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Monday, August 18

Teaching Poetry

I enjoyed teaching poetry more than any other aspect of the English curriculum. Maybe my students didn’t enjoy it as much as I did, but that was their problem. I taught it anyway. And I made them memorize poetry, another thing they didn’t enjoy as much as I did. I know a lot of them used little cheat sheets when it came time to write out the poems they’d memorized, but that didn’t bother me. They’d had to write the poems out on the cheat sheets so some of it might have sunk in. And the ones who actually did memorize their selections probably can still say them now, even forty years or more later. My high school English teacher made us memorize the prologue to The Canterbury Tales, in Middle English no less, and I can still get through most of it. Frost was always the easiest to memorize, also the easiest to teach. So many memorable lines: (“Mending Wall”) “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, that wants it down,” (“The Road Not Taken”) “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and sorry I could not travel both,” (“The Death of the Hired Man”) “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, / They have to take you in,” (“Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”) “And miles to go before I sleep.” A lot pf the poems I taught have stuck with me and are worth examining again. Archibald MacLeish gave the early twentieth century imagist group their poetic dictum in “Ars Poetica,” giving us three images to make his point and concluding with “A poem should not mean / But be.” The imagists concentrated on images, not meaning, believing that figurative language brought out feelings in the reader instead of pointing out truth or some philosophical doctrine. William Carlos Williams gave us the most famous (or maybe infamous) of the imagist poems, “The Red Wheelbarrow.” “So much depends upon,” he tells us, that image of the rain-glazed wheelbarrow and the white chickens. And he’s driven readers crazy for years. I’m more inclined toward poetry that also has something to say as well as something to show us, such as John Crowe Ransom’s “Blue Girls” in which he warns us about the brevity of life and youth and beauty:

Twirling your blue skirts, travelling the sward
Under the towers of your seminary,
Go listen to your teachers old and contrary
Without believing a word.

Tie the white fillets then about your hair
And think no more of what will come to pass
Than bluebirds that go walking on the grass
And chattering on the air.

Practice your beauty, blue girls, before it fail;
And I will cry with my loud lips and publish
Beauty which all our power shall never establish,
It is so frail.

For I could tell you a story which is true;
I know a woman with a terrible tongue,
Blear eyes fallen from blue,
All her perfections tarnished—yet it is not long
Since she was lovelier than any of you.

Another by Ransom that echoes T. S. Eliot’s warning in “The Hollow Men,” in which the world ends, “not with a bang, but a whimper.” In “The End of the World,” Ransom envisions the world as a circus, with all the meaninglessness of near-comical circus acts, ending with the top being blown off and the frightening image above of an immense bird of prey, black skies, and “nothing, nothing, nothing--nothing at all.”

Quite unexpectedly, as Vasserot
The armless ambidextrian was lighting
A match between his great and second toe,
And Ralph the lion was engaged in biting
The neck of Madame Sossman while the drum
Pointed, and teeny was about to cough
In waltz-time swinging Jocko by the thumb
Quite unexpectedly the top blew off:

And there, there overhead, there, there hung over
Those thousands of white faces, those dazed eyes,
There in the starless dark, the poise, the hover,
There with vast wings across the cancelled skies,
There in the sudden blackness the black pall
Of nothing, nothing, nothing—nothing at all.

The poet uses a combination of the English and Italian sonnet, English by the rhyme pattern and Italian by the octave/sestet split. Two paradoxes stand out: an armless ambidextrian and this huge bird which is really nothing. All the circus images are in the tradition of Theatre of the Absurd, funny but also frightening, saying something about the absurdity of life on earth. The other thing worth mentioning is the unnerving staccato of the sestet, “there” repeated seven times and “nothing” repeated four times. I loved teaching this poem, and most of my students, still babes-in-arms, probably hated its dark pessimism.

I could go on and on, and may just do that further along in this blog. If anyone is interested in any of my other babblings about poetry, you might go to the archive log at the bottom of this page and find Poetic Forms on March 5 & 6, 2010; Poetic Forms (the sonnet) on September 25, 2011; Robert Frost and sonnets on December 19 and 20, 2011; Emily Dickinson on February 13, 2012; e. e. cummings on February 14, 2012; Edna St. Vincent Millay on February 15, 2012; and Longfellow and Ogden Nash on October 23, 2013.
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