Take It Easy

I started walking through the park today after work for the first time in quite a while. When I got to Bethesda fountain, there was a bride taking pictures of her sister? friend? and her SO with her phone. There were just the four of them. She wore a lovely off white full length sleeveless lace gown. Her husband wore a gray suit and a man bun. The female friend/sister had a floral dress and her boyfriend/husband had on dark gray trousers and a white dress shirt. I loved the tableau the four of them created, so I decided to sit down and try surreptitiously to get a pic. I failed to do so. Someone walked right in front of me just as I snapped. And then, the moment was gone. But that’s okay because I have the memory and because of them, I stopped instead of just powering through the park.

I decided to enjoy the moment despite the overcast nature of the day. Work had been full of time sucking paperwork, mind-numbing forms. Being in the park felt rejuvenating. In between spurts of people watching, I decided to check Facebook and came across this blog post from Kim of The Holderness Family in which she advocates for being lazy sometimes. Go read it and come back. I’ll wait. 😁

I looked at my watch and realized that I’d better get a move on if I was going to make the next train. And then I thought, “why do I need to make the next train? Why not take the one after that (35 minutes later) instead?” Last (school) year, I’d gotten so used to rushing out of the city to beat the evening rush and the crush of people that accompanies it to avoid big crowds and possible Covid exposure and then getting home and “doing something.” I’d forgotten the mental health benefit of walking in the park and people watching. How good it felt today to stop for a little while. Once student papers start pouring in and after school activities ramp up, this will be harder to do, but I hope to remember this feeling and indulge in a leisurely walk and people watching every now and again nonetheless. I want to see the seasons change in the park and revel in each one. I need to remember that this is just a important as “doing something.”

I hope that between Kim’s post and mine you too are inspired to give some time to beneficial laziness.

“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…

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.)

“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.

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.

Turning on Your Teacher Brain: Guest Post on Norton’s K-12 Talk

We’re baaaaaaaaaaaack! Back in the classroom that is. And while it feels so good, there are still many challenges. Check out my post on Norton’s K-12 Talk Blog for more on my thoughts about adjusting to this new school year

PAD 11: Prime Number

I’m a day behind now, but still poeming. I had a hard time with yesterday’s prompt of a prime number. Nothing was coming to mind, but today, we returned to the school building for the next phase of hybrid learning, so I asked one of the math teachers to talk to me about prime numbers. I, of course, knew what they are, but I needed more insight. So, thank you Peter for talking to me about why we teach prime numbers and what they do. By the end of the day, the prime numbers churned enough to produce this love poem to my hubby.

Seven

In mathematics,

Prime numbers are

A method of categorization.

In the system of division,

Knowing a number is prime

Let’s you know to look no further;

A number divisible by eight is

Also divisible by four and by two,

But

If a number is divisible by seven,

That’s it.

It stops.

Those two numbers: seven and …

Are a couple,

Indivisible,

Together forever,

Like you and me;

You are my seven. 

PAD April 2021, Day 1

National Poetry Month has begun! And with it come Writer’s Digest‘s Poem-a-Day challenge. Last year, with the recent transition to teaching from home, I was too caught up in my students’ well-being and converting my lessons to digital format as well as devising new lessons for this new era. Participating in PAD was not in the cards. But this year, I’m back at trying my hand again at the PAD challenge. So far, so good. One day, one poem. Today’s prompt is to write an introduction poem; here’s my attempt.

In a well-written essay the introduction

Answers the prompt

Directly and specifically with

A Universal Truth.

The body follows

Providing evidence of the veracity of 

The introduction’s assertion; 

The stories and explanations all 

Support and expand upon

The introduction’s premise.

Yet, in people, it is the body that

Speaks the Truth

And betrays our words with 

Sidelong glances and fidgeting fingers

When we introduce ourselves as something other than

What we are.

“The Negro Speaks of Rivers”

The Negro Speaks of Rivers

BY LANGSTON HUGHES

I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset.

I’ve known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

I have read this poem many times over the years. It is in the American literature textbook I use with the juniors. I’ve always thought that it’s a good poem; there are plenty of poetic elements within its lines which the kids like to point out, and they generally like Langston Hughes, so teaching it usually meets with at least mild enthusiasm. But, it’s never been my favorite Hughes poem.

Until today.

I don’t know why, but today it hit me more deeply. This morning was the second time I was teaching this poem this week. Yesterday, we read, answered questions, and discussed. It went well. But today, for some reason, the depth of the poem finally opened itself up to me. While the students were reading the poem for the first time (at least first time with me) and taking notes about what they understood, what they didn’t, what they noticed as important, I scribbled some new notes for myself, thinking again about what I wanted them to notice on this journey through the poem.

First, I wanted them to see the repetition. He writes, “I’ve known rivers” three times and the word rivers six times. But why? That’s always the difficulty–getting the students to move from pointing out to analyzing. Why should we care that the word rivers is there so often in a short poem? “It’s important.” Well, yes, but again, why? What is important about the rivers? Ultimately, the rivers are a metaphor, but for what? We’ll get to that later.

Next, I decided that the words “ancient” and “older” in the first line deserved attention. Whether due to the size of the page or an editor’s decision, the first line in our textbook is broken into two to look like this:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the
flow of human blood in human veins.
For me, this draws attention to “ancient” and “older” as well as mimics the meandering flow of a river. Additionally, that setting off of “flow of human blood in human veins” draws attention to it as well. Here the repetition of “human” also carries weight. Where else would human blood flow but in human veins? What other kind of blood but human would flow in human veins (Captain Marvell excepted)? Why the repetition? The rivers are not only “ancient” and old; they are older than humanity. They have been around in a sense forever. And anyone who has watched or read any vampire tale knows, the eternal know things.

And then the punch: “My soul has grown deep like the rivers.”

What finally dawned on me today is that this speaker is an old soul, a person wise beyond his years. He knows things, like the rivers do.

Then we get the section with the references to the great rivers of the world: the Euphrates which fertilized the Earth for early man; the Congo which birthed African nations; the Nile which delivered the prosperity and stability that leads to creative accomplishments; and the Mississippi which was once sullied with the slave trade but became clear as the inspiration for Abraham Lincoln’s conversion to abolitionism, or so the legend goes that after watching a slave auction in New Orleans, Lincoln became convinced that slavery needed to be stopped. Man’s growth, particularly Black man’s growth, is symbolized by the rivers of the world, these “dusky rivers” that flow through Asia, Africa, and North America.

“My soul has grown deep like the rivers”

Here, “deep” connotes understanding, thoughtfulness, knowledge, and perhaps also something unfathomable. How deep does one’s soul go? Back to the cradle of humanity. Back to the beginning “when dawns were young.”

This realization of the speaker’s old soul led me to research when Hughes wrote the poem, or at least published it. June 1921 in The Crisis, the magazine of the NAACP. He was 19 years old. An old soul indeed.

Metaphor into Poem

Three days ago, poet Taylor Mali posted on FB some new metaphors made up of words from some of his favorite metaphors by other poets and invited his followers to add a second line. I added a third as well:

“The soft cat feet of the heart”
Pad over the spot you left vacant
Trying to knead it back into shape.

His metaphor dice, now customizable, are great fun. They are a great way to kickstart your creative juices! Now we just need an online version for remote learning. Maybe a set of virtual spinning wheels?