NEW POEM: ‘Merica (Charles Manson is dead) 

‘Merica (Charles Manson is dead)

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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

 

A Portrait of the Artist as Activist: “in the sunlit prison of the American dream”

Standing in Starbucks a few days ago, just a couple weeks after I discovered honey in the sweetener and creamer station, I was peeling open a packet of honey when three lines came to me:

we rape the bees
because they are sweet

because we can

My poet-self writes this way; lines come to me, and I usually type them into Notes on my iPhone and email that to myself to work on when I have time.

Driving to my university office, I rehearsed those lines over and over, priming myself for the rest of the poem to appear—to reveal itself to me.

As a poet, I am often asking myself and the lines that come: What is this about?

I have preferred honey over processed sugar as a sweetener for about three decades, but over the last year, I discovered that among vegans, eating honey is a serious debate; many vegans do not eat honey.

It is a matter of consent.

And while some find veganism an easy target of ridicule, I see such commitments as powerful contexts of living one’s ethical and political beliefs.

Bees and honey, then, were buzzing in my unconsciousness as a political and ethical dilemma—one further complicated by my own sense that I wanted to write about worker bees as a metaphor for workers in the time of Trump.

The tension, however, became how to write a poem that remained a poem while it seemed to call out to be a political statement.

My foundational poetic muse is e.e. cummings, but my single poetic standard is Gwendolyn Brooks’s “We Real Cool,” a magical diamond of a poem. Concision and precision, undeniable as a paper cut (like William Carlos Williams in “The Red Wheelbarrow” and “This Is Just To Say”).

The final version of we rape the bees (because we can), I hope, fulfilled that goal by focusing on sound (I chose the soft “s” as a whisper to the hard “z” associated with bees), wordplay (“trump,” “unjust desserts”), essential but vivid images (“golden lips and sticky fingers”), and the briefest of allusions ( only “enslaved” as I resisted how to pack the poem with both slavery and the Japanese Internment).

A good poem, I think, even if it demands to be a political poem, becomes good by all that the poet chooses to leave out as the poet strips the billowing ideas down to the least possible words.

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Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a very bad novel,” wrote James Baldwin in “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” “having, in its self-righteous, virtuous sentimentality, much in common with Little Women.”

Baldwin engages in this essays that tension between art and politics/activism, arguing, “It is this power of revelation which is the business of the novelist, this journey toward a more vast reality which must take precedence over all other claims.”

Choosing fidelity to art over politics and activism, Baldwin rejects the protest novel:

But unless one’s ideal of society is a race of neatly analyzed, hard-working ciphers, one can hardly claim for the protest novels the lofty purpose they claim for themselves or share the present optimism concerning them. They emerge for what they are: a mirror of our confusion, dishonesty, panic, trapped and immobilized in the sunlit prison of the American dream.

The missionary zeal of activism erases both the core values of the artist and the intent of that zeal—and then Baldwin reminds us:

It must be remembered that the oppressed and the oppressor are bound together within the same society; they accept the same criteria, they share the same beliefs, they both alike depend on the same reality.

Turning at the end to Richard Wright’s Native Son, Baldwin concludes:

The failure of the protest novel lies in its rejection of life, the human being, the denial of his beauty, dread, power, in its insistence that it is his categorization alone which is real and which cannot be transcended.

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“‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know'” (“Ode on a Grecian Urn,” John Keats)

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“In the latter half of the twentieth century, two visionary books cast their shadows over our futures,” explains Margaret Atwood, whose The Handmaid’s Tale has been rejuvenated with the rise of Trump.

While strongly associated with George Orwell, see her essays on “Writing Utopia” and “George Orwell: Some Personal Connections,” Atwood turns from Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four to another classic dystopian work:

The other was Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), which proposed a different and softer form of totalitarianism – one of conformity achieved through engineered, bottle-grown babies and hypnotic persuasion rather than through brutality; of boundless consumption that keeps the wheels of production turning and of officially enforced promiscuity that does away with sexual frustration; of a pre-ordained caste system ranging from a highly intelligent managerial class to a subgroup of dim-witted serfs programmed to love their menial work; and of soma, a drug that confers instant bliss with no side effects.

Then adds, “Which template would win, we wondered?…Would it be possible for both of these futures – the hard and the soft – to exist at the same time, in the same place? And what would that be like?”

Unlike the protest novel, could we find in dystopian science fiction a satisfying merging of art and politics/activism?

While Milan Kundera’s novels, notably The Unbearable Lightness of Being, seek to dramatize the philosophical and the political, Atwood’s dystopian works—from The Handmaid’s Tale to her MaddAddam Trilogy—are grounded in, as Atwood explains, history, not what she fabricates but what has already happened.

Atwood’s fiction is fiction in that she reconstructs human behavior while also infusing her dystopias with speculation, the logical extrapolations of actual human behavior.

“It was Huxley’s genius to present us to ourselves in all our ambiguity,” Atwood understands: “Alone among the animals, we suffer from the future perfect tense.”

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The artist is a human driven to create, that urge welling up inside like a fresh batch of honey never aware of any intensions toward sweetness.

This, I think, we must not deny, for if we do, we deny ourselves.


See Also

Ahmed Naji: ‘Prison made me believe in literature more’

Day 2 Year 56: The Moment

I am at the annual South Carolina Council Teachers of English conference in Kiawah, SC.

This has become the “Glad You’re Alive Tour” since this conference is composed of dozens of my friends and colleagues, most of whom know about my recent car/bicycle accident but haven’t seen me in person since then.

Today is also day 2, year 56.

As I challenged myself in my most recent poem: “who writes about turning 56?”

I am not entirely sure what has spurred this burst of narcissism, this navel-gazing—aging or the accident, or some combination.

Both, I am sure, have flashed mortality before me more brilliantly than ever. The consequences of that are paradoxical, an urgency to notice every moment and a dull realization I am now confronted with way too much time far too often.

The persistent back-handed compliments of my adult life have revolved around how much I accomplish, the praise a thin veil for the nudges that something must be sacrificed to write and publish so much.

But few people ever saw the full experience of me who writes every day and then also cycles 10-15 hours a week, all year, for about 30 years.

The very perverse secret to my productivity has always been that I cram so much into every day that it forces me to be efficient and productive. My motor runs far too high, and I suffer for that with trouble sleeping and pervasive anxiety.

Day 2, year 56 also marks a little over a month with a fractured pelvis, a mostly stationary life that now has huge chunks of time that once was devoted to my bicycle.

I am not a stationary person. I am not one who enjoys free time.

This has been the sort of hell on earth that my existential leanings recognized was the human condition, but this experience has kicked my ass with a vengeance.

The greatest insult added to injury has been that my only refuge for exercise has been riding the recumbent stationary exercise bicycle in the past few days.

I detest exercise bicycles. I loathe exercising inside.

My life as a cyclist has had life-giving qualities I have recognized only in hindsight.

The constant motion of cycling and the hours cycling requires are irreplaceable balms for my OCD and ADHD.

And cycling outside, in the most glorious thing of this world, the sun, is my only real defense against depression. I probably have seasonal affective disorder, and nothing keeps me closer to the boundaries of happiness as sunshine does.

As awful as the exercise bicycle is, this has relieved the pain that has plagued me since being hit by the car, and I also have begun to sleep better (although I have never slept well).

Here at the conference, my return to exercise has been interrupted again, although only for a couple days, but I feel the same creeping anxiety that has defined my life for 30 years when I fear I cannot ride my bicycle as planned.

So I am here on my “Glad You’re Alive Tour,” and the thing that I know has changed in my life is I notice people looking at me as I never have before.

It began in the ER when family arrived.

Maybe it was the accident, or growing older, or a combination of both—but I see other people and myself now in ways that are more distinct.

Anxiety, you see, is being always prisoner to what may come next, to be alienated from the moment.

Day 2, year 56, and I am now being newly introduced to the moment.

The moment yesterday morning when I found on Facebook the video of my granddaughter posted by my daughter in which Skylar is telling me happy birthday, that she loves me.

After a horrifying nose bleed on the morning of my birthday, I sat on the couch and cried hard.

The moment.

I am not sure I know what to do with that, but I am more eager than ever to try.

The accident has lowered the bar, people are glad I am alive, and I am filled nearly to bursting that they are glad and that I too am glad to be here.

 

Daring to Confront Race and Class through Poetry in Trumplandia

My mind is racing, as it always will
My hands tired, my heart aches

“Half a World Away,” R.E.M.

Writing specifically about Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and drawing on powerful words from Toni Morrison, Jocelyn Chadwick, president-elect of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), argues in We Dare Not Teach What We Know We Must: The Importance of Difficult Conversations:

Our ELA classrooms take our children around the world and beyond—into past, present, and future worlds. We provide safe and trusted spaces for them where difficult conversations can and do take place. If at times teachers, at whatever level they teach, hit a roadblock, perhaps this impediment is due to or own predilections of codifying our students, stereotyping them before we even listen to them, much less get to know them….[T]he last time I checked, we teach students—not colors, not types. Perhaps it is we who need to stop and reread all of the texts we teach from the 21st-century perspective of students’ empowerment— empowerment that our literature provides….It has been some of us who have been demurring, listening to the voices of others, telling us we dare not teach what we know we must. (p. 91)

Published in English Journal in the month the U.S. elected Donald Trump, Chadwick’s confrontation of “some of us who have been demurring” and “difficult conversations” resonates in ways, I suspect, that even Chadwick may not have anticipated.

Toni Morrison’s words after the election also serve teachers of English Language Arts in the same way that Chadwick anchors her argument about our classrooms, the literature we explore, and the discussions we encourage and allow:

On Election Day, how eagerly so many white voters—both the poorly educated and the well educated—embraced the shame and fear sowed by Donald Trump. The candidate whose company has been sued by the Justice Department for not renting apartments to black people. The candidate who questioned whether Barack Obama was born in the United States, and who seemed to condone the beating of a Black Lives Matter protester at a campaign rally. The candidate who kept black workers off the floors of his casinos. The candidate who is beloved by David Duke and endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan.

In Morrison’s lament, we must recognize the weight of both race and social class on the American character. Morrison confronts white privilege and the consequences of that privilege being eroded: “These people are not so much angry as terrified, with the kind of terror that makes knees tremble.”

As teachers of ELA, it is ours to dare, to dare to teach openly against the world within which our students live and within which our classrooms exist. In the spirit of Chadwick’s call to re-read, and I would add re-teach, literature in that light, please consider how Barbara Kingsolver’s “What the Janitor Heard in the Elevator” from her collection Another America/Otra America provides “safe and trusted spaces” for investigating the increased problems with race and social class in 2016 America.

Barbara Kingsolver’s “What the Janitor Heard in the Elevator”

Kingsolver is best recognized as a novelist—notably for her The Poisonwood Bible—but she is also a brilliant essayist, a skillful poet, and an activist who lives her activism.

Her sole collection of poetry, Another America/Otra America, reflects the essential political nature characterizing all of Kingsolver’s work and is published as a bi-lingual collection of Spanish and English versions of all poems (Rebeca Cartes translates Kingsolver’s original English into Spanish).

“What the Janitor Heard in the Elevator” provides traditional opportunities to highlight the craft of writing and of poetry, including (through which I will discuss the poem more directly later):

  • The importance and power of titles.
  • Word choice, connotation, and framing/motifs.
  • Pronouns and ambiguity.
  • Character and plot in genres/modes beyond fictional narratives.

To frame the poem in the context of the world within which our students live, however, means that students should be allowed and even invited to connect Kingsolver’s craft with the tensions in public discourse about race and class after the election of Donald Trump—concerns about “deplorables” and debates about if and how to understand white anger/fear as well as the increased focus on the white working class.

The poem reads in full:

The woman in the gold bracelets tells her friend:
I had to fire another one.
Can you believe it?
She broke the vase
Jack gave me for Christmas.
It was one of those,
you know? That worked
with everything. All my colors.
I asked him if he’d mind
if I bought one again just like it.
It was the only one that just always worked.

Her friend says:
Find another one that speaks English.
That’s a plus.

The woman in the gold agrees
that is a plus.

A first reading of the poem should include asking students about the janitor in the title—Who do they see? Is that janitor they envision black or brown? What do they notice about the presence of the janitor in the poem itself?

Here, the students can see how racialized their perceptions are, and then discuss the tension between the janitor being in the elevator and the title, but invisible in the lines of the poem.

How does the poem create a space to discuss the marginalization of people by race, by profession, and by social class?

This central question is further complicated in the poem’s use of color imagery, diction, and pronouns.

In the first line “gold bracelets” triggers social class that shades the conversation between friends (again, who do students see when they imagine these women?) that is being overheard by the janitor in the elevator. Voiceless and seemingly invisible to these women with at least relative affluence, the janitor may represent those same conditions in the U.S. for people of color and people from the working class.

The comments by the “woman in the gold bracelets” are layered and coded:

  • She refers to her fired domestic help as “one” and then also refers to the broken vase as “one”—the ambiguity of the pronoun usage reducing the worker to an object.
  • Word choices such as “worked” and “colors” connote “worker” and “colored” if we extend the poem to race and social class.
  • The suggestion in her comments (“another one”) triggers the implication that the worker is expendable, replaceable, just as the vase may be, although the women appears more concerned about replacing the vase.

And then, the friend’s response forces the reader to reconsider or re-examine a first read with “one that speaks English”—more directly invoking the race and nationality of the worker and opening a door to the political and public debates about undocumented workers.

Presented with a bi-lingual collection, how many students initially see a black man as janitor, but then after the friend’s comment, rethink that assumption since the poem appears to be interrogating the tensions of race, class, and language between whites and Latinx?

The final two lines bring the reader back to “gold,” which frames the poem in color imagery that speaks to materialism and affluence as well as opulence.

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Chadwick quotes Morrison on teaching: “Open doors, let them in, give permission, and see what happens. Students make you think. I learn faster and more when I am teaching.”

And while I am skeptical of universality, I am enamored by the enduring that is art, that is literature. Kingsolver’s poem opens doors for her readers—to the enduring tensions of race, social class, and language; to the specter of invisibility and what Arundhati Roy has explained as: “We know of course there’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless’. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard”; and to debates about naming racism and racists.

All texts, all poetry, and then this poem—as Chadwick acknowledges, “we teach students” who live in a flawed and complex world not of their making.

Teachers of ELA have unique responsibilities to engage with our students and the world through the texts we choose and the texts students choose as open doors into the world that our students could build instead.