Archives For #poetryfriday

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.

The lead story for the June 3rd, 2016 NYTimes, “In Paris, the Seine Rises to Highest Level Since 1982” (by Lilia Blaise and Benoit Morenne), reported on this disruption:

The evacuation of artworks from the Louvre, which was closed to visitors, has attracted particular attention…

…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.

 

6/3/16 NYTIMES: 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

 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

 

Here, then, is my art inspired poem-an ekphrasis

 

A Collection at the Louvre

 

Ancient visitors, unearthed from the basement,

fix their gaze on pieces from the collection

of 21st Century office furniture

in the famed Louvre’s Salon de Files.

 

They are stolid, polished rock, 

marveling at the smooth steel geometry:

a maze of files and crates;

appraising the nuanced shades of black:

obsidian, charcoal, onyx, jet;

admiring the asymmetrical shapes:

tall, narrow, wide, short.

 

They note the detailed inset pulls on metal drawers;

they puzzle over the labels on such Decorus artem,

translating into Latin or Greek

the names, dates, and numbers.

They pose and ponder in thought

as they have seen others do.

 

Sculptures who tilt an antique head

(if there is one)

or raise an antique arm

(if there is one)

to point and question, “Qu’est-ce que c’est?”

something they have heard others say.

 

Far in the background, 

a suspicious guard keeps watch

on this underdressed crowd.

 

They stand still, 

breathless,

as if poised to hear,

with their cool marbre ears,

the stories contained in these modern repositories.

“Si haec lima loqui. Quod si dixerint ad fabulas ?”

(“If only these files could talk. What stories would they tell?”)

 

This week’s Poetry Friday is hosted by Carol Varsalona on her blog Beyond Literacy Link. Stop there to visit some of the other poetic submissions for June 10, 2016.

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.

The Blog Poetry and Popular Culture posted their inquiry about the chapbooks as well:

  • What was the annual press run?
  • Did the press have a list of subscribers committed to buying a set every year, and how much money did Blumenthal and Frost eventually make off of the limited editions?

I did find out on the Poets.org site that Blumenthal printed 275 copies of the first greeting, and the last, “The Prophets Really Prophesy as Mystics, the Commentators Merely by Statistics”  had an edition run of 16,555 copies. There was no collective information on the money exchanged, other than the note that the cards can sometimes be found for purchase on E-bay (example).

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:

Screenshot 2015-12-18 19.02.41

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.

However, I was relieved to find some form of confirmation in quotes from a book: Robert Frost an introduction: poems, reviews, criticism with quotes from Reginald Cook regarding this poem:

  •  “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:


Susan Jeffers on Frost

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:

“….What are the promises?….If I wanted you to know, I would have told you in the poem.”

Therefore, on this post I offer no translations…and no interpretations. Here are discoveries-and at least one correction- on my inquiry journey of the winter poems of the aptly named Frost.

Happy Holidays!

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

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.
“Collectively, then?”
“Mrs. Bennett, all this proves is everyone together is beautiful…and that is the truth!”

What say you, John Keats?

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.Screenshot 2015-06-28 21.25.27

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.”

Crooker’s 15 line poem is featured in From American Life in Poetry: Column 484 and  she begins with a familiar image, how she wrote names in the air using the light of the sparkler:

Sparklers

We’re writing our names with sizzles of light
to celebrate the fourth. I use the loops of cursive,

make a big B like the sloping hills on the west side
of the lake….(cont)
Poem copyright ©2013 by Barbara Crooker from her most recent book of poems, Gold, Cascade Books, 2013.
 
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,
had died….

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.

He told the audience he was “quite proud of” the film, which can be viewed here:  http://newenglandfilm.com/festival_film/2012/pearl

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

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.

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 Red was 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.

Screenshot 2015-03-29 17.56.35

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)

Listening:

Students listen and describe the sound by writing in their journals.

Reading:

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.

Writing:

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!”

  Continue Reading…

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,fence
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,train
Like fearful shadows,
Slowly passes
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 by George 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

Dear Sir:

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_by_Emanuel_Leutze,_MMA-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.

blleding heartSt. Valentine’s Day traces its origins to the priest, Valentine, who was performing Christian marriages when the Roman emperor Claudius II (not to be confused with the more capable Claudius I) ordered his execution. Valentine was arrested, beaten to death with clubs, and then beheaded.
The date? February 14, on or about the year 270. Valentine’s Day was off to a painful start. But the legend of Valentine started to spread with a story of a farewell note for the jailer’s daughter, signed “From Your Valentine.”

The Feast of Lupercalia, a pagan festival of love, held around mid-February, became entwined with the legend of Valentine. Lupercalia had been celebrated Hunger Game style by placing the names of young women in a box, and then pairing up with men who drew their names. The debauchery was halted by Pope Gelasius in the 5th Century.

Edna St. Vincent Millay’s What Lips My Lips Have Kissed, and Where, and Why (Sonnet XLIII) offers the perfect blend of Valentine’s pain and Lupercalia after-party regret. As a plus, it is a sonnet, one of the easiest ways to teach author’s craft: 14 lines of rhymed iambic pentameter that pose a problem and a resolution after the volta or “turn” in the final line(s).

What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why, 
I have forgotten, and what arms have lain 
Under my head till morning; but the rain 
Is full of ghosts tonight, that tap and sigh 
Upon the glass and listen for reply, 
And in my heart there stirs a quiet pain 
For unremembered lads that not again 
Will turn to me at midnight with a cry. 
Thus in winter stands the lonely tree, 
Nor knows what birds have vanished one by one, 
Yet knows its boughs more silent than before: 
I cannot say what loves have come and gone, 
I only know that summer sang in me 
A little while, that in me sings no more.

So, what is the problem? I asked my students every year I taught this poem:

“The problem is she kisses everyone,” say some students.
“The problem is she cannot remember every lover,” say others.
“Was she a little ahead of her time?” asked one who noted her birthdate:
“She’s a slut…” or “She’s a little loose…” or “She’s a man-eater…no, a lad-eater,” they judge collectively.
“The problem is …she’s grown old, and cannot get love the same way,” they conclude.

Their responses have followed this poem’s pattern; from promiscuity to regret, they follow the sequence in the pattern created by Millay.

When I taught any sonnet, I would ask, “Why did the poet choose this format? Why not a lyric poem of four stanzas of 16 lines total?”

Questions like that always puzzled my students; poetry for many of them springs Athena-like from the mind of the poet without regard to form or word craft.  Helping them to understand a poet’s choice leads to appreciating author’s craft, and in this case, Millay’s choice to bare her past using a sonnet.

The sonnet is Petrachan, the octave (first 8) lines with requisite abbaabba ryme scheme. This section is “haunting”, full of “w”s creating a whoooo sound, and to confirm how sound is related to the sense of the poem, the “rain if full of ghosts” that start howling at “midnight with a cry.”

The following part of the poem is the sextet (last 6) lines with the rhyme scheme cdedce dominated by images of winter and summer, the poet as the leafless and lonely tree. “I only know” marks the volta, the turn, into the resolution, where “summer sang” carefree love, but in winter “sings no more.” Two motifs, noise and time, connect the octave with the sextet.

One student suggested that Millay wrote this as sonnet for self-exploration, “Like she put herself on an analyst’s couch and worked her way to a solution.”
Another suggested she was a making poetic confession.
Several saw the poem as a warning, but they all agreed that understanding the structure of the sonnet helped them understand Millay’s message.

“Love hurts,” they said. St. Valentine would agree.
IRONY

Situational Irony

It was situational irony…staring me in the face.

In looking for lessons for poetry month, I came upon a worksheet that asked students to analyze a poem. The poem on the worksheet was “Introduction to Poetry” by former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins.

Below the poem on the worksheet were two columns: “Examples of figurative language” go in the left hand column; “Types of Figurative Language” go into the right hand column.

When I came upon this worksheet in a curriculum guide, I was, at first, amused by the situational irony of this assignment.

But I became bothered once I considered that if this worksheet exists, there probably are others just like it in countless number of curriculum guides across the country.

In the poem’s 16 lines, Collins captures the kind of encounter that language arts teachers too often promote. He is able to highlight the absurdity of “worksheet”  analysis used to prepare students to discuss the elements of poetry without regard for the beauty of the poem itself.

Collins’s opening line sets up this poem as a gift, one worthy of wonder and imaginative speculation for the reader:

I ask them to take a poem   
and hold it up to the light   
like a color slide
or press an ear against its hive.

But Collins is familiar with how literature is “taught” to students. His  attitude towards literary analysis is in the last two lines of the poem. You can hear his speaker’s …what is it….frustration? exasperation? resignation?  in knowing what will happen to his gift of a poem:

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope   
and torture a confession out of it.
They begin beating it with a hose   
to find out what it really means.

So here is the situational irony. The poem that tries to make a case for admiring the beauty of a poem rather than reducing it to its elements to find out what it means is reduced to a worksheet in order to beat a confession out of the poem to find out what it means.

I really like this poem. In his typical gentle melancholy fashion, Collins makes a solid case against “teaching” a poem. I would like to think I could honor that purpose and not use a worksheet to teach Introduction to Poetry.

Accept this apology, Billy Collins.

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