Another kind of power: “. . . truth and love and hope abide . . . ”
Another kind of power: “. . . truth and love and hope abide . . . ”
A colleague showed me this site recently, and I am experimenting with it as a way to push and share this summer’s reading–summer for those of us in the northern hemisphere.
The site encourages me to read across the map, especially since I teach a high school sophomore class called World Literature. I owe it to the students and myself and other global citizens to read widely.
Across literary genres and world regions, the human experience shines through. It houses art, beauty and challenge–the ABCs of verbal art.
At the end of each week, sophomore World Literature students celebrate with poems. We study some and write some. I believe strongly in mixing reading with making. Typically, the poems match the material we are studying during the other days. For example, last week we began reading Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, set in Norway. On Friday, I introduced students to Tomas Transtromer, Swedish winner of the 2011 Nobel Prize in Literature.
During February, while reading Khaled Hosseini’s novel, The Kite Runner, which revolves around Afghanistan, we studied and wrote ghazals. This traditional form began in Arabia with the qasida. Persian culture then adopted the qasida’s opening section, turning it into what poets know as the ghazal.
In a later post, I can describe the various benefits of Poetry Friday. For now, let me say that more have emerged than I expected. For example, students and I look forward to Fridays–as much for the material as for the end-of-week signal. We have come to expect fun discoveries–made by being open to surprises–for instance, in Transtromer’s poem, “The Open Window.” We mine poems for warm-up exercises. In this case, students each wrote lines that give life to an inanimate object. Then they shared objects and wrote more lines.
Last Friday, one student selected as his object a leaf of grass–presumably a dead one to fit the instructions. His choice allowed my brief comments about Leaves of Grass and about finding Whitman’s poems under our boot soles. Poetry is always underfoot. It is everywhere. Not in a designated unit (typically in spring), but everywhere. Committing myself and the students to poetry every Friday embodies the ever-presence of the art. Poetry does not hibernate. It is not a special-delivery package at holiday time. It is in you and me, every day.
So, you cannot knock it down with a sledge hammer. You can’t murder it then share the video of your destruction. It’s not going away–not this week or next week.
I’d like to end with a student ghazal from last month. This poem is part of our cultural inheritance because it borrows from pre-Islamic Arabic poets, Medieval Persian versifiers and modern American high school students. Here is her poem.
Stays in Motion
We cannot see, but we are collections of echoes.
We think we know the real jurisdiction of echoes.
When we think, our thoughts bounce each other like echoes in a cave.
The thoughts we decide on are final productions of our echoes.
Our parents may seem completely different than us.
Keep in mind we are imitations of their echoes.
There is a vast future and a dead past to an echo.
We all die, but we are the never-ending echo.
Some think you can’t change an echo once it has begun,
Keillor, it can be done, the revision of an echo.
art work by Franz Richter, from cover of Tomas Transtromer: Twenty Poems. trans. Robert Bly (Madison, MN: Seventies Press, 1970)
Since I am just starting to read several classes’ worth of student journals, I thought I would share the watercolor work on one of the journal covers.
For each of the five chapters in Gail Tsukiyama’s novel The Samurai’s Garden, students recorded passages, analyses and personal responses that focus on one character. Their main goal was to see new sides of this character, as the light changed around him or her.
I am enjoying reading these journals even more than I expected. The pace and tone of the novel, reinforced by this journal exercise, encourage the students to slow down and reflect on slight developments of character. I am happy to see how many can sustain such reflection over the course of the whole story.
Old, gnarly beech tree
Living through many winters
Showing golden leaves
This is a haiku of symbols–one in each line. The main image comes from a large beech tree, which looks like the one in the attached photo. We parked under this tree, while visiting my parents. As with the previous haiku (#5), I wanted a noticeable nearby natural image. This tree rises proudly in front of the “Manor House” near my parents’ new home. It is about fifty feet tall and almost as wide. It has deep purple leaves and a large gray trunk. If my wife and I joined hands, trying to reach around the trunk with the free hand, we would not touch. During the hot, humid summer months, the big tree gives welcome shade all day.
This is also a harsher, more pragmatic and realistic haiku than the others so far. Starting with the word “old,” it describes disfigurement and struggle. Granted these initial descriptions end in “golden leaves,” but the poem’s rough start is undeniable. Once I saw the strength of this old tree, amidst its gnarls and winters, I thought of a marriage’s lasting sixty years. We know this takes persistence from both partners. The last line of the poem, however, paints this commitment in gold. In other words, loving and lasting marriages weather storms that bend branches, and those branches keep growing. Line two echoes this growth with the word “living.” The use of “winters” as a symbol of struggle reveals the writer’s life in areas where plants, animals and humans fight against the colder, darker days. This symbol also, incidentally, reflects my reading of a book called Black Elk Speaks, in which the Lakota medicine man who narrates the story asks, “What is one man to make much of his winters, even if they bend him like a heavy snow.” At certain times of year, before winter, the leaves turn gold. (Here, I used artistic license by changing this tree’s deep purple leaves to gold, for symbolic reasons.) In this last line of the poem, I wanted to remind my parents, myself and others of this large tree’s beautiful presence. Yes, a close look reveals some crooked branches that have grown through strong winds and reached for sun. On occasion, though, as during this anniversary weekend, we step back and reflect on its graceful grandeur.
photo credit: http://www.nhm.ac.uk/resources-rx/images/1008/250h-copper-beech_tortuosa_109586_1.jpg
arrangements crawling with ants
life is everywhere
This is a zen haiku–because of the ants and the poem’s perception of them. (I use the popular, rather than the faithful, sense of the word “zen.”)
The syllables of the first line fit nicely. In addition, as in the previous haiku, the first line runs on to the second. The first line’s label stands alone, as an announcement of the event. At the same time, it marries the next word in the next line. This marriage signifies the flower arrangements seen in the attached photo. Our mother arranged these flowers, as she has been doing professionally and personally for many years. She loves finding the colors, shapes and sizes that fit the occasion and the table. Some of my enjoyment in arranging words surely comes from her artistry. As we tried out these several arrangements the morning of the dinner, little black ants began emerging from the vases. We tried brushing them away, squashing an occasional one, but they kept coming, kept crawling out of the ferns and flowers. We decided to set the vases aside until evening, so that the insects could get their exercise somewhere other than on the dinner table. As it happens, our plan worked. The dinner was ant-free, as far as we could see. The image, though, stayed with me and crawled into line two of this haiku. Yes, the ants appeared to spoil the table that morning, but this is my favorite line of the poem. The phrase “crawling with ants” we hear often, and it fits here because it describes what we saw. At the same time, the whole line captures the larger idea of arranging or planning anything, only to be disturbed by an unexpected presence. The word “crawling” does not exactly match the number of little black feet parading across the table cloth–we saw an ant here and there–but it captures the oh-no feeling we had.
The last line, I used to think, is my least favorite because it seems vacuous. What does it mean, if anything? The line actually grew from my wife’s suggestion that we move the vases aside that morning. Her idea reflects the poem’s zen element. If the arrangement is causing problems where it sits now, move it over and give it time. To quote a favorite statement of hers, “If something is not working, change it.” The ants, as the only concrete image, anchor the poem. Flanked by an abstract label and an empty statement, their line moves the poem forward. (Outside the poem, my wife’s suggestion brought a sensible, productive pause into the morning by recognizing the ants’ energy and moving it to another spot.) This last, seemingly meaningless, line, though, invites an appreciation for all life, even the challenging parts. This invitation suits the occasion of a marriage that has lasted sixty years.
against the racing current–
a white downy seed.
–J. W. Hackett, Haiku Poetry: Volume Two
My favorite line is the first because of the “u” sound and its collaboration with the “mb” in “tumbling” and “p” in “upstream.” These combinations repeat the darker gurgling sounds of creek currents–that sound that occasionally bubbles up from underneath, bringing to the surface nutrients that lie below.
Line two continues the mystery of what can “tumble” against such a current, in part because I imagine tumbling as a grounded movement involving traction, or a movement of powerful muscles like those of the salmon.
Line three belies the idea of traction because the unseen wind is sending the seed upstream. The seed is tumbling against, but the “against” is nominal and abstract. Yes, this dandelion seed is traveling in the opposite direction, but not with any traction per se. It skips, like the slender stone I used to throw across the stream behind my grandparents’ house.
Also, in this third and last line the impact of the “u” sound returns. Whereas the grounded tumbling starts the poem, a whispy white featheriness ends it. The “wh” combines with a long “i,” and the “w” in “downy” repeats this slight consonant. Like “i” in “white,” the long “e” in “seed” gives this line a higher, airier feel; it sings soprano to the first line’s base notes. It lifts the poem out of its initial mystery, sending the seed to land who knows where.
Yes, the current of water is “racing,” yet the slight seed moves against it even so.
photo credit: http://farm3.staticflickr.com/2120/1883564903_1a7fb38115_z.jpg
Sun plays on the stream
and reflects on every tree
its shimmering dance.
–J. W. Hackett (Haiku Poetry: Volume Two, Japan Publications, 1968)
I want to help students choose valuable verbs, and I see guided practice with haiku as a way to aid them–a fun way to challenge young writers in this poetic microclimate, where choice especially matters because of the tight-fitting form.
For example, I see the first verb in Hackett’s haiku. What else might work in place of “play,” I can ask students. What does this verb give us, by way of description and potential? What does it mean, and how can we build on it, with it?
A note on adjectives: when recording this haiku from (imperfect) memory, I wrote “brilliant” in the last line. This mistake shows me the value of “shimmering” because it includes the movement implied in “play,” as well as the brilliant reflections.
Therefore, as students, including myself, sharpen a verb, they build a skill that transfers across parts of speech. In turn, they can more clearly see connections among elements of their descriptions. They open themselves and readers to ever-more-shimmering sentences.
photo credit: http://farm5.static.flickr.com/4124/5061612905_50bc56dd0e.jpg
A family tribute to our good friend who died suddenly several days ago.
In several of today’s classes–two sophomore and one senior–we listened to the NPR piece about John Borling’s book of poems, Taps on the Walls. Having heard this interview during my drive to work this morning, I wanted to share it with students, and hence with readers of this blog. It is a remarkable answer to a question I have asked my poetry classes in the past: do we really need poetry.
After students listened to the program, which I recommend you do (7’48” long), we literally tried our hands at composing with the code used by Major General Borling and his prison mates. Since the sophomores are just finishing The Kite Runner, I asked them to start a poem in the voice of Amir–a poem expressing what Sohrab means to him. Then they were to try tapping the first line of this poem for their neighbor, as one concrete way to appreciate the importance of poetry for Mr. Borling during his six and a half years of brutal captivity. You can catch a glimpse of their handiwork on the youtube video above. I hope this mini-lesson opens for them a small window on the remarkable human spirit and its need for artistic expression.
p.s. Apologies for the extra youtube videos; I am trying to learn how to post just the one video I made, without these extraneous, unendorsed connections.