A poem is a pearl


Inspired by a course I’m taking on poetry. Although I am learning a lot and have been given a trove of resources, I’ve found my output to be lackluster. The word “why” floats in my brain like a hard nugget beneath layers of questions. I ask myself: Is this my best work? (no) Has my inspirational well run dry? (feels like it) Is the attempt of something of this caliber at the end of a school year—this year in particular—a bad choice? (possibly) Do I love anything I have written? (maybe a line here and there but much of it feels stilted, stunted, superficial; my verse is not “alive,” Miss Dickinson, I don’t even have to ask). It’s a conundrum, really, how I can write poems every day for a month straight and then dive with great eagerness into a course on the craft only to find my Muse has departed. I am adrift in the ocean in a makeshift raft. Am I having a writerly crisis? (not exactly…but I AM re-evaluating my efforts). Is this my own fault? (perhaps I am not pouring myself into it as I should) If I were to “name my feelings,” what words come immediately to mind? (is “paralyzed” a feeling? How about “shy,” not as in being timid in front of others—heavens no!—but as in going to the doctor’s office and being handed a cup for obtaining a urine sample and discovering you have a “shy” bladder. Which leads me back to the thing at the center of it all: why).

I only know one antidote for writing malaise.

Writing.

Since the problem is poetry, poetry I shall write. On my own terms, for my own self.

Here’s a small beginning, anyway…

A poem is a pearl
with organic origins
that will not be rushed

hard grain entering
the shell of my skull, somehow
scratching my soft brain

provoking action
jets of milk-stimulation
solidifying

layer on layer
it materializes
from my own nacre

I can’t estimate
its costliness, completeness
beyond my own brain

…to be continued, I think…

...and, it just so happens that as I hit “publish,” WordPress tells me this is my 500th post.

Cracked pearl. Filter Forge. CC BY

Lead photo: Pearl. amboo who? CC BY-SA

Digging for awe: Golden shovel poems

I recently wrote a post for the CCIRA Professional Development Blog on the sometimes spirit-crushing work of literacy education. I will not list all of the contributing factors here; I will just say that there are many, especially during this long year of COVID-19. Prior to to writing the post, when asked what teachers are facing in regard to literacy and what is most needed, I responded: “A great lot of pressure at present. We have to able to relax some and find joy in our work.”

As I wrote, and as is usually the case, the path became clearer: Make room for awe.

That is my guiding “one little word” (OLW) for the year, see. And maybe for the rest of my life…

Yesterday I spoke with a colleague who will continue teaching virtually until the year ends in June, for students whose parents have chosen this option. She spoke of awe in regard to the Google Classroom chat feature: “So many more kids share their thoughts this way, more I’ve ever seen in person. I’m in awe of how much they have to say and how they encourage each other. We use the chat all the time now.”

This means students are writing more, which makes my heart sing. If ever there is a conduit for awe, it is writing.

Example: Have you noticed how many people—many students—have suddenly been enraptured by poetry after hearing Amanda Gorman? Who credits her childhood teachers and her school for valuing this kind of expressive, artistic, move-the-mountains writing?

I’ve been lamenting the loss of meaningful writing in elementary schools in my corner of the world, just when it it’s most needed—the writing workshop model having fallen out of favor in the last few years for an embedded, formulaic approach around a topic at a time. That is another whole story; suffice it to say that I am in awe of teachers and students finding their way back to writing that matters.

All of which brings me to Golden Shovel poems. It’s a form I’ve been playing with for about a year. It holds great appeal on a number of levels, practical, creative, metaphorical…the idea of mining for the nuggets of gold, the diamonds that lie within, often so unexpected, yet so important.

A teacher might give the Golden Shovel to students to dig something more out of whatever books they’re reading, songs they’re singing, famous speeches they’re studying, even a line a classmate has written—anything, really. Not necessarily as a response to the work itself, but latching onto any line that strikes them with its beauty, or pierces their hearts with its poignance, or stirs their souls with its power, to create something new and personally meaningful from it. Make room for awe…

Try digging with the Golden Shovel yourself. Take a line from a poem or a favorite book, speech, or song that has special appeal to you and transform it into something of your own. Each word in that line becomes the ending word of a line of your own poem (or the beginning word, if you prefer). Your poem may reflect an aspect from the original work. It may not. A Golden Shovel poem can mean whatever you wish; it’s just inspired by the line you use to create it.

I chose this line from Gorman’s Inauguration Day poem, “The Hill We Climb”: Even as we grieved, we grew.

Days roll on, even to odd, odd to even,

tossed dice, never quite landing, as

we wonder how that’s possible. Don’t we.

In the spinning we still loved as we grieved

and we’ll go on, won’t we, 

even as we did when odds against us grew.

And this one, from the book Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times, by Katherine May: We do not fade so easily from this life.

Now, who are we

and what should we do,

here where the sun shines not

and Earth’s colors fade.

Even so

consider how easily

we glide from

that room to this,

enduring, rather than living, life

And so I pass the Golden Shovel.

Here’s to the awe of your own discoveries.

Happy digging.

Photo: Golden shovels. Alachua County. CC-BY

*******

The annual Slice of Life Story Challenge with Two Writing Teachers is underway, 
meaning that I am posting every day in the month of March. 

This marks my fifth consecutive year.

The bottle

Today I have a literal “found poem.” Meaning not one derived from another’s work but as in finding it while going through folders from previous school years and unearthing poetry I’d modeled for students on writing around an object. I remember taking three objects with special meaning to me so the kids could choose which I’d write about.

They chose the bottle.

Which I found after my grandfather’s death, visiting the farm where he was born. It was the second and last time I walked this piece of land. The first time, my grandfather, grown old and frail, walked with me. Ten acres of fields bordered by trees is all that remains, but he showed me where the house once stood, and the barns, and the henhouse … all gone without a trace now.

Except for some long-buried treasures.

In the old days, farm families had a trash pile. What wasn’t burned away with fire, or washed away by ages of wind and weather, or destroyed by perpetual tractors and harrows, might be swallowed by the earth until the earth is ready to give it back.

I wasn’t expecting such a gift the day I walked alone, mourning my grandfather.

So, I told the students, as I prepared to draft, when you write about an object you might also consider the feeling the object triggers in you. For me, with this bottle, it’s wonder. I want to incorporate a sense of wonder in this poem.

And so I wrote for them, and they enjoyed making artistic suggestions (they wanted it to rhyme):

Granddaddy is gone
And I walk his old farm
How he loved this place
This wide-open space
Nothing now to see
Where barns and house used to be
Just an empty field
After harvest’s yield
Cold breeze blows
Through my heart, it goes
When I spot in a bit of grass
Sunlight glistening on—glass?
I momentarily forget my hurt
As I dig it from the dirt
—a bottle, imagine that
No telling how long it sat
Buried deep in this ground
As the as the years circled round
Whose hand touched it last
In that long ago past?
Clear glass, heavy, yet small
Cracked but unbroken, all in all
What unseen secrets must it hold
This bottle of stories untold

It holds untold stories, all right. I’ve not determined exactly what tincture this old bottle actually held. The faintest embossed image of a root, almost worn away, remains on the front. A health tonic, likely. I know my grandfather had a sister who died of diphtheria at age three, in 1907. I doubt the bottle is that old but I have visions of my great-grandmother nursing her ailing children and tossing that empty bottle onto the trash heap…

Sparking me to attempt a didactic cinquain:

Bottle
Antiquated, weather-worn
Eroding, cracking, enduring
Poured out for healing
Elixir

Or maybe a double reversed etheree:

Empty of that for which you were fashioned
vessel of life-blood for veins long ceased
drawn from roots to nourish my own
cold glass clasped in hands now still

spooned in mouths now silent
elixir fully
poured out, consumed
every drop

gone
cast off
forgotten
swallowed by earth
kept year after year
without ceremony
lying silent, eroding
enduring seasons, weathering
cracking but enduring, determined
to remain clear with your story obscured.

—oh, little bottle.

How I wish you could speak.

The baby dragon

I am not sure what inspired me to write this poem as a teenager. Likely it was born from a love of fantasy and mythology. Perhaps I was just playing with rhyme. Maybe I was feeling silly. Or all of the above. The only thing I’ve changed from the original is some punctuation.

Nevertheless, consider yourself forewarned, should a baby dragon drop in to visit YOU

Once, a baby dragon

dropped in to visit me.

He flew right through my window

(he’s not too bright, you see).

He was quite a charming fellow

with enormous, greenish scales,

quite polite, this dragonlet,

who came to hear my tales.

I told him one of Pegasus,

the horse with wings of gold.

I told him one of Camelot,

of days when men were bold.

The dragonlet, he loved these tales!

He begged and begged for more;

once he laughed so very hard

he burned down my front door.

I told him of the Lion King

who secretly had sworn

not to tell the whereabouts

of the only Unicorn.

When morning’s light awoke me,

the dragonlet had gone.

The only trace I found of him

was on my neighbor’s lawn.

Photo: Baby dragon. Derek Hatfield. CC BY

Metaphor

For metaphorMorning glory. Jason BolderoCC BY

Following a poetry unit in fourth grade, the teacher invited me to collaborate on arts-integrated assessments. We set it up by having students choose 1) Poetry concepts they learned and 2) The vehicle for conveying their understanding, one of the multiple intelligences: arts smart, math smart, music smart, body smart, self smart, people smart, word smart, science/nature smart, and one extra that we added, tech smart.

Students could collaborate if they’d selected the same “smart.” They were free to think and design as long as the activity or product defined or represented the selected elements of poetry – imagery, personification, alliteration, simile, etc. Some students chose to make games and puzzles (math smart) with their poetry concepts. Some went straight for Chromebooks. Some preferred sketching and drawing (later in this process one student who struggles with academics will show me how she intentionally incorporated perspective and 3D elements in her art smart visual representation of imagery). A team of body smart students began choreographing a dance to define three concepts. One student wanted to write a song. 

So much excitement, so much brilliance, yet no one picked “metaphor”— the word sat all alone on the chart where students placed their names beside the poetry elements that they wanted to demonstrate.

And no one chose “word smart” as the mode. They had, however, written their own poems during the unit.

I pointed out that word smart is naturally interwoven with music smart in writing a song, and with body smart in the chants accompanying the dance. Words play their part in slideshows, in the puzzles and games, and in all the conversation the kids were having about how to best represent the concepts in these ways.  

As for metaphor . . . the students grinned. With lots of teeth. “You said you’d give us a model.”

Ah. So I did. Is that why no one picked “metaphor” and “word smart”? Was this a conspiracy?  A throwing down the gauntlet?

I smiled inside myself. I would have chosen metaphor anyway (I think). And what better “word smart” way to convey its meaning than through poetry?

When I returned, rough draft poem in hand, I posed a question: “First, I need to make sure you know for yourselves what metaphor is. How would you define it?”

Their responses:

“An image that stands for something else.”

It helps paint a picture in the reader’s mind.”

You can’t say ‘like’ or ‘as’ because that’s simile. You have to say something IS something else.”

A comparison.”

Wordplay.”

Really, guys? And none of you picked metaphor? Seriously?” I asked in mock exasperation.

Giggles. They sit gathered round my chair, on the rug at my feet, these young sages waiting for me to read.

What is metaphor?

Metaphor is the sun behind the clouds

the heavens reaching long, shining fingers

down to the earth of our minds.

Metaphor is the moon on the ocean of knowledge

bits of silver smiles shining on a dark surface

that’s always moving, moving, moving.

When I say that home is the velvety warmth of my dog

and the laughter of my family around the dinner table

that’s metaphor.

What is metaphor for?

Well, meta means beyond.

Metaphor is understanding

in a deeper way.

Without metaphor

imagery is a just a strange skeleton

without flesh and color

something we don’t recognize.

Metaphor is what we know

helping us to see better.

Metaphor is new glasses.

Metaphor is the cloak

thrown over the invisible

to make it appear

and have shape

and make sense.

Without metaphor

poetry would shrivel

and maybe die.

Metaphor waters the poet-tree

and keeps it alive.

That’s meta.

That’s what it’s for.

Metaphor.

In one motion their hands went up to flutter or “sparkle” in silent applause; I had a fleeting sense of being in a beatnik coffee house, minus the sound of finger snaps. Of course these artists, mathematicians, scientists, all, will be chomping to give me specific feedback with the rubric that I helped them create. They’ll do it thoroughly and gleefully, rest assured.

Such a jewel-encrusted, double-edged sword, teaching.