Archives For poetry

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The city had withdrawn into itself  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 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 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!

Yesterday, Scott, the social studies teacher, brought an eighth grader into my office to recite a poem. He had arrived unannounced, and the young girl looked uncomfortable standing in front of teachers and 12th grade students. But, she had Scott by her side, and he encouraged her with small nudge. She took a breath, and holding a copy of the poem before her, she began to recite:

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.

No one said anything after she muffled the last line, and there was an awkward pause.  So, I asked her to read the last line again, and Scott pointed to the last sentence in the poem.

“Start here,” he told her, and she reread: If ye break faith with us who die /We shall not sleep, though poppies grow/In Flanders fields.

Only then did we all clap. Her relief was evident, and I noted just as they left, “That last line is the most important in the poem.”

Equally important is what Scott did when he supported this student in having her practice reciting a poem aloud to a group of people. Moreover, this Memorial Day weekend is the appropriate time to hear this particular poem read aloud.

Screenshot 2014-05-23 09.48.29

autographed copy from Arlington National Cemetery website

 In Flanders Field was composed by John McCrae, a poet and a physician who served in the Canadian army in World War I.

The most common account of the poem’s origin is that McCrae was sitting in the back of an ambulance after the Battle of Ypes in Belgium, when he scripted the poem on May 3, 1915, as a eulogy for his close friend Alexis Helmer, who was killed during the battle the day before.

There are other accounts that McCrae was unhappy with the poem and crumpled the paper before it was retrieved by another soldier who was so impressed that he committed it to memory. Another story is that McCrae had worked on the poem for months after the Battle of Ypes. Most stories about the poem agree, however, that McCrae was struck by how quickly poppies quickly grew around the graves of those who died, and he used this striking image that dominates the poem.

So powerful was this image of a brilliant red poppy that American professor Moina Michael promoted the wearing of red poppies year-round to honor the soldiers who died in the war.

By 1922, the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) adopted the poppy as its official memorial, and when fresh poppies could not be found to sell as tributes, artificial poppies were made by veterans groups. These poppies are called “buddy poppies” and, according to the information on the VFW website, the proceeds from their sale,buddy poppy

“provides compensation to the veterans who assemble the poppies, provides financial assistance in maintaining state and national veterans’ rehabilitation and service programs and partially supports the VFW National Home for orphans and widows of our nation’s veterans.”

I appreciate Scott encouraging his student to share the poem. Hearing her read, “If ye break faith with us who die/We shall not sleep” reminded us listening to remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country. The image of those red poppies, those blooming on Flanders Field or those buddy poppies taken from the hand of a veteran this coming Memorial Day, remind us as well.

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On the Studio 360 website, the following photo of a poem written by a 1st grader is posted as the best poem to celebrate National Poetry Month 2014. I would agree that there is something universally appealing about this child’s observations that were created with considerable attention to the way words sound…



We did the soft wind.
We danst slowly. We swrld
Aroned. We danst soft.
We lisin to the mozik.
We danst to the mozik. 
We made personal space. 

The poem by this 1st grader is strikingly similar to Gwendolyn Brook’s short poem. She also pays considerable attention to the way words sound:



We real cool. We
Left school. We

Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We

Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We

Jazz June. We
Die soon.

My students have always commented on the inferences that Brooks creates in her eight lines of verse in characterizing the seven pool players. They write about the pool players’ attitudes and their fatalistic approach to life. My students also comment on what is missing in drawing their conclusions. They are satisfied with providing interpretations in the “spaces” of the poem, filling in their own ideas what is not explicit. They agree with T.S. Eliot’s statement: “poetry communicates before it is understood.”

The unnamed 1st grade poet of the poem above communicates the slow, swirling, soft relationship between music and dance in seven short statements on six lines of verse. What does it matter if the reader may never understand if the personal space for the poet is made because of the room needed for the dance or the space made personal by the dance ? In filling in the “space” of the 1st grader’s poem, I like to think that line was probably added because of a teacher’s repeated plea to a room of dancing 6 year- olds:


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April is Poetry Month. What should you do about this?
Take advice from Sir Philip Sidney and “Look in thy heart and write.”

Sidney composed “An Apology for Poetry”  (Defence of Poesie) in 1575, and in this essay maintains poetry combines the liveliness of history with philosophy, and this combination is more effective than either history or philosophy in inspiring readers. According to Sidney, poetry acts in a way that “awakens and enlarges the mind itself by rendering it the receptacle of a thousand unapprehended combinations of thought.”

Sidney himself was an accomplished poet who wrote a sequence of 108 English sonnets known as “Astrophil and Stella” where Astrophil is the star lover, and Stella is his star.

The first sonnet in the sequence sets the conceit; the meaning embedded in the last line (bolded):

Loving in truth, and fain in verse my love to show
That she (dear She) might take some pleasure of my pain:
Pleasure might cause her read, reading might make her know,
Knowledge might pity win, and pity grace obtain;
I sought fit words to paint the blackest face of woe,
Studying inventions fine, her wits to entertain:
Oft turning others’ leaves, to see if thence would flow
Some fresh and fruitful showers upon my sun-burn’d brain.
But words came halting forth, wanting Invention’s stay,
Invention, Nature’s child, fled step-dame Study’s blows,
And others’ feet still seem’d but strangers in my way.
Thus, great with child to speak, and helpless in my throes,
Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite–
“Fool,” said my Muse to me, “look in thy heart and write.”

writeMeaning? Stop thinking about writing a poem and start writing a poem. Your heart will guide your pen.

So, what to write during Poetry Month?

  • Write a poem and share on a website. There are hundreds of sites. (ex:
  • Write about your favorite poem and share the poem.
  • Write about a lesson on poetry you remember.
  • Write about a lesson on poetry you taught.
  • Write a post for #PoetryFriday, a platform where poets and readers of poetry share their writing.  Each week, a blogger is tasked with rounding up the #PoetryFriday posts around the blogosphere and hosting posts on his or her website.

As Sidney suggests, the best way to know what you think about poetry is to sit and write about poetry.
It’s April.
It’s Poetry Month.
Your muse is impatiently waiting.


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The amazing artwork in the hallways of the middle school was created by….(wait for it)…math classes!

Last week, Ms. Nihan, the 8th math teacher posted drawings created by students who were studying a geometrical pattern based on the work of a 5th Century Greek mathematician, Theodorous of Cyrene. He developed a pattern called the Spiral of Theodorous, a square root spiral composed of contiguous right triangles.

The artwork on the walls represents a Common Core Mathematical Standard:

CCSS.Math.Practice.MP7 Look for and make use of structure.

“Mathematically proficient students look closely to discern a pattern or structure.” This standard can also represent poetry patterns. Rhythm, rhyme scheme, repetition are all part of poetic patterns and structure that proficient students in English should use in close reading.

Therefore, a tribute to a few of student drawings is in order; each is matched with a poem with a distinct pattern.

First up, a “lullaby” with a rhyme scheme and refrain pattern  (a-a-a-refrain-b-b-b-refrain).  Like “Rock a Bye Baby”, this poem is more frightening than comforting, as the narrator clearly plans to place the child in a hazardous area!

photo (9)


Samuel Hoffenstein (1890-1947)

Yes, I’ll take you to the zoo,
To see the yak, the bear, the gnu,
And that’s the place where I’ll leave you–
Sleep, little baby!
You’ll see the lion in a rage,
The rhino, none the worse for age;
You’ll see the inside of a cage–
Sleep, little baby!

Next up, a quick tribute to the flamingo. This is an offering with the pattern of iambic tetrameter and a single rhyme (glum/gum).

photo (1)

The Flamingo Poem

Richard Medrington

Flamingos dress in fetching pink
can be rather glum, 

Their legs being made of plastic tubes
And bits of chewing gum.

from An Absird Book of Burds (Edinburgh: Puppet State, 2003)

The next poem is a humorous offering titled “X-ray” with two quatrains, each containing one rhyme (Jones/bones; sight/night):

photo (10)


by Joan Horton

“This is your x-ray,”

Said young Doctor Jones.

As he held up a picture

And showed me my bones.

(continued here)

In making these extraordinary drawings, students had to follow a specific pattern for the Spiral of Theodorus:

The spiral is started with an isosceles right triangle, with each leg having unit length. Another right triangle is formed, an automedian right triangle with one leg being the hypotenuse of the prior (with length √2) and the other leg having length of 1; the length of the hypotenuse of this second triangle is √3. The process then repeats; the ith triangle in the sequence is a right triangle with side lengths √i and 1, and with hypotenuse √i + 1.

Screenshot 2014-02-05 09.23.35 (wikipedia)

The original rendering by Theodorus is remarkably like a seashell, so here is an Amy Lowell poem matched with a seashell and its inhabitant, a small hermit crab. This poem has similarities to a Sonnetina Due-a 10 line poem with rhyming couplets. The poem also has a repeated “sing-song” line “Sea Shell, Sea Shell“:

photo (13)

Sea Shell

Amy Lowell

Sea Shell, Sea Shell,
Sing me a song, O Please!
A song of ships, and sailor men,
And parrots, and tropical trees,
Of islands lost in the Spanish Main
Which no man ever may find again,
Of fishes and corals under the waves,
And seahorses stabled in great green caves.
Sea Shell, Sea Shell,
Sing of the things you know so well. 

Some of the other drawings are seen here:

Patterns in math meet patterns in poetry, and I am happy to report that no square roots were harmed in this enterprise…Thanks to Ms. Nihan and the 8th grade practitioners of patterns!

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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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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!


Photo on Sunken Garden Poetry website:

Last Wednesday night, the rain held off for Sunken Garden Poetry at Hill-Stead Museum in Farmington, Connecticut, and the largest crowd of the year heard the former United States Poet Laureate (2001–2003) Billy Collins read his poetry for a little more than an hour. His casual demeanor and the context of the garden setting, peopled with picnickers, contributed to a informal, intimate listening experience, a tone he tries to strike with his poetry:

 “I have one reader in mind, someone who is in the room with me, and who I’m talking to, and I want to make sure I don’t talk too fast, or too glibly. Usually I try to create a hospitable tone at the beginning of a poem. Stepping from the title to the first lines is like stepping into a canoe. A lot of things can go wrong.” (

Based on the reaction from the crowd, his concerns about a wrong step was unfounded. Since most of his poems are fairly short, he was able to offer a broad range of topics and observations. There were mice, glistening bars of soap, ill-fitting dinner jackets, a few “frog-less” haikus, and commentaries on adolescent behavior. Screen Shot 2013-08-09 at 2.57.00 PM

He began the reading with You Reader:

I wonder how you are going to feel
when you find out
that I wrote this instead of you

He followed that up with the hilarious Another Reason Why I Don’t Keep a Gun in the House where the opening line explains “another reason why”…

The neighbors’ dog will not stop barking.

Over the course of the evening, Collins read his poems to the appreciative audience. His themes ranged from comical to heartbreaking. You can click the following links to the published texts or video recordings in the order he read them to “attend” your own Billy Collin’s reading:

The Sand Hill Cranes of Nebraska
Drinking Alone after Li Po
After the Funeral (p. 62)
Dress Code (pg.19)
To My Favorite 17-year-old High School Girl
The Dog on His Master and The Reverent
Oh My God (audio poor)
Flock (poem read in interview)
Hippos on Holiday
Aimless Love
The Lanyard
I Chop Some Parsley While Listening To Art Blakey’s Version Of “Three Blind Mice”
The Dead

Collins delivered each of his poems in his conversational tone- dry, wry, and understated. Leaving the poetry reading, I could not help but start to “think” in Collins’s cadence. Later that evening, my thoughts matched his tempo:

I had heard the poet at a reading once before,
when he read the blind mice poem that made me laugh.

I bought the book Sailing Alone Around the Room
and found inside the poems Sonnet and Aristotle that I now use
with my Advanced Placement students, but I do not teach
Taking Off Emily Dickenson’s Clothes.

They do not appreciate the Belle of Amherst the way Billy and I do.


The standing ovation
became a mass migration,
some to their cars and some to the table
where the poet scrawled his signature
repeatedly into book after book after book.

Later when I crushed my bedroom pillow
up to the headboard, I wondered
if he was still held hostage to his adoring fans?

Sunken Garden Poetry should be commended for organizing a memorable summer evening. This coming winter, I suspect that a number of those who attended will turn to a companion, and quote Billy Collins and say, “Too bad you couldn’t have been here six months ago.”

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!