Tuesday, April 30, 2013

One last poem for April: The Trouble with Poetry by Billy Collins

I was reading Emily Dickinson today and I really want to post "My Life had stood--a Loaded Gun" but  this one is kinder and gentler and thematically appropriate.

The Trouble with Poetry
Billy Collins

The trouble with poetry, I realized
as I walked along a beach one night--
cold Florida sand under my bare feet,
a show of stars in the sky--

the trouble with poetry is
that it encourages the writing of more poetry,
more guppies in the fish tank,
more baby rabbits
hopping out of their mothers into the dewy grass.

And how will it ever end?
unless the day finally arrives
when we have compared everything in the world
to everything else in the world,

and there is nothing left to do
but quietly close our notebooks
and sit with our hands folded on our desks.

Poetry fills me with joy
and I rise like a feather in the wind.
Poetry fills me with sorrow
and I sink like a chain flung from a bridge.

But mostly poetry fills  me
with the urge to write poetry,
to sit in the dark and wait for a little flame
to appear at the tip of my pencil.

And along with that, the longing to steal,
to break into the poems of others
with a flashlight and a ski mask.

And what an unmerry band of thieves we are,
cut-purses, common shoplifters,
I thought to myself
as a cold wave swirled around my feet
and the lighthouse moved its megaphone over the sea,
which is an image I stole directly
from Lawrence Ferlinghetti--
to be perfectly honest for a moment--

the bicycling poet of San Francisco
whose little amusement park of a book
I carried in a side pocket of my uniform
up and down the treacherous halls of high school.

National Poetry Month is almost over, and I'm a little sad. I'm feeling sorry for the poems that I haven't shared with my (admittedly very small) public. I think I'll keep tossing them up here every once in a while, just to keep myself reading.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Poem #13: the lesson of the moth

the lesson of the moth
don marquis

i was talking to a moth
the other evening
he was trying to break into
an electric light bulb
and fry himself on the wires

why do you fellows
pull this stunt i asked him
because it is the conventional
thing for moths or why
if that had been an uncovered
candle instead of an electric
light bulb you would
now be a small unsightly cinder
have you no sense

plenty of it he answered
but at times we get tired
of using it
we get bored with the routine
and crave beauty
and excitement
fire is beautiful
and we know that if we get
too close it will kill us
but what does that matter
it is better to be happy
for a moment
and be burned up with beauty
than to live a long time
and be bored all the while
so we wad all our life up
into one little roll
and then we shoot the roll
that is what life is for
it is better to be a part of beauty
for one instant and then cease to
exist than to exist forever
and never be a part of beauty
our attitude toward life
is come easy go easy
we are like human beings
used to be before they became
too civilized to enjoy themselves

and before i could argue him
out of his philosophy
he went and immolated himself
on a patent cigar lighter
i do not agree with him
myself i would rather have
half the happiness and twice
the longevity

but at the same time i wish
there was something i wanted
as badly as he wanted to fry himself


This poem is from a series of poems (newspaper columns by Don Marquis, actually) written by Archy, a cockroach who was a free verse poet in a previous life. He is speaking to Mehitabel, an alley cat who was Cleopatra in a previous life. Archy types his poems on a typerwriter, jumping from key to key (hence no caps). I don't remember how or when I came across this poem, but isn't it great? 

For more about Don Marquis, Archy and Mehitabel, look here.

Poem #12: Not So. Not So.

Not So. Not So.
Anne Sexton

I cannot walk an inch
without trying to walk to God.
I cannot move a finger
without trying to touch God.
Perhaps it is this way:
He is in the graves of the horses.
He is in the swarm, the frenzy of the bees.
He is in the tailor mending my pantsuit.
He is in Boston, raised up by skyscrapers.
He is in the bird, that shameless flyer.
He is in the potter who makes clay into a kiss.

Heaven replies:
Not so! Not so!

I say thus and thus
and heaven smashes my words.

Is not God in the hiss of the river?

Not so! Not so!

Is not God in the ant heap,
stepping, clutching, dying, being born?

Not so! Not so!

Where then?
I cannot move an inch.

Look to your heart
that flutters in and out like a moth.
God is not indifferent to your need.
You have a thousand prayers
but God has one.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Poem #12: Dulce et Decorum Est by Wilfred Owen

Enough with the feel-good stuff. Here's an ass-kicker:

Dulce et Decorum est
Wilfred Owen

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of disappointed shells that dropped behind.
Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! - An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime. -
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin,
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, -
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est 
Pro patria mori.

It's horrible and heart-wrenching. The last bit in Latin means "It is sweet and fitting to die for one's country," a quote from the Roman poet Horace. I haven't read the Wiki on Horace, so I don't know if he ever fought in an actual battle and witnessed firsthand what he wrote about. The line is inscribed in front of the Arlington Memorial Amphitheater in Arlington National Cemetery. God knows that soldiers who fight and die for a great good cause deserve to be honored; but I wonder, along with Owen, about just how sweet and fitting their deaths really are.

Seven Nonfiction Journal Prompts That Work

So I tried one of the "one morning I woke up" jumpstart prompts with Tai last week and it kind of bombed. The "design  your own school" prompt worked well in September, but "I woke up as small as a mouse"--not so much. "Um," he said tentatively, "Can I just write about what I did on clonewarsadventures.com?"

Well, okay.

I'm not giving up on the mouse prompt. But if you have a kid who does not particularly like to make up fanciful stories, here are some non-fiction options. Tai used to rely on option 5 last year, and now he loves options number 1 and 2.
  1. Write about your latest exploits in the game you played today. What are your hopes/plans/goals for the next time you play?
  2. What did you build in Minecraft today? How did you do it? What are you planning next?
  3. Pick a few useful/important/cool game items and explain why they are important/useful/cool.
  4. Pick a few interesting/important/cool objects from a favorite game, movie, story, etc. and describe them as if for a DK Encyclopedia. (one sentence per item is fine, if there are four or five items. One item with four or five sentences is even better!) Drawing them is okay, but it extends the writing time.]
  5. Draw a spaceship (or car, or bike, or whatever) with special features and capabilities. Label and explain their uses.
  6. Draw a castle, (palace, fort, fairy dwelling, space station, house) with whatever special features you like. Label and explain.
  7. Draw a map of the room you would love to have, including colors, magic portals, hidden weapons caches, and explain what you've drawn. Label and explain.
One variation--which Tai came up with, bless his heart--would be to respond to prompt #1 in the voice of your child's online avatar. Or the avatar's arch-enemy! Great practice with voice and point of view.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Quote of the Week

I am not saying students should write sloppily or they should write ungrammatically, but you don't hear Oprah gushing, "We chose this book because of its neat margins." Or "This is a fine novel, with not one misspelled word."
--Barry Lane

Poem #11: The Gift

The Gift
Li-Young Lee

To pull the metal splinter from my palm
my father recited a story in a low voice.
I watched his lovely face and not the blade.
Before the story ended, he'd removed
the iron sliver I thought I'd die from.

I can't remember the tale,
but hear his voice still, a well
of dark water, a prayer.
And I recall his hands,
two measures of tenderness
he laid against my face,
the flames of discipline
he raised above my head.

Had you entered that afternoon
you would have thought you saw a man
planting something in a boy's palm,
a silver tear, a tiny flame.
Had you followed that boy
you would have arrived here,
where I bend over my wife's right hand.

Look how I shave her thumbnail down
so carefully she feels no pain.
Watch as I lift the splinter out.
I was seven when my father
took my hand like this,
and I did not hold that shard
between my fingers and think,
Metal that will bury me,
christen it Little Assassin,
Ore Going Deep for My Heart.
And I did not lift up my wound and cry,
Death visited here!
I did what a child does
when he's given something to keep.
I kissed my father. 

Friday, April 19, 2013

Poem #10: Let Evening Come

In honor of a hopeful ending to an awful week, and in honor of peace within.

Let Evening Come
Jane Kenyon

Let the light of late afternoon
shine through chinks in the barn, moving
up the bales as the sun moves down.

Let the cricket take up chafing
as a woman takes up her needles
and her yarn. Let evening come.

Let dew collect on the hoe abandoned
in long grass. Let the stars appear
and the moon disclose her silver horn.

Let the fox go back to its sandy den.
Let the wind die down. Let the shed
go black inside. Let evening come.

To the bottle in the ditch, to the scoop
in the oats, to air in the lung
let evening come.

Let it come, as it will, and don't
be afraid. God does not leave us
comfortless, so let evening come.

So much to say about this poem, but I'll just stick to how I love that in the beginning, "let evening come" is the command kind of "let" as in "let there be light", and by the end, it has become the "allow it to happen" kind of "let"--we can let go of our fear and our need for control, we can relax and let what happens, happen, because Someone will take care of us. It's going to be okay.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Jumpstart Journal Prompts: Schedules

    Sometimes even a jump start isn't enough. I got the idea for schedules from Peggy Kaye's Games for Writing. You can try using a schedule as a framework for the “one morning I woke up” prompts—this way kids can “schedule” plot points, which is sometimes easier than writing a continuous narrative. The schedule should count as the journal entry, even if your child doesn't use complete sentences. Here's an example from the “day of whatever I want to do” prompt:
  • One night, Dad told me that I would be allowed to spend the next day doing exactly what I wanted to. The next morning, I woke up at x:00 a.m. I was so excited! Here's what I did:
8:00                                                            9:00

  • I tried this with Tai, and it worked well. I did my own at the same time, which also worked well. Makes for a nice jumping off point for a discussion of favorite activities. 
  • Or--and I haven't tried this--have your writer make a schedule of what you think you would do with your day. And you can do one for her. Good exercise in empathy.

The schedule format can be massaged to fit the writer's needs and abilities—half-hour increments, less time, more time...kids can spend more than one hour doing things, too—they don't need to do 12 different things. But I think it makes sense to shoot for at least 8.

Poem #9: Medicine

Alice Walker

          Grandma sleeps with
          my sick
pa so she
can get him
during the night
to stop
   the pain

        the morning

Her eyes
look at me
from under-
his withered

   is all
her long

Another poem that I loved the moment I read it. Some people say that the best poems are the ones that you have to read over and over again to really get them and then you love them. I'm sure that this poem has more in store for me, and there are poems that I have only slowly grown to love, but I think great poems can also grab you and hold you instantly without having to be read over and over first.

Can You See Me Now?

I don't want to turn this space into a whine-fest about Los Altos schools and parents, because mostly it's pretty good here. First World problems, amirite? But there was this one other weird thing that happened a couple of weeks ago that I am still chewing on.

I volunteer in Kenzo's kindergarten classroom one afternoon a week, 'cause, you know, I'm a good parent like that. Also, who wouldn't, if they had time? I mean, it's just Ms. L and twenty-two kindergarteners, and both the state and the school district have charged Ms. L with teaching all of them to read, write, add, subtract, and sit quietly in their seats by the end of the school year. No small task. I'm happy to help.

So let's begin with the facts:
Fact: Ms. L is faced with a daunting task;
Fact: Many kindergarteners are not developmentally ready to do any of the things she is supposed to teach them to do;
Fact: Loud noises give Ms. L headaches.

Considering the facts, it is no surprise that much of Ms. L's time and energy is spent exhorting her kindergarten class to be quiet, sit still and do their work. It makes me little sad, but I guess I can't blame her. She's just trying to do her job and not get a headache.

Quote of the Week: Ernest Hemingway

All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.
--Ernest Hemingway

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Geometry, continued

Who knew I had this much to say? This is a post for my good friends, Rebecca (a physician assistant in East Palo Alto) and Alix (education researcher at in Menlo Park), with whom I discussed the geometry issue and more while we passed a water polo ball around this morning. I have such amazing friends. 

Dear Rebecca and Alix,

Thank you so much for your thoughts this morning on creating a culture that truly values--with its actions--education for everyone. I've been thinking about our conversation all day.

That's what pisses me off about the whole geometry thing--it's not about improving education. It's not about making schools better in any real way. It's about improving already privileged kids' chances to become more privileged. The futures of Los Altos School District kids will not be affected by whether or not they are on a BC or an AB Calculus track. They'll go to 4-year colleges and get white collar jobs regardless of whether or not they take geometry in 8th grade. It's ridiculous to get upset about options in AP Calc, considering the options faced by families in, say, Alviso or East Palo Alto. That said, I can't blame those parents for demanding what they think is best for their children.

So much has to do with ownership--with taking responsibility, with feeling entitled to the best education available. Intrinsic motivation starts with ownership, right? And a path toward mastery, and one other thing I forget. That's why the overprivileged families keep asking for more, more, more--because they feel entitled to more, and they are happy to shoulder the burden of getting it if it's not offered. On the flip side, maybe that's why underprivileged families stay that way--they don't feel entitled to the best, they don't know how to get it, and maybe they don't feel it's their responsibility anyway. And there are families who need to be coached into taking even a little responsibility for getting their kid to school, or for making sure she eats a good breakfast. I used to keep milk and cereal in my classroom for kids in my first period class, because they would show up with a candy bar from 7-11 for breakfast. Maybe I should have gone to their homes like Rebecca said they do at her clinic, and seen if I could get the parents to commit to feeding their kids breakfast, at least. Not all of them were so poor that they couldn't afford it. But I would not have done it well--face-to-face is not one of my strong suits. 

So maybe teachers (or someone) need to be trained to make those kinds of visits and phone calls. To coach those families in how to take ownership of their children's education. To make them feel--like that Los Altos woman--that their children's lives are at stake if they don't get the very best a school district has to offer, and that it's their one of their primary responsibilities as parents to act in that direction. 

But what teacher has the skills, time, and energy to do home visits to the parents of 15 kids who are failing her class? Parents who don't show up for scheduled meetings with the teacher at school? Jaime Escalante? That teacher who gets his inner-city 5th graders to love Shakespeare in that documentary whose title I forget? But these are people insanely dedicated to their work, who have almost no life outside of it, it seems. 

So everything needs to change. The way we organize schools, the way we think about communities/community.  

If you've stuck with me this far, thank you. And thanks again for the great conversation and for making me think carefully about these things.


Poem #8: Song of Myself

Well, not the whole thing, obviously. But one of my favorite sections. My very favorite lines are at the very end of this section.

 from Song of Myself  46  
Walt Whitman

I know I have the best of time and space, and was never measured, and never will be measured.

I tramp a perpetual journey—(come listen all!)
My signs are a rain-proof coat, good shoes, and a staff cut from the woods;
No friend of mine takes his ease in my chair;
I have no chair, no church, no philosophy;
I lead no man to a dinner-table, library, or exchange;
But each man and each woman of you I lead upon a knoll,
My left hand hooking you round the waist,
My right hand pointing to landscapes of continents, and a plain public road.

Not I—not any one else, can travel that road for you,
You must travel it for yourself.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Poem #7 Shameless Hussy

Clearly the Poem a Day is not going to be literally a poem a day. And that's...okay.

Shameless Hussy

yesterday i had a wild thot. hearing james brown on the radio singing say it loud: i'm black & i'm proud. i thot, wonder how it would feel to say, say it loud, i'm female & proud. it was obviously too silly. think how embarrassed i would be if a neighbor came to the door. what if john came home and i was making the bed yelling I'M FEMALE & I'M PROUD? i'd never hear the end of it.  i started saying it and nearly choked on the words. couldnt get them out. realized it was a lie. i aint proud. didnt have a thing to do with it. took pot luck and came out a broad. kept trying to say it. after a few tries, i could. it wasnt very loud. it was probly the quietest sound in the room. me patting pillows into place on the bed and muttering, i'm female & i'm proud. then i got a little hostile and said it loud, i'm female & proud and thot about it and wanted to feel it and said it loud i'm female & proud and after the record was over i yelled it a couple of times and it felt okay, and I havent done it since but maybe i will again.

Just...amazing. I love this poem.

Ten Jumpstart Journal Prompts: This morning when I woke up...

These prompts generally lead to narratives. They offer wish fulfillment, exercises in empathy, opportunities for creativity, and some practice with narrative structure.

My own child often claims that he can't think of anything to write about, even when I offer him what I think is a fun prompt. So I sometimes offer a few (too many?) “jump start sentences” to help him get going:
  1. My mom woke me up this morning and handed me the phone. It was the president of Cool Homes for Kids. He said that my mom had put my name in a lottery and I had won it! The company would give me as much money as I needed to build any kind of house I liked, anywhere in the world. Wow. I said thanks, and hung up the phone. I began to plan my house. First...
  2. This morning I woke up in a huge dark cave. The walls were soft, like cloth. As I made my way out, I realized with a shock that I was still in my bed—but I had shrunk down to the size of a mouse! What would I do? This could be good, or this could be bad. What would Dad say when he saw me—or didn't see me? Would I be able to speak to him?
  3. When I woke up this morning, I was not in my bed. I was curled up on the floor, and as I began to get up, I saw furry paws where my hands should have been. I straightened my legs, but my hands (paws) didn't leave the ground—and I was only as tall as [your dog or cat's name]. Oh, wow. This could be good, or this could be bad. And where was my body?
  4. When I woke up this morning and pulled the covers off, the covers seemed to move by themselves—and there was nothing underneath them! I stared. I knew my legs were right there, but I didn't see them. I looked at my arm. I saw nothing. I was invisible! Wow. This could be very cool. Or it could be pretty bad.
  5. One night, Dad told me that I would be allowed to spend the next day doing exactly what I wanted to. The next morning, I woke up at x:00 a.m. I was so excited to start my day!
5 more possibilities:
  1. I was [another member of the family].
  2. I woke up on the ceiling—gravity didn't work for me anymore.
  3. I was a stuffed animal. (Is the “real” kid still there? Are the other toys alive?)
  4. I was in the far distant future (or past). (Include a couple of details to get your writer started.)
  5. I was on another planet. (Include a couple of details to get your writer started.)

I haven't tried all of these, so I can't vouch for them 100%. But that's kind of the way it is with any prompt and any kid, right? 

Comments, ideas, variations or suggestions are always welcome.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Geometry for 8th Graders, or How Much Do You Love Your Child?

This is not about writing, but it is about education, and I have to vent somewhere. And what I'm writing is too snarky to send to the local paper, so I'm posting it here.

Ready? Okay.

Some loving parents in my little town are trying to do right by their children by fighting for a geometry option for advanced 8th grade math students, and the mean old school district is standing in their way. The school district says they don't want to promote a fast-track, get-ahead-at-all-costs mentality. Right on, says I. But I'll bet the school district also thinks that it will cost money to write the extra-advanced curriculum, and it will be a pain to schedule--but they're not going to say that on record, are they?

I'm not sure where I stand on this. I think that my community pushes kids a little too forcefully, academically. The definition of success here is pretty narrow: A's in school, lots of sports, top tier college admission, high-paying job. On the other hand, I kind of think sure, why not offer geometry in 8th grade to kids who are ready, with the caveat that they must really want to take it? Although who are we kidding--the kids will want to if their parents want them to want to. Following me?

But. The parents' and one trustee's arguments, quoted below, make me a teeny tiny bit sick:

"The Los Altos School District keeps its students doing warmups while the [Mountain View] Whisman and Cupertino students are running full speed. In a four lap race, the Los Altos School District students enter the race a full lap behind."
--Don Hana, parent

On the same theme:
"We need to get competitive or we will get left behind."
--Mark Goines, trustee

Um, first of all, I wasn't aware that high school (math) was a four lap race that kids should run at full speed. Are we talking about that infamous race to...nowhere? (Oh, how I love the irony.) God forbid Los Altos kids should get anywhere after kids from ghetto Mountain View. Some of those Mountain View families don't even own their own homes, for crying out loud.

Poem #6: Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening
Robert Frost

Whose woods these are I think I know.   
His house is in the village though;   
He will not see me stopping here   
To watch his woods fill up with snow.   

My little horse must think it queer   
To stop without a farmhouse near   
Between the woods and frozen lake   
The darkest evening of the year.   

He gives his harness bells a shake   
To ask if there is some mistake.   
The only other sound’s the sweep   
Of easy wind and downy flake.   

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.   
But I have promises to keep,   
And miles to go before I sleep,   
And miles to go before I sleep.

I love that last stanza.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Quote of the Week: Samuel Clemens

Anybody can have ideas--the difficulty is to express them without squandering a quire of paper on an idea that ought to be reduced to one glittering paragraph.
--Samuel Clemens

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Poem #5: The Garden

The Garden
Shel Silverstein

Ol' man Simon, planted a diamond
Grew hisself a garden the likes of none.
Sprouts all growin', comin' up glowin',
Fruit of jewels all shinin' in the sun.
Colors of the rainbow,
See the sun and rain grow
Sapphires and rubies on ivory vines.
Grapes of jade, just
Ripenin' in the shade, just
Ready for the squeezin' into green jade wine.
Pure gold corn there,
Blowin' in the warm air,
Ol' crow nibblin' on the amnythyst seeds.
In between the diamonds, ol' man Simon
Crawls about pullin' out platinum weeds.
Pink pearl berries,
All you can carry,
Put 'em in a bushel and
Haul 'em into town.
Up in the tree there's
Opal nuts, and gold pears--
Hurry quick, grab a stick
And shake some down.
Take a silver tater,
Emerald tomater,
Fresh plump coral melons
Hangin' in reach.
Ol' man Simon,
Diggin' in his diamonds,
Stops and rests and dreams about

Oh, the poignant irony of the contrast between the laboring Simon, crawlin' about, pullin' weeds, diggin' in the dirt--and the marvelous, miraculous fruits of his labor. Oh, the pathos of that last line. That one...real...peach. Plain, simple, lovely, with that internal rhyme and the soft sounds, "r" and "l", "p" and "ch", nothing remarkable about it but its reality and its impossibility, at least in that dream garden. Oh, the longing in those ellipses. And so much more. Who ever said Shel Silverstein poems were for children?

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Writing Game: Haiku Riddles, Tanka Summaries

In keeping with the today's haiku theme. Although this exercise is not about writing poetry, per se, you can certainly use it that way, too. I was inspired by a slightly simpler activity in the amazing Games for Writing by Peggy Kaye.

Audience: None, apart from student and teacher.

Purpose: It's a short game, meant for practice and fun. Capture key details of an object or person so that your partner can guess what (or who) it is.

Also good to know: Haiku and Tanka are Japanese poetry forms that are meant to express the essential feeling or image of a season, an emotion, an event. They are very short, and demand concision and accuracy.

Haiku are three lines long, with only seventeen syllables in all:
5 syllables
7 syllables
5 syllables

Poem(s) #4: Haiku

Star Wars haiku by Tai:

He wears green armor.
It is Mandalorian.
Who is he? Boba Fett.

Has a bunch of weapons.
It does not have hyperdrive.
It has 4 cockpits.

Some haiku by Basho (1644 - 1694)

The old pond.
A frog jumps in--
The sound of water.

butterflies flit
in a field of sunlight
that is all

How admirable,
he who thinks not, "Life is fleeting,"
when lightning flashes!

A tanka from the Manyoshu, a collection of poems from the 7th and 8th century Japanese court:

At Iwashiro,
I pull and bind the branches
of pines on the beach.
If good fortune rescues me,
I will return to see them.

This is one of those poems that's much better when you have more information: It is written in the voice of Prince Arima, who in 658 was accused of plotting a coup against the Empress and her nephew. He was taken for questioning to Muro (now part of Wakayama prefecture), where the court was visiting the hot springs. On the way, he stopped at the coast of Iwashiro to tie pine branches together--a custom of travelers praying for a safe journey. Sadly, his answers did not please his interrogators and he was taken back up the coast and strangled to death. He was nineteen years old.

Does that change everything about the poem for you, or what? Poor, desperately hopeful, doomed Prince Arima. The last line just breaks my heart.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Quote of the Week: Anne Lamott

For me and most of the other writers I know, writing is not rapturous. In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts.
--Anne Lamott, from Bird by Bird

How funny and honest is she? How much do you wish she were one of your best friends? 

Bird by Bird is a great book about "writing and life". Check it out here. I would have quoted the whole chapter, entitled "Shitty First Drafts", but that would have been too long. You can read the chapter here.

Poem #3: Okay, Brown Girl, Okay

Okay, Brown Girl, Okay
James Berry

For Josie (9 years old, who wrote to me saying, "boys called me names because of my color. I felt very upset... My brother and sister are English. I wish I was, then I won't be picked on... How do you like being brown?")

Josie, Josie, I am okay
being brown. I remember,
every day dusk and dawn get born
from the loving of night and light
who work together, like married.
        And they would like to say to you:
        Be at school on and on, brown Josie,
        like thousands and thousands and thousands
        of children, who are brown and white
        and black and pale-lemon color.
        All the time, brown girl Josie is okay.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

It's Still National Poetry Month: Poem #2

Now I have this idea to post one great poem a day. Not the most original idea for National Poetry Month, but my poems are going to be the best ones.

Introduction to Poetry
Billy Collins

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem's room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to water-ski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author's name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

And that is why smart people like my husband don't like poetry because they think that poetry is hard. They think there's some kind of secret code or complicated formula that they never got, and that you can't read a poem properly unless you have the code so that you can figure out "what it really means", because otherwise, what's the point?

Well, he is an engineer. Maybe that's why he thinks this way. But I think it has more to do with clumsy or misguided teachers who thought that the purpose of reading poetry is to Find the Hidden Meaning. And maybe not having been given the right kind of poetry to read.

Let us all pledge henceforth and forever to read and teach poetry the Billy Collins way.

Monday, April 1, 2013

April is National Poetry Month

In honor of National Poetry Month, here are my first favorite poems ever, both by Mary Blair:

This is little Rabbit-Town
With rabbits marching up and down.
The chimneys stand up tall and high
Like rabbits' ears against the sky.

When Mrs. Rabbit buys a hat,
She turns her head this way and that.
Mrs. Rabbi's hat has two
Holes that let her ears poke through.

(She isn't pretty--not at all!
She's only just a bunny.
She thinks that she looks beautiful,
But, really, she looks funny!)

I read about those chimneys like rabbits' ears agains the sky, saw the illustration, and I was hooked. What an apt comparison. It was just perfect. (Plus, there were all those cute little rabbits dressed in their fancy city clothes. And darling Mrs. Rabbit gazing at her reflection in the mirror, her head tilted coquettishly to one side. That was one problem I had with "Hat". I didn't care what the poet thought--I agreed with Mrs. Rabbit that she looked beautiful.)

I was in first grade, and I loved those poems so much that I memorized them and plagiarized them in my elementary school's annual literary anthology, Sprig. I even copied the illustration from the book.

Not only did I plagiarize, I had the hubris to edit. When I read "Hat", I could not figure out how to make lines 3 and 4 of the first stanza scan properly. Or if I did, I felt that it was awkward. Not only that, but mentioning holes for ears seemed obvious and unnecessary. So I omitted those two lines in my version.

So: first favorite poem, first encounter with metaphor, first publication, first (and only) act of plagiarism, first act as critic and editor. Not bad for first grade.

Actually I loved that whole book. Looking back through it now, I still love it.