A List of Poems

Since I published it nearly five years ago, my posting ‘Shéer Plód Makes Plough Down Sillion Shine’ has remained one of my most popular. My readers may also know that in eulogizing the late Seamus Heaney I commended his and Ted Hughes’ anthology The Rattle Bag. Here I share a list of poems from the anthology along with a few comments on each.  I’m keeping them in the alphabetical order in which they appear there. My object is first to suggest what can make them accessible to a high-school student. as well as give guidance for understanding. At this age they don’t need either to be freighted with ‘interpitations’, especially found ones,  or left to indulge untrammeled reader response. You must, please, hand out or display the poem and treat it at least for a while before they can go to the internet to look it up, thereby losing the opportunity to meet it on its own terms without mediation.

The Artist by William Carlos Williams. Students should be open to the possibility that a poem can be funny in a goofy way, but still have a point.  The attractive pleasure is in the unfolding of the poem line by line. When you read it aloud you should pace it so that there is a pause or vocal turn to signify each line as it ends.  If you can do an entrechat, so much the better! (I am prose in motion, but on occasion I have been known to ‘execute’ an entrechat.) A question to ask: Why might Williams want his artist/dancer to be an ordinary hairy guy on the porch instead of a ripped and nicely barbered dancer on a stage? But don’t labor any ‘interpitation’.

Beeny Cliff by Thomas Hardy. This is a poem for a bright group that is willing to do some digging to explain bits like ‘purples prinked the main’.  The poem is written in fourteeners, which your students may appreciate as an alternative to the usual meters whose names are Greek to them. The description of the setting is vivid though written in strange words. What do the strange words do for the poem? The situation is that the speaker reminisces about the times he spent here with his beloved. Question: why might the speaker have said ‘—elsewhere—‘ in line 14 instead of being exact?

Binsey Poplars by Gerard Manley Hopkins.  In this poem the speaker expresses his sadness that a favorite stand of trees has been chopped down. When you read this poem aloud you should invest the lines with emotion when they call for it. You should also emphasize the shifting rhythms and use them to help the lines reveal their meaning (e.g., line 3). If you can read line 8 fluently, your students will appreciate it. You may need to practice it several  times. When you get to ‘this sleek and seeing ball’, stress this and point to your eye. You can explain the image by saying that the globe is put out by digging and hacking the way an eyeball is put out by a pinprick. The ending should be soft and regretful in the repetitions. It is both a strongly poetic and a strongly felt poem, and though its strangeness may take some getting used to or make it hard to get completely, its way of conveying sadness that something we love has been ruined is accessible to anyone.

Cocaine Lil and Morphine Sue, written anonymously. The strong rhythm is alluring, as are the repetition and the characters with drugs as part of their names. Cocaine Lil overdoses and dies at a ‘snow party’, and her epitaph ends the poem in a readily understandable way. Students who fear that poems have ‘hidden meanings’ will be gratified by the accessibility of this poem.

Earthy Anecdote by Wallace Stevens. It is best not to lead your class into one of the tar-pits of interpretation that seem to surround this poem, even against Stevens’s stated aversion to such treatment. I think it is perfectly fine to see the firecat as a firecat and not ‘the Sisyphean plight of the individual’, as one tar pit rather improbably has it. When reading aloud, emphasize the o sounds in ‘over Oklahoma’ and let the short a sounds sound very flat. Let the line endings help shape the action of the poem, and let lines 6 – 13 strongly echo each other in sound and intonation. Let lines 17 & 18 pause for a windup before springing to ‘bristle in the way’. If your class insist on a meaning, ask, ‘Is the firecat a kind of cat or a kind of fire?’ but I like it just to be itself. Let the clattering music and the danger and menace of the firecat be enough.

The Flower-Fed Buffalos by Vachel Lindsay. This elegy for the vanished buffalo and native Americans of the plains is highly accessible. The ballad meter or common meter is strong, as is the rhythmic shift in lines 11 – 12. Reading it aloud should lead to those lines as a climax, followed by the inclusion of names of plains peoples and the softly repeated ‘lying low’. The poem’s song-likeness should be evident in a practiced reading aloud, including the cadential ‘lying low’.

Buffalo from Hunter poems of the Yoruba. This poem establishes the power and deadly menace of the Cape buffalo of Africa in a series of vivid images and metaphors as well as a small narrative. Some of the descriptions seem hyperbolic, but we must remember that in Frank O’Hara’s story ‘The Most Dangerous Game’ the buffalo is the next-most dangerous game.  Read it to include line endings, and give it a wide-eyed sound.

Little Fish by D. H. Lawrence. This poem, over almost before it begins, needs a well-paced reading that emphasizes line endings and the repetition of ‘in the sea’. Lawrence says what he means plainly, quickly, and simply. Maybe you should ask students if they hear any implied contrast with other life forms on the land.

maggie and millie and molly and mae by e. e. cummings. The reading should be expressive of the feeling in each stanza/couplet and should emphasize the strong rhythm. The rhyme of ‘troubles,and’ and ‘bubbles,and’  can be handled with a slight pause afterwards. The students should try to explain and justify what the ‘horrible thing’ in lines 7 – 8 is. (Possible answers include a crab or a sideways-washing wave passing over the sand.) How can we tell what kind of self each of the girls finds from what object she ‘finds in the sea’?

Mushrooms by Sylvia Plath. A good example of syllabic verse, its speakers are mushrooms growing. The reading should heed the line endings and sound as if the poem is growing as the mushrooms do, bit by relentless bit. It should sound amazing in a low-key way as it says, ‘We / Diet on water, / On crumbs of shadow’. It is possible that students will find it goofy, like ‘Attack of the Killer Tomatoes,’ but after a laugh, encourage them to explore why it is not goofy.

A Narrow Fellow in the Grass by Emily Dickinson. It is surprising how many of your students will not recognize that the subject of this poem is a snake. Its identity can be handled like a riddle. They will hear the common meter, but they may be puzzled by slant rhymes, which you could explain. Explore how the speaker conveys the strangeness of the snake and his dread of it. (Yes, the speaker, unlike Dickinson, is a man.)

Now entertain conjecture of a time by Shakespeare. This wonderfully vivid narrative about the English camp the night before the battle of Agincourt takes a lot of preparation, including some unexpected or arcane imagery. For example, ‘paly flames’ are not pale, they are like heraldic pales through which other things can be seen. The best way to read this aloud is to turn on the DVD player to the beginning of Act IV in Kenneth Branagh’s movie version of Henry V, where Sir Derek Jacobi gives the speech. The combination of activity and fear is counterbalanced by ‘a little touch of Harry in the night’, just what is needed before the ‘vile and ragged foils’ meet the heavily armored French knights. Students may not realise that the lightly armored English were considered vile by the chivalrous French with their heavy-plated armor, which is why the ‘vile and ragged foils’ are a synecdoche for the English army. Mention that Shakespeare’s special effect is words, and hope that your students consider what you say.

The Passionate Shepherd to His Love by Christopher Marlowe and The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd by Sir Walter Raleigh. This pair of poems is fun because one of them answers the other, but it also allows us to distinguish between the way each of the speakers conveys what is important to him or her, and how he or she thinks. The shepherd is very concrete and in the moment; the nymph, thoughtful, keen and funny in a knowing way.

A Poison Tree by William Blake. The poem is so seemingly plain and straightforward that its figurative ingenuity can be overlooked (e.g., ‘I water’d it in fears, / Night and morning with my tears; / And I sunned it with smiles, / And with soft deceitful wiles’). Reading it aloud with an emphasis on the rhymes and line endings without singsong is possible but takes practice. It takes some thought to decide how to read the final couplet aloud. One point of discussion: What exactly has the speaker admitted doing?

The River Merchant’s Wife: A Letter by Ezra Pound. It might be interesting or mind-expanding to discuss with your class what makes this poem poetic. At first many students will answer, ‘nothing’, but eventually they may admit that the descriptions are very clear, the place-names sound exotic or remarkable, the wife’s character develops as the stanzas unfold, and the free-verse lines (and their endings) help us see and hear how the narrative should go forward.

Sea Weed by D. H. Lawrence. This short poem is good at sounding like what it describes. Ask students to explain what we know about the seaweed from rhythm and sound as well as from description.

‘Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone’ by W.  H. Auden. This poem is a highly accessible expression of grief at loss and tribute to the loved one. Read it aloud with the rhymes and line endings standing out. Ask the students how the poem is divided dramatically, and why it is divided so.

When I Set Out for Lyonesse by Thomas Hardy. As is usual with Hardy, this poem contains some hard words that need explaining. The startling thing about it is how much repetition it contains without sounding repetitive. A good reading will acknowledge the musicality of the repetition while laying discreet emphasis on the non-repeating lines. After they get the poem and have heard it, ask them whether you would be right to say that the speaker is King Arthur and have them defend their answers. Kenneth Koch said that a poem says what it says and suggests what it suggests. How does this poem balance direct statement and suggestion?

You will have noticed how important I believe good reading aloud is. To me, studying poetry without hearing it is like studying movies with the sound turned off.  (Philip Larkin would disagree, but his view is, I think, exceptional.) You will also have noticed a mixture of styles and types. My hope is that the students will encounter a variety of what Koch calls poetry’s ‘attractive pleasures’ and not just their meaning.


Water Water Everywhere

I’ve been away from these postings for a while, but I’m rumbling out of hibernation partly because of Hong Kong’s early spring weather (80s with humidity and rain. I just imagined Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong singing ‘April in Hong Kong’, but it lacks something). More than rain splashed me: Friday was the IB Grade 12s’ last day of lessons before their reading period for the exams begins.

It was rainy, but the G12s, who come to school out of uniform that day, spent some early hours ‘preparing’ the IB Building for the occasion, including booby-trapping the elevator, affixing satirical posters, and raising a huge color banner of Chairman Mao with the IB Coordinator’s face digitally superimposed on the rest of the bust. Against this backdrop they all spent the morning soaking each other and sometimes their teachers with water guns and water balloons. The IB Coordinator received a thorough drenching, and I did not entirely escape the water guns, though spoilsport that I am, I wore my Bean foul weather gear and managed to stay dry underneath. I am not sure it would have protected me against a water balloon to the head, and at one point I thought the jig was up when I rounded a corner and saw dead ahead of me one of my students eye me appraisingly while hefting a water balloon. But I was reprieved as another. more gratifying, target presented itself.  By lunchtime the festivities were over, and the students had cleaned up the broken water balloons and sodden posters and banner. All that was left was the soaking wet building, which was wet to begin with because of the rain.

All the students had a good time, but one student’s face spoke eloquently for the group again and again. It had a look of utterly gleeful intensity. The student to whom this face belongs will probably get a 44 or 45 next July but was having a ball that morning, till the fun and festivity ended. It was a bit like the end of Carnival in The Count of Monte Cristo or Benvenuto Cellini. Carnival is Carnival, but at some point it ends. We don’t always get to continue what makes us gleeful, as this student has the good sense to recognize.

He (along with his teachers!) has more good sense than the founders of a chain of proprietary schools designed to ‘create an educational “ecosystem” that was unusually responsive to the interests of children, feeding them assignments tied to subjects they cared about’. Any teacher reading the article linked above will shudder deeply at three depredations on teaching. One is the administrative nightmare of e-constructivism combined with data shining out of every orifice but not shedding much light. Another is its reduction of teachers to a kind of genial idiocy in support of the ‘work’ done by the students. The third was put best by Flannery O’Connor: ‘Ours is the first age in history to ask the student what he will tolerate learning.’

Not just teachers should be shuddering, and not just about careers in inanition. The article reports that the children at these schools often have a tendency to be caught in ‘rabbit holes’ of special interest, neglecting their ostensible focus of study. Who’d have thought? I for one had an early inkling. In 8th grade I was invited to join a ‘gifted and talented’ class at junior high school, which was called Individual Studies. We spent an hour a day in a room Rich in Resources, during which we could study anything we liked. Dreary basset hound of learning that I was, I started working on a report on South Asian religion. Meanwhile my friend the Golden Boy spent months—months!—working on hexaflexagons and origami fortune-telling cutouts. All of us marveled at the way he coaxed Mrs S into allowing him more and yet more time to exercise his creativity with scissors, paper, and colored pencils. By the time the class was disbanded as a constructivist boondoggle he could have out-Gardnered Martin Gardner on these little amusements, but he didn’t end up gaining much. He himself later regarded his hexaflexagism as a joke.

I have written elsewhere that it takes a Jonathan Winters to make much out of a constructivist attic and that most students are not little Winterses. He was funny, but throwing over education in favor of squirreling is no joke. One of the parents of a student at the ‘academy’ said, ‘We are very comfortable with our kids being guinea pigs.’ Such generosity! But other parents might justifiably question the wisdom of doing so, and they would be right. It is one thing to gamble away ones own money and time at ‘creative disruption’ or ‘failing forward,’ but children? There are times when even a teacher who lets students find out things for themselves must drop that approach and offer good old-fashioned guidance. There are times when the carnival ends and the water guns are put away.

Going back at least as far as Hawthorne and Melville we find American myths of a place of rightness, whether in the forests outside Boston or the mountaintop viewed from the Piazza, where everything is all right (and don”t forget the ‘Big Rock Candy Mountain‘!). But myths made immanent can turn messy. Educationist mythologizers always forget the mess at the end of Individual Studies and get misty-eyed about that mountaintop.

In China such transformationists with wrecking-balls are regarded with suspicion not because Chinese people have no imagination but because their history has examples of ‘innovation’ at work.  One was Mao’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, when schools were closed, books burned, and teachers sent in dunce caps to dig turnips in the countryside.

The second came to mind as I was reading an article on China in The New York Review. Along with the article was a Qing Dynasty painting of the First Emperor as he conducted his ‘transformational’ (but ultimately unproductive) campaign against ‘backward’ Confucian scholarship and education. It was called Burn Books Bury Scholars. In the upper background of the painting a teacher is depicted on his knees before the Emperor, who points to the foreground, where we can see two things. One is a pile of books set afire. The other is soldiers flinging teachers alive into a ravine where they are to be buried while still living.

Like Individual Studies, Burn Books Bury Scholars didn’t last, from which we may derive a grim kind of satisfaction.

I will take further satisfaction from a plan afoot for this summer. A former student, now in his final year of the Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) program at Oxford, will be back to conduct an entirely extracurricular colloquium in philosophy, including readings from Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Kant, Rousseau, Gettier, and Nozick. Students are already promising to attend.

The founders of the proprietary schools in the article linked above say that they want their students to know ‘skills that would be useful in the workplace of the future, rather than forcing them to acquire knowledge deemed important by historical precedent’. This is a double shovel-load of baloney. First, many of tomorrow’s jobs are also today’s jobs and planned for, while those that aren’t haven’t been imagined and can’t be planned for. Second, knowledge is only one of the three basic kinds of learning, the other two being skill and understanding. Historical precedent has prescribed learning that successfully promotes such skill as verbal fluency, consecutive thinking, meeting an argument, and marshaling one’s forces to solve a problem or answer a question, to name only a few. And encounters with great thinkers advance us in understanding, or should. Socratic encounters with the lesser thinkers that are one’s teachers also have these beneficial effects.

Water games should be a holiday from these endeavors, not an alternative to them.