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.