisser,
Don’t miss her!
Run till you’re dithery,
Hithery
Thithery
Pftts! pftts!
How she spits!
Spitch! Spatch!
Can’t she scratch!
Scritching the bark
Of the sycamore tree,
She’s reached her ark
And’s hissing at me
Pftts! pftts!
Wuff! wuff!
Scat,
Cat!
That’s
That!

Starting with an animated reading, we moved to a semi-choral reading, with students reading the italicized portions. Then a few students took a try at reading this verbally challenging poem. By then, it was easy slide into a discussion of onomatopoeia and verbal rhythm.

A successful lesson that leaves me eager to return tomorrow.

Photo by Hannibal Poenaru

Measured Words

Lesson PlanningRobert Frost reportedly said, “Writing poetry without rhyme is like playing tennis without a net.” The same could be said of meter-free poetry.

We’ve been working on poetic meter in English I Honors, and yesterday I sent them packing with deceptively simple homework: write a sonnet.

“What’s a sonnet?” they thought. Fourteen lines of iambic pentameter — da-Dum times five.

One by one they filed in today, and one by one they declared, “That homework was a nightmare!”

We took some individual lines and examined them, adding words and massaging the lines until they were roughly iambic pentameter. The homework for tonight: rework the first four lines so that they are all the proper meter. Just before the bell, I reminded them of the next hurdle in sonnets: “Remember, we’re working on English sonnets, so ultimately we’ll be having an a-b-a-b rhyme scheme for this first quatrain.”

The moans were overwhelming, but at the very least, they have a newly found respect for Shakespeare: “He wrote 154 sonnets.”

“Did he not have any friends?” one young man asked.

Thoughtful

What I was getting at in the last post is simple: most inspirational writing requires no mental unpacking. It tells; it doesn’t show.

Nell Maiden (who, I recently and sadly discovered, died in 2003)  shows:

Prayer, September 29

Lord,
if it’s going to happen,
pack it in an earthquake.

Give me epiphanies that blind,
that trip or wring
and tear but leave no doubt.

Deliver me from diurnal grinddown,
from innuendos, suspicions,
from mere cells quitting.

Let it be fatal and instant.

Or stripe it with rainbow.
Call me to action with purple.

Lord, let me know.

I sleep in lieu of deliberation.

I’m strung staccato.

I’m insensitive to puns, hair growing,
the lampshade wearing thin, that shy kiss
that hardly costs a breath.

Lord, grant me moans.

And when it’s over, give me
a moment to realize and leave
me breath enough to say:
yes, yes, yes.

Amen.

That is what I mean.

But most Evangelical believers don’t seem to be interested in things that have multiple meanings, especially when it comes to belief and faith. They seem to be less interested in instant epiphanies than instant religious gratification: microwave dinners for the soul.

I don’t want my soul filled up with cliches.