Archives For Elizabeth Bishop

I am seeing patterns.

My recent fascination with looking at crossovers from the Mathematical Practice Standards to the English/ Language Arts classroom has me seeing patterns everywhere. In poetry and in prose, I am seeing applications to the Mathematical Standard #7 where “proficient students look closely to discern a pattern or structure.”

Take, for example, the poem I assigned this morning to the Advanced Placement students. The students are studying how the structure or form of the poem helps to convey the meaning of the poem. The poem under discussion was Elizabeth Bishop’s “Sestina.”

Before reading the poem, however, an understanding of the sestina is in order. This form of poetry is highly structured; 33 lines constructed with five stanzas of six lines each with the final stanza as a tercet. The pattern is in the repetition of the intital six end-words of the first stanza; the last end work in the stanza before becomes the first end word in the following stanza.  The final tercet is called the envoi which contains all of the end-words.

 The form is as follows, where letters represent end-words:

  • Stanza 1: A, B, C, D, E, F
  • Stanza 2: F, A, E, B, D, C
  • Stanza 3: C, F, D, A, B, E
  • Stanza 4: E, C, B, F, A, D
  • Stanza 5: D, E, A, C, F, B
  • Stanza 6: B, D, F, E, C, A
  • Tercet: AB CD EF
    • First line of Envoi: B, E
    • Second line of Envoi: D, C
    • Third line of Envoi: F, A

The pattern above looks to me like sets of algebraic equations, and I mentioned that when I passed out copies of  the sestina by Elizabeth Bishop titled, appropriately enough, “Sestina.”

Listen to the poem:


September rain falls on the house.
In the failing light, the old grandmother
sits in the kitchen with the child
beside the Little Marvel Stove,
reading the jokes from the almanac,
laughing and talking to hide her tears.

(READ THE POEM continued…)

animated houseThis poem always reminds me of some small child’s drawing of a house, in which everything suddenly comes to life, to dance or to hover or to fall. These images seem too animated to place under multiple choice microscope I use to prepare students for the Advanced Placement test. But the new semester has begun, and test preparation is necessary, so we took our time studying the questions that had been prepared in dull, unanimated standardized testing rooms.

The grandmother and the child in the poem are portrayed primarily through descriptions of their:
(a) actions
(b) thoughts
(c) conversation
(d) facial expressions
(e) physical characteristics

Reading the question aloud, I was not entirely sure that Bishop would care about the primacy of her descriptions. Given all the action verbs in each stanza, we settled on “(a) actions,” and we were right.

One of the questions dealt directly with the poem’s pattern:

Which of the following literary devices most significantly contributes to the unity
of the poem?
(a) Use of internal rhyme
(b) Use of epigrammatic expressions
(c) Use of alliteration
(d) Repetition of key words
(e) Repetition of syntactic patterns

A discussion of what syntactical patterns appeared ensued.
“There is dialogue,” one said.
“But, not as a pattern,” another replied.
We settled on (c) repetition of keywords, and we were right. Recognizing the pattern was helping with the questions.

 “There’s a lot of crying in this poem,” remarked a student, “What are ‘equinoctial tears’?”

I explained that knowing what “equinoctial” means, a violent storm of wind and rain occurring at or near the time of the equinox, is important to the understanding of the poem. Bishop’s association of tears with “equinoctial” suggests that there is some emotional storm that is the result of an annual event or anniversary. Once the students knew that, they were able to answer the last question:

 The mood of the poem is best described as
(a) satiric
(b) suspenseful
(c) reproachful
(d) mournful
(e) quizzical

“The repetition of words means there is more emphasis on them,” said a student.
“All that crying,” agreed another student, “Someone must have died.”
We decided on (d) mournful, and again we were right.

In the end, students got about 60% of the questions right on the poem, a high score this early in their practice. They had employed both the Mathematical Practice standard #7 and “looked closely to discern a pattern or structure” as well as the English Language Arts Literacy Anchor Standard #1, “Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.” 

“I liked it,” said a student, as she left.
I know she did not mean the multiple choice questions.
I am sure she meant the poem,“Sestina,” a crossover between English and mathematical practice standards.

A poem with a pattern:

Screenshot 2014-01-24 17.02.08 

Poetry Friday hosted this week by Tara at:

Come join her!

We have been discussing loss a great deal in English class. In order to begin our  study of King Lear, students had to create lists of their 10 favorite things while I played the song “My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music. After they made their lists, I  had them “lose” -one at a time- an item off the list.

“Cross off #7,” I announced with great seriousness.
There were immediate groans from students.
“That’s Starbucks!” one whined.
“My truck!” claimed another, “How will I drive?”
“Cross off #3,” I called out.
More protestations. More groans.
“No way I am crossing off my dog,” another retorted.

Soon, their lists were down to two items each. They stirred uncomfortably; they were unsettled by the mere thought of being separated from things or people they valued.

“Maybe I value my stuff over people too much,” mused one thoughtfully looking over her list.

In this short exercise, my students conveyed some of the same sentiments that are expressed in Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “One Art”:

One Art

by Elizabeth Bishop

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster,

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master. (continued…)

My students were struck by the repetition of the words “master” and “disaster” in the poem, a result of the villanelle* (see below) format. They noted the progression of items lost in the poem: the car keys, the watch, the houses, the cities, rivers, and finally, the loss of continents.

They noted the choice of hyphens and parentheses in the poem. The hyphen at the beginning of the final stanza was a “hesitation” according to one student, “because she doesn’t even want to write the last stanza.”

“How do you know?” I asked.

“Because she has to command herself,” the student replied, “See the parentheses and the words ‘(Write it!)’ on the last line?”

“Why? What is she losing in the last stanza?” I asked. They called out their ideas:
“Her life…”

“So is the art of losing hard to master or not?” I asked them. They thought, and wrote the following in their notebooks:

  • “No one wants to  master losing things…who wants to be a loser, literally?”
  • “She is taking about the loss of physical objects in comparison to the loss of people, and no one wants to lose people…like a friend or lover.”
  • “The speaker is rushing towards the end, speaking faster with ‘shan’t’ and ‘losing’s’ as if things are slipping away, and out of control, until she writes down the losses….and commits them to memory.”
  • “She is trying to convince herself.”

Elizabeth Bishop’s poem brought my class back to the many themes we had been discussing in our unit on King Lear. We had spent several classes focused on the tragedy of a king who in dividing his kingdom, upends the order of the realm. In the process, he loses his daughters, his knights (protectors), his friends, his mind, and finally, his life. The students concluded that Lear was no “master of disaster.”

“Pretty cool that 19 lines can say almost the same thing as Shakespeare’s five act play,” concluded one student as he wrapped up his books  to leave.

Pretty cool, Elizabeth Bishop.

*villanelle: The villanelle has 19 lines, 5 stanzas of three lines and 1 stanza of four lines with two rhymes and two refrains. The 1st, then the 3rd lines alternate as the last lines of stanzas 2, 3, and 4, and then stanza 5 (the end) as a couplet. It is usually written in tetrameter (4 feet) or pentameter.