Monday, March 25, 2013

I Dwell in Possibility

In my last post, I described my students as people "on whom nothing is lost," and I thought I'd clarify my terms. 

I've been re-reading Frances' Mayes book, The Discovery of Poetry. It's a really lovely introduction to poetry and has served as the backbone of my poetry unit this year for both the seventh and eighth grades. I have asked my students to create their own poetry glossaries based on our class discussions, and next week, they will have their final exam. I will give them a couple of poems that resemble forms we've encountered and ask them analyze them. Not in the tie-a-poem-to-a-chair-and-get-it-to-confess type of analysis, the sort that asks them to show me what they know. What do they notice about the poem's rhyme, repetition, images, allusions...that sort of thing. The test will be open notebook, and the glossary will count as part of their grade. While Ms. Mayes is best known for her Tuscan juggernaut, this little poetry book is where she really earns acclaim with me.

I was struck by the following passage from Ms. Mayes' book:  "The most important aspect of reading any poem is extensive reading - the more the better - of poems of all kinds, and the best reader is the one most open to the poems on the page. Novelist Henry James said, 'Be one on whom nothing is lost.'"

Be one on whom nothing is lost.

Right there. That's my goal. To help my students become people on whom nothing is lost. 

In the first chapter of the book, where Ms. Mayes writes about how to read poetry, she stresses the importance of reading. In order to understand many of the references in poetry, readers must share a common well of knowledge with the poet, and if the reader's well of knowledge is dry, much of the poem's meaning will be lost. For example, Leda and the Swan, one of my very favorite poems, is rendered almost meaningless without knowledge of the mythology behind it. 

Leda and the Swan

A sudden blow: the great wings beating still    
Above the staggering girl, her thighs caressed    
By the dark webs, her nape caught in his bill,    
He holds her helpless breast upon his breast.   
How can those terrified vague fingers push    
The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?    
And how can body, laid in that white rush,    
But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?    

A shudder in the loins engenders there    
The broken wall, the burning roof and tower
And Agamemnon dead.                         

                                              Being so caught up,     

So mastered by the brute blood of the air,    
Did she put on his knowledge with his power    
Before the indifferent beak could let her drop? 

It's still lovely and evocative and violent in its imagery, but if the reader is unaware that Zeus appeared to Leda in the form of a swan and raped her, that she later gave birth to Clytemnestra and Helen and Castor and Pollux, who brought about the Trojan War, the poem is flat and one-dimensional. Wings? Agamemnon? Did she put on his knowledge with his power? These references go nowhere if the reader is ignorant of the allusions under the words. An uninformed reader can only skate across the surface, unaware that the best parts lie beneath their feet.

As I teach at a Core Knowledge School, I am encouraged to teach my students all the cultural literacy I can stuff into their heads. Every day, I teach my English classes one cultural literacy item. Last week, I taught them about films and showed them 2-3 minute key scenes from Roman Holiday, Rear Window, My Fair Lady and Singing in the Rain. This was a little out of the ordinary; most often we focus on biblical or literary references, but I like to spice up the darkest weeks at the end of winter with some really fun stuff. We had discussed Pygmalion last week, so the My Fair Lady seemed an obvious choice.

I pair these cultural literacy items with daily etymology. Yesterday, I taught them that the word "bachelor" comes from the Latin baculum, stick, because a bachelor means young man, as in a young man not old enough to be a knight, so these young men - squires - practiced fighting with sticks rather than swords. Come on...that's just so cool. Here's another one: While reading Catherine Friend's hysterical book, Sheepish, I found out that every family in colonies such as Plymouth were required to produce a couple of pounds of spun fiber a week for the government. When families were too busy to get that work done themselves, they would take in a relative to do the work to meet the quota. An unmarried aunt, for example. A..."spinster." Isn't that just so lovely? I mean, really.

The cultural literacy item of the day and the etymology item of the day take about four minutes, total, and the students record them in a daily log. Those items are then lobbed back at them in the form of extra credit questions on quizzes and tests, but sometimes they come hurtling back at me in the form of connections to the material we discuss. Cultural literacy terms often come back to bite me in the posterior when I least expect them to resurface. Just last week, a student informed me that I was "begging the question" when I flailed about for a way to explain a concept, so I awarded her an extra credit point for being a smart, smart-alec.

I have to admit a selfish impulse here; I love, love researching the cultural literacy and etymology items of the day. It's the first thing I do each week. My grandmother was a hoarder of stuff - magazines, newspaper clippings, things that may come in useful someday - and I guess the trait passed down to me. Luckily, my accumulated stuff takes up space in my head rather than my hallways and basement, and my kids are not going to have to hire dumpsters and an auctioneer in order to deal with my compulsion.

I hope I have taught my students more than literature, Roman society, the Latin language, and composition. I hope I have taught them that learning never ends. That knowledge builds on knowledge, connections beget connections. To read, and then to read some more. 

To become one on whom nothing is lost.

On Monday, we will meet Emily Dickinson. We will dwell in possibility, hear a fly buzz, and envision a bird unrolling the feathers that rowed him softer home. I will do my best to convey that the object of Monday's lesson is not next week's test, but to see these lovely poems as a beginning, a foundation stone for all the cloud-capp'd towers of knowledge they will build for themselves someday.    


  1. Knowledge builds on knowledge. Perfectly stated!


  2. One of your best--thanks for writing this!

  3. Thank you. Now I know things about bachelors and spinsters I hadn't imagined knowing. And I imagine your students are learning that words mean things.

  4. I read your comment over at my blog, and about 5 minutes later read this on page 40 of the Jeanette Winterson book. Like connective tissue on the interwebs ....

    "So when people say that poetry is a luxury, or an option, or for the educated middle classes, or that it shouldn't be read at school because it is irrelevant, or any of the strange and stupid things that are said about poetry and its place in our lives, I suspect that the people doing the saying have had things pretty easy. A tough life needs a tough language -- and that is what poetry is. That is what literature offers -- a language powerful enough to say how it is. It isn't a hiding place. It's a finding place."

    Happy teaching.

  5. Okay, now I have to read that poetry book.

  6. so just in the few minutes i've spent reading this, i clicked through to read more about what a Core Knowledge school concentrates on, realized i have no idea where "begging the question" comes from (even though i use that phrase shamelessly) and resolved to ask my fifth grader to explain the Zeus-as-swan story as he understands it.

    in short: i feel like i've been in class! thank you, ms. jessica.