Go Inside

Tonight I was sitting in my back yard, staring into the flames that were leaping in the outdoor fire pit, wondering what I would teach my students tomorrow. First I thought about poems I might want to introduce them to. Then I asked myself, “What do I want them to learn about poetry tomorrow?” In the end there’s only one thing to learn about poetry, and of course I can’t teach it. That is, we need to learn to go inside, to explore the dimensions of our hearts and minds. Well, I can’t teach that, but maybe they’ll discover it by delving into one of these poems:

1)   “Stone,” by Charles SimicSimic, our current Poet Laureate, offers an imaginary peek inside a common, stepped on, ignored, thrown in the pond, sometimes flinty, stone. I think this poem will be a good one to begin with, as it is less threatening to journey inside a stone at 10:20 on a Monday morning than it would be to start right off with looking inside ourselves. We can work our way up to that as the weeks progress. To hear Simic read “Stone” click here.

2) “The Unwritten” by W.S. Merwin. Here, Merwin brings us inside a pencil. That’s getting closer to the heart of things, but a pencil is still seemingly just an object made of wood, and so again, it won’t seem too terribly threatening. Until, of course, we start to write about what word is hiding inside our pencils, waiting to be written. (Visit this site to see a copy of the poem … you’ll get a writing assignment while you’re there.)

3) what the mirror said” by Lucille Clifton. This poem brings us to the mirror, where each poet can look inside her own eyes, and if she dares, she can write about the territory that is found there. 




Vocabulary Lesson

broken-egg-rsd-sm.jpgbroken-egg-rsd-sm.jpgbroken-egg-rsd-sm.jpgbroken-egg-rsd-sm.jpgIt is always tricky choosing poems for my students. I want to challenge them, but I don’t want to lose them. Too many words that they don’t know, and … goodbye. They’ve checked out. The red flashing sign that spells S-T-U-P-I-D goes off in their minds and nothing I do or say will bring them back. I want to give them all new glitter-spewing signs that read L-E-A-R-N-I-N-G, instead.

So, Wednesday morning I read the class three short poems, one each by Charles Simic, Nikki Giovanni and Alice Walker. Each poem was visual, vivid and full of metaphor. Simic compared a watermelon to a green Buddha. Walker compared her moodiness to a flood. Giovanni compared herself in love to a leaf falling from a tree.

Two words popped up that none of my students knew: Impartial was one. Walker’s brow-black mood was like the impartial waters of a deluge, flooding everything in sight.

Giovanni’s poem gave us the word impale … her leaf was impaled on her lover’s branch. My students will now never forget the meaning of the word impale, since after we discussed the actual leaf being impaled on a branch, I reminded them that this was a love poem, after all, and I invited them to consider what else the poet might mean by impale? What can I say, at least half the class incorporated that new vocabulary word into the poems they wrote that morning.

Meanwhile, D. had a forlorn expression on her face. D. is a newly hatched poet. Two months ago she probably had never read a poem. Now she wants to be a poet! The local paper chose one of the poems she wrote in our class for publication, and the next week we had a visiting poet do a reading at our school, and now she is a woman transformed. She has a mission. This high school drop out whose pregnant belly looks ripe as a watermelon, wants to write.

“How am I ever going to write poems with words like that in them?” she cried out, casting a defeated glance at the white board, with our new words scribbled in trails of thick blue ink.

First, I told her, you are going to use all the words you already know. Then, I told her, you are going to write down any words you don’t know and learn them. And year by year, I promised her, she would know more and more words.

Then I felt my heart break. I felt what she already knows … that she’s pretty far behind. I also saw what she can’t quite see. How young she is, and how easy it would be, relatively speaking, for her to really catch up; swim in the dictionary and come out with new syllables dripping from her tongue. Then I saw what she feared: The baby coming. The welfare trap. The neighborhood where bullets fly, and where the streets are paved with drugs and drug money, and no money, drug feuds and crushed hopes.

Then I pulled out the thesaurus. And I handed it to her.

Then I did what I always do. I hoped for the best.


Photo by Aja Riggs copyright 2007