March 16, 2018

Poems Read Aloud

This spring, I am "poet in residence" at a middle school. It is fun to be back in a classroom, especially since I am only there once a week and only for a hour. The students have sessions where we write, revise and listen to each others poems.

There are three "events" where they can read their best poem aloud. One is performance-oriented, but the other two are just readings and it is quite a thing to be that age and be able to stand in front of a crowd and read aloud. Some will memorize. Some will add some performance, but I'm impressed with any of them reading something they wrote aloud at that age.

My own first reading at an open mic in a bookstore happened in high school and before I read my knees were very literally shaking and I had to hold onto the podium to keep my hands still.

Having heard actors and poets read some poems on recordings, my idea of "how to read a poem aloud" was rather distorted. I knew I couldn't read like Richard Burton, but I thought that kind of reading should be my model.

Of course, you don't need celebrities to have a good reading of a poem, but actor John Lithgow put together The Poets' Corner  a collection of well known poems read, and had them read by a group of celebrities. The readings are online.

I listened to the collection and it brought back memories of poems read or heard when I was a young student discovering poetry. It includes Wallace Stevens poem "The Emperor of Ice Cream" (read by Kathy Bates) which was a poem that grabbed me in high school with its title and language.

There are many collections of poets and others reading online. You could spend days going from one to another on YouTube alone. I share some of these with students because hearing poetry read aloud is not a commonplace event for most people. young or old.

The students read their poems too quickly. They try to memorize rather than "learn by heart" their poems - a difference that is not easy to understand or learn. Some over-dramatize. They use their "poet voice" in the way that novice Shakespearean actors drift into British accents - even when Romeo is Italian or Twelfth Night  takes place in Illyria (Yugoslavia) and Hamlet and friends are from Denmark.

It is rare to see a poet (or any writer, though non-fiction writers and novelists get more airplay) interviewed on TV - even rarer to hear poetry read. I was happily surprised when actress Helen Mirren was asked by Stephen Colbert to read the end of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem “Ulysses” on his show. (read "Ulysses")  It is an old poem and apparently one Colbert has great affection for.

“Death closes all: but something ere the end
Some work of noble note, may yet be done…”

That section of Tennyson's poem - hopeful that some work might still be done - reminds me of the Epilogue to Shakespeare's The Tempest. Prospero, a wizard and an old man, gives this final speech and I have always thought of it as Shakespeare's own farewell/retirement speech. He asks that the audience "release me from my bands, with the help of your good hands." The two times I have seen the play performed, after that line the audience did, with its applause, free him. Shakespeare's "project" - "which was to please" is finished.

Now my charms are all o'erthrown,
And what strength I have’s mine own,
Which is most faint. Now, ’tis true,
I must be here confined by you,
Or sent to Naples. Let me not,
Since I have my dukedom got
And pardoned the deceiver, dwell
In this bare island by your spell,
But release me from my bands
With the help of your good hands.
Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails,
Which was to please. Now I want
Spirits to enforce, art to enchant,
And my ending is despair,
Unless I be relieved by prayer,
Which pierces so that it assaults
Mercy itself and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardoned be,
Let your indulgence set me free.

I think that many of my young poets, like Prospero and Shakespeare, want "spirits to enforce, art to enchant."  I hope they get that, if only for a few minutes when they read and are freed by the audience's hands.

March 10, 2018

Prompt: Tools of the Trade

Early surgical tools

What is a tool every new physician needs? In Scotland, they are thinking it is a book of poetry. Medical students there receive a book of poetry intended to help them recharge and be mindful of the human aspect of their vocation.

An article in the Wall Street Journal (subscription required) alerted me to this program where the graduating medical students in Scotland receive a free copy of a poetry book titled Tools of the Trade: Poems for New Doctors. The pocket-size book is less than 100 pages and designed to be carried while on duty. Poems are grouped into five themes: looking after yourself, looking after others, beginnings, being with illness, and endings. The anthology was put together by the Scottish Poetry Library.

The gift is offered simply as a compassionate friendly gesture. As editors Dr Lesley Morrison and Dr John Gillies write in their introduction: "To care and be compassionate to others, we first need to be compassionate, to look after, to be kind to ourselves."

Some of the poets are or were doctors themselves, and all the poems speak in some way to the experience of being a junior doctor. Different poems will suit different situations, and readers.

“I remind students in their first week that neglect [of patients] is a real consequence of disregarding the human aspect of what we do,” says David Crossman, dean of the medical school at the University of St. Andrews in Fife, Scotland, and chief scientist for Scotland. “These poems just bring you back and help you understand who you are talking to.”


The article started me thinking about the kinds of poems I might include in anthologies for other trades and professions. Every job has its tools. Poetry is usually not one of them.

An artist has tools of the trade. The backyard gardener has tools. I wonder what poems we would give them to help in their work?

Our writing prompt for March is to write a poem intended for someone in a particular job. That might your own profession or one that you once aspired to, or something you know very little about but find interesting. It should be a poem that would help them in their work. Maybe it helps them deal with the problems that come with the job, or helps inspire them, or reminds them why they chose to do what they do. 
Submission deadline: Wednesday, April 4, 2018

February 11, 2018

Prompt: What You Missed In School

All of us missed some things when we were in school. Maybe you are still in school. From kindergarten through graduate school, we all have been absent in body and mind sometimes, and other times you were there in body but not in mind.

When I searched on "what you missed in school," I got more than 40,000 hits, so we must have missed a lot of stuff.

There are two poems I like that deal with this topic. One is "What You Missed That Day You Were Absent from Fourth Grade" by Brad Aaron Modlin (from Everyone at This Party Has Two Names).

Modlin's poem begins:
Mrs. Nelson explained how to stand still and listen
to the wind, how to find meaning in pumping gas,
how peeling potatoes can be a form of prayer. She took
questions on how not to feel lost in the dark...
and concludes with
And just before the afternoon bell, she made the math equation
look easy. The one that proves that hundreds of questions,
and feeling cold, and all those nights spent looking
for whatever it was you lost, and one person
add up to something.​
Modlin touches on a number of things that may not be listed in any curriculum, but are the kinds of things I found myself dealing with in my teaching days. Of course, teaching fourth grade or kindergarten is very different from teaching high school or college. And yet, school is a place where we learn many things not in the books or lesson plans.

When you are done with your schooling, you often realize that there were things you were taught, but that you never learned, and there were things you just missed for some reason or another.

The Modlin poem is a good companion to another popular-with-teachers poem "Did I Miss Anything?" by Tom Wayman which I discovered when I was teaching middle school. (It is in his Selected Poems and also appears in the anthology edited by Billy Collins when he was our Poet Laureate for teachers to use, Poetry 180)

I used Wayman's poem several times for back-to-school nights with parents. There were some puzzled looks from the parents of kids who also frequently had puzzled looks in class. But most kids and parents get the point.

Wayman's poem is a series of answers to the title question that alternate between "nothing" and "everything." He starts by answering:
Nothing. When we realized you weren’t here
we sat with our hands folded on our desks
in silence, for the full two hours
and he concludes with a big Everything:
Everything. Contained in this classroom
is a microcosm of human experience
assembled for you to query and examine and ponder
This is not the only place such an opportunity has been
but it was one place
And you weren’t here

For our prompt this month, the topic is what you missed in school.  Was it something important? Was it all irrelevant? Do you even know what it is that you missed? Did you know it at the time, or have you realized it many years later?



February 2, 2018

Thoughts on Winter

Although Henry David Thoreau wrote little poetry, I find his essays and journal to be inspirational. He advised in his journal that we should “Take long walks in stormy weather or through deep snows in the fields and woods, if you would keep your spirits up. Deal with brute nature. Be cold and hungry and weary.”

I am a fan of winter walks and I especially like going out after a snowfall. The woods are whitewashed clean, and the snow muffles sounds. I like to follow the tracks of animals who have walked there before me that day.

Adam Gopnik's book Winter: Five Windows on the Season  is a meditation on the season via artists, poets, composers, writers, explorers, scientists, and thinkers, who have created our modern idea of winter. It goes to unlikely places, such as thinking about how snow science leads to existential questions of God and our place in the world.

Do I love the winter season? No, it is my least favorite season. (Autumn is my favorite.) I often say that i want to retire to a place without winter, or at least with a much milder winter than my New Jersey ones. But I suspect i would miss winter after a time.

The Brain Pickings blog had a post about Thoreau finding inner warmth in this cold season, but here is a section from his journal that isn't about going for a walk in the snowy woods.
The wind has gently murmured through the blinds, or puffed with feathery softness against the windows, and occasionally sighed like a summer zephyr lifting the leaves along, the livelong night. The meadow-mouse has slept in his snug gallery in the sod, the owl has sat in a hollow tree in the depth of the swamp, the rabbit, the squirrel, and the fox have all been housed. The watch-dog has lain quiet on the hearth, and the cattle have stood silent in their stalls. The earth itself has slept, as it were its first, not its last sleep, save when some street-sign or wood-house door has faintly creaked upon its hinge, cheering forlorn nature at her midnight work, — the only sound awake twixt Venus and Mars, — advertising us of a remote inward warmth, a divine cheer and fellowship, where gods are met together, but where it is very bleak for men to stand. But while the earth has slumbered, all the air has been alive with feathery flakes descending, as if some northern Ceres reigned, showering her silvery grain over all the fields.
I identify with Thoreau's suggestion to walk in winter, but I also identify with curling up under a blanket inside and just observing the winter outside.

Here is Hank expanding on that winter walk:
There is nothing so sanative, so poetic, as a walk in the woods and fields even now, when I meet none abroad for pleasure. In the street and in society I am almost invariably cheap and dissipated, my life is unspeakably mean. No amount of gold or respectability would in the least redeem it, — dining with the Governor or a member of Congress!! But alone in distant woods or fields, I come to myself, I once more feel myself grandly related, and that cold and solitude are friends of mine. I suppose that this value, in my case, is equivalent to what others get by churchgoing and prayer. I thus dispose of the superfluous and see things as they are, grand and beautiful.

Poets have had much to say about winter. Mr. Shakespeare wrote:

Blow, blow, thou winter wind,
   Thou art not so unkind
      As man’s ingratitude;
   Thy tooth is not so keen,
Because thou art not seen,
      Although thy breath be rude. 

I feel more akin to the "Winter Trees" of William Carlos Williams and like them in this cold month I am protecting my buds from the season and sleepily waiting for spring.

All the complicated details
of the attiring and
the disattiring are completed!
A liquid moon
moves gently among
the long branches.
Thus having prepared their buds
against a sure winter
the wise trees
stand sleeping in the cold.


January 24, 2018

Poem Inspires Oscar-nominated Animated Short Film

With all the Oscar buzz this week, a nominated animated short film this year has a poetry connection. Max Porter and Ru Kuwahata's Academy Award Nomination for Best Animated Short with "Negative Space" is based on a poem of the same name by Ron Koertge.

Ron's prose poem (flash fiction?) begins:

My dad taught me to pack: lay out everything. Put back half. Roll things
that roll. Wrinkle-prone things on top of cotton things. Then pants, waist-
to-hem. Nooks and crannies for socks. Belts around the sides like snakes.

You can see how the filmmakers use the poem for their animated short. Here is the trailer for the film:

Ron Koertge's poem was published in his collection, Sex World  (2014, Red Hen Press).