My piece of beauty from the ashes

My piece of beauty from the ashes

Last week marked the start of this year’s poetry unit in English 2, another perennial favorite of mine.  But no matter how enthusiastic as I am, it never fails.  The minute I mention the word “poetry”, a chorus of disgruntled boys echo such sentiments as:

“Wasn’t poetry written by a bunch of men in tights?”

“Isn’t it just about duckies and bunnies and flowers in spring?”

“Poetry is for girls.”

Since this is not my first rodeo, I am quick with a reply. “Gentlemen, would you permit me one minute to convince you that poetry can be relevant and—dare I say it—enjoyable?”

I haven’t met a class yet that could resist the challenge.  The clock is ticking.

“First question… The original short stories you turned in last week were eight to ten pages each.  What if I were to tell you that your new poetry assignment this week could be accomplished in ten lines?”

Male heads nod in obvious approval.  My boys do appreciate efficiency.

“Second question… What if I were to tell you that you could write your poem about football?  Orcs?  Japanese swords?  Your last hunting trip?  Even about how much you dislike poetry?”

Big smiles.  Speak on, Teacher.  You are talking my language.

“Last question… What if I told you that your poem did not have to rhyme?”

Cha-ching.  Sold.  With twenty seconds to spare.

With this first objection surmounted, it is time to tackle the excuse that has plagued English teachers since the dawn of the chalkboard:  “But I can’t think of what to write.”

Here we seek to find exactly from whence doth inspiration flow.  Since every student is different, it stands to reason that the method of inspiration that works well for one might not suit another.  For each of the “tests” below, students write for two minutes and then count up the number of words.  Then they rank the tests in descending order, recognizing that the top three are the first methods they should use to generate their ideas:

Whatever Comes – For two minutes, ask them to write as many words, phrases, thoughts, or images that pop into their heads.  Typically this is slow-going and met with many blank stares.  Yet if you make them persevere, a reward awaits.  All but one or two will have this as their lowest scoring test, which proves a point:  if you are passively sitting on your bed or at your desk, waiting for inspiration to strike, you will probably be there a long time.

Meditating on Objects – John Keats wrote a three-page poem called “An Ode to a Grecian Urn”.  That’s an old, dusty Greek pot, people.  How did he get so much out of so little?  He contemplated the possible back-story of the piece, what king’s hands may have touched it and so on, and viola!  Instant poetry.

For this two-minute test, supply them with an object that does not appear very impressive but has a compelling history for you to share.  I bring in a rather large rusty, damaged metal cross that was once so pristine and polished it shone blue, a homemade gift welded by one of my former English 2 students.  So fetching was it that it earned a coveted spot on my living room wall.  There it remained, as the 2,000-degree flames that tore through Bastrop two years ago destroyed my house.  Not only was that cross the first thing that was recovered from the debris, but it was also a clear sign that the LORD was very present in the midst of our suffering.  Not such a hunk of junk after all.

Try the same tests with a piece of music, verse from Scripture, and a scene from nature.  Unlike other stunts, you are very welcome to try these at home.   You are also very welcome to share your results here.

About Mrs. Pahlow

Love English, love to teach.

One response »

  1. Evan Oliver says:

    “Dim drums throbbing, in the hills half heard, 15
    Where only on a nameless throne a crownless prince has stirred,
    Where, risen from a doubtful seat and half attainted stall,
    The last knight of Europe takes weapons from the wall,
    The last and lingering troubadour to whom the bird has sung,
    That once went singing southward when all the world was young. 20
    In that enormous silence, tiny and unafraid,
    Comes up along a winding road the noise of the Crusade.
    Strong gongs groaning as the guns boom far,
    Don John of Austria is going to the war,
    Stiff flags straining in the night-blasts cold 25
    In the gloom black-purple, in the glint old-gold,
    Torchlight crimson on the copper kettle-drums,
    Then the tuckets, then the trumpets, then the cannon, and he comes.
    Don John laughing in the brave beard curled,
    Spurning of his stirrups like the thrones of all the world, 30
    Holding his head up for a flag of all the free.
    Love-light of Spain—hurrah!
    Death-light of Africa!
    Don John of Austria
    Is riding to the sea.”
    -G.K. Chesterton.

    Don John of Austira, The Ride of the Light Brigade, Beowulf, The Wanderer, The Iliad, I could go on. Epic, funny, thoughtful, poetry is the ultimate vessel for human thought. Any young man who claims poetry is for girls hasn’t the foggiest idea what he is talking about. Thanks for teaching, it bears fruits beyond what you see during one or even six semesters. Keep up the good work.

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