Saturday, July 6, 2013

National Poetry Month Presentation at a high school

Earlier this past spring, I gave a National Poetry Month Presentation to the whole student body (high school) at the school I teach and counsel at.  I figured that I might as well share parts of the presentation here.

After a front page and introductory slide or two, we launched into the important question you see above.  I've asked this question of college seniors, kindergartners, and students of all ages and grades in between.  Unfortunately, the answers often indicate that poetry is a chore.  Many students have a negative association with poetry in the way it was first taught and presented to them at a young age.  So I collected some of the answers I've heard and put them in a wordle.


 At this point I broke the responses down for students.  There are technical replies (metaphor, rhyme,
iambic pentameter), there are forms (sonnets), there are famous poets (Whitman, Dickinson, Shakespeare), and of course there are emotional reactions (boring, hard-to-understand, I-don't-get-it).  Sure, these are valid replies.  But I don't think they help me driving home my point: poetry is accessible!  We make it inaccessible, whether we are scared off by it at a young age, or because we scare ourselves off from it by feeling like we have to discover a poem's ever elusive "point."

So how did I turn the tables on the students? I asked them the same question I asked about poetry, but this time I asked it about music (When you hear the word music, what words and images appear in your brain?).  Hands shot up, minds churned, ideas were shared.  This was exactly what I wanted.  I showed the wordle responses on the poetry question again.  I told the students, think about the answers they just came up with for music (Rap, Grunge, Drake, Rihanna, MTV, Palladia, radio stations, and lots of types of dances).  The answers on the poetry wordle would be the equivalent of Bach, Gregorian Chant, Oboes, and Elevator Music to the same music question.  We need to give poetry a chance, starting with the poetry that is written today, otherwise we are focusing on the history of poetry, as opposed to its vibrant and dynamic present. 

There are many reasons we don't give poetry a chance: disinterest, lazy, fearful, too busy, thinks it's only for smart people, feels it's not accessible.  So the question then becomes, how do we make poetry accessible?  This is certainly a larger and longer discussion that I couldn't have with the whole school (I'd love to revamp some of the ways that poetry is presented in elementary and middle school).  Instead, I focused on what I could control---why not urge all students to buy/rent a single book of poetry.  I asked the audience to raise their hands to the question of how many of you have a television in your house?  Some of them have multiple televisions in their home.  I then asked them to keep their hands up in they have a book of poetry in their house.  The hands rapidly dwindled.  I finally asked how many of you have a book of poetry written in the last fifteen years.  The remaining raised hands were few, but proudly shooting up to signify their attachment to poetry.

It was now time to turn to some examples of poetry in the form of audio and video clips of poetry.  I started with Frost (audio), then moved on to Angelou (video), and ended with some spoken word from Lemon Andersen by way of Reg E Gaines (video performance).  The idea was to show a progression of poetry, a natural movement through the last century that continues with what is being written and performed today, including anything these students in the audience might contribute.  


The presentation ended with some specific opportunities to get move involved in poetry at our school and in our local community.  In my allotted 12 to 15 minutes, I tried to pack in as much as possible to get students (and faculty) thinking deeply about poetry and their own personal relationship (or lack thereof) with poetry.

Friday, March 22, 2013

A Poem Worthy of March Madness - Old Men Playing Basketball by B.H. Fairchild

We've reached my favorite time of the year!  The first two days of the NCAA tournament induce the same pristine excitement, anticipation, and joy as Christmas eve and morning did during my childhood.  How can you not love a bracket full of teams, all with dreams of their one shining moment.  As of 12:15 pm yesterday, every team (minus the new-fangled play-in game participants) had a chance to win.  The smallest schools rising to the national stage for the very first time.  The largest powerhouses with arenas on their campuses full of banners symbolizing their past successes.  And the in-betweeners, the schools who have won a game or two, made a run through the tournament that galvanized their fans into believing it could be their year, only to lose shortly after in some heartbreaking or, even worse, boneheaded fashion.  There is a certain beauty to March Madness; the way that team members sacrifice all of their own ego and importance for a shot at victory, the way seniors respect the game and their final moments in it, and the way underdogs come to believe they can take down the Goliaths of the world (especially when a partial crowd rallies behind them).

The men in B.H. Fairchild's Old Men Playing Basketball don't strike me as veterans of the NCAA tournament.  Certainly they've watched many of the classic match ups and plays, just not from a bench location or on-court vista; no, they've been in the comfort of a bar, their own couch, or possibly in the cheap seats at the top of the stadium.  Still, they carry the same respect for the game of basketball that makes March Madness a yearly phenomenon.  The game of basketball, at a certain point, exposes all of our flaws, wrinkles, and inequities.  Most short guys will never know the surge of power that comes with dunking a ball.  Most old guys will never again feel the curtain of bravado drape over them after a reverse, 360 layup.  And most former players will continue to carry an image in their brain of what they were, not what they have become.  This is the point that B.H. Fairchild illustrates in his wonderful poem. 

Even if the game exposes who we are, when all we want to is return to being who we were, there is still a familiar beauty in revisiting the past in our present forms.  "In love / again with the pure geometry of curves," these men recover some part of themselves in the movements and mannerisms of their youth.  They may be "heavy bodies" now only capable of "the grind of bone and socket," but the nostalgia soaks over them and stirringly permeates the current versions of themselves.  Fairchild wonders if they still make love to their wives with the same artistic and majestic moves of their youth, if they still sing their silly songs on the walk home, if they are still equipped with the aura of opportunity and possibility when they cuddled with their girls "in the Chevy's front seat" under the "light of the outdoor movie."  The moments of our past are never lost, as long as we have triggers that breathe life into them in our present.  For many men and women, basketball is one of those triggers. It will be a lifelong trigger for all those March heroes on TV over the next few weeks.  It is a lifelong trigger for Danny Ainge, Tyus Edny, Christian Laettner, and all the fans who cheered and cried as they had their game winning turns.  It is a lifelong trigger for the Butlers, George Masons, and VCUs of the world, as much as it is for the Duke, North Carolina, and Kentucky.  Why is basketball a trigger that sparks the feelings and skills of the past into our present selves?  I'm not exactly sure, but I think it has something to do with the magic of nostalgia.  Magic might be the key word.  Look no further than the final stanza of Fairchild's poem and you'll find magic: "A glass wand / of autumn light breaks over the backboard. / Boys rise up in old men, wings begin to sprout / at their backs. The ball turns in the darkening air."  Here's to boys rising up in old men, here's to girls rising up in old women, here's to basketball.   

Old Men Playing Basketball
By B.H. Fairchild

The heavy bodies lunge, the broken language   
of fake and drive, glamorous jump shot   
slowed to a stutter. Their gestures, in love   
again with the pure geometry of curves,

rise toward the ball, falter, and fall away.   
On the boards their hands and fingertips   
tremble in tense little prayers of reach   
and balance. Then, the grind of bone

and socket, the caught breath, the sigh,   
the grunt of the body laboring to give   
birth to itself. In their toiling and grand   
sweeps, I wonder, do they still make love

to their wives, kissing the undersides
of their wrists, dancing the old soft-shoe   
of desire? And on the long walk home   
from the VFW, do they still sing

to the drunken moon? Stands full, clock   
moving, the one in army fatigues
and houseshoes says to himself, pick and roll,   
and the phrase sounds musical as ever,

radio crooning songs of love after the game,   
the girl leaning back in the Chevy’s front seat   
as her raven hair flames in the shuddering   
light of the outdoor movie, and now he drives,

gliding toward the net. A glass wand
of autumn light breaks over the backboard.   
Boys rise up in old men, wings begin to sprout
at their backs. The ball turns in the darkening air.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Update on 2012 National Poetry Month

After a great four year run of Aprils filled with favorite poems and corresponding essays, I'm taking a year off. I wish this wasn't the case, but sometimes life's complications have a way of interrupting the best laid plans. I have every intention of continuing with the blog next year. In fact, I'm exploring the option of converting the blog from an annual National Poetry Month format to two featured posts a month throughout the year. This type of change would allow me to deliver the same volume of content, but in a spaced out manner, which is far more conducive to a person with a busy schedule. Keep your eyes peeled for updates on when this new format will roll out. Thank you for your continued support, comments, interactions, and readership!

All the best,

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Day Thirty - A Movie Version of A Blessing by James Wright

We've reached the end of another April. I've tried desperately to keep up as I've posted a new poem or poetry related feature every day this month, but life has gotten in the way a few times. Still, I hope you've enjoyed the new poems, found something fresh in the old poems, and taken insights and questions away from We Convince By Our Presence this year. It is my intention to continue on a for a fifth year in 2012. I will occasionally post new content (probably more of these movie versions of poems) throughout the year. As always, your comments and ideas are greatly appreciated. Here's to the many ways that poetry makes our lives better!


Friday, April 29, 2011

Day Twenty Nine - You Reading This, Be Ready by William Stafford


Starting here, what do you want to remember?

How sunlight creeps along a shining floor?

What scent of old wood hovers, what softened

sound from outside fills the air?

Will you ever bring a better gift for the world

than the breathing respect that you carry

wherever you go right now? Are you waiting

for time to show you some better thoughts?

When you turn around, starting here, lift this

new glimpse that you found; carry into evening

all that you want from this day. This interval you spent

reading or hearing this, keep it for life---

What can anyone give you greater than now,

starting here, right in this room, when you turn around?

---William Stafford

William Stafford's You Reading This, Be Ready

I, like the other 7 billion people on earth right now, have moments where life dazzles and delights me, where I'm in awe of everywhere, everything, and everyone around me. These are the moments I live for...but these moments are special because they are rare. They naturally arise without expectation or anticipation and they just as naturally recede into the minutiae of routines and normal daily life. After reading William Stafford's poem You Reading This, Be Ready, I noticed that the greatest trait we, as human beings, can possess just might be contentment. To be content, truly content, requires a sense of awareness, purpose, and focus that for most people is unattainable. Contentment is hard work! You have to assess your life and the metrics of the world with the most honest vision. This quest takes us into our greatest desires, hopes, and dreams, and while these possibilities can be invigorating the honesty part is certainly a buzz kill. For example, contentment means accepting that because I'm 5 feet 8 inches tall there is very little chance that I'll ever play power forward for the Chicago Bulls. Coming to grips with this realization and other far more traumatic ones is the hard work of finding contentment. The grind continues when you take stock of the good in your life, because conversely you must consider the horrors you've avoided. I might have gripes about my apartment, my car, and my job, but at least I haven't weathered the atrocities of civil war, battled against malaria without proper medicine, or suffered through tsunamis and hurricanes that wiped all I'd accumulated in this world to the bottom of the ocean. I'll repeat it because it bears repeating: contentment is hard work. So what is the payoff? If you asked William Stafford that question I'd bet that this poem would be his answer. Contentment is "sunlight...along a shining floor" and "the breathing respect that you carry wherever you go right now." Contentment is the peace that Stafford implores us to hold onto, the peace that he wants to breathe through us and fortify our souls. It is fresh and new, it is sparkling and joyous, and because it is these things and so much more, Stafford's words should stay with us: "carry into evening all that you want from this day. This interval you spent reading or hearing this, keep it for life." It would be easy to let this calm cover your surface and because it is easy most people will ingest it in this way. But remember, contentment is difficult, even the pay off is difficult. The payoff, if you accept the challenge, will overwhelm you. The payoff happens when no one is looking "when you turn around." I say all of these things as if I'm an expert, but I've just as guilty of the surface contentment as the next guy or gal. Maybe I should take up the hard work of contentment, maybe it's time to ask Stafford's question: "Starting here, what do you want to remember?"

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Day Twenty Eight - A Man In His Life by Yehuda Amichai


A man doesn't have time in his life
to have time for everything.
He doesn't have seasons enough to have
a season for every purpose. Ecclesiastes
Was wrong about that.

A man needs to love and to hate at the same moment,
to laugh and cry with the same eyes,
with the same hands to throw stones and to gather them,
to make love in war and war in love.
And to hate and forgive and remember and forget,
to arrange and confuse, to eat and to digest
what history
takes years and years to do.

A man doesn't have time.
When he loses he seeks, when he finds
he forgets, when he forgets he loves, when he loves
he begins to forget.

And his soul is seasoned, his soul
is very professional.
Only his body remains forever
an amateur. It tries and it misses,
gets muddled, doesn't learn a thing,
drunk and blind in its pleasures
and its pains.

He will die as figs die in autumn,
Shriveled and full of himself and sweet,
the leaves growing dry on the ground,
the bare branches pointing to the place
where there's time for everything.

---Yehuda Amichai

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Day Twenty Seven - Sonnet Of The Sweet Complaint by Frederico Garcia Lorca


Never let me lose the marvel
of your statue-like eyes, or the accent
the solitary rose of your breath
places on my cheek at night.

I am afraid of being, on this shore,
a branchless trunk, and what I most regret
is having no flower, pulp, or clay
for the worm of my despair.

If you are my hidden treasure,
if you are my cross, my dampened pain,
if I am a dog, and you alone my master,

never let me lose what I have gained,
and adorn the branches of your river
with leaves of my estranged Autumn.

---Frederico Garcia Lorca

Sonnet of the Sweet Complaint by Frederico Garcia Lorca

With some of these essays I try to provide back story on the poet, the poem, or the technique(s) exercised in the poem. This will not be one of those essays. No, in fact, I've included this poem with no knowledge about it. I know a smattering about Lorca and have read about his time in New York, but overall I'm also undereducated on him, compared to some of the other poets featured on We Convince By Our Presence. So, then, the question is why have I included this poem and poet? Sometimes it's refreshing to stumble upon a poem that dazzles you in the moment and engages your own consciousness in a way that is devoid of context. Sonnet of the Sweet Complaint is one of those poems that seems to have refreshed my poetry palette.

The first stanza rings my comparison alarm bells and fills my mind with images of Apollo and his archaic torso, as described by another triple-named poet (Rainer Maria Rilke). The life-like statute that, in it's solid state, still convinces Rilke that he must seize his own fate and change his life is slightly more intense than the "marvel / of your statue like eyes." Still, Lorca is clinging like Rilke, to a "hidden treasure" of a love that allows him to avoid being "a branchless trunk...having no flower." Lorca's testament to love, in the form of powerful metaphors, sweeps through his fears and regrets, only to reach a unique kind of promise.

"If you are my cross, my dampened pain, / if I am a dog, and you alone my master," this litany of burdens and pains that seem to rule and control Lorca is a confusing mixed metaphor if I've ever seen one! Sure, a hidden treasure is a compliment, I guess, although hidden implies an understated quality that could also be seen as downplaying or diminishing his beloved's appearance. Then he compares his love to a cross and dampened pain. It's tough to argue that a cross is a positive comparison, but I'd venture to say that dampened pain implies an easing of pain where it has once been excruciating. And as if it wasn't confusing enough, Lorca caps the stanza off with a strange dog to master analogy that I might expect to see on an old SAT question. Viewed en mass, these comparisons construct a clear mixed message that Lorca hints at in the title of the poem with the ironic choice of "sweet complaint."

Lorca concludes in a continuation of his ironic, wishy-washy style that just might be the most impressive portion of the poem. The metaphors he built into the bedrock of the poem now have a chance to support each other in what appears to be a winding mess, but is actually a carefully orchestrated stanza of chaos. After a tercet of "ifs," if you are like me then you are expecting Lorca to launch into a pretty big "then" to wrap things up. Instead, he issues something that falls between a request, a prayer, and an ultimatum. "Never let me lose what I have gained," transfers the power back to the loved one who he fears might leave him a branchless trunk with no fruit or fauna for his worm of despair to wallow in. Instead, he wants a presence on the branches of his love's river, a presence that is perplexing and illuminating at the same time. The word choice of "estranged" as a descriptor of his Autumn is a fantastic mind bend and one final twist to send us reeling, just as Lorca himself is throughout this poem. The Sweet Complaint is unnerving and disorienting, not just for Lorca, but also for his audience. Interestingly, his most skillful accomplishment in this poem is creating this unnerving and disorienting pendulum that he himself is feeling in the minds of his readers.