This is a poem neither your students nor mine have ever seen before. I wrote it yesterday evening, so it’s about as contemporary as you may get, in short supply of seated at this time and writing your own. In my experience it’s an income, breathing organism—not set in stone; tomorrow I could change it. An organism made of words, that every reader brings alive in her own way. Emily Dickinson says, “A phrase is dead / When it is said, / Some say. / I say it just / Begins to call home / That day.” (1)
Whatever my poem methods to me, I couldn’t possibly reduce this meaning to a prose paragraph. I don’t want to express, “It’s about making pot holders when I was young and homesick at summer camp,” or “This really is about my lack of my mother,” or “Actually, it’s about applied art versus fine art.” Or “It’s about the character of home and separation.” I didn’t put down, at the very least consciously, to create a poem about any one of this; I wanted to learn why seeing the pot holder when I opened a cabinet gave me an immediate, inexplicable urge to write. Since the poem’s written, and I’ve discovered some answers, I suppose I could say it’s about these things.
But I’m much more thinking about asking, “What does it say for your requirements?”—you who are reading it, remember, as if your daily life depended onto it, letting in your beliefs, your dream life, your physical sensations—and, I’d add to Adrienne Rich’s list, your memories and the mood you happen to stay just now…?
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We don’t have to start off with a discussion of what poetry is, or with a listing of figures of speech, or a quarrel about whether this is a good poem or even a lesser poem. I offer it, you take it or leave it. One thing I try to keep in mind to tell students when the initial poem of the year surfaces is that they’ll like some poems a lot better than others, aside from alleged “greatness.” I let them know I’m really wanting to see which poems each person chooses to share during the entire year ahead—or chooses to read aloud, copy into a notebook, go find more poems by the author of, write a poem back again to, or steal words from.
They are all fine responses to a poem, just as effective as writing a three-page critical analysis of it. Of course, many college professors won’t feel in this way, but carpe diem. At this time it’s high school. Or junior high. And surely there is life after college—some sixty years of it.
You can find certain advantages to starting off with a contemporary poem. Fewer footnotes, probably, meaning fewer opportunities for us to display our expertise: “In Shakespeare’s day the word ‘die’also described the minute of sexual consummation. So that is clearly a pun right there. And there’s an allusion—an indirect reference to religiomythicopastoralhistorical.”
Fewer preliminaries, too. Before I hand out Shakespeare’s sonnet about envying this man’s art and that man’s scope, I could might like to do some free-writing with my class on which they most envy within their friends and enemies, perhaps how envy feels, and what they themselves possess that others might envy. This helps create a common context for the poem, so that the unfamiliar language and inverted word order won’t bring fifteen-year-olds to a grinding halt. Then I’d read it aloud—again, before they see it on the page in every its footnoted and eternal greatness. I might even memorize the poem so I really could present it with the conviction and urgency that eye contact can give.
Another reason to start off with some current poems is that the contemporary poet is less prone to view a poem as a way to do some overt teaching: “They also serve who only stand and wait.” “The proper study of mankind is man.” Teenagers get enough of the from their parents and from us, so it’s not surprising should they prefer poems that give them a bit more leeway—that let them burrow (or skim) to see what the poem needs to offer them, not Mankind.