Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Poems I Love to Teach: Poems I Don't Understand

How's that for a title of a blog post? Maybe I should explain. I find (sometimes, not always) that I'm drawn to poems that are just a little out of reach, just a little too complex for me to truly understand the first time through. Maybe they're still even a little too complicated after five reads. Or ten. Sometimes it's that I enjoy trying to figure it out--but not always. Sometimes I just like to bask in the genius of the poet and recognize that he or she has created something beautiful, even if I don't know what it all means.

Take this poem I read today by Carey McHugh:

You will come first as a sound
and then      a breath

will come like a cold spell      a hipbone

    your lilt above the lake a crowcall
you will come as expected in

iron weather      will craft a blade

from the horse's winter stall

Please read the rest at Poetry Daily.

I don't really "get" this poem, but I like it. I don't even know if I can say why I like it right now. And for me, with poems, that's okay. It's so much fun to chew on a poem, ponder it for awhile. Come back to it over and over and discover something new about it each time. Even if I never find myself really grasping its "true meaning."

I don't react this way to all poems that I don't understand. Heavens, that would mean I'd be swooning in adoration over millions of pieces. But if I poem has some other amazing characteristics, other things about it that I enjoy, then I can give up on any desire I have to truly comprehend and instead just appreciate these poems for what they are.

There's another poem I love--it's called "Password" and it's by one of my all-time favorites, Naomi Shihab Nye. It starts out like this:

I have made so many mistakes
you might think I would sit down 

You really must read the rest via Google Books (and then run out and buy the collection it comes from).

There's so much I don't really "get" about this poem, including the title, but there are so many other things that are just so wonderful about it, like the first two lines, and her use of simple language, and the ending, and so on. I love it completely, but I don't completely understand it. Again, that's okay.

Which brings me back full circle to the title of this post--why do I love to teach these kinds of poems? Well, for one, they stimulate some amazing discussions. If you don't truly understand parts of a poem, you're bound to hear some new ideas from your students. It's one of the reasons I sometimes (but not often) wish that I taught secondary school--the discussions could reach tremendous levels, more so than at the elementary level (which isn't to say we don't have some great ones in my classroom!).

Also, poems like this help prove to your students that poems don't have to be understood to be useful or great. In both the poems I've mentioned, for example, there are countless things that you could "zoom in on," regardless of whether the poem makes sense to anyone in the room. This, as I've said before, is an important poetry lesson to teach.

And on top of all of that, it helps get rid of that whole "teacher as all-knowing ruler of the classroom" sort of thing. When a teacher can admit to students that they don't understand something, I think that's a big deal.

I've gone on for quite some time on this topic. Thanks for reading. I guess it's been awhile since I posted and I had a lot of pent-up poetry energy. And before we go, are there any poems you love that you don't really "get?" Let me know in the comments.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Poets of the Blogosphere

I follow a lot of blogs. It's a pretty good mix of educational technology and literacy instruction, for the most part. And while I follow many bloggers who write about poetry and who share poems of others and who discuss the teaching of poetry, I don't follow many blogs written by actual poets. I know they're out there. I guess I just haven't made time to find ones that suit me. (If there's any you like, please aid my search by passing them along!)

You also have to be a bit of a voyeur, it seems, to read writers' own blogs. It's an intensely personal experience to be able to read firsthand the thoughts and poems of a poet. Maybe I'm blowing this a bit out of proportion, I don't know. Or maybe this is true of all blogs (this one included?). Again, I don't know. Or maybe I'm just biased. Perhaps lurking in my mind is that "if they were any good they'd be published and wouldn't need a blog." But that seems like a mean thought to have. Regardless, I just know I find myself sometimes not all that comfortable with reading poets directly through their blogs.

There is one exception for me, though: Fox the Poet. It's the blog of an Arizona-based poet named Christopher Fox Graham. He shares a lot of poems as well as features about local poetry slams and spoken word events in Arizona and surrounding areas. (He's also introduced me to the concept of the "Haiku Death Match," for which I am eternally grateful). Anyway, I'm not sure how I came across this blog, but I find it to be a good read.

A poem posted on Fox the Poet this week stood out to me. It's called "Orion" and it starts like this:
MapQuest the miles in the sky
it's easier to find you that way
than to traipse the hills between us
(You really should read the rest here.)

You don't find the word "MapQuest" in many poems. I like that. I like it more because he uses it as a verb. I like nouns that can also be verbs. Especially proper nouns. (Tangent alert: Are words like this uniquely 21st century? Are there proper nouns/verbs from pre-2001 that I can't think of right now?)

In the rest of the poem, Graham goes on to make numerous references to different stars that make up the constellation Orion. On the blog, he provides a visual guide to help you out, but to be honest I'd almost rather not have seen it before reading the poem. It would have been more intriguing and puzzle-like. The poem's so good, I would have headed straightaway to Google (proper noun used as a verb!) names like "Meissa" and "Saiph" and "Rigel."

The poem is also long, sprawling, and has a stream-of-consciousness feel to it. These are all things I enjoy about it. A lot of the poems Graham posts are like that. ("This Country" is a good example.) It seems as though he performs at a lot of spoken word / poetry slam type of events and I think these characteristics would make his poems quite enjoyable to hear read live. I'll have to try to make it out to Arizona someday.

So please, give Fox the Poet a try and let me know which poets out there I need to add to my Google Reader. I think it's time I broaden my horizons when it comes to my blog subscriptions.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Spreading the Gospel of Poetry

So I found out yesterday that my proposal to present at the Michigan Reading Association 2011 Conference in Grand Rapids has been accepted. My topic will be poetry instruction for all grade levels. I'll be combining my own experiences from my classroom with knowledge I've gained from books, mentors, and other resources to present a program of poetry immersion for teachers. The purpose of the immersion, naturally, is to get students (regardless of age) to enjoy poetry.

I'm pretty proud of being accepted. I've worked hard over the last year-and-a-half to incorporate poetry reading and writing into my teaching. And I have come to be a believer in the power of poetry when it comes to helping students to become stronger readers and writers. I hope that I'll share my successes, my failures, my ideas, and the ideas I've gathered with other teachers so that they, too, can make poetry a part of their everyday classroom routine.

I've presented a couple times before at the Michigan Association of Public School Academies conference, but both times that was about educational technology, my other passion. This will be a slightly scary venture into brand new territory. At the very least, I hope to inspire a couple of people to immerse their students in the world of poetry (and to subscribe to this blog!).

The thought of presenting my ideas at a statewide conference is a bit intimidating, to say the least. But I am pretty excited about it. I'll keep you posted as the event draws nearer and I'll share my notes and handouts, too.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Poetry Notebooks

The folks over at the Academy of American Poets have a terrific website. If you haven't explored it yet, you are missing out. It's a great resource for readers of poetry and for teachers, too. Their database of many, many poems is searchable both by title and poet. Also, they have poems grouped by occasion if you want to browse by category.

They have recently debuted an idea called a Poetry Notebook, which they describe as a way of "gathering and sharing your favorite poets.org poems with the poets.org community." Basically it allows you to create your own personalized collection, or "Notebook," of poems centered around any category you wish. Your Notebook is then viewable by the general public.

So for people like me who are always looking for new ways to organize and keep up with their online poetry collections, this could be a real gem. Might also make for a great assignment for the students of all you teachers of the genre out there. Check it out and let me know what you think.

And speaking of categorizing poems, keep an eye out for my next Poetry Mix Tape--Poems About the End of the World!

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Old Words in New Poems

I was listening to NPR the other day and heard about a new website: Save the Words. It's a site created for people to go and "adopt" a word that has been dropped from the Oxford English Dictionary due to lack of use. Apparently words have do be dropped to make room for new words like "blog" and "tweet" and "defriend."

Anyway, when you adopt a word at this site, you commit to incorporating the word into your everyday conversations, thus resurrecting it and giving it new life.

So how about this for a poetry prompt...choose a word from Save the Words and incorporate it into a poem. Doesn't seem too difficult. And great poems make good poems even better. The list of words I first learned through poems includes such wonders as "cuneiform" and "chaparral" and "creosote."

So I intend to adopt my own word and incorporate it into my conversations AND my poems. Let me know if you try this, too, either by yourself or with students.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Poetry in Movies?

I've written about poetry in music before, but have you ever seen a movie and thought, "Wow, that was poetic?" I'm not sure if I ever have...before tonight.

I don't watch a lot of movies, so maybe right away that disqualifies me from this discussion, but tonight I found the time to sneak away (by myself...I think the last 10 movies I've seen in theaters have been by myself...ah, the joys of parenthood) to see one--Inception, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and directed by Christopher Nolan of Batman fame (but whom I worship because of his directorial debut Memento).

Inception is action packed and overflowing with myriad visual effects. But there's poetry in there somewhere. I'm not sure if I can explain it and maybe I'm just looking to discuss it with others who've seen it, but I'm all but certain that the story could be written as a poem.

Are there other movies out there like this? I'm certain there are many independent, artistic films that could be considered so, but how many multi-million dollar, visual effects laden movies like Inception can we say this of?

Has a film ever struck you as "poetic?" Or am I the only weirdo to ever think this? Please let me know.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Poetry Friday: Birthday Poems Mix Tape

I'm a huge supporter of birthdays. In a way, I feel like birthdays are the most important of all holidays. Well, today happens to be mine and once you pass a certain age and become the parent of the certain amount of children, it becomes impossible for birthdays to be as special as they once were. However, I still think everyone deserves to be treated to whatever they want on their birthday. My birthday wishes, the ones that are attainable, are pretty simple...I want to watch whatever I want on TV, and I want to share Merwin and Kunitz with the world.

Forced to choose, I am 99 percent certain that I'd have to pick W.S. Merwin and Stanley Kunitz as my all-time favorite poets. I hardly ever read anything they write that I don't like/love. So on my birthday, I turn to them. Here's a bit of W.S. Merwin's "A Birthday"...

Something continues and     I don't know what to call it
though the language is full of suggestions
in the way of language
                but they are all anonymous
and it's almost your birthday     music next to my bones

these nights we hear the horses     running in the rain
it stops and the moon comes out     and we are still here
the leaks in the roof go on dripping     after the rain has passed
smell of ginger flowers     slips through the dark house
down near the sea     the slow heart of the beacon flashes
Read the rest here. But you should also check out "In the Winter of My Thirty-Eighth Year" by Mr. Merwin:

It sounds unconvincing to say When I was young

Though I have long wondered what it would be like

To be me now
No older at all it seems from here
As far from myself as ever

Walking in fog and rain and seeing nothing
I imagine all the clocks have died in the night
Now no one is looking I could choose my age
It would be younger I suppose so I am older
It is there at hand I could take it
Except for the things I think I would do differently
They keep coming between they are what I am
They have taught me little I did not know when I was young 
For this poem, you can read the rest here.

This may not be the best birthday poem ever, though. That title may belong to Mr. Kunitz's "Passing Through:"

—on my seventy-ninth birthday

Nobody in the widow’s household   
ever celebrated anniversaries.   
In the secrecy of my room
I would not admit I cared
that my friends were given parties.   
Before I left town for school
my birthday went up in smoke   
in a fire at City Hall that gutted   
the Department of Vital Statistics.   
If it weren’t for a census report   
of a five-year-old White Male   
sharing my mother’s address
at the Green Street tenement in Worcester   
I’d have no documentary proof   
that I exist. You are the first,   
my dear, to bully me
into these festive occasions.

Read the rest of this amazing poem here. And if today is your birthday, too, (I'm talking to you, P. Diddy) or even if it's not, please take the time to enjoy these beautiful birthday poems. 

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

A Poem for Election Night

Maybe I'm a masochist. I'm sitting here watching the midterm election returns and it's hurting me pretty badly. I try not to blog too much about my political leanings, but it's been a painful night for me. I can't act like I didn't see this coming; no one can. But it still rankles me. And I continue to watch for some reason. Maybe I want to watch Eric Cantor and Michelle Bachman make fools of themselves by refusing to answer questions. Maybe I'm holding out hope that one of my favorite senators, Wisconsin's Russ Feingold, will pull out a come-from-behind victory. Or maybe I'm a masochist.

Anyway, I found a good poem today thanks to the Writer's Almanac. It's called "To Be a Danger" and it's by C.G. Hanzlicek:
Just once I'd like to be a danger
To something in this world,
Be hunted by cops
And forced into hiding in the mountains,
Since if they left me on the streets
I'd turn the country around,
Changing everyone's mind with a word.
Please read the rest here. And if you're staying up late with me, waiting for the Alaska Senate returns to come in, let me know!