The Top Ten Poems I Love, #6

Here are two poems by Marianne Moore (1887 – 1972). I couldn’t decide which one I loved more. You can decide for yourself.

– – – – –

The Fish

wade
through black jade.
Of the crow-blue mussel-shells, one keeps
adjusting the ash-heaps;
opening and shutting itself like

an
injured fan.
The barnacles which encrust the side
of the wave, cannot hide
there for the submerged shafts of the

sun,
split like spun
glass, move themselves with spotlight swiftness
into the crevices—
in and out, illuminating

the
turquoise sea
of bodies. The water drives a wedge
of iron through the iron edge
of the cliff; whereupon the stars,

pink
rice-grains, ink-
bespattered jelly fish, crabs like green
lilies, and submarine
toadstools, slide each on the other.

All
external
marks of abuse are present on this
defiant edifice—
all the physical features of

ac-
cident—lack
of cornice, dynamite grooves, burns, and
hatchet strokes, these things stand
out on it; the chasm-side is

dead.
Repeated
evidence has proved that it can live
on what can not revive
its youth. The sea grows old in it.

– – – – –

Poetry

I too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond
all this fiddle.
Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one
discovers that there is in
it after all, a place for the genuine.
Hands that can grasp, eyes
that can dilate, hair that can rise
if it must, these things are important not because a

high-sounding interpretation can be put upon them but because
they are
useful; when they become so derivative as to become
unintelligible, the
same thing may be said for all of us—that we
do not admire what
we cannot understand. The bat,
holding on upside down or in quest of something to

eat, elephants pushing, a wild horse taking a roll, a tireless
wolf under
a tree, the immovable critic twinkling his skin like a horse
that feels a flea, the base-
ball fan, the statistician—case after case
could be cited did
one wish it; nor is it valid
to discriminate against “business documents and

school-books”; all these phenomena are important. One must
make a distinction
however: when dragged into prominence by half poets,
the result is not poetry,
nor till the autocrats among us can be
“literalists of
the imagination”—above
insolence and triviality and can present

for inspection, imaginary gardens with real toads in them,
shall we have
it. In the meantime, if you demand on the one hand, in defiance of their opinion—
the raw material of poetry in
all its rawness, and
that which is on the other hand,
genuine, then you are interested in poetry.

– – – – –

For me, poetry is partially about form. (Edublogs doesn’t appear to appreciate form, though. Here’s the actual way these poems are supposed to look: The Fish; and Poetry.)I appreciate seeing how the poet decided to arrange the words and lines and stanzas; sometimes these decisions affect the way the poem is read. And the “look” of a poem makes a statement. These poems come across differently when read aloud — not worse, just differently. Moore’s playfulness with line and stanza influenced my playfulness as a poet…and maybe, also, as a person. And I thank her for it.

The Top Ten Poems I Love, #3

There’s a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons —
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes —

Heavenly Hurt, it gives us —
We can find no scar,
But internal difference,
Where the Meanings, are —

None may teach it — Any —
‘Tis the Seal Despair —
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the Air —

When it comes, the Landscape listens —
Shadows — hold their breath —
When it goes,’tis like the Distance
On the look of Death —

By Emily Dickinson
1861, earliest known manuscript of the poem;
1890, first published.

– – – –

I’ve tried many times to capture the beauty of nature in words. It’s so difficult to get across. That first stanza, especially — with its oppressive slant of light — spoke to me years ago and still does. I’ve seen it. I admire how Dickinson pulls us in right away and we can relate to her scene.

Last night, I went to Wild Nights with Emily, a feature film shown on the last night of the Capital City Film Festival. It was a side of Dickinson I never knew existed: she had a female lover; many of her poems were written for Sue, her lover, but Sue’s name was erased; Emily tried to get her poems published; she had a sense of humor…. Re-reading her poems, I am reminded once again of how little we know of people’s lives and how rich each person’s life is.

The Top Ten Poems I Love, #2

I love most everything Billy Collins writes.

I offer you a Billy Collins Pallooza. I was fortunate to be in the audience when he spoke at the National Writing Project’s Annual Meeting in Philadelphia in 2009. This video is his entire talk of 38 minutes. His dry sense of humor is a joy. Here are the poems he reads in the video, in order:

“Portrait of the Reader with a Bowl of Cereal”
“Grave”
“Palermo”
“Simile”
“Oh My God”
“Monday”
“The Trouble with Poetry”
“Litany”
“Migraine” or “Hangover”
“Hippos on Holiday”
“Schoolsville”
“The Golden Years”
“On Turning Ten”

Knowing that people are busy and sometimes only have time for one poem, here’s one of my favorite poems by Billy —

Walking Across the Atlantic

I wait for the holiday crowd to clear the beach
before stepping onto the first wave.

Soon I am walking across the Atlantic
thinking about Spain,
checking for whales, waterspouts.
I feel the water holding up my shifting weight.
Tonight I will sleep on its rocking surface.

But for now I try to imagine what
this must look like to the fish below,
the bottoms of my feet appearing, disappearing.

– – – – –

So simple, so descriptive…and such a novel idea. Powerful in the way he takes me with him across the ocean. So few words, really, but quite the shared experience.

What it means to be “racist” and how accusing everyone of it doesn’t help

Part of the wonderful craziness of teaching middle school students is the perpetual existence of catch phrases. Young people hear adults and their peers use a word or phrase and its meaning is vague to them; after awhile, students are testing out the word in various contexts, trying to figure out its actual meaning. We start hearing the word used incorrectly and, as teachers, decide whether or not to stop everything and jump into “teachable moment” mode.

Sometimes the word is just a novelty — words like “dab” or “lit” come to mind — and are soon forgotten. We don’t spend time on those words. In the past, we have taken time with insensitive uses of “gay,” “fag,” and “queer” and I like to think that those talks had a little to do with a more healthy attitude toward our LGBTQ community, as well as the emergence of the Alliance club at the high school. Words like “creeper” and “foreigner” are also misused often and we may need to address those soon (fear of the unknown is a powerful thing). More recently, though, students have heard the word “racist” being tossed about (with our President being accused of racist remarks and some police being seen as racist toward minority groups) and have started casually accusing each other of being “racist.” This seems like one of those teachable moments to me.

The dictionary definition is a good place to start: racist — “a person who shows or feels discrimination or prejudice against people of other races, or who believes that a particular race is superior to another.” (Oxford Dictionary) Some middle school students don’t recognize how serious this accusation is. They toss the word around quickly and freely without realizing it’s actually in the same intensity as yelling “FIRE!” or “RAPE!” The word racist carries a history with it that involves Native American displacement, white supremacist groups, hate crimes, and lynchings.

It’s a challenging topic but that isn’t a reason to ignore it; as an educator, I believe we can discuss almost anything with students as long as we do it in a sensitive, thoughtful manner. I understand that I need to be aware of my own biases and that I’m not expert on the topic, only an authority on my own experiences. These experiences are influenced by a multitude of factors, not the least of which are the culture in which I was brought up and the degree of privilege I have benefited from in my life.

I have never consciously thought that one race is superior to another (as the dictionary definition describes the word), but having taken the Implicit Bias Test and (at the same time I realize the test is not the whole picture) understanding a bit about the power of unconscious behavior, I am fully aware that I have my biases. I try to stay aware of them as I talk with people of color, but I really try to treat each person I talk with as a person first and listen to their concerns; some people say they “don’t see color,” which I think is ridiculous. I focus on the person in front of me and that means trying to take into account the little I know about his or her experience, asking questions to fill in the blanks in my head.

So part of my message, students, is to think before you accuse and to know your own biases, in general.

Instead of calling someone racist, “concentrate on why the person’s words or actions hurt you. Explain why you take issue with the person…” instead of attacking them with this strong, hateful word. (ThoughtCo) By calling someone racist, you are making an unfair, quick judgment about the person and situation — that judgment itself is a type of pigeon-holing or stereotyping that adds to the problem instead of trying to solve it.

We have been talking about using precise language in our poetry unit. The importance of our word choices is a theme you’ll see played out in The Giver, also, which we read next marking period. It carries over to many professions like law and advertising; the words you choose make a difference. And words have more than one meaning and connotation. If I was to say that I want you to discriminate, you might think I’ve lost my mind. The word, “discriminate,” however, means more than one thing. It’s actually an important skill in this sense. I would like you to discern or figure out when it’s appropriate and when it’s inappropriate to accuse people of things…that’s one definition of discriminating…to be a thinking person who distinguishes between right and wrong.

Just like when bullying happens, there are bystanders when the word “racist” is spoken. Those bystanders have a major role in what happens next, just like when bullying happens. They have to discern if the situation involves a suggestion that one race is superior or if it’s an exaggerated, inappropriate use of the word; in either case, the bystander has a responsibility to speak up — to see justice done or to tell the speaker that he or she is wrong. Their role is key to ending this misuse of the word.

Using language (whether thought, spoken, written, visual…) is a complex thing. Learning how to use it precisely and effectively is a lifelong process. My hope is that, throughout your life, you will accurately communicate your ideas. To do that, always think before you speak.

One Time at a Time

Time in the airport — staying calm amid the hustle and the bustle, sitting on the tarmac for one hour before the flight was cancelled, waiting 12 hours for the next flight, playing several games (Clubs, Five Crowns, Hearts…), and arriving in Seattle after having been awake for 24+ hours, dazed and grateful

Time in the rental car avoiding other cars and walking/biking/moped-riding people, as well as avoiding traffic jams with Rachel’s knowledge of the city

Time with family hiking up to Rattlesnake Ledge — only 4 miles roundtrip, but up 1200 feet in elevation for some glorious views

Time walking around Seattle seeing quite a few homeless people, wondering what their lives were like, are like, will be like

Time reading a novel about time-travel and, at times, wishing to jump into the story to experience the 18th century for a few hours or days

Time virtually dangling my feet over Washington (Snoqualmie Falls, breeching whales in Puget Sound, Olympic National Forest, the San Juan Islands, the Walla Walla Valley Balloon Stampede) as part of Wings over Washington

Time watching Arrival and wondering if time is the subtle, constant force I’ve always accepted it as being or if one can move forward and back within its vastness

Time with Judy listening to Ravel, Beethoven, and Gliere played by the Lansing Symphony Orchestra; Judy had worked with french horn soloist, David Cooper, decades before which made it even more special

Time standing in the hall outside my classroom at MacDonald Middle School looking at each student that passes and picturing each one walking across the stage getting their diplomas as graduating seniors

Time to construct a letter about an issue I care about and put it out there in the world — and having a friend make a meaningful comment about it

Time to candidly talk with a past student and see what he created from our talk

Time listening to a sermon entitled “Timing,” hearing a voice from the past say “Hell is truth seen too late,” and automatically thinking that the owners of Eastwood Towne Center will rue the day they didn’t work out a deal with Schuler Books, causing it to close; I’ll always remember one customer grieving the bookstore’s closing by saying,
“I mean,
we
lived
here”

Big Brother Wished Me a Happy Birthday

Google has a creative group of people working tirelessly to celebrate some aspect of each day on their opening page. These Google doodles often highlight the life of someone I didn’t know existed from history. Today (my birthday), Google remembered my special day with this graphic (below) — when I clicked the play button, the candles moved as if lit.

It’s intended to make me feel like a celebrity, I suppose. For a second, it did feel good. Then, it fed into that creepy feeling that the world knows too much of my business. I also received birthday wishes via snail mail from our investment company, an email from Affordable Tours (the company we used to book a bus trip around Italy this year), and my dentist’s office texted me. And Biggby did send me my coupon for a free drink…so I got that going for me. It’s an attempt at contact, but it falls short.

I followed the link on the Google birthday wish and I learned about some historical things that happened on my birthday, which was nice. My favorite historical fact from October 28 is that in 1965 Pope Paul VI issued a decree absolving Jews of collective guilt for the crucifixion of Jesus Christ; I was five that day and somehow my folks didn’t tell me about that earth-shaking moment in history (oddly it was the same exact day that the Gateway Arch along the waterfront in St. Louis, MO, was completed; maybe it’s not so odd since that first fact seems like a giant leap in logic).

The Internet’s awareness of my daily life bothers me during the rest of the year, too. I’ll buy plane tickets on Orbitz for a trip to Seattle; later that day, my Facebook feed will include statements like “while you’re in Seattle, check out the Space Needle.” WTF? Leave me alone. I don’t need your help. And I don’t like where this all seems to be going. I don’t want to be a character in a dystopian novel. My identity is too public, too easily available and that never ends well in those dark stories about the future.

My problem: it’s becoming impossible to disconnect from the internet for long periods. Am I addicted or at least too dependent? Life is too precious to tear away the personal, emotional, spiritual side and give it up to a machine. It reminds me of a sad video that a friend shared called “Are You Lost in the World Like Me?” This sort of thing is happening in subtle, as well as dramatic ways every day. It’s up to us to keep in touch personally instead of just through —

As I was typing these words, my Boston cousin, Nancy, called me. We talked for a long time and made tentative plans to meet in the Spring. She balanced out all the techno-wishes I had received. And renewed my hope in the human race. It really is up to each of us to make life-giving choices every minute. Thanks, Nancy.

Visible Thinking

When I teach writing, I often make my thinking visible for students. Sometimes that takes the form of my reflection that we read together. Usually, though, it happens before, during, and after they look at a piece of my writing. I “talk it out” as a way to model being a purposeful, thinking writer (and person).

Below, you have some of my recent thinking. Like most thinking it sometimes follows logically and other times jumps around, apparently randomly, but with personally relevant tangents. I offer it to you as an explanation for a recent unexpected decision.

I’ve been retired from teaching for just over one year. It’s been a semi-retirement since I’ve continued to work several part-time jobs. I’ve enjoyed working for ASPPIRE (as job coach and Personal Finance teacher), for Schuler Books, as a tutor, and for the National Writing Project in various roles including assessing students’ online writing. Having so many very part time jobs was both satisfying and confusing. It seemed odd to me that I both appreciated having a flexible schedule and missed having structure to my days. How could both things be going on at the same time?

When I retired from full-time teaching, I would have taught part-time if it was an option. I still enjoyed teaching English and the energy of middle school students. I just wanted more time in my day to do other things (write, exercise, travel, read, go to the bathroom when I wanted to…). However, no part-time positions were available in my district. And so I retired, leaving the job in capable hands (Joie, a good friend and high school teacher).

Time passed and, for personal reasons, Joie (the teacher that replaced me) asked for a one-year leave.

Despite everything you’ve read so far, I didn’t realize I was waiting for the opportunity to teach again. A few friends have told me that they saw it coming (and other friends tell me I’m crazy to leave retired life), but when a colleague and friend told me there was a part-time opening teaching three 7th grade English classes, I was suddenly interested. Maybe not at first, but within a few minutes, even I could see it was what I wanted and needed at this point in my life.

Money is always an issue. I wasn’t sure at first that I could work (even 60% of a full-time job) for so little money. Once I got my head around using this (extra) money for a specific, fun thing (Hint: ALOHA everybody) that helped me move toward wanting to teach again. And I felt like they (at least on some level) wanted me back. Also, thankfully, the school district worked with me to make sure the salary I would earn would not interfere with my pension.

There were a few points along the journey that felt strange and uncomfortable. Texting with the administration instead of face-to-face meetings was odd; being asked to complete a criminal history check and an online application by the district that I worked 17 years for bordered on ridiculous. The fact that I never really heard anything from the Human Resources department along the way was disconcerting. Maybe they didn’t communicate with me because I didn’t complete parts of the online application (I couldn’t find my teaching certificate, for example) and the HR folks didn’t know what to do with me. On the other hand, I nailed the following question on the app:

What makes an outstanding teacher?

I wrote: A teacher needs to be a good listener and observer. Watching and hearing students as they work and participate, teachers can get a sense for their needs. Teachers need to assess students in reliable ways and use that information to present lessons that match student needs, abilities, and interests — while offering just the right amount of challenge. Outstanding teachers are also patient, clear, and consistent; they create behavioral and academic expectations, then follow-through on enforcing rules and providing opportunities for success. The best teachers are also fun and funny, cooperative and collegial, and reflective and always learning. Part of being a lifelong learner-educator is teaching students digital literacy skills and having them write for real audiences.

They were probably googling phrases from that answer to make sure I didn’t scam if from some online teaching reference.
:^)

And just as I finished the application and the three Professional Development days were about to start…I came down with a cold. I needed to plan for teaching 7th grade English and go to meetings, but instead I slept for hours and hours and drank gallons of water. (Some meds that we didn’t use on our Europe trip helped a bit too) It may have been a stress-induced cold, but it was real enough in my head, throat, and chest. And then, right in time for the last PD day, I felt mostly better.

Seven days into this nearly 10 month gig…
To the dozen people who have asked if I regret the decision, I say “no.” It feels right. I’m teaching a curriculum that I know (and I’m even coaching / working with the other part-time English teacher a bit) and I have received a lot of support from parents, colleagues, and board members. Heck, Joie had my favorite M.C. Escher print up (that I gave her) and a card on the wall that I had written to her to remind her to smile more often; I feel like I’m looking in a mirror most days. And I like what I see.

Help When We Need It

I was looking for encouragement, browsing through the books in my office (instead of cleaning it). Here’s a poem I happened upon from a book called Poems To Live By In Uncertain Times:

May 1915

Let us remember Spring will come again
To the scorched, blackened woods, where the
wounded trees
Wait, with their old wise patience for the
heavenly rain,
Sure of the sky: sure of the sea to send its healing breeze,
Sure of the sun. And even as to these
Surely the Spring, when God shall please,
Will come again like a divine surprise
To those who sit today with their great Dead, hands in
their hands, eyes in their eyes,
At one with love, at one with Grief: blind to the scattered
things and changing skies.

By Charlotte Mew

Being naturally curious, I wanted to know more about this poet who was new to me. Her biography is quite interesting.
You can learn about the World War I context of the poem, hear the poem read aloud, and read an analysis of the poem at this website. I’m sorry to say that I could not capture the exact form of this poem due to the odd formatting of this edublogs editor.

Something about that poem spoke to me. Maybe it was the hopefulness. The repetitive reminder that even in dark times (winter’s cold darkness, 45 and the gang, climate change…), Spring exists around the corner. Deep in the midst of our crazy lives, we need that reassurance sometimes — I do, anyway.

Singing also fills me with hope. Many times, I have willed myself to go to choir rehearsal. Even though the choir members and conductor are like a second family, sometimes I’m not in the mood to rehearse. However, I’m always filled up by singing. I always come out of rehearsal with my spirits filled and a song on my lips and heart. I sing with the Earl Nelson Singers and we sing this Saturday, February 18 at Bethel Seventh Day Adventist Church, which is 4817 Bristol Road (off Reo Road near the corner of Jolly and MLK) in Lansing. We are singing what I think is a very uplifting lineup of spirituals and gospel music:

WALK TOGETHER CHILDREN

OH, FREEDOM

I’VE BEEN ‘BUKED

AINT A THAT GOOD NEWS

KING JESUS IS A LISTENIN’

JUST TELL JESUS

WHEN YOU WANT TO TALK TO JESUS

JUST A LITTLE TALK WITH JESUS

UNDER HIS WINGS

I LOVE THE LORD

I BELIEVE (From the Gospel Mass)

LIFT EV’RY VOICE AND SING

THAT’S ENOUGH

Feel free to join us that morning!

Verna Holley, our director, just produced a new CD entitled “In a Time of Trouble” which is very comforting. It is made up of 15 hymn arrangements and is just beautiful. She may have some copies with her on Saturday.

Focusing Back on the Cup

Politics is damn distracting — all sparkly, full of itself, and seemingly important. But I’ve decided to treat Politics like my dentist or proctologist — a necessary evil seen infrequently.

Instead, I’m focusing back on the cup with the water in it. You know the one. Sometimes it looks half full, sometimes it looks half empty depending on your perspective on life. I had a Facebook friend challenge me recently to look at my cup. At first, my cup looked empty. Just when I was starting to nod in agreement, I realized the evening light was playing tricks with my eyes. And I was too close to the cup anyway. As I backed up, the water level was right around half way and it dawned on me that my life is at least half full.

I have a steady, though small, regular income; I may be the last person on Earth to get a pension, but as of this writing I still have one. It’s roughly 33% of my previous income as a teacher, but it’s something. And I have numerous opportunities to make more money: Schuler Books gives me money for hanging out there and helping people find books they want; I’m writing an online unit for Youth Voices; and ASPPIRE of Mid-Michigan just asked me to job coach a bit more and teach a Personal Finance class soon. Maybe I can learn something from that Finance class to help me keep some of my savings in the bank. Retirement from teaching has given me time to read, to write, to exercise more often, and to volunteer in various places — all blessing to be sure.

Plus, I have a loving family and wife, I have my health, I live in a safe country without many natural disasters in my area, and my community/city (ELi needs your help) is a very diverse, close group of people. My faith in God also sustains me. Though I’ve struggled with seeing it clearly, God’s presence in my life is a constant reassurance and strength — definitely part of that full part of the cup.

That empty, top-half of the glass does concern me, but I’m trying to see it more for its opportunities. I don’t think we can ignore the half-empty part of the cup. It’s the yin to the cup’s yang; neither could exist without the other. There are the obvious, recent causes of looking at the cup as half empty: our President-elect has no experience to lead us and has surrounded himself with a bunch of like-minded, wealthy, self-absorbed puppets; millions of people voted for this guy; climate change is real and we’re not doing enough to stop it; our country is still incredibly racist and sexist at a deep level; we won’t address poverty in any real way so as to affect educational opportunities for a great many young people in any transformative way; too many people live in fear and lack hope for the future…. It’s overwhelming if you focus on it. I’m acknowledging all of it, but I’ve decided to take the Serenity Prayer approach to it as much as possible.

Here it is if you need a reminder:

The Serenity Prayer

God grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change;
Courage to change the things I can;
And wisdom to know the difference.

Living one day at a time;
Enjoying one moment at a time;
Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;
Taking, as He did, this sinful world
As it is, not as I would have it;
Trusting that He will make all things right
If I surrender to His Will;
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life
And supremely happy with Him
Forever and ever in the next.

Amen.

(prayer attributed to Reinhold Neibuhr, 1892-1971)

The things I can’t change just tend to infuriate me if I focus on them; I need to accept them and move on. I’m not saying it’s easy or even possible all the time, but that’s my goal. Other people…can’t change them. Who this country chose as a President…can’t change that. Deep breath. Moving on.

Even harder is having the courage to change the things I can change. Often that means rocking the boat and I’m not very good at that. But it needs to happen. I can call my senators and voice my concerns about Trump’s nominations (Check…did that today regarding DeVos). Not much rocking, but somewhat satisfying. Other, harder things involve digging deeper for courage: getting to know people of different races and cultures; working on improving relationships in my life; seeing a counselor when I need it; listening to people who think differently than I do; volunteering my time in ways that push my skills….

Yes, I see myself as a glass-half-full person. Life is good. I’m so grateful for the life I live. And The glass-is-also-half-empty. My life and the world could both improve greatly. I want to believe I’m learning to know the difference between what I can change and what I can’t…and I’m working to change those things I can.