Today’s News: Poem-in-Your-Pocket Day!

… Look at

what passes for the new.

You will not find it there but in

despised poems.

It is difficult

to get the news from poems

yet men die miserably every day

for lack

of what is found there.

William Carlos Williams

Were I still in the classroom teaching, today would be one of my favorites.  This is “Poem in Your Pocket Day,” a fixture in the celebration of National Poetry Month and one that our entire school community, kindergarten through eighth grade, honored.  Teachers and students alike brought a poem to share in their pockets.  During lunch or in the hallways, any time, anywhere, anyone could be asked to share his or her poem —the early choices, Silverstein, Florian, Wong, and Prelutsky giving way to Frost, Dickinson, Hughes and Roethke.  Allan Wolf, poet and human being extraordinaire, joined us once, he who carries poems in the folds of his brain each and every day, and the students shared their poems with him, a gift returned.

At the recent Oregon Council of Teachers of English spring conference held in Ashland, one of the morning sessions offered was  “Poetry in Motion.”  The workshop blurb said we’d “participate in mindful movement, walk a poetry labyrinth and find poetry in the park.”    In the afternoon session, writer and teacher Steve Jones had us explore cumulative sentences, using punctuation and the breadth of phrases and clauses to tell a story—one sentence only!  I captured my magical morning this way:

Poetry in Motion

In a small grove on a hill, perched above the sleepy-eyed Ashland downtown, I choose a bench, my place to rest, and close my eyes, breathing in and out the pine-scented air, listening to rushing water, calling birds, barking dogs, retreating voices, as the poem, “The Way It Is,” fills the space, moving in me.

What the one-sentence summary obviates is my tears, the ones I can’t stem, at this particular choice, the poem I read during my son’s bar mitzvah.

The Way It Is

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.

By William Stafford, from The Way It Is, 1998

Sam celebrates his coming-of-age in the wake of September 11th.  Neither of his grandparents are able to attend the ceremony; his grandfather will die before he ever gets to see the recording we have made of this event.  It is easy to understand my reaction, the shell that cracks when this is the chosen one.

That is the power of poetry.

If I were still scurrying through those school hallways, I’d be carrying the poem that we were given to accompany us as we walked the labyrinth tucked away downtown.  It’s now folded inside my brain, there for me to open no matter what day it is:

When Meeting the other


Given arms, the sun 
would choose to grow many.
Having many narrow arms,
the sun would—at each limb’s end— 
flare into a palm and fingers,
into the curves made for reaching.

Extremities of flame, of shine.
Hands that carry enough 
heat and light to give away.

Be that sun. One small sun.


                       —Paulann Petersen

 

Kindle, Mountains and Rivers Press, 2008

 

Shakespeare Set Free!

One of the more ambitious units I taught with my eighth grade students asked the essential question, “What is love?”  At the center of the study was Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  The local theater usually mounted a production of the comedy, greatly abridged from its full-run, two-hour-plus length to just over an hour.  We’d be sure to go over the rather confusing story in several ways—prose retelling, youtube animations, and an invaluable play map included in the Folger guide, Shakespeare Set Free: Teaching Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  As my teaching experience grew, I found other great resources, most of them through the Folger Library in Washington, D.C.

And to the essential question?  Eighth graders embraced it for the most part.  It’s also true that, while many began the exploration without enthusiasm, by the end almost everyone had, if not fallen head-over-heels, experienced a greater acceptance.  This happened gradually, with their increasing familiarity with the Bard’s way of expressing himself and with the comedy of it all. Now they understood that comedy meant happy endings for mostly everyone involved, and they wanted that in their version of love, too.

One of the key practices is to get the kids using his language.  Before I knew better, I bought a text set of Midsummer… that features Shakespeare’s original language on one side and a “translation” on the other.  It might have been helpful at first, but soon the kids wanted only the Shakespeare; they became enamored with the poetry of it, the inversions, the slang, the “thys” and “thous.”  They loved hurling insults—he was a master, and they aspired!

The passage all kids memorize is a speech in 2.1 given by Titania, Queen of the Fairies, to her King Oberon over the Indian boy and Titania’s refusal to surrender him.  Jealousy disturbs the Fairy kingdom.  It begins:  “Set your heart at rest/The Fairyland buys not the child of me./” and continues to explain why she, Titania, will keep the “changeling” for herself.  Over several weeks the kids practice the passage, put it in their own words, talk about how it connects to the essential question.  They memorize it, and almost everyone is successful.  Each student recites the passage aloud at some point; some choose to perform with a partner, but most stand alone.  This is their first experience “owning” the words of William Shakespeare, and it is empowering!

Later they will perform scenes, fully aware that they CAN.  They have already taken their first steps.  This all happens in May well before their eighth grade trip in June.  One year when we were on the bus heading home after our overnight adventure, I told the kids that I’d give extra credit points to anyone who could still recite Titania’s speech.  I expected those teen dismissals, but that’s not what happened.  Girls and boys alike chorused:

TITANIA

  Set your heart at rest.
The Fairyland buys not the child of me.
His mother was a votaress of my order,
And in the spicèd Indian air by night
Full often hath she gossiped by my side,
And sat with me on Neptune’s yellow sands,
Marking th’ embarkèd traders on the flood,
When we have laughed to see the sails conceive
And grow big-bellied with the wanton wind;
Which she, with pretty and with swimming gait
Following—her womb then rich with my young squire—
Would imitate, and sail upon the land
To fetch me trifles and return again
As from a voyage, rich with merchandise.
But she, being mortal, of that boy did die.
And for her sake do I rear up her boy,
And for her sake I will not part with him.
The bus rolled down the road full of kids happily spouting Shakespeare.  And that’s when I knew: this is love.

Sunday Morning Quiet

Sometimes a poem, in a soft yet urgent voice, speaks to us, and keeps speaking long after the words are uttered.  This is certainly true for the many of the selections featured in the PBS Series, The United States of Poetry (2004), a creation of Bob Holman and directed by Mark Pellington.  A sampling of them are featured on youtube, including one of my favorites “Morels” by Nashville poet Dan Powers.  The text of this poem is available in Google books.

Morels

Two years ago my friend Vantrease

said farming would not pay his bills.

He sold his milk cows and leased

the Sears catalog store in town.

 

Blackberry vines and sumac

crowd his unkempt pastures and the fences sag.

Last week at church, he held out his hands

soft and white for us to see and said,

“A farm is like the strength in a man’s hands.

You try hard to keep it, and you lose it.”

 

In the trillium beneath the hickory grove

on our ridge, my son and I find a few morels

and drop them into a brown paper bag.

Our small talk worn thin, we walk back toward the house

through the dew-wet pasture without speaking.

Here, miles from town, without his friends to see,

he reaches across our silent striding

and grasps my hand with all the strength of his ten years.

Each of us holds on.

—Dan Powers

On the Day You Were Born!

Travel

The railroad track is miles away, 
    And the day is loud with voices speaking, 
Yet there isn't a train goes by all day 
    But I hear its whistle shrieking.

All night there isn't a train goes by, 
    Though the night is still for sleep and dreaming, 
But I see its cinders red on the sky, 
    And hear its engine steaming.

My heart is warm with the friends I make, 
    And better friends I'll not be knowing; 
Yet there isn't a train I wouldn't take, 
    No matter where it's going.
Credit:
by Edna St. Vincent Millay

This poem is in the public domain.

I first gave this poem to my good friend and colleague for her birthday several years ago after we had sojourned to distant shores.  We had already attended the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) conventions together, so we knew the essentials.  Our schedules jibed pretty well.  I was an earlier-riser, awake by six a.m., showered, out the door, and downstairs reading or writing and drinking coffee before Dana awoke an hour or so later.  She had her morning space; I had mine.  I snored but not so much that it either kept her awake or awakened her prematurely.  (You’re not lying about that, are you, Dana?)  I could fall asleep with lights and television.  When I’m tired, I’m OUT!  I must admit, both of us were done in after the long, learning-filled days.  In truth, that’s only the hotel-room part of it, and while important, most of us can handle almost anyone for five days, especially if one is non-judgmental; that’s Dana.

The trickier thing by far is to find someone who enriches the going, buys in, opens herself up to experiences whether planned or spontaneous.  That is what Dana became for me as a travel companion, and a teaching one, too.  My conventions and my day-to-day classroom life were better because she was there beside me.

In 2016 we organized a trip with former students, traveling to Greece and Italy.  These were amazing kids, and the experience was incomparable.  Whether it was reenacting the original Olympic run on the track where once the Greeks had trod—despite temperatures nearing 100°—or climbing Mt. Vesuvius after a full day and late night, these young people, almost-sophomores, were game.  When we returned home, Dana wanted a “Discovery Tour Redux” but me…not so much.  Perfection can be daunting.  What we did realize, though, was that we could take our show on a wider road.  That has much more to do with Dana than me.  She is ever-intrepid while I wade in the shallows of “what-if” far too often.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 This summer she will once again travel with students, this time to Spain.  I know she will have another stunning travel adventure; she’ll make it happen.
When I asked Dana to read my letter to the Board of Education tendering my resignation, she said, “You’ve submitted it?”  I nodded, and for the very first time, I felt the pre-tears tingle.  Our partnership of seven years was dissolving; it was real.  Then I made reservations to travel to Oregon for the total eclipse, whether we were moving by August 21st or not, and told Dana.  She said, “Could I come?”  So on that momentous day, on the antipodal coast, she joined me.  Sharing this natural wonder eased the separation: she could imagine me where I would now be; she could “see” me.
We met up again in St. Louis at NCTE last November, and use technology whether email, text, or Hangouts, to stay connected.  I’m already planning to go to Houston this November less for the convention, more for the connection.  I remember that we, Dana and I, have taught kids to appreciate writing as a gift— it’s one of writing’s often overlooked dimensions.  I’ll send her the link to this blog post today, the day she returns from a cruise, tan and happy and full of new stories.  Hopefully I’ll hear some of them, for while our partnership may have dissolved, our friendship goes the distance.  Thanks, Dana.  Happy Birthday.
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Laughter for Friday (for teachers;-)

I read this , “Funny Homework Excuses,” to begin my day, and thought, “Why not?  I haven’t leaned in the teacher-anecdote direction for a few days…and poetry can be FUNNY!”  So here is today’s offering with this caveat: being a teacher makes it funnier!

Did I Miss Anything?

Nothing. When we realized you weren’t here
we sat with our hands folded on our desks
in silence, for the full two hours

     Everything. I gave an exam worth
     40 percent of the grade for this term
     and assigned some reading due today
     on which I’m about to hand out a quiz
     worth 50 percent

Nothing. None of the content of this course
has value or meaning
Take as many days off as you like:
any activities we undertake as a class
I assure you will not matter either to you or me
and are without purpose

     Everything. A few minutes after we began last time
     a shaft of light suddenly descended and an angel
     or other heavenly being appeared
     and revealed to us what each woman or man must do
     to attain divine wisdom in this life and
     the hereafter
     This is the last time the class will meet
     before we disperse to bring the good news to all people  on earth.

Nothing. When you are not present
how could something significant occur?

     Everything. Contained in this classroom
     is a microcosm of human experience
     assembled for you to query and examine and ponder
     This is not the only place such an opportunity has been gathered

     but it was one place

     And you weren’t here

—Tom Wayman

From Did I Miss Anything? Selected Poems 1973-1993, 1993
Harbour Publishing

Copyright 1993 Tom Wayman.
All rights reserved.

In Memoriam

In honor of Maya Angelou’s would-have-been 90th birthday, Google posted this doodle yesterday.  It takes me back…

In 1993 at the Clinton inauguration, Maya Angelou performed her poem, “On the Pulse of Morning,” her enduring message of inclusion, of the strength of all of us united, granite.  Her words: “History, despite its wrenching pain,/ Cannot be unlived but if faced/ With courage need not be lived again,” became planted in me and the rock on which I based my teaching career.  We could bask in the light of “this bright morning dawning…”

An excerpt in our seventh grade Daybook from I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, the beginnings of Marguerite (Maya) Angelou’s story, reintroduces me to her and her roots, the young girl who had lived with her Grandmother in Stamps, Arkansas.  Published first in 1969, a wizened copy of the memoir lies tucked away on the bookshelf  I had inherited from my predecessor.  When my students ask if they could read “the whole book,” I say that I’ll join them, so our relationship develops.

Sitting in that class among those avid readers is one young man who absorbs every single moment we’re together, never misses anything, holds me to my promise to be the best I can be every day.  Just before Christmas that year, he handed me a wrapped package, clearly a book—a shared passion.  I opened it to find a copy of Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings…autographed.  The story of the lengths his mom Maria went to obtain this precious gift is for another day but speaks to who she is as a person, and as a friend.  In the recent movie Ladybird, a minor character says that the measure of love is paying attention.  This is Maria’s default setting.

angelou2

 

 

I learn that Maya Angelou will be visiting the local community college when Maria tells me that she’s gotten us, her son, now a high school freshman, her and me, tickets, and when I arrive, she has gained seats right up front within seven rows of the stool on which the great lady will perch because she cannot manage to stand.  At 80, Angelou begins by telling the packed gym—there are over 3,000 of us— that “My knees are bad, well I have one real bad knee, but the good knee is sympathetic to the bad one.”  During the course of her conversation with us, this gentle humored, open-hearted, intelligent woman wraps us in her magic, her storytelling, using song and spirit.  She holds us all, and I am most clearly aware of this when I prepare to leave the parking area.

New Jersey drivers are not known for their patience.  An oft-told joke is the response to, “Do you know what the state bird of New Jersey is?” with the answer being that middle-finger gesture.  On that night though, with every space filled, and all exits bumper-to-bumper, lights shine, horns still, and in a seemingly orchestrated procession, we find our way off campus…no birds in sight.  It is the Angelou Effect.

When I see yesterday’s Google Doodle, the wonder washes over me anew.  I text Maria, “Watch the Google Doodle today,” and her reply?   “You beat me to it!”

The Angelou Effect.

 

 

A Poem Stands Alone

Fannie Lou Hamer

                        “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired!”
 
She sat across the desk from me, squirming.
It was stifling. My suite runs hot
but most days it is bearable.
 
This student has turned in nothing,
rarely comes to class. When she does,
her eyes bore into me with a disdain
born long before either of us.
 
She doesn’t trust anything I say.
She can’t respect my station,
the words coming out of these lips,
this face. My breathing
is an affront. It’s me, she says.
 
I never was this student’s professor—
her immediate reaction
seeing me at the smart board.
But I have a calling to complete
& she has to finish college,
return to a town where
she doesn’t have to look at,
listen to or respect anyone
like me—forever tall, large
& brown in her dagger eyes,
though it’s clear she looks down
on me. She can return—
if not to her hometown, another
enclave, so many others, where
she can brush a dog’s golden coat,
be vegan & call herself
a good person.
 
Are you having difficulty with your other classes?
 
No.
 
Go, I say, tenderly.
Loaded as a cop’s gun,
she blurts point-blank
that she’s afraid of me. Twice.
My soft syllables rattle something
planted deep,
so I tell her to go where
she’d feel more comfortable
as if she were my niece or
godchild, even wish her
a good day.
 
If she stays, the ways
this could backfire! 
Where is my Kevlar shield
from her shame?
 
There’s no way to tell
when these breasts will evoke
solace or terror. I hate
that she surprises me, that I lull
myself to think her ilk
is gone despite knowing
so much more, and better.
 
I can’t proselytize my worth
all semester, exhaust us
for the greater good.
I can’t let her make me
a monster to myself—
I’m running out of time & pity
the extent of her impoverished
heart. She’s from New
England, I’m from the Mid-South.
Far from elderly, someone
just raised her like this
with love.
 
I have essays to grade
but words warp
on the white page, dart
just out of reach. I blink
two hours away, find it hard
to lift my legs, my voice,
my head precious to my parents
now being held
in my own hands.
 
How did they survive
so much worse, the millions
with all of their scars!
What would these rivers be
without their weeping,
these streets without
their faith & sweat?
 
Fannie Lou Hamer
thundered what they felt,
we feel, into DNC microphones
on black and white TV
years before
I was a notion.
 
She doesn’t know who
Fannie Lou Hamer is,
and never has to.

Copyright © 2018 by Kamilah Aisha Moon. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on April 4, 2018, by the Academy of American Poets.