If there is a new software for use in the classroom, I am likely to register for a quick trial. On occasion, I have been assigned a username and password, a combination of numbers and letters, for use during length of the trial period.
Last month, on the confirmation email, was a password that was the BEST I had ever received. It read:
Such a combination of nouns was clearly a sign from the poetry gods….I needed to write a poem with these words!
Moreover, Poetry Friday is being hosted this week (on 1/5/16) by my dear friend and poet Catherine Flynn who writes on her blog Reading to the Core.
I considered what story could be told using these nouns, and I thought about the word magenta in the password. The color magenta reminded me of an incident in a local school about 15 years ago. A female student came to high school with her hair dyed a shocking bright magenta color. For this effrontery, she was immediately suspended. Of course, the incident went national, and for a brief time, the local high school was ground zero for dress code politics. Eventually, she was allowed back to school, and the school board revised the dress code.
Today, such a hair dye controversy seems very tame.
Once I knew what story I would use, I had to choose a form of poetry that could feature these four nouns. I rejected quite a few. Sestinas require six nouns for the scheme. Haikus are too short. A sonnet would not feature the words as well. Villanelles only have three rhymes.
So, I settled on a pantoum.A pantoum has a set pattern of repetitive lines:
Pantoum definition:the pattern in each stanza is where the second and fourth line of each verse is repeated as the first and third of the next. The pattern changes though for the last stanza to the first and third line are the second and fourth of the stanza above (penultimate). The last line is a repeat of the first starting line of the poem and the third line of the first is the second of the last.
In the end, I did modify the pantoum a little to fit the story…but that is poetic license!
Her hand on hip stance toughens her agenda
She is no stranger to the office; not a Pilgrim.
Her gutsy toss of hair dyed bright Magenta
She counter argues charges of expulsion.
No stranger to the office; she’s no Pilgrim.
They will not use her as their scapegoat
As she challenges charges of expulsion
And argues counter to the rules they wrote.
She flatly states “I’m not your scapegoat,”
And shrugs off rules xeroxed in black carbon.
Challenges the paper charges for expulsion
She won’t back down, and she won’t bargain.
“Review your rules in lines of black ink carbon;
You’ll read no language banning bright magenta!”
Her charge is right, AND more than they had bargained.
“Revise dress code” (*they sigh*) on their next agenda.
Since no language there to ban magenta
No expulsion for hair dyed bright Magenta.
Expect a future challenge to their agenda
That hand on hip stance toughens her agenda.
The fall of 2017 in Connecticut was one of the warmest on record. That unusual warmth allowed for long evening walks on the beaches of the Long Island Sound shoreline. One night, I witnessed a fabulous illusion which resulted in this poem.
While I am not a regular contributor to the #PoetryFriday posts, I did want to record that moment, and poetry was the best way. Writing this also affirmed the statement by poet Amy Ludwig Vandewater (recently featured at the National Council of Teachers of English) that in order to “write stuff you have to do stuff.”
Poetry Friday is being hosted by Carol at Carol’s Corner. Check out the poetry postings!
The term ekphrasis is Greek in origin, meaning “writing inspired by art”.
So, what better excuse for ekphrasis than Greek statues of antiquity? And where better to find Greek statues, than in a museum?
This past week, the Seine River that bisects the city of Paris ran over its banks, cresting at 21.3 feet. This flooding has meant that the curators of the many art museums and galleries that line the Seine scrambled to save works of art that had been stored below flood level. The Louvre Museum closed to the public as masterpieces were relocated to higher ground.
…An estimated 150,000 artworks in storage rooms and an additional 7,000 pieces in galleries were vulnerable to flooding, and a large portion of those were moved to higher floors as a precaution, officials said.
Accompanying the text of the article was the photo below:
NYTIMES: (6/3/16) Staff at the Louvre scrambled Friday to move artworks to higher floors as Paris experienced its worst flooding in 30 years. Credit: Markus Schreiber/Associated Press
It’s December, and in keeping with the season, I had planned on a post celebrating Robert Frost’s poem “Christmas Trees”. Instead, however, I found myself on an inquiry path on a Frost holiday tradition.
I first inquired, what is the story behind Frost’s poem Christmas Trees?
The poem opens:
The city had withdrawn into itself
And left at last the country to the country;
When between whirls of snow not come to lie
And whirls of foliage not yet laid, there drove
A stranger to our yard, who looked the city,
Yet did in country fashion in that there
He sat and waited till he drew us out,
A-buttoning coats, to ask him who he was.
He proved to be the city come again
To look for something it had left behind
And could not do without and keep its Christmas.
The stranger asks to purchase Frost’s trees:
He said, “A thousand.”
“A thousand Christmas trees!—at what apiece?”
He felt some need of softening that to me:
“A thousand trees would come to thirty dollars.”
Rather than sell them, Frost conclusion is more metaphorical:
A thousand Christmas trees I didn’t know I had!
Worth three cents more to give away than sell,
As may be shown by a simple calculation.
Too bad I couldn’t lay one in a letter.
I can’t help wishing I could send you one,
In wishing you herewith a Merry Christmas.
I found (on Poets.org) that beginning in 1929, Frost and the printer Joseph Blumenthal partnered up to produce beautifully illustrated Christmas cards featuring Frost’s poetry. I was surprised to discover, as reported in the NYTimes, Blumenthal, who ran the Spiral Press of New York, created the first card without Frost’s knowledge:
“…he printed 250 copies—for his wife and a small group of colleagues—of a letterpress chapbook of Frost’s early poem “Christmas Trees.”
When the poet saw the publication, his first response was to contact Blumenthal and request a few copies to send out to his own family members: ‘My sympathies have been enlisted on the side of small presses and hand setting. My heart will be with you in your work’.”
A slideshow of the cards is available on the NYTimes website. This tradition continued for another 30 years, and the Frost-Blumenthal productions were holiday “greetings” in the form of chapbooks.
I then needed to inquire, why a chapbook?
I discovered that a chapbook was historically “a small pamphlet containing tales, ballads, or tracts, sold by peddlers” in contrast to its current contemporary meaning, “a small paperback booklet, typically containing poems or fiction.” These chapbooks are very simple, stapled in the center, with some illustrated covers.
That led me to inquire, what other poems did Frost place into chapbooks?
Oher poems sent as chapbooks were “Birches,” “A Boy’s Will,” and “The Wood-Pile”. There was an exhibit of the chapbooks in 2012 at the Pequot Library in Southport, CT. The exhibit was titled “Good Wishes from Robert Frost” – a set of 19 chapbooks loaned by Elinor Wilber, granddaughter of the celebrated American poet Robert Frost. Several have a personal inscription from Frost to Elinor and her husband. A video showing these chapbooks is available here:
The video ends with a copy handwritten by Frost of his poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”.
That led me to seek out a better copy of this manuscript, and my path of inquiry took me to the Library of Congress where there is a photo of the poem in its entirety:
Robert Frost. “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” Holograph manuscript, n.d. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (195C)
This inquiry led me a different publisher. Frost’s Snow to Snow, was issued by in 1936 by Henry Holt & Company. They published twelve of Frost’s verses, each one corresponding to a month of the year and ending with December’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”.
So how does one find out what the poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” means?
I then decided to chase down the popular story (one that I have often repeated without checking its veracity) that Frost was in the audience of group of people listening to a lecture about the meaning of this poem.
I had heard that “The poem is about death,” the lecturer supposedly reported, and he continued for many minutes pointing out all the images related to death:”darkest evening” and “sleep”. At the end of the lecture, there was an opportunity for questions and comments from the audience. Now (according to the rumor), Frost patiently waited his turn, and then firmly stated: “I wrote that poem. It is not about death. I was going home in the snow.”
As much fun as that rumored story is….I could not find anything to confirm it happening. I am chagrined that I have kept the rumor going.
“it’s all very nice but I must be getting along, getting home.”…
“I always thought,” he explains, “it was the product of autointoxication coming from tiredness.”
When a friendly critic asked if the last two lines in “Stopping by Woods” referred to going to Heaven, and, by implication, death, the poet replied, “No, all that means is to get the hell out of there.”
On this path of inquiry, I also discovered a video of Frost reading this poem. The introduction is by the radio host Garrison Keillor:
My final thought on Frost’s poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” was of the picture book illustrated by Susan Jeffers that I read to my boys as part of our holiday preparation. The man in her rendition bears a striking resemblance to Santa Claus and the little harness bells look very festive. I know Jeffers makes the poem more child-friendly than alternative interpretations!
Finally, to sum up Frost’s attitude towards analysis, in a letter to Louis Untermeyer (1964) in Robert Frost: A Backward Look, Frost writes:
You’ve often heard me say – perhaps too often – that poetry is what is lost in translation. It is also what is lost in interpretation. That little poem means just what it says and it says what it means, nothing less but nothing more.
Or, here is a more unceremonious statement in his own voice:
Several years ago, I was teaching John Keats’s Ode on a Grecian Urn to a group of sophomore students. While they did struggle with the first four stanzas of the poem, they lingered on the the memorable last stanza of the poem:
O Attic shape! fair attitude! with brede
Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
Thou, silent form! dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral! 45
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’ 50
Like other students before them in previous years, they wrestled with the conclusion that Keats arrived on with the closing lines:
‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty”
What is beauty?
When I asked students, “What is beauty?” they had many different ideas. In one session, we discussed physical beauty. It was not a surprise that each student held a different idea about physical beauty. After they listed the characteristics, I offered a photo of “beautiful” face. When I shared this photo, they all agreed she was beautiful.
Computerized face: “Survival of the Prettiest” by Nancy Etcoff
After they agreed, I revealed that this particular face had been generated by a computer. The beautiful face was developed as part of the research by Nancy Etcoff, a Harvard psychologist and medical researcher. Her research on attitudes towards beauty resulted in a book titled, Survival of the Prettiest.
The face they all agreed was a beautiful face was, quite literally, an average[d] face. The graphic at right had been generated by a computerized program that averaged the faces of hundreds of women. In other words, this was not a single woman who defined beauty, but a representation of multiple women.
The conclusion my students reached was, although the face of the woman was beautiful, a “virtual babe”, she was really just “average”.
The Truth in Averages
The students discussing the computerized face understood averages; they were confronted with the term daily. They maintained an attendance average; they received a grade point average. They knew mathematically that an average is a form of reduction; a division into an arithmetic mean. They also understood that calculating an average did provide a kind of truth in their performance, but not the whole truth. There was almost always a test or quiz or project that could be in “dispute” or “unfair.”
They did agree that the face created by the computer program was probably more equitable in making qualitative judgements. Every face was weighed by the software program in exactly the same way. They suggested that there was probably more “truth” (fidelity to an original or to a standard or ideal) in the averaging process in the face’s creation than in their GPAs.
Truth is Beauty?
“So, is this particular beauty ‘truth’?” I asked again, pointing to the computerized face, “…is this a true individual ‘beauty’?”
They did not think so.
“Mrs. Bennett, all this proves is everyone together is beautiful…and that is the truth!”
Visitors to the annual summer Sunken Garden Poetry Festival at Hill-Stead Museum in Farmington, Connecticut can picnic in the criss-crossed paths that separate tidy flower beds. Those familiar with the festival know to bring collapsible chairs that sit just little higher up so as to see the small stage over the tall stalks of bee-balm, phlox, roses or delphinium.
On June 24th, that small stage was bathed in warm setting-sunlight as Ted Kooser, United States Poet Laureate (2004-2006), stepped up to read several of his poems. The tail of his light jacket was rumpled into his right back back pocket; above him, the tail of a circling hawk flashed red with each wide turn.
Only 24 hours earlier, there had been hail, damaging winds, and a reported micro-burst. Now, New England held back her willful nature, as if to say, “Yes, I can be a gracious hostess…” to those who organized the poetry and music for the evening.
Ted Kooser is both a poet and essayist, whose collection Delights & Shadows was awarded the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for poetry. He is also a Professor of English at The University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He is probably best known for his promotion of American poetry through the free weekly American Life in Poetry column that features contemporary American poems:
The sole mission of this project is to promote poetry: American Life in Poetry seeks to create a vigorous presence for poetry in our culture.
In each column, Kooser makes a brief introduction to the poem that is featured, why it might have been selected, or what is most striking about the poem. For example, in his introduction to Barbara Crooker’s poem “Sparklers”, he writes the poem was selected because
“… in 2004 we set off the fire alarm system at the Willard Hotel in Washington by lighting a few to celebrate my inauguration as poet laureate.”
Kooser’s promotion of poets like Crooker may be the reason for the large crowd attending the reading. Once he took the stage, Kooser spoke about poems that centered on his relationships with his father, his mother, and in particular his mother’s cousin, Pearl.
He read the poem “Pearl” (read here at Chautauqua, a lake community in southwestern New York/text of the poem reprinted on this site.)
This poem opens with his mission to speak to his mother’s elderly cousin, Pearl:
Elkader, Iowa, a morning in March,
the Turkey River running brown and wrinkly
from a late spring snow in Minnesota,
the white two-story house on Mulberry Street,
windows flashing with sun, and I had come
a hundred miles to tell our cousin, Pearl,
that her childhood playmate, Vera, my mother,
After he finished reading, Kooser noted that this poem had been adapted and made into a 17 minute film that won a New England Film Contest in 2012:
When a midwestern poet (Dan Butler) visits an elderly relative (Frances Sternhagen) to bring news of his mother’s recent death, the visit takes an unsettling turn.
Many of the poems he selected to read were short, from the break up of a marriage (“Neither of us would clean the aquarium”) to the memory of his dog (“The ghost of my good dog, Alice,sits at the foot of my ladder”). Too soon, it seemed, that Kooser explained that his “voice was giving out” as he wrapped up the reading from the stage.
But this crowd did not seem disappointed. Seasoned by unpredictable weather, they appreciated the rare quality of the evening.
On this beautiful June night, while the Nebraska poet spoke, the setting offered by Connecticut was sublime.
This weekend marks the 100th Anniversary of the World War I poem “In Flanders Fields”. This poem was written by Canadian physician and poet Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae on May 3, 1915, as a tribute to his fallen friend, Alexis Helmer, who was killed at the Second Battle of Ypes. Canadian forces lost 5,975 men in this battle that marked the first use of poison gas by the German army.
According to legend, McCrae threw away the poem, but it was rescued from obscurity when fellow soldiers retrieved it from a wastebasket. The poem is popular as one of the memorial statements for WWI particularly in Canada. McCrae never returned home as he died of pneumonia near the end of the war.
The poem is written as a rondeau, a form of song that originated in France between the late 13th and the 15th centuries. The format has a fixed pattern with a refrain; the scansion is AB-aAab-AB, where “A” and “B” are the repeated refrain parts, and “a” and “b” the remaining verses:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place, and in the sky,
The larks, still bravely singing, fly,
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the dead; short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe!
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high!
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
Ceramic poppies commemorate British soldiers killed during WWI
The poem was published in the British magazine Punch seven months later, and its references to the red poppies that grow on the fields of battle where soldiers fell gave rise to the “remembrance poppy.” Sales of remembrance poppies, usually made of silk, were used to fund war bonds, and after WWI, continued to be sold to fund veteran’s programs.
This past year (August-November 2014), a total of 888,246 ceramic kiln-fired remembrance poppies, hand formed by artists, were planted on the grounds of the Tower of London. Each of the poppies represented a British soldier killed during WWI.
The Tower Remembers Project website hosts videos on the creation of the poppies, which are the brainchild of artists Paul Cummins and Tom Piper.
888,246 poppies spill from the walls of the Tower of London; one for each British soldier killed in WWI.Paul Cummins
The exhibit called Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Redwas installed at the Tower of London, in order to mark the one hundred year anniversary of Britain’s engagement in the First World War.
The ceramic poppies were sold and the proceeds split between six different charities, all associated with supporting veterans of war.
The poem also inspired the In Flanders Field Museum in Ypes, Belgium. In the museum, the poppies are on bracelets with imbedded RFID-chips that allow the wearer to read the personal stories about the war, filmed monologues and aerial photography.
Here in the United States, the American Legion adopted the poppy as their official symbol of remembrance in 1920 through the efforts of University of Georgia Professor Moina Michael.
The poem that McCrea wrote for a friend has inspired memorials to those who fought and died in World War I and all other wars as well. The poppy has been the torch, a way to “not break faith with us who die.”
National Poetry Month was first suggested in 1995 by the Academy of American Poets as “a way to increase awareness and appreciation of poetry in the United States.”
20 years later, this celebration of poetry has taken root and flourished.
This year, in 2015, the celebrations will be promoted with a poster designed by National Book Award finalist and The New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast. The poster‘s nine panels contain the words from the opening stanza of the poet Mark Strand’s poem Eating Poetry:
Ink runs from the corners of my mouth.
There is no happiness like mine.
I have been eating poetry.
Teachers can order the poster from the Poets.org website or download a smaller page sized copy to use in their classes.
In addition to the poster, the Academy of American Poets has developed a program titled “Dear Poet”, a set of four lesson plans that teachers can use with students in grades 5-12. The lesson plans connect to the literacy standards of the Common Core in a “multimedia education project that invites young people in grades five through twelve to write letters in response to poems written and read by some of the award-winning poets who serve on the Academy of American Poets Board of Chancellors.”
Examples of some of the activities in the lesson plans connected to English Language Arts standards include:
Speaking (and gesturing):
Students make a sound, using their own voice, without words, to express how they are feeling at the moment.
Right now I feel… (using only a hand gesture)
Right now I feel… (using only their voice with no words)
Right now I feel… (using their gesture, voice, and descriptive words)
Students listen and describe the sound by writing in their journals.
Students read six poems and complete a T-chart with one side with what “jumps out at them” in the poem and on the other side, why they think this is important to the poet’s voice/poem.
Students draft a letter addressed to a chosen poet, telling him/her what in the poem spoke to them, and asking questions relating to how the poet wrote this poem.
The lesson plans include links for students to upload their letters as an authentic task.
During the month of April, teachers can follow updates on Twitter using the hashtag #npm15 and follow the Academy of American Poets @POETSorg.
The end of National Poetry Month will conclude with “Poem in Your Pocket Day” (April 30) and teachers and students alike can celebrate by selecting a poem, carrying it, and sharing it with others throughout the day. Copies of suggested poems (in the public domain) are available by download.
For those who would want to continue the celebration of poetry all year, there is also a link to a poem a day a previously unpublished poems is delivered by e-mail daily during the week and classic poems delivered on the weekends.
There is a behavioral theory that practicing a specific skill for 66 days will make that practice a life-long habit. While the planned 30 days of poetry practice in the month of April will fall short, the American Academy of Poets should attempt a co-op the “National Fitness Month” of May using the ploy, “Poems are a work-out for the mind!”
One of my favorite things to do when I taught a poetry unit was to select a poem I had not ‘prepared” to teach and then ask students to give me their impressions. A selection like this always brought interesting discussions because there was no prescribed agenda; we read for meaning together. One of the “go to” poets in such classroom experiments was the American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
My students were already familiar with his Paul Revere’s Ride. They were also familiar with some of his acquaintances including the authors Nathaniel Hawthorne and Charles Dickens. His verse was always accessible to students in different grade levels; the narrative in his poetry always captured their imaginations.
As we approach this last weekend in the coldest February on record, readers can get a glimpse of how Longfellow might have approached his birthday on the 27th with Afternoon in February:.
The day is ending,
The night is descending;
The marsh is frozen,
The river dead.
Through clouds like ashes
The red sun flashes
On village windows
That glimmer red.
The snow recommences;
The buried fences
Mark no longer
The road o’er the plain;
While through the meadows,
Like fearful shadows,
A funeral train.
The bell is pealing,
And every feeling
Within me responds
To the dismal knell;
Shadows are trailing,
My heart is bewailing
And tolling within
Like a funeral bell.
In six short stanzas, this New England poet accurately captures the bleak experience of this winter month. Looking back, I am reminded how well my students understood that this Longfellow’s poem makes a solid case for February’s brevity!
During a pop-in visit with the 8th grade social studies teachers last week, the discussion turned to the growing number of interruptions to the school calendar because of the snow cancellations and delays we are experiencing here in Connecticut this winter. The teachers were grumbling, frustrated that they were not able to cover the content in the curriculum units.
“There are some advantages to ice and snow this winter,” I suggested.
They looked at me skeptically.
“Our students are feeling the same conditions that the Continental Army felt that winter at Valley Forge,” they paused.
I continued, “I can’t imagine how teachers in San Diego get students to understand what it was like to be a soldier in that winter in 1778.”
Of course, imagine is the key word here. Students taking classes in sunny 75 degree weather would have to imagine the conditions penned byGeorge Washington to then New York Governor George Clinton from his headquarters in a chilly farmhouse at Valley Forge. Our first Commander-in-Chief’s desperation to keep his troops fed and clothed in frigid conditions is clearly evident in this letter, written while the well-stocked British troops camped comfortably nearby in Philadelphia. During that encampment at Valley Forge beginning on December 19, 1777, nearly 2,500 American soldiers, a quarter of the Continental Army, succumbed to disease and exposure by the end of February 1778. A modified version of Washington’s letter for students (Created through the TAH Making History Grant) appears below:
To Governor George Clinton
Head Quarters, Valley Forge, February 16, 1778
It is with great reluctance, I trouble you … For some days…, there has been…a famine in camp. A part of the army has been a week, without any kind of flesh, and the rest for three or four days. Naked and starving as they are, we cannot enough admire the incomparable patience and fidelity of the soldiery, that they have not been [led]…by their sufferings, to a general mutiny…
…I am, on my part, putting every engine to work, that I can possibly think of, to prevent…fatal consequences…. I am calling upon all those, whose stations and influence enable them to contribute their aid upon so important an occasion; … I expect every thing within the compass of your power, and that the abilities and resources of the state over which you preside, will admit….
Valley Forge was not Washington’s first test of endurance in harsh winter conditions. Two years previous to this encampment, Washington had successfully crossed the Delaware River in a surprise attack against the Hessian forces in Trenton, New Jersey. Taking advantage of the Hessian’s late night holiday celebration, Washington crossed the icy waters on December 25, and attacked on the following morning.
Washington’s trip across the icy waters was immortalized in the painting Washington Crossing the Delaware by Emanuel Leutze, (Metropolitan Museum of Art-NYC, 1851).
Washington Crossing the Delaware is also the name and subject of a sonnet by David Shulman (1936). This sonnet is entirely composed of anagrams, or verses of word play, where the letters of a word or phrase are used (once) to produce a new words or in Shulman’s case, verses:
A hard, howling, tossing water scene.
Strong tide was washing hero clean.
“How cold!” Weather stings as in anger.
O Silent night shows war ace danger!
The cold waters swashing on in rage.
Redcoats warn slow his hint engage.
When star general’s action wish’d “Go!”
He saw his ragged continentals row.
Ah, he stands – sailor crew went going.
And so this general watches rowing.
He hastens – winter again grows cold.
A wet crew gain Hessian stronghold.
George can’t lose war with’s hands in;
He’s astern – so go alight, crew, and win!
The nation’s tribute to George Washington, combined his birthday (2/22) with Lincoln’s birthday (2/12) to make President’s Day, a National Holiday celebrated from the frigid shores of the Delaware River, across those same fields of Valley Forge, and all the way to the warm sunny beaches of the San Diego coastline.
The combination of Washington’s letter to George Clinton, the famous painting by Emanuel Leutze, and the sonnet by David Shulman can help students everywhere in the United States to imagine the severe weather conditions of these most famous exploits of Washington, but the students here in the Mid-Atlantic and in New England have the historical advantage to experience that same weather first-hand every year.
Here in Connecticut, in the winter of 2015, our students’ empathy lies with George.