Ah, Love: A Reader

Snow, Mary Ruefle

The Cinnamon Peeler, Michael Ondaatje

[i carry your heart with me(i carry it in], e.e. cummings

[love is more thicker than forget], e.e. cummings

Twenty-One Love Poems [(The Floating Poem, Unnumbered)], Adrienne Rich

Twenty-One Love Poems [Poem II], Adrienne Rich

Variations On The Word Love, Margaret Atwood

Wild Nights—Wild Nights! (249), Emily Dickinson

Knee Song, Anne Sexton

Parting, Jorge Luis Borges

Guilt, Desire, and Love, James Baldwin

Pyramid Scheme, Hera Lindsay Bird

This Is Just to Say, William Carlos Williams

Be Mine, R.E.M.

Lucky You, The National

Gospel, The National

City Middle, The National

You said “I think I’m like Tennessee Williams”
I wait for the click. I wait, but it doesn’t kick in
I think I’m like Tennessee Williams
I wait for the click. I wait, but it doesn’t kick in

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The Stuff of Poetry: My First Good Cry of 2018

Poet Tara Skuru, The Amoeba Game, posted her “Morning Love Poem” as a gift for the new year:

I responded that it brought my first good cry of 2018, and she shared a nugget about how the poem came to be:

The poem and exchange prompted more from me:

Teaching poetry can include focusing on poem analysis, using the poem as a model text for understanding poetry (what makes a poem, a poem?), or fostering poetry composing (how to write poetry).

In all of those contexts as a teacher and poet, I strive to help students unlearn their misconceptions about poetry while helping them become comfortable with the far more nuanced elements of understanding form, genre, and mode that contribute to being able to read or write well any writing form.

Skurtu’s “Morning Love Poem” is both a lovely poem and an ideal model for teaching poetry because it demonstrates the stuff of poetry that students often miss.

In an interview, Jason Reynolds confronts some of the essential aspects of that stuff of poetry:

One of my favorite poets is Countee Cullen, and he only wrote in tight form. But it’s powerful stuff. It hits you, every single one. And I think of Lucille Clifton who wrote these really short poems. She was the master of brevity. You may get five or six lines but it’s a gut punch. It may not be a particular structure like a sonnet or a sestina, but that also doesn’t mean that when structure doesn’t have a name it’s not structure. The danger in talking about free verse the way we normally do, we typically don’t complicate the structure of free verse. What it does is it strips the poet of agency and decision-making. There is a structure. That poet chose to break a line here or add a stanza. To punctuate or not punctuate. And that constitutes the structure of that piece.

About the common “fear (or intimidation) of poetry,” Reynolds explains “[i]t comes from the over-intellectualization of poetry from the classics,” adding:

It’s all over-intellectualized. But I think that the poet has always been seen as the intellect of the literary community. The poets were supposed to be the scribes of all the things. The poets were the leaders of the literary community for a very, very long time. And so, I think it just comes from the echelon this BS caste system that’s carried over. I think it’s that nonsense on top of racism, which is always there, on top of the undervaluing or de-valuing of diverse voices. The truth is Gwendolyn Brooks’ “We Real Cool” should be considered a classic. “We Real Cool” is familiar, it’s accessible. It’s interesting.

Skurtu’s poem as a model for the stuff detailed by Reynolds is a powerful way to help students as readers or writers of poetry—coming to understand and embrace that poetry comes from poet purpose and not from some mechanical analysis, the over-intellectualizing too often common in English courses.

For students, “Morning Love Poem” upon first glance probably triggers their awareness of what a poem looks like (lines and stanzas), but their student-urge likely soon hits a wall against the mechanistic ways they have been taught—looking for narrow sorts of patterns in line/stanza formation, meter, rhyme, etc.

Yes, poetry tends to be grounded in purposeful line/stanza formation, and it depends heavily on pattern. But some of the most compelling poetry is driven by voice, concision, and a poet’s craft to render the language in a way that appears simple (as if anyone could have written it). Think Lucille CliftonGwendolyn Brooks, and Maggie Smith. Or even William Carlos Williams.

In just 14 lines, Skurtu creates a layered story (a couple and both a dream and their reality) and powerfully explores a bittersweet and enduring thing of being human: “It’s hard to say I need you enough.”

Students are well served to contemplate that this could just as easily have been a short story, or even a short film. But Skurtu chose poem, and that makes all the difference.

The line formation and stanzas guide the reader, influence the reading, and then, her diction (word choice) drives the concision: “cracked,” “nose-dived,” “poison,” and as she noted herself “get wet” (two simple three-letter words that rhyme)

And here, I think, is where over-intellectualizing, as Reynolds argues, raises its ugly head. Students become mired in mechanical and simplistic technique-hunts, but they also have (mis)learned that poetry is hard, inaccessible, something to be solved like an arcane puzzle (5000 pieces all blue).

But even when poetry is challenging, possibly inaccessible—think Wallace Stevens—the reductive ways students have come to think about poetry fails them; consider “[if seventy were young]” by e.e. cummings (yes, challenging).

Students can begin to play with how cummings uses pattern in unexpected ways—the dashes, the teasing with rhyme (see also Emily Dickinson), space and colons, wordplay and sound.

cummings becomes more accessible, in fact, if we resist over-intellectualizing, and choose instead to play along with him as readers.

Ultimately, I want students to recognize that, for example, Skurtu’s poem is rich with story (plot, setting, and character) and that it works because of concrete details, the triggering of the senses that Flannery O’Connor called for in the writing of fiction.

In other words, we read poetry not to calculate what the poem means but to share with the poet, often, what we feel, what we intuit possibly in ways that cannot be articulated beyond recognizing that the words shaped on a page are so beautifully bittersweet (“All the moments/we stop ourselves”) that we are looking at them through spontaneous tears.

Teaching Students to Dislike Poetry: “What is the most boring subject/possible?”

As an avid reader, teacher, and writer/poet, I read poetry nearly every day, especially now that I am prompted wonderfully through social media such as Twitter.

So Matthew Zapruder‘s recent Understanding Poetry Is More Straightforward Than You Think spurred both my Teacher-Self and my Poet-Self with his lede:

Do you remember, as I do, how in the classroom poems were so often taught as if they were riddles? What is the poet really trying to say here? What is the theme or message of this poem? What does this word “purple” or “flower” or “grass” really mean? Like classical music, poetry has an unfortunate reputation for requiring special training and education to appreciate, which takes readers away from its true strangeness, and makes most of us feel as if we haven’t studied enough to read it.

Why Poetry, Matthew Zapruder

Teaching and writing poetry for over three decades now, I have always swum against the “I dislike poetry” tide with equal parts evangelical zeal and soul-crushing disappointment. Poetry, I learned many years ago as a first-year college student, is beautiful; it is the orchestra of words best representing the human compulsion toward language and communicating with each other.

Recently, as I read Randall Mann’s “A Better Life,” I began to cry by the lines “Fear lives in the chest/like results.” That emotional response upon a first reading wasn’t intellectually engaged with understanding fully the poem, or how traditional approaches to teaching poetry demands that readers seek out deeper meanings.

And also read recently, Margaret Ross’s “Socks” prods the reader in the opening lines toward the mundane:

The socks came in a pack of five.
What is the most boring subject
possible?

As I did with Mann’s poem, soon my heart was deeply drawn to Ross’s simple verse:

All that time
I could have touched you and didn’t
or did absentminded, getting in
or out of bed or trying to reach
something behind you.

These two poems are beautiful in the way poetry moves me, and they are both wonderful examples of how the craft of poetry can, and often does, elicit our hearts and our minds through what seems to be very simple language and topics—”a better life” in less purposeful hands is trite, and, I mean, socks?

For those of us concerned about the place of poetry in formal education and then how that fits into the place of poetry in life beyond school, we must consider what the hell we are doing that leads so many people to “I don’t like poetry.”

People all were once children who danced and sang to poetry in their children’s books and cartoons. How many children have you ever known not to revel in rhyme and word play as well as the discovery of utterances and words (o glorious taboo words!)?

And once having gone sufficiently to school, many if not most of these once-children are apt to say “I don’t like poetry.”

Not to be an ass, or simply to quibble, but I think they are actually saying that they have become exhausted with the exact problem confronted by Zapruder; that poetry has more often than not for students been the source of how one adult in the room has the key to a puzzle that is used to make the children feel stupid.

Scanning meter and rhyme scheme, conducting the literary term hunt, explaining some deeper meaning beyond the words on the page—these tasks become laborious and tell students that the tasks themselves matter more than experiencing the poem, that the poem is just some vehicle for these educational adventures in torture.

Here, then, are some suggestions for classroom moves that may better preserve the sanctity of poetry and may better insure that more (but not all) students will retain their childhood joy for words, rhyme, and the feeling of poetry:

  • Expand the responses to poetry from intellectual to emotional, allowing students to begin with (and even linger on) how poetry makes them feel.
  • Emphasize the essential concrete and narrative elements of poetry (instead of making poetry seem as if it is always about Big Meaning, and thus, mostly abstractions). What is this poem saying and who is telling us? These are powerful and important ways to engage with poetry that avoids the pressure of “What do socks represent in this poem?”
  • Focus on how poetry as a form has distinct qualities that impact the reading experience—notably that poets craft in line and stanza form (or in the case of prose poetry with the awareness that they are abandoning even that basic aspect of what makes poetry poetry; none the less, poetry always carries an awareness of lines/stanzas for poets and readers).
  • Encourage students to share their personal reactions and then ask them to distinguish those personal responses from the textual evidence in the poem.
  • Draw them to the text by asking students to identify their favorite word(s) and line(s), and then allow them to highlight the word(s) and line(s) that puzzle or confuse them. This avoids the “guess what the teacher wants” trap of students risking being wrong or right.
  • Read aloud poems, often and repeatedly. Poetry is inextricable from sound as well as how the words are shaped on the page. Most poetry is brief enough to be read aloud and multiple times, making poetry ideal for encouraging these practices in students as purposeful readers.
  • Allow frequent space for the reading of a poem to be enough—no demand for comment or analysis.
  • Share with students your genuine responses to the poems you love—and why you love them in ways that are not about being their teacher, but a human who loves poetry.

No poet writes to be the source of multiple-choice questions on an Advanced Placement Literature exam, or the focus of a 45-minute lesson on scansion and rhyme scheme.

And we can rest assured no poet writes in order to be the reason anyone dislikes poetry.

Late in Ross’s poem, the speaker confesses:

I’ve been
looking for a long time
at the stretch of table where you had
your hand. I am afraid
to touch it.

She has me mind, body, and soul, and as I finished this poem the first time, I wanted to share it with others, which I did.

None of us discussed what it means, or even her wonderfully accessible language that certainly speaks to us beyond the “boring subject” of socks.

Mostly we quoted and often agreed on our favorite lines, and then felt something satisfying about having this poem in common. Nothing about the repetition of blue or what socks really mean.

But I have been thinking because of both poems and Zapruder’s piece about “a better life” for students, for teachers, and for the promise poetry affords us if we simply let it be.

Easter 2017 Reader: Grit, Poetry, Educational Rankings, Poverty

Grit

Forget Grit. Focus on Inequality, Christine Yeh (Education Week)

Grit is an easy concept to fall in love with because it represents hope and perseverance, and conjures up images of working-class individuals living the “American dream.” However, treating grit as an appealing and simple fix detracts attention from the larger structural inequities in schools, while simultaneously romanticizing notions of poverty….

Perhaps this idea of grit resonates with so many people who believe in the popular American adage that if you work hard and pull yourself up by your bootstraps, then you can achieve anything. This belief unfortunately, assumes that individuals have the power, privilege, and access to craft their own futures, regardless of circumstance and systemic barriers.

Statistics on educational access consistently reveal vast differences in resources in affluent versus poor neighborhoods. Predominantly white, middle- and upper-income school districts tend to spend significantly more money per student than the districts with the highest percentages of marginalized students. Our poorest schools also tend to have large class sizes, unsafe school transportation, damaged and outdated facilities, and high staff turnover. All of these conditions directly contribute to low educational outcomes and underscore the link between access to school resources and improvements in students’ success. Schools that focus on grit shouldn’t ignore structural inequities because they assume that regardless of your race, class, or social context you can still triumph.

Telling children ‘hard work gets you to the top’ is simply a lie, Hashi Mohamed (The Guardian)

What I have learned in this short period of time is that the pervasive narrative of “if you work hard you will get on” is a complete myth. It’s not true and we need stop saying it. This is because “working hard, and doing the right thing” barely gets you to the starting line. Furthermore, it means something completely different depending on to which context you’re applying this particular notion. So much more is required.

I have come to understand that the systems that underpin the top professions in Britain are set up to serve only a certain section of society: they’re readily identifiable by privileged backgrounds, particular schools and accents. To some this may seem obvious, so writing it may be superfluous. But it wasn’t obvious to me growing up, and it isn’t obvious to many others. The unwritten rules are rarely shared and “diversity” and “open recruitment” have tried but made little if any difference.

Those inside the system then naturally recruit in their own image. This then entrenches the lack of any potential for upward mobility and means that the vast majority are excluded.

Check out Neoliberalism: A Concept Every Sociologist Should Understand, Peter Kaufman (Everyday Sociology)

The end result of neoliberal ideology, Monbiot continues, is that we are led to believe in the myth of the self-made person:

“The rich persuade themselves that they acquired their wealth through merit, ignoring the advantages – such as education, inheritance and class – that may have helped to secure it. The poor begin to blame themselves for their failures, even when they can do little to change their circumstances. Never mind structural unemployment: if you don’t have a job it’s because you are unenterprising. Never mind the impossible costs of housing: if your credit card is maxed out, you’re feckless and improvident. Never mind that your children no longer have a school playing field: if they get fat, it’s your fault. In a world governed by competition, those who fall behind become defined and self-defined as losers.”

See Also

Failing Still to Address Poverty Directly: Growth Mindset as Deficit Ideology

SchoolED Podcast: Paul Thomas on Grit, Slack, and the Effects of Poverty on Learning

UPDATED (Again): Grit, Education Narratives Veneer for White, Wealth Privilege

“Grit” Takes another Hit (with Caveats)

Rejecting “Grit” While Embracing Effort, Engagement

Poetry/ National Poetry Month 2017

Perspective | Poet: Why I would never tell a student what a poem means, Sara Holbrook (The Answer Sheet/ Washington Post)

A few months ago I wrote an essay, “I Can’t Answer These Texas Standardized Test Questions About My Own Poems,” in which I questioned those of unknown academic distinction who anonymously compose proficiency test questions. Many teachers wrote to tell me that they too are unable to answer these vaguely written test questions being used to evaluate their students. One teacher reported that her kids had to endure 17 days of testing this year. Considering there are only about 20 days of school in a month and that every test requires preparation on the devices and manner of testing, that’s a lot of lost instructional time.

Parents wrote. I did a few television interviews and radio programs. It was my 15 minutes. Additionally, I took some heat from a (very) few academics who jumped to inform me that authors do not own the meaning of a poem, it is up to literary critics to make this determination. Good grief.

It was not my intent to kick off an argument on of the relative merit of learned literary analysis. I’ll leave that to those with letters after their names. But friends, parents, educators, learned folks, please remember, middle-schoolers are not just short college sophomores. They are not lit majors. These are kids like Paul. Kids who are often grappling with a world of unseen and sometimes unspeakable challenges.

See Also

Investigating Poetry Because We Love It (and Our Students)

In Defense of Poetry: “Oh My Heart”

“So We must meet apart”: #NationalPoetryMonth 2017 and My Journey with Emily Dickinson

Educational Rankings

Are South Carolina schools really the worst in the nation?, Cindy Landrum (Greenville Journal)

Furman University education professor Paul Thomas said the education ranking is far less about education than socioeconomics.

“This ranking is a direct reflection of political negligence,” he said. “Our schools don’t legislate. It’s not like our schools are without any fault, but how schools function is a reflection of political leadership. South Carolina is failing our children, not our children are failing school.”

U.S. News & World Report used 11 metrics to measure a state’s education ranking, including college and high school graduation rates and standardized test scores. Three of the six pre-kindergarten-12 categories are test scores (ACT and National Assessment of Educational Progress), while the others are high school graduation rates, pre-K quality, and preschool enrollment. South Carolina ranked high in quality of its public pre-kindergarten program, but ranked low in test scores and college readiness.

“Schools in South Carolina and the U.S. reflect the inequities of communities, the failure of our policies, and as a result, they are ineffective as mechanisms of change,” Thomas said.

At least 60 percent of test scores are correlated with out-of-school factors such as parental education levels, poverty, hunger, mobility, lack of health care, safety, and community resources, he said. Only 10 percent to 15 percent of test scores can be traced to teacher quality.

Thomas said it has been known for decades that poverty and inequity are the greatest hurdles for children learning. But instead of addressing the problems, instead grade-by-grade standards are changed and students tested.

“Our states have social and educational pockets of poverty,” Thomas said. “Food and home insecurity directly contribute to low academic output, and once they get into school, we make horrible decisions. High-poverty children are sitting in larger classes with early-career and uncertified teachers. We do the exact opposite of what we should be doing.”

See Also

South Carolina Ranks First in Political Negligence

Poverty

America’s Shameful Poverty Stats, Sasha Abramsky (The Nation)

But there’s a deeper significance to the numbers: how they compare with the figures from recent decades. The percentage of people in poverty is roughly the same as in 1983, in the middle of the Reagan presidency, as well as in 1993, at the end of twelve years of Reagan/Bush trickle-down economics. A far higher portion of the population lives in poverty than was the case in the mid-1970s, after a decade of investment stemming from Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty; and far more live in poverty today than did at the end of Bill Clinton’s eight years in office—years in which the earned-income tax credit was expanded, unemployment was kept to near-historic lows, and poverty rates fell significantly.

That our poverty numbers have risen to such a high level exposes the fact that as a society, we are choosing to ignore the needs of tens of millions of Americans—as we have done for much of the period since the War on Poverty went out of fashion and the harsher politics of Reaganism set in. These ignored Americans include kids like the ones I interviewed in Los Angeles, forced to choose between applying to college or dropping out of school and getting dead-end jobs to support parents who had lost not only their jobs but their homes, too. They include the elderly lady I met outside Dallas, who was too poor to retire but too sick to take the bus to her work at Walmart. Her solution? She paid her neighbors gas money to drive her to a job that paid so little she routinely ate either 88-cent TV dinners or went to bed hungry. They include, too, the residents of New Orleans’s Lower Ninth Ward I met in 2011, who, six years after Hurricane Katrina, were still living in appalling conditions in a largely obliterated community.

See Also

the world