Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Do you "get" Poetry?

I've happened upon a few very good guides to poetry. I'd like to remember them for when the kids are older, as navigational guides. I'm thinking ahead to how we'll teach them all kinds of things, and starting a system for filing books I might like to read with them later.

Anyway, these books might help with what bothers and intimidates so many people about poetry. We know what to do with a story, how to read it; but we get lost when we enter a poem. You know, "what does it mean?"
I very much myself enjoyed reading The Roar from the Other Side by Suzanne U. Clark. I might use it with the kids in the late-grade school years. She nicely explains the standard list of literary devices, giving excersises for students. It made me want to take up my own pen. She includes great texts by new poets I'd never heard of, as well as some you'd expect.
I've just begun John Ciardi's How does a poem mean? This volume may be appreciated by anyone who has asked, perplexed, of any poem or all poems, "what does it mean?" It might work as a good textbook, denser than The Roar from the Other Side. By textbook, understand that I mean, as I said above, a good guide, not a dry manual. There are many unfortunate textbooks out there, useful for completing workbooks and putting one to sleep before big exams. A good text is written by one who knows and loves their territory. Like a good wilderness guide. When I was in staff training to become a guide for wilderness canoe trips, our guide was a man who knew the lakes we paddled. He knew our equipment. He knew how to navigate. He knew what we needed to learn.
He also loved the land. He swam in the (cold!) water each morning upon waking. I noticed, almost upon meeting him, that he loved the words for the animals, history, and plants of the lakes country. He spoke the names of things deliberately. There is a joy in the particular nomenclature of a place, words that record its particularity. He sang, as we paddled across long lakes.

A singing guide is one who entices his students to follow in his steps. Likewise, these volumes on poetry are each written by a poet. Who but a woodsman could lead others through the wilderness? Similarly, can one become even a decent reader of poetry without writing a few? Though I loved to read as a child and adolescent, I was a terrible writer. Writing wasn't fun, because it never worked out well. But poetry is a key that can unlock some doors.
In my review of the first semester of my ninth grade english class, taught by my first good english teacher, and one of my best, I, in typical nerdly fashion, profusely thanked her for opening poetry to me and even more lavishly thanked her for not making us write poems. The first excercise she assigned the next semester was a big batch of original poems. Ten poems, with no other instructions or limits; ten original poems.
This was so good for me. After dousing us with a sea of all types of the poetic form, she simply pushed us off the dock. And so I learned to swim.
Well, Mary Oliver, a quintessential American poet; accessible, accomplished, and delightful, makes a good guide for writing verse. It's hard! She presents different forms for metered verse which will build the literary muscles of tawny poetic jocks and novice slow-pokes alike.

1 comment:

Bethany said...

Since you mentioned canoe guiding (and since I'm so excited that I'm telling everyone that I know!) I thought I'd tell you that I'm going to be canoe guiding this summer at camp Amnicon. There was a camp fair here at school and I stopped by thinking that I could swamp at Vermillion or somewhere, or else that something would grab my imagination, but when I started talking to the woman from Amnicon God yanked (pretty hard) on my heart and I interviewed on the spot. Half of the trips from the camp are specifically for "at risk" kids, and it promises to by the hardest and the most rewarding thing that I'll have ever done.

also: thanks for the book recomendations-- I've been loving up the poetry lately.