Archives For Poetry Friday

I planned a “Poetry Passion Smack-down” for Valentine’s Day 2014, but the Nor’easter that roared across the state of Connecticut kept the school shuttered over an extended President’s Day weekend. So, here is a chance for you, the reader, to be in the class and vote.

The plan was to pit 16th Century poet Christopher Marlowe against 21st Century Pop Star Justin Bieber in a “wooing” contest. The question?: Which poem speaks to you?

Each artist tries to persuade his beloved of his desire using the same two arguments:

  1. I’ll buy you anything;
  2. If you agree, we’ll spend lots of time dancing and singing.

Each artist also sounds a bit desperate. Marlowe’s “Passionate Shepherd” escalates his promises, maybe because of her lack of response to each line. His intentions intensify from one quatrain to the next, offering gifts from “beds of roses” to “silver dishes for thy meat.” One wonders, however, how likely such riches would be if one married a shepherd, passionate or not.

Bieber, on the other hand, works the pity angle, pleading that he will be “going down, down, down, down” because his “…first love won’t be around.” To establish the level of his desperation, he drags in his friend and rap artist Ludacris who makes the metaphorical connection between love and a caffeine rush from Starbucks, and who suggests there’s a headache coming from caffeine withdrawal.

But let us allow the poets to entreat their own cases:

First up, Christopher Marlowe making his petition from “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love”:

The Passionate Shepherd to His Love

Come live with me and be my Love,
And we will all the pleasures prove
That hills and valleys, dale and field,
And all the craggy mountains yield.

There will we sit upon the rocks
And see the shepherds feed their flocks,
By shallow rivers, to whose falls
Melodious birds sing madrigals.

There will I make thee beds of roses
And a thousand fragrant posies,
A cap of flowers, and a kirtle
Embroider’d all with leaves of myrtle.

A gown made of the finest wool
Which from our pretty lambs we pull,
Fair linèd slippers for the cold,
With buckles of the purest gold.

A belt of straw and ivy buds
With coral clasps and amber studs:
And if these pleasures may thee move,
Come live with me and be my Love.

Thy silver dishes for thy meat
As precious as the gods do eat,
Shall on an ivory table be
Prepared each day for thee and me.

The shepherd swains shall dance and sing
For thy delight each May-morning:
If these delights thy mind may move,
Then live with me and be my Love.

Next up, The Bieber’s plea, with his catchy refrains that are easily remembered in a song that was the first ever to go 12-times platinum. They may be simple lyrics, but there is no doubting the economic riches that came with this hit:

Baby, Baby

You know you love me, I know you care
Just shout whenever, and I’ll be there
You are my love, you are my heart
And we will never ever ever be apart

Are we an item? Girl, quit playing
We’re just friends, what are you saying?
Say there’s another and look right in my eyes
My first love broke my heart for the first time
And I was like…

Baby, baby, baby oooh
Like baby, baby, baby nooo
Like baby, baby, baby oooh
I thought you’d always be mine (mine)

Baby, baby, baby oooh
Like baby, baby, baby nooo
Like baby, baby, baby oooh
I thought you’d always be mine (mine)

Oh, for you I would have done whatever
And I just can’t believe we ain’t together
And I wanna play it cool, but I’m losin’ you
I’ll buy you anything, I’ll buy you any ring
And I’m in pieces, baby fix me
And just shake me ’til you wake me from this bad dream
I’m going down, down, down, down
And I just can’t believe my first love won’t be around

And I’m like
Baby, baby, baby oooh
Like baby, baby, baby nooo
Like baby, baby, baby oooh
I thought you’d always be mine (mine)

Baby, baby, baby oooh
Like baby, baby, baby nooo
Like baby, baby, baby oooh
I thought you’d always be mine (mine)

Luda! When I was 13, I had my first love,
There was nobody that compared to my baby
And nobody came between us or could ever come above
She had me going crazy, oh, I was star-struck,
She woke me up daily, don’t need no Starbucks.
She made my heart pound, it skipped a beat when I see her in the street and
At school on the playground but I really wanna see her on the weekend.
She knows she got me dazing cause she was so amazing
And now my heart is breaking but I just keep on saying…

Baby, baby, baby oooh
Like baby, baby, baby nooo
Like baby, baby, baby oooh
I thought you’d always be mine (mine)

Baby, baby, baby oooh
Like baby, baby, baby nooo
Like baby, baby, baby oooh
I thought you’d always be mine (mine)

I’m gone (Yeah Yeah Yeah, Yeah Yeah Yeah)
Now I’m all gone (Yeah Yeah Yeah, Yeah Yeah Yeah)
Now I’m all gone (Yeah Yeah Yeah, Yeah Yeah Yeah)
Now I’m all gone (gone, gone, gone…)
I’m gone

To be sure his public understood the lyrics, Bieber shared the message of the song with MTV News, “I’m chasing her around, trying to get her, and she’s kind of playing hard to get, but I’m persistent. I keep going.”

Over four hundred years earlier, Marlowe said much the same; he did not have the advantage of MTV to explain.

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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!

The villanelle is a nineteen-line poem with two repeating rhymes and two refrains. The form originated in France in the late 1800s, and the structure is comprised of five tercets followed by a quatrain. The most famous villanelle is by the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night.”

Do not go gentle into that good night, 

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

I recently taught this poem to a class of Advanced Placement English Literature seniors who after some discussion were able to determine audience (“And you, my father..”), the form of address (imperative “Do not go“) and the poem’s paradox (“Curse, bless, me now“). They were intrigued by the most striking element of the poem, the repetition of the lines “Do not go gentle into that good night” (1, 6, 12, 18) and “Rage, rage against the dying of the light” (lines 3, 5,15,19). The ferocity of Thomas’s repeated exhortations increase because of the structure of the villanelle.

Structure matters. Structure, that “fundamental, tangible or intangible notion referring to the recognition, observation, nature, and permanence of patterns and relationships of entities” is not limited to poetry. Structure is in all the arts, and in all the sciences.

Structure matters in mathematics. Common Core Mathematic Practice Standard #7 requires students to:

Look for and make use of structure.

This standard details that “proficient students look closely to discern a pattern or structure,” and suggests, “young students, for example, might notice that three and seven more is the same amount as seven and three more.” Promoting this practice standard beyond the math classroom will have students noticing structure in other classes in every grade level. Students will be better equipped to recognize and use the structure of the periodic table or the color spectrum; they will be be prepared to identify and to employ patterns in pronouncing vowels and consonants. Students will be empowered to discover coordinates in longitude and latitude or to categorize the ingredients in food groups.

Recognizing and using structure is the critical academic skill that can help a student unravel both a problem in geometry or the complexity of a poetic structure like the villanelle. Once they understand the structure, they can evaluate the poet’s purposeful choice such as the one made by Dylan Thomas who selected the villanelle for this powerful poem.

The Common Core’s Mathematic Practice Standard #7 is in math and poetry. Note the same letters MP? Pattern? PossiblyCoincidence? Maybe not!

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Best two words in winter? “Snow Day”.

Yes. I will look back in mid-June and see the extension of school days to meet mandatory requirements, and I will sigh. I  might question the wisdom of school administrators who would keep students cooped up in classrooms on warm sunny summer afternoons, but even then I will still admit, I love a snow day.

snowremovalThe outside lights were on all night so I could check on the progress of snow mounting on the barn roof. I could hear the town’s plows, chained tires rattling, working throughout the night. My eyeglasses were handy so that I could grab them and read the small print of scrolling school closings on the TV screen, but this morning I did not need them since my school district thoughtfully sent a robo-call.

I am not surprised that one of my favorite poets, Billy Collins, has a poem titled “Snow Day” where he expresses his appreciation of weather-induced holidays. In stanzas 4-6, he mimics the listings of school closings on the radio:

But for now I am a willing prisoner in this house,
a sympathizer with the anarchic cause of snow.
I will make a pot of tea
and listen to the plastic radio on the counter,
as glad as anyone to hear the news
that the Kiddie Corner School is closed,
the Ding-Dong School, closed.
the All Aboard Children’s School, closed,
the Hi-Ho Nursery School, closed,
along with—some will be delighted to hear—
the Toadstool School, the Little School,
Little Sparrows Nursery School,
Little Stars Pre-School, Peas-and-Carrots Day School
the Tom Thumb Child Center, all closed,
and—clap your hands—the Peanuts Play School.
                    …read more from “Snow Day”
Sailing Alone Around the Room: New and Selected Poems (New York: Random House, 2001).

I have written about Collins’s poetry (see links below) several times in this blog for Poetry Friday. His lyrics run parallel to my experiences of growing up, so there is a sense of nostalgia, a familiarity, when I read his poems. His poetry is accessible to all grade levels, but it is his wry humor in his observations on the universal human experience that makes me want to share him with students. So much of literature can be serious, or downright depressing, that I am grateful, even a little giddy, to have several books of Collins’s poetry on my shelf ready for an opportune moment.

“Look,” I will say, “here’s a funny poem about Emily Dickinson!” or “Hey, want me to read a comic take on the elements of a sonnet?

This snow day is one more excuse to share Collins’s poetry with others- whatever the climate. And for just a day, I can pity those in those waking up in sunny Southern California who are going to school. They may have the warm sun on their toes sticking out of their sandals, but they will never know the pleasure of warm toes stretching out under warm blankets just as there is the announcement of a school cancellation….to roll over…and to hit the snooze button.

Sleep in. It’s a snow day.

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Screen Shot 2013-12-05 at 11.08.36 PMThe sonorous voice delivering the keynote address at the Conference on English Leadership (CEL) on Sunday, November 24, 2013, belonged to the poet Robert Pinsky. He was there to promote his latest book Singing School, which is promoted as, “A bold new approach to writing (and reading) poetry based on great poetry of the past.” This collection of 80 poems includes selections from  Sappho to Allen Ginsberg, Shakespeare to Emily Dickinson. In an interview on NPR,  Pinsky explained that the poems for the book were selected “because of the music of the language, and not from the meaning of the words.” In the interview he explained:

“Even just the cadence of pauses,” he explains. “I stop. I think. I wait. I wait a little longer. Then less. … Something like that generates the poem. And for me, if anything I do is any good, it’s carried by that kind of cadence or melody.”

To prove his point, Pinsky filled his address with reciting lines of poetry, once challenging the crowd of English teachers in attendance to identify the poet; “That was Robert Frost, your New England poet,” he gently chastised when no one responded correctly. (To give you a taste of the experience, you can hear Pinskey read Frost’s poem “Mowing” courtesy of Slate Magazine by clicking here.)

As we listened, I heard someone remark that Pinsky could make a parking ticket sound lyrical.

Screen Shot 2013-11-29 at 2.27.16 PM

Pinsky’s voice was not the only one reciting poems in his keynote. He turned to the presentation screen to show videos from the Favorite Poem Project website. This project  is “dedicated to celebrating, documenting and encouraging poetry’s role in Americans’ lives.”

Pinsky founded the project when he served as the 39th Poet Laureate of the United States, from 1997-2000. The Favorite Poem Project website details how,

“During the one-year open call for submissions, 18,000 Americans wrote to the project volunteering to share their favorite poems — Americans from ages 5 to 97, from every state, of diverse occupations, kinds of education and backgrounds.

Pinsky purposely selected a video to show as a tribute to the City of Boston, host of the CEL. The selected video featured John Ulrich, a student from South Boston, MA, reading Gwendolyn Brooks’s  “We Real Cool”:

We Real Cool
by Gwendolyn Brooks


We real cool. We
Left school. We

Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We

Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We

Jazz June. We
Die soon.

Each video available on the Favorite Poem Project’s website begins with the reader’s reason for choosing the a particular poem. Ulrich provided a touching admission of how Brooks’s short poem reminds him about several childhood friends he lost to suicide. He read her 1950s tribute to the players in a pool hall in the South Side of Chicago with a heavy South Boston accent twice. The defiance on his face during the second reading is visible in the video.

I have taught this poem in my classes, and inevitably one of the more musical students, usually a drummer, will notice, “Hey, this is written in jazz!” The brevity of Brooks’s verse belies the amount of discussion the poem generates for students, particularly with the ending line, “We/ Die soon.”

Pinsky shared other videos: Nick and the Candlestick by Sylvia Plath read by Seph Rodney and Poem by Frank O’Hara read by Richard Samuel. The production quality of these videos garnered admiration from the crowd.

“Are you still taking entries for this project?” one teacher asked.
“We may be,” replied Pinsky.

His final comment sent a ripple that went through the audience as people considered, “What poem could I read for the project?”

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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.

The rain set early in to-night,
The sullen wind was soon awake,
It tore the elm-tops down for spite,
And did its worst to vex the lake:

In other words, “It was a dark and stormy night.” Thus begins the poet’s Robert Browning’s dark and disturbing dramatic monologue, Porphyria’s Lover, a portrait of a madman that is wonderful to read with students around Halloween. I usually use an audio recording that I can play, and I pause the recording twice as we listen.

The unnamed narrator of the poem sits in a cold cabin, a rendezvous with his lover, Porphyria, who “glides in” as she

…shut the cold out and the storm,
And kneeled and made the cheerless grate
Blaze up, and all the cottage warm;

The narrator’s isolation in the gloomy setting takes on the tone of an illicit romance as Porphyria removes her wet clothing in order to

… let the damp hair fall,
And, last, she sat down by my side
And called me.

But when the recalcitrant narrator does not respond, Porphyria increases her ardent attentions

She put my arm about her waist,
And made her smooth white shoulder bare
And all her yellow hair displaced,
And, stooping, made my cheek lie there,
And spread, o’er all, her yellow hair,
Murmuring how she loved me-

Porphyria’s devotion to the narrator is extreme, expressed in his words “passion”  and “worshipped.” He acknowledges that she could “give herself to me forever” even as she had “come through wind and rain” for this meeting.  This “surprise”

Made my heart swell, and still it grew
While I debated what to do.
That moment she was mine, mine, fair,
Perfectly pure and good:

The narrator revels in this epiphany; Porphyria’s devotion is at its zenith. His reaction seems predictable to my students, and they eagerly anticipate  the romantic tumble they have expected since Porphyria entered the cabin. After all, the word “lover” is in the title.

Yet, the next five lines take a decidedly different turn. The narrator dispassionately admits,

…I found
A thing to do, and all her hair
In one long yellow string I wound
Three times her little throat around,
And strangled her.

Here is where I pause the recording as my students take a moment to comprehend what they have read. Their reactions generally follow this script:

“Wait a minute!”
“What did he do?”
“He ...killed her?”
What is going on here?”

I direct them back to the poem so they can hear the voice of the narrator explain his actions, and his explanation is chilling. “No pain felt she;” the narrator continues, as if to assure my students, “I am quite sure she felt no pain.” As if to prove his judgment, he opens her closed eyes, loosens the hair from her throat, and places a “burning kiss” upon her cheek. Again, the students react in shock:

“This guy is sick!”
“He KISSED her??”
“Why did he do it?”

Why did he do it indeed? The narrator calmly continues to explain his reasons as Porphyria’s head, limp and lifeless, leans upon his shoulder,

The smiling rosy little head,
So glad it has its utmost will,
That all it scorned at once is fled,
And I, its love, am gained instead!

The narrator’s twisted logic in claiming Porphyria’s life in a moment of pure love is so perverse that students are horrified. The final shocker comes as the narrator confidently claims that the murder of Porphyria was something desirable,

Her darling one wish would be heard.
And thus we sit together now,
And all night long we have not stirred,
And yet God has not said a word! –

“He’s a monster.”
“He’s crazy.”
“He is insane.”

Browning’s poem that chronicles a deadly obsession is an excellent addition to the Halloween literary repertoire. The high interest monologue engages students in the “close reading” required by the Common Core.

A close reading can be accomplished by dividing the poem into sections and asking students to identify if the line can be placed into categories:

  • establishing setting
  • poetic technique (metaphor, personification)
  • character development

Blonde hair!

Students are encouraged to make adjustments based on their group discussions or to create their own categories.  Once they have categorized the lines, they create large posters that “illustrate” the lines literally or symbolically. They draw or use images that they find online or use photos; then they share the posters which are hung around the room and explain how these details serve the author’s purpose in creating an unforgettable character who is a madman.

Come this Halloween, if you are looking for a poem to send shivers down the spines of your students, try Robert Browning’s “Porphyria’s Lover”.

Try not to think that this frightening portrayal of insanity was created by the husband of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, famous for the poem “How Do I Love Thee? Let Me Count the Ways.”

You can save that sonnet for Valentine’s Day!

Twelve years ago, I was teaching my Advanced Placement English class when word came that a plane had crashed into one of the Twin Towers in New York City. Several hours later, all classes were abandoned in the high school. A line of students formed in the office in order to call and know if family members who worked in NYC were okay.  Our school media specialist hooked up televisions around the walls of the library, and students sat on the floor in the middle; everyone was silent and somber. Teachers and students mingled together, some with arms around each other, watching the catastrophic events on that beautiful September morning when the blue skies belied the carnage happening less than 100 miles away.

In December that year, I took those same AP students to see Othello performed at The Public Theatre in downtown NYC. We arrived early enough, so I suggested to the other chaperones that we have the bus take us down to Ground Zero. We reasoned that students should have a chance to witness history.

We travelled downtown, past the business-as-usual activity of stores and heavy traffic. We turned down a side street when the “shroud” suddenly came into view. The mangled frame was eerily illuminated, bending over the dust created by the workers who were working late into the night dismantling the remaining structures of the two buildings. We got off the bus and walked along the chain link fences that were covered with sheets and banners bearing the names of those killed and the sentiments of others who had come down to witness the aftermath.

A policeman approached us. I stepped out to explain our presence, but he turned to the students and asked, “Are you here to sing for us?”
The students stood dumbfounded. Finally, one choked out a sincere response, “No, but we will if you want us to.”
He hugged her with his big arms. “It’s ok, honey,” he smiled sadly, “just coming here is enough.”
There was no question that Shakespeare’s tragedy took a backseat that night.

This year’s graduating class of high school seniors is the last class that experienced 9/11 while in school. They are members of the last class that shared their emotions with teachers who struggled that day to explain the unexplainable. They were in kindergarten that fall. Chances are they had no idea what was happening except that their teachers may have been agitated, emotional, or distracted that day. Throughout the school year, they may have asked their teachers questions about what happened. In all likelihood, their teachers struggled with prepared responses.

The events of 9/11 have been etched indelibly in the hearts and minds of teachers and students who shared that experience. Now, that last group is graduating school. In the future, students will learn about the events of that day in schools in various classes and through a variety of mediums, but they will not be able to say, “I remember, I was in school when…”.

One way they will learn about the impact of 9/11 is through poetry, and there are many poems written from different perspectives. Billy Collins’s poem “The Names” captures the loss of 2,763 individuals in the Twin Towers by using the names of 26, one for each letter of the alphabet, with the exception of the letter X -“(let X stand, if it can, for the ones unfound)”.

Television’s PBS invited Collins to read “The Names” on a broadcast September 12, 2012. The video and full text of the poem are on the PBS website.

BILLY COLLINS, poet (speaking): “The Names,” for the victims of September 11th and their survivors.

Yesterday, I lay awake in the palm of the night.

A soft rain stole in, unhelped by any breeze,

And when I saw the silver glaze on the windows,

I started with A, with Ackerman, as it happened,

Then Baxter and Calabro,

Davis and Eberling, names falling into place

As droplets fell through the dark. (continued on Billy Collins’s website)

This graduating Class of 2014 is the last where teachers and students were together when the world changed. The images and the aftermath were part of their school experience in 2001. Together, they learned the fate of so many, as Collins says,

Names wheeled into the dim warehouse of memory.

So many names, there is barely room on the walls of the heart.

Continue Reading…

Poetry Friday: Invictus

July 19, 2013 — 4 Comments

The film Invictus tells the story of how in 1995 Nelson Mandela enlisted the help of South Africa’s National Rugby team in order to unite the country and end prejudices associated with Apartheid. The film stars Morgan Freeman as Mandela and Matt Damon as South African rugby star Francois Pienaar, but this is more than a sports film. One mise-en-scene features a visit to the real Robben’s Island Prison, where Mandela was held as a political prisoner for 27 years.

The film footage shows the cell where Mandela served his sentence before his release in February 1990. As the camera pans around the prison, the voice of Freeman recites William Ernest Henley’s poem Invictus

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

I am familiar enough with the poem that I do not need to look it up or “cut and paste” the text.
I can recite this poem cold.
So can the grade 12 seniors at Brookfield High School in CT (my tenure 1999-2008) who traditionally memorized the poem and recited its 16 lines for an English grade.

The “Invictus Day” tradition was begun to honor an English teacher who had passed away; the tradition was sustained by her colleague, Carole Smith, who would prepare “Invictus” sheets for students to carry with them to practice. A rubric was on the back that provided selected teachers a rubric to grade the quality of the recitation: A for a spectacular recitation (with feeling; no errors); B for a good recitation (one error allowed); C for an average recitation (errors allowed). A student had only one shot for an A; a teacher would sign off on the quality, but if there was a single flub, the highest grade that could be achieved was a B. Fortunately, the weight of the “Invictus” grade was nominal, however, the honor of getting an A for recitation was an achievement regardless of weight.

“Invictus Day” was an unannounced event held usually in late October or early November. Members of the faculty wore black, and seniors went scurrying to their lockers for their sheets. In Harry Potter-esque fashion, teachers would point at a senior with a finger and command, “INVICTUS”! The senior would be required to drop everything, hand over the sheet, and begin reciting, “Out of the night that covers me…”

There was a great deal of cowering, creeping, lurking,  prowling, skulking, and stalking on “Invictus Day”…on the part of both students and faculty. Some students took full advantage of the dramatic encounters by shouting the poem at the top of their lungs or climbing on tables or desks to recite for a crowd of delighted underclassmen. Others clung together to recite chorally, while the more timid seniors were given the opportunity to pull a teacher aside to recite and “get this over with!” Every year, a student would sing the poem to a familiar tune; one year, a student had a completely original melody with back-up singers. Once a student was graded, or “invicted”, he or she could show the sheet as a pass. Once invicted, a student could not be forced to recite again.

My favorite story of “Invictus Day” was of a one student who advertised his plans for presenting the poem. He prepared to recite the poem holding a heavy plaster skull, a la Hamlet. Hearing this, I convinced the members of the faculty not to invict him. The idea that he would carry the skull for several days was amusing to the faculty and to the student body. November came and went, and so did December and January. By late March, the student was pleading for someone to “invict me” so that he could rid himself of the skull he had been toting for months. Fortunately, he had been cast as a lead in the school musical. One warm April night, at the end of the final night’s production, he ran forward to take his well-deserved bow. As he stood up, I stepped out from the wings and onto the stage and cried, “Invictus!” There was a split second of shock in his eyes, but he bounded backstage and seconds later reappeared with the skull to recite the poem to a full house. There was a standing ovation; his performance for both the musical and the poem deserved the audience’s applause.

The obvious message of the poem is the control of one’s fate, and that makes the poem perfectly suited for seniors who will be steering their own destinies once they graduate. They may go to colleges, training schools, the military, or they make seek their futures in other pursuits, but who they will be after the thirteen years of mandated education is largely up to them. Holding the poem’s message in their heads, and in their hearts, can serve to guide them through rough waters of adulthood.

Mandela The same could be said for the use of the poem in the film Invictus. Four years after his release from his 27 years in Robben Island’s prison, Nelson Mandela was elected president of South Africa. He had made great sacrifices in bringing the horrors of Apartheid to an end, but his belief in a united South Africa had prevailed.

This past Thursday, July 18, 2013, Mandela turned 95 years old.

Happy Birthday, Mr. Mandela, your life story is affirmation of Henley’s message:

I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

“Want to know the shortest poem in the world?” I asked my Advanced Placement students when they were overwhelmed with the epic poem Paradise Lost by John Milton. I wanted to use a related poem to demonstrate a close reading, one of the skills students should have in according to the Common Core Standards for English/Language Arts, but they needed a little fun.

“It’s called Fleas.”

I wrote the poem on the board:



That’s it. Three words…actually two if you consider the contraction “had’em” as one word.

The poem attribution is generally given to Ogden Nash (1902-1971) although there are some who credit Shel Silverstein (1931-1999). An article by Eric Shackle, however, found the originator of the poem was Strickland Gillilan (1869-1954). The article notes:

“At last, after searching dozens of websites, we discovered the identity of the mystery poet. It was revealed on a US National Park Service website describing Mount Rainer National Park, in west-central Washington state. The Mt Rainier Nature News Notes of July 1, 1927 contained this brief item, tucked away as an end-of-column filler:

We like poetry but we cannot stand it in too large doses. The following, which according to its author, Strickland Gillilan, is the shortest poem existing, deals with the antiquity of “bugs”. It runs thus: Adam had em!'”

Authorship clarified, I asked my students, “So, what could you write about this poem?”

They stared at me. Surely I was joking…what kind of discussion or essay could a poem of this length generate?

After several minutes, however, here is what they came up with structurally:

  • iambic (duet?)
  • rhyming couplet
  • rhyme (am/em)
  • perfect internal rhyme (ad)
  • there is contraction
  • no punctuation
  • uneven number of letters; shorter first line

Here is what they came up on the topic of fleas:

    • Scientists have discovered that fleas probably fed on dinosaurs
    • Fleas feed on warm vertebrates’ blood
    • Fleas need Adam; Adam does not need fleas

Here is what they came up with figuratively:

  • the name in the first line establishes context
  • literary allusion: Adam from the Bible, the first man in literature
  • Eve was not mentioned, so the setting may be earlier than Genesis 2:20
  • the tone is casual and comical
  • the mood is humorous
  • Adam has fleas; the fleas don’t have Adam
  • the title is critical to the understanding of the message

Unanswered questions they had on the poem:

  • Could there have ever been just one flea?
  • Does Adam bathe?
  • Is the past tense verb “had” mean that he has cleaned up his act?


Their conclusion?

  • Close reading three words yields a fun discussion;
  • Concise poetry captures the relationship between ancient man and an ancient insect pest.

Fleas– the world’s shortest poem!