The Mother

Over the last 19 years, I have taught about 700 elementary and middle school students. Rarely though, do I write about my students or my experiences in teaching. It is all too close. But last week an unusual occurrence happened during an ordinary school event. I wanted to think it through a bit, and what better way to do that than to scratch out the beginnings of a poem.

POEM:
The Mother

Tentatively, the mother walks into my classroom,
and, unlike so many others,
eventually makes eye contact with me;
her son has been in my class
for over a year now, learning to read.
She has combed her hair,
has put on a clean sweatshirt,
frayed at the cuffs, for Open House.
When our eyes meet, I am struck
by how much she resembles a well-known
poet I know, another woman on top
of the world, powerful in her presence
and speech. Both of their faces are long
and narrow, their eyes wide, but the mother
has dark circles beneath hers,
and her thin-lipped mouth hangs open
in a small o in preparation for something
that might surprise her at any moment,
at any cost. Her son has grown a foot
since I started working with him,
and now he stands taller than us both.
He proudly introduces me to his
little sister, a round four-year-old
in a dirty dress who helps herself to a bin
of markers from the shelf, plops them
on a desk, pulls out a chair, scrambles up,
and waits for paper. I place a clean sheet
in front of her. She begins her lines.
The student proudly shows his journal
to his mother, the journal where he has written
the first sentences of his life. His mother
is the most beautiful woman I have ever met.

ELEMENT:
Process

Working through a poem should be a journey, an exploration of what is unknown at the beginning and what is discovered through step after step, word after word, line after line. For both poet and reader. Giving yourself up to the process can be daunting and frustrating, yet once through the other side, there is a feeling of, “oh, so that’s what that’s about.” If my poems accomplish what I set out to have them accomplish, I probably haven’t thought hard enough about both topic and manner in which to say it. I haven’t treated them, as poet Kwame Dawes says, “like a building;” I haven’t “come to them from all angles, enter[ed] each room till you find the best way in.”

I knew there was something about this parent coming to my classroom for the first time. I was struck by how much she resembled this well-know poet, and how sheer luck plops us into the life we were born into. I know many people believe that a greater being has something to do with where and when we are born, but when I think of myself, and see myself from a bird’s eye view sitting in my living room typing this, I don’t believe anything or anyone predetermined that I would be here and not  washing clothes in the Ganges River, for example.

What does this have to do with my poem and that mother and process and poetry in general? Well, the woman resembling another well-to-do woman really got my attention. She looked so much like this other person that I almost gasped when she looked at me. There was something significant about her because she wasn’t well known or a well-to-do person.

But the more I thought about her and the more I worked through that fifteen-minute interaction I had with her and her children, the more I saw how much she loved her children, and how on a work night she found not only the energy to visit her son’s school, but to meet his teachers with whom she wouldn’t be comfortable with. The more I thought about her, the more I found her absolutely beautiful, more beautiful than this famous person who she could pass for. This was the process I went through in coming to the final line of the poem, or at least the process thus far. Should I decide this poem is a keeper, there will be much more process to reckon with. To quote Kwame Dawes once more:  “the best poems are fantastically organic, they grow as we grow, in depth, complexity and power.”

RELATED LINKS (Poems, Places, Books, Videos, Events, etc.):
Class Matters. Why Won’t We Admit It?
Parent Involvement In Education
Sick (because I couldn’t resist).
Vermont Studio Center (where Kwame Dawes is scheduled to read some of his work on Monday, September 24, 8:00 p.m.).

 

Running In The Woods

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If I showed you this poem:

The Runner

On a flat road runs the well-train’d runner,
He is lean and sinewy with muscular legs,
He is thinly clothed, he leans forward as he runs,
With lightly closed fists and arms partially rais’d.

would you guess that it was written in 1867 by Walt Whitman?  Whitman describes the runner exactly as we still see him or her today, the body, the clothes, the stance. Whitman is one of my favorite poets as is Tim Seibles, whom I met and worked with at the USM Stonecoast MFA program. I had the honor of hearing Seibles read his poem, “Renegades,” from his book Buffalo Head Solos on Bowdoin campus a few years ago.  This poem about running is, of course, not about running. As with all good poems, much more lies beneath the surface.

 

POEM:
Running in the Woods

Pulled into trees, lifting
knees, feet rebound
off rotting logs, my feet,
thump, slip in and out
of animal holes, homes.
Don’t see spider webs
grab at me, mask my
face with sticky lace;
I am not afraid,
cannot be afraid
running through the woods.
Faster now, the earth
starts spinning under-
neath me; I am leaping,
dodging, skimming mush-
rooms that glow white
in the underbrush, shine
red in the black earth,
even purple between
the ferns. Suddenly
I spook a grouse, my heart
thumps to its thrumming
wings and my feet speed
up, echo the beat;
the bird is gone. Can’t
be afraid. Listen.
It’s just the wind creaking
trees, clicking sapling
trunks together. I jump,
run, jump the forest’s
lumpy blanket, buried
stumps, decaying timber.
Sticks snatch clothes,
scratch legs, draw blood that I
won’t see until I’m home.
I trip as I look up.
Vines tangle, snake
around. I slip on leaves
catch myself with calloused
hands, scramble up
ridges, now slower, so
think: What if I
meet a moose, six feet
high at the shoulder?
I see its scat all over,
leap every pellet-
filled pile of it.
Run. What if I
meet a bear, fat,
scratching, waiting, ready
for winter weather? I see its
claw marks climb the beech
trees. Run. I cannot
be afraid when the sun
dips, stoops too low,
too low to help me through
darkened woods. I’ve
mistook that ridge before,
it’s not the last this side
of home. I have another
hill to climb, another
mile, another valley
to go before I’m home.
I’m not afraid. I run.

ELEMENT:
Repetition

Poetry is all about repetition: repetition of sound, word, line, meter, content.

The repetition of beginning sounds in words (alliteration), vowel sounds (assonance), and end sounds (rhyme) makes a poem sing.  Sound repetition lets you know what words to invite into the poem. After all, shouldn’t you always invite your relatives into the house? (Okay, maybe I shouldn’t use that analogy). But what I mean is an “o” sound as in “home” invites in another “o” word such as “alone” into the poem.  “Home alone” sounds a heck of a lot better than “home by myself.”

I love repetition in poems and songs, but other than the sound repetition, I find it difficult to incorporate successfully. Repetition of words only works if done enough and not overdone. Repetition is good at medium-rare. Too much and the meaning’s burnt, not enough and it’s undetectable, inedible, indigestible.

Meter is the repetition of a particular pattern of stressed and non-stressed syllables. While I can hear iambs and trochees, anapests, and dactyls in many of poems I read, it’s still a challenge to get the meter “right” in my own poetry.  I have to work at it, and hopefully I have the intended trochaic trimeter pattern in “Running In The Woods.” (After having finished this poem and rereading the chapter on trochees in The Exaltation of Forms, I was reminded that trochee comes from the Greek word “to run.” Of course this poem has to be in trochaic form!). I have to acknowledge Charles Martin here, who must have asked a hundred times in the workshop I had with him, “What is the prosodic convention of this poem?” I cannot start a poem now without hearing him say this, which was his intent, no doubt.

A great example, in my opinion, of perfect sound, word, line, and meter repetition is in Robert Burns’ poem “Song Composed in August.” I first heard this poem as a song many years ago on an album by Scottish singer and song-writer Dick Gaughan. I searched for the lyrics on line and learned it was a Robbie Burns poem written in 1783. During my recent trip to Scotland, I decided I’d memorize the 40-line poem while touring the country, and wrote each stanza until I had it memorized then moved on to the next. I hadn’t intended to learn so much about repetition in such an intimate way. By memorizing the poem, however, I saw the patterns of words, rhyme, and meter that I would have otherwise missed.

Which brings me to another point of repetition: repetition of content. It was Andre Gide who said, “Everything that needs to be said has already been said. But, since no one was listening, everything must be said again.”  I love this. It gives me free rein (free reign?) to say whatever I want to say, since we’re all just saying the same thing everyone else has already said. I read this quote most recently in the book, Steal Like An Artist by Austin Kleon. He discusses in a quick-light-cartoonish-way how to steal others material and make it your own. Repetition with originality.

 

 

Erica Vega, up and coming poet extraordinaire, gave an excellent presentation during our last residency at Stonecoast, which was titled “Cycling: The Influence of Another’s Fire.” During her presentation, Vega discussed that the “essence of inspiration is influence” and what we create is based upon who we choose to read, watch, and listen to. We repeat the work of others’ with our own twist. (Case in point: can you pick up elements of Robert Frost’s “Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening” at the end of my poem above? It surprised me even, but there you have the dark woods, the additional mile to go at the end. I happen to love Frost’s work ). One of the ways in which we can learn and be inspired, Vega asserted, is through writing down the work of someone else, exactly, as Hunter S. Thompson did with the Great Gatsby. As Vega did with Salinger’s short story “A Perfect Day For Bananafish.” As I did with Burn’s poem. In writing down someone else’s work, I am not writing to copy it, but writing to learn, learn techniques, tone, vocabulary, sentence construction, mastery.

RELATED LINKS (Poems, Places, Books, Videos, Events, etc.):
Teaching the Art of Poetry by Baron Wormser and David Cappella. Great chapter on repetition  in this book!
Quick Meter Reference Guide – iamb, trochee, anapest, dactyl, and spondee,
An Exaltation of Forms, Contemporary Poets Celebrate the Diversity of Their Art, edited by Annie Finch and Katherine Varnes
Sinnerman, traditional spiritual sung by Nina Simone. Great example of the power of repetition.

 

 

Ring of Brodgar

In the latter part of June this year, I traveled with a close friend to Scotland. We landed in Glasgow, drove north to Aberdeen, and took the fourteen-hour ferry ride to the Shetland Islands. We debarked and drove to the northern most point of the British Isles to explore Hermaness Nature Preserve where we could look off the coast into the North Sea to Muckle Flugga and the lighthouse that Robert Louis Stevenson built with his father. We were fortunate to have landed there on the summer solstice, a glorious sunny day, and fortunate to have our wool hats and gloves with us, both of which were needed.

After another day or two of exploring the wildness of the Shetland Islands (more Norse than Scottish), we headed south again; the exploits we had during our time on the Shetlands will eventually be transformed into poems some day. But the Orkney Islands, a six-hour ferry ride south of Lerwick, Shetland, is what has inspired me first with its rich history of Neolithic sites that are mysterious and beautiful. If you don’t believe in eternity, seek out Orkney.

For this week’s post, I have also included a you-tube video that consists of my reading of the poem set to my photographs.

POEM:
Ring Of Brodgar

We traveled five days and nights
not knowing where we were going,
and even when we drove into the lowlands
cupped by those soft hills
that caressed both clouds and shore,
and eased our way across the isthmus
with the salt water Loch of Stenness
a few feet  to our left and the freshwater
Loch of Harray, a few feet to our right,
we were blind.

On foot we climbed
into the Ring of Brodgar
as though it were just another mark
on the map to tap in front of our friends’
noses after our arrival home.
We were not prepared for sanctity,
didn’t know that the weight of the cosmos,
or the collapse of time,
or the compression of space
was held – somehow – within
this wall-less cathedral. Ancient
stones reared up in front of us,
lichen-splotted, pock-marked, gallant.
Others, time had eroded into wraiths
of their solid pasts. Half of one
lay at its own feet, split in two
by lightening, as we had been.
We walked around the circle,
separating from each other,
needing the space between us
in order to not fall
to our knees,
in order to carry the weight
of all that emptiness.

ELEMENT:
Tone

Today’s discussion is a bit shorter than usual due to the time it took this week to learn how to make an ivideo on my computer and upload it to youtube. I have a new appreciation for cinematographers.

Tone is the attitude towards a subject expressed through image, rhythm, verbs, syntax, and word choice. In the poem, “Ring of Brodgar” the tone isn’t really the one I intended. (For a thorough discussion of tone and author’s intention, see Donald Hall‘s chapter, “Tone, with a Note on Intentions” in his book To Read a Poem). When I visited the Ring of Brodgar, I was in awe of it, amazed by its antiquity and mysterious aura; that is what I intended to convey in my poem. While perhaps this comes through somewhat, the overarching tone of the poem is uncertainty and loss.

The feeling of uncertainty is straightforwardly revealed in the second line: “not knowing where we were going.” This speaks to where we were going literally on the trip, but takes on another meaning with the content of the rest of the poem. Where are any of us going? Uncertainly continues. Driving across the isthmus just a few feet wide isn’t exactly the easiest of routes to maneuver, despite the soft comforting hills around us. Adding to the tone are the phrases, “We were blind,” “we were not prepared,” and “wraiths of their solid pasts.” These phrases also create suspense until we have the lightening strike and the revelation that it isn’t only the stones that have been struck, but the “we” in the poem as well. Here the poem shifts to a tone of great loss, emphasized by the physical separation of the characters in the poem as they explore the monument, and the image of falling to one’s knees (in prayer? due to too heavy a burden?). In the last two lines, the combination of weight and emptiness echoes both the gravity of the uncertainty in life and the space found between the standing stones, between centuries, between lives.

As mentioned, this was not the tone I set out to convey. But it is much closer to the truth.

Related Links (Poems, Places, Books, Videos, Events, etc.):
Ancient Scotland
Tone in Poetry
and for the fun of it – Isle of Yell Mermaids