Vocabulary Lesson

As I was introducing a poetry lesson this week, S. was calling across the aisle to C., who was removing the foil from the shish kabob she’d bought (but not eaten) during her lunch break. Another student was working on an assignment for her next class, and still others were passing notes and whispering loudly.

“Ladies, could you please conduct yourselves with a bit more decorum!” I shouted above the din.

This caught S.’s attention. “Why you always have to use such fancy words? It gives me a headache.”

“Good question,” I said. “Why do I use such fancy words?” I wrote the word decorum on the board. “But first,” I asked, “what does it mean?”

“How should we know?” R. muttered.

“Because even though you may never have seen this word before, you know what I was asking you to do just now. What does decorum mean?”

“Acting respectful,” S. offered.

“And being polite,” C. added.

“Good behavior,” someone else added.

“See, you know what the word means.” I said. “Don’t worry if a word looks unfamiliar, you can still figure out its meaning.”

“But why should we use big words?” S. persisted. “I don’t like all those big words.”

“Because that way you can tell someone off and they don’t even know what you were saying,” one young woman suggested.

Fair enough. “Also, the more words you know, the more thoughts you can think. The more thoughts you can think, the more possibilities you have for what you can do with your life,” I offered.

Thus, this week during poetry class I’ve been focusing on vocabulary. For many of my students, who, shall we say, have not exactly felt welcomed into the hallowed halls of academia, new words sting, slap and burn. They’re evidence of what they don’t know. They are like signs that say, “No Trespassing.” “Do Not Enter.”

But for the poet, I told them, words are like treasures. They offer new ways of saying old things. They are new tastes. New experiences. Each one is a doorway into a new world.

I read somewhere that the late, great, poet Stanley Kunitz had the first hint of his calling when, as a child, he would skip through the woods repeating a new word again and again because he loved the sound it made in his ears.

When I took a poetry class with Lucille Clifton, she insisted we all stand up, hold hands, and each share one word we love the sound of.

Meanwhile, as my poetry class with S., C., R. and the rest continued, we added words to our list: gnash, unperturbed and ambiguous among them. I invited students to try to use at least two new words in their poems. C. wrote:

Inside the forest …

leaves gnash against each other

they feel like war

is coming toward them …

S., however, remained unconvinced. She didn’t finish her poem that day, and kept crumpling one piece of paper after another. But she did write the word “ambiguous” in big blue letters across the top of her page. Perhaps that was her way of having the last word on the subject. At least it was a brand new, multisyllabic one.


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. 




Poems on the theme of dreams:

These are some of the poems I use with my students to spark ideas for writing about dreams (read my previous post for more details!): 

  •  “Last Night I Dreamed of Chickens,” Jack Prelutsky 
  •  “A Dream Deferred,” Langston Hughes
  • “Stars,” Langston Hughes
  • “Let America Be America,” Langston Hughes
  • “Still I Rise,” (especially the last stanza) Maya Angelou
  • “City That Does Not Sleep” Federico Garcia Lorca
  • “Romance Sonambulo,” Federico Garcia Lorca 
  • “My Dream of Being White,” Lucille Clifton

One student, Kiki, was inspired by these lines from Maya Angelou’s poem, “Still I Rise”:

Out of the huts of history's shame
I rise
Up from a past that's rooted in pain
I rise
I'm a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that's wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.

 In response Kiki wrote this: 

I am the dream

a poor man’s daughter

strong, black and beautiful.

I am a poor man’s daughter,

his one great joy.

I am the child

the child of a poor man.

Ah, but I am the rich one.