Counterpoint: “Legacies”

Today’s poem, another new poem from an old favorite, is a counterpoint to yesterday’s poem. Instead of two people learning how to communicate, these two, grandmother and granddaughter, hold their feelings inside. They deny the love they feel for each other and the connection between them, missing, perhaps deliberately, the coded messages in our common parlance. One wishes to strengthen their bond; the other is afraid of losing it: “neither of them ever/said what they meant” (ll. 16-17). Did they understand each other anyway? Do we understand each other?

Read the poem here.

“The Telephone”

One of my students chose “The Telephone” by Robert Frost for her poetry book. It is new to me, and I love discovering new poems by old favorites. This poem is both touching and inspirational. The beauty of the flower and the (super)natural communication between the two seems both innocent and pure. We could use more of that these days. Here’s the poem in its entirety:

The Telephone

Robert Frost – 1874-1963

“When I was just as far as I could walk
From here to-day,
There was an hour
All still
When leaning with my head against a flower
I heard you talk.
Don’t say I didn’t, for I heard you say—
You spoke from that flower on the window sill—
Do you remember what it was you said?”

“First tell me what it was you thought you heard.”

“Having found the flower and driven a bee away,
I leaned my head,
And holding by the stalk,
I listened and I thought I caught the word—
What was it? Did you call me by my name?
Or did you say—
Someone said ‘Come’—I heard it as I bowed.”

“I may have thought as much, but not aloud.”

“Well, so I came.”

There is story in these few lines. Perhaps the two had had a fight or disagreement, for he had walked “just as far as [he] could walk” away from her, yet their connection did not sever. Instead, he gave himself the time to be “all still.” And then, in the stillness, he hears her; he hears her heart. And he listens to it despite the possibility that she might still be angry. He forestalls her possible protestation that she did not call him; “Don’t say I didn’t, for I heard you.” And she seems unwilling to admit she called him and to contradict him and say she didn’t. There is hesitancy and tenderness. Perhaps this couple will make it because they are learning to communicate. Perhaps one day I will write this story in its fullness…

“Icarus also flew”

I know National Poetry Month has come to an end, but I cannot help still sharing poetry as I read and grade my students annual poetry anthologies. This poem, “Failing and Flying” by Jack Gilbert is new to me, and it hooked me from its first line: “Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew.” Isn’t that the truth? His fall from the sky is the focus of the myth and so many references to it. We so easily forget the moments of success before a project or passion came to an end. The focus is solely on the outcome, but our lives are made up of all the experiences that come before it.

Can we apply this same lens to the work of a writer/actor/singer/artist whose work we admire but about whose personal life/beliefs we learn some unsavory facts. Does the work, like Icarus’s flight, exist separate from its creator’s fall from grace? I don’t know. I’d like to think so, but it is so much harder when the person is living in our own time rather than in times past. We cannot excuse the prejudice to historical blindness. We also become loathe to financially support a person through the buying of his/her art if that person has made statements that are anathema to us. Yet still, the work on its own soars. Or maybe this is a reversal; the art is the outcome that soars, and the experiences of the author that sour.

Perhaps this is something we can only apply to our own experiences. Perhaps we can use this idea to separate the art and the artist. In any event, read the poem and enjoy at least your own moments of flight regardless of the quality of the landing.

Recommended, Nay Required, Reading

I do not like to get political here on my blog, though the argument can be made, as Orwell did, that all writing is political. Yet, a news alert about the Supreme Court’s leaning to strike down Roe vs. Wade impels me to recommend a couple of novels set in a United States, or subsection thereof, where that same has happened.

This 2011 novel by Hillary Jordan follows the story of Hannah, a woman convicted of murder for having had an abortion, who is not incarcerated, but rather “chromed,” that is her skin is genetically dyed red to announce her crime to all around while she tries to survive both the stigma and the emotional and mental strain her world, her actions, and her beliefs put on her. Well written and engrossing, this novel, to paraphrase This is Spinal Tap, goes to 11. I read it when it first came out, and I’m still thinking about it. If I had a class set, I’d teach it alongside The Scarlet Letter.

If you haven’t heard about The Handmaid’s Tale, well, then you’re probably not reading this blog either. I’ll admit that I haven’t watched the series, but I read the book a few years ago after hearing rave upon rave from several English teacher friends. Several claim it to be their favorite book. I’ll admit that I didn’t “LOVE” it as I’ve heard so many others speak of it, but that is because it horrified me. Which it is what it should do. The ease with which the people of Gilead accepted the total subjugation of women is the most terrifying thing I’ve ever read. Yet Atwood, like Jordan, is not didactic; they both tell stories that tell us something about ourselves, and these are things we don’t want to know, but hopefully, if we can confront the ugly in fiction, we can avoid or at least ameliorate it in real life. (For a bonus, check out my 2019 review of The Testaments, Atwood’s sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale.)

Old Favorites

It’s the last day of National Poetry Month, so let me share some old favorites:

“The First Snowfall” by James Russell Lowell I have loved this poem since the first time I read it. There is such beauty in it. The loss is deep, but so is the solace.

“Nothing Gold Can Stay” by Robert Frost Ever since Ponyboy read this poem to Johnny in The Outsiders, it has held a special place in my heart.

“She Walks in Beauty” by Lord Byron In seventh (or maybe eighth) grade, I had to make a poetry anthology, much like the one I now assign to my students, and I included this poem. I can still see the drawing I made on the paper that I wrote the poem on. It’s so tender.

“I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” by William Wordsworth I’ve taught this poem for almost 25 year, but when I hiked the Lake District that I truly appreciated the glory of this poem.

“Do Not Go Gentle Into That Goodnight” by Dylan Thomas If you’ve ever sat at the bedside of a dying loved one, this poem will cut to your heart.

“A Motto for Poets: Leave Stone”

Today’s poem comes from my tenth grade class’s textbook.

I have been teaching this poem for many years, but yesterday’s discussion was the best ever. I asked the students first to look at the first few lines and tell me what the motto is: “leave stone/alone…try/trees” From there they offered what the differences are between stone and trees (not living vs living) and what that means to us. We need to keep growing in our lives; we should not be stagnant.

However, lines 7-9 show a different contrast between stone and trees. In this section, stone seems preferable because it lasts longer.

Finally, lines 10-18 view the marks on stone of someone long gone.

My students and I were inspired by Retamar’s poem-that we should live like trees, always growing and basking in the sun, but that we must write our words down so they are preseved, like stone, when we are gone.

For Roberto Fernandez Retamar

Your words, perhaps once scrawled

In a lined notebook or a loose scrap, now live

In a tenth grade textbook even though

You have passed on to another realm to which

There is only a one-way passage; yet because you

Followed your own advice, I can see the beauty of

The trees and the permance of stone, and in reading your

Motto now so long after you have gone I see

Its wisdom and sit myself down

To write.

Springtime Pastimes

Yesterday while browsing through a book of John Betjeman’s poems, I came across this poem about golf (“Seaside Golf”). Since I played my first round of the year on Monday and it was probably my best round yet, I decided to go with it, and I thought I’d round up a few poems about golf to share; however, I found that Leon S. White, PhD beat me to it. Here’s a review of his 2011 book, Golf Course of Rhymes, an anthology of golf poems by writers from England, Scotland and the US and a link to his blog, golfpoet where he shares his own golf inspired poetry.

So, let me share some poems instead that reference, if not actually are about, other spring pastimes:

Fishing on the Susquehanna in July” by Billy Collins

I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud” by William Wordsworth

What I Would LIke to Grow in My Garden” by Katherine Riegel

Inspiration Point” by Jennifer Jean

So begin today with a few poems and then get out there and enjoy spring! And as always, I’d love to hear from you. Which of these are your favorites? Or is there another you’d like to add to the collection?

PAD: Whitman’s Legacy

Trying to decide what poem to share next, I came across this poem by Rosemary Catacalos, “Mr. Chairman Takes His Leave.” I was immediately taken with it because of both its uplifting nature even in the face of loss and its reference to Whitman.

Of late, I’ve been drawn again and again to Whitman, or Uncle Walt as I refer to him with my students. In fact, I redesigned my American literature curriculum from a chronological survey to a celebration of American Voices, starting with “I Hear America Singing.” In these days of war and political divisivness, Whitman’s vision of a unified, joyous America singing in harmony is a reassuring contrast to the talking heads of TV yelling about the degenerate other side of the aisle. Rather than argue the political right and left, this poem allows us to envision what we should be: a variety of voices in harmony rather than discord.

For his day, Whitman was expansive, but of course, as time rolls on, more and more voices speak up for inclusion. That is where my curriculum goes next, to poets that respond to Whitman with their own voices to add to the song that is America: Langston Hughes’s “I, Too“; Angela de Hoyos’s “To Walt Whitman“; and Julia Alvarez’s “I, Too, Sing America.” I can’t help but think that Uncle Walt would welcome them all to the table, happy for them to add “their strong melodious songs” to the “varied carols” of America.

Do you know a poem or have written one inspired by one of Whitman’s? Add your voice to the song using the comments below.

Two-fer Tuesday

Today, I present to you two beautiful, yet sad poems of lost love: the first of a person, the second of an animal companion. Both losses rend our hearts and these two poets express that heartbreak while celebrating the relationship that came before. Indeed, it is the beauty of the relationship that leads to such sorrow at the loss.

“The Pact” by Victoria Redel

“Stop All the Clocks” (sometimes called “Funeral Blues”) by W. H. Auden (This poem was used in the 1994 film Four Weddings and a Funeral.)

In our school’s Poetry Madness competition, these two poems go head-to-head today, and it’s a tough choice. Which would you choose to move on to the next round? Comment below. Let me know what you think.

POEM-A-DAY 2022

I have not been on the ball this year writing a poem a day as I’ve tried to in the past, but I still want to celebrate this month dedicated to one of my favorite art forms. So, this year I’ll share with you poems that I’m currently loving. Some are in the public domain, so I’ll post them in their entirety; others are newer, so I’ll post links. One such will be today’s poem.

I was introduced to this poem through Poets.org Poem-A-Day email and liked it so much that I entered it in our school’s annual POETRY MADNESS competition. (It won its first round.) Here is the link to Ada Limón’s “Instructions for Not Giving Up.” https://poets.org/poem/instructions-not-giving We need these directions after the past couple of years we’ve all endured. Stay strong. Read poetry. Be well my friends.