Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Robert Hayden, "Those Winter Sundays"

When I create my Hands on Stanzas syllabi for the year, I start by identifying certain dates around which I might be able to design a lesson plan -- holidays, of course, but also birthdays, remembrances, daylight savings time beginning or ending, and sometimes even more tenuous ephemera -- whatever works as a jumping off point for a particular idea. I had earlier noted December 21st as the official start of winter, and while I've previously done lessons that were explicitly winter-related (such as on Wallace Stevens' "The Snow Man"), going through my brainstormed list of possible poems to use for the year, Robert Hayden's brilliant 'American' sonnet, "Those Winter Sundays" struck me as ideal for the seasonal theme, as well as for rounding out the halfway point of my residency.

Like James Wright's poem from the week prior, Hayden's has an emotional potency that I think makes it ideal for young people. My students, for example, needed little prodding to make the connection between the father's unsung efforts on his family's behalf, and their wanton disappreciation of them. (We also talked about possible meanings of "the chronic angers of that house." I know from Hayden's bio about his contentious upbringing, but rather than telegraphing that information to students I am more prone to ask them what the line might mean, based on what we have already deciphered in reading the poem closely.) I also thought here was an ideal situation where I could stealthily introduce the concept of a sonnet to students, without taking them down a perhaps precarious pentametrist path.

For their writing idea, I gave students the sonnet's limitation of fourteen lines, and encouraged using more than a single stanza. (Many, in turn, emulated Hayden's three stanzas, but that's fine; prompting said emulation is another stealth method for teaching basic construction tenets of poetry composition.) I said that family should be the (perhaps loose) theme of their poems. Finally, I told them that their poems needed to be set during winter, but asked that they not use the word winter in the poem itself -- they could describe winter weather, or other facets of wintertime, or incorporate details about winter instead. (I did allow the use of 'winter' in the titles of those who asked.)

Here are poems from my three 5th grade classes at Shields. Enjoy!

Friday, December 11, 2009

James Wright, "A Blessing"

I've had James Wright on my shortlist for teaching since I started with Hands on Stanzas in 2003. However, as I tell my students each year, while I may return to certain poets with some regularity, I try to avoid bringing in the same poems, even if I have students in classes unfamiliar with them. (While the temptation is there to repeat particular poems -- call them favorites of mine, those with an addictive kind of resonance -- and/or poems that 'work' in the classroom, it's outweighed by the sheer number that get bumped from syllabi to syllabi.) I'd rather try out a new lesson and have it nosedive (or it's luminous alternative -- succeed beyond my wildest expectations) than pull out the same hoary poetry idea, albeit one that gets proven results. Teaching is a two-way affair: I am lecturing, after all, especially to younger children, as far as giving them the tools to begin working with and deciphering often intricate literary works, but their responses give me new insights into, and methodologies for teaching those same poems.

So I've finally gotten to Wright, and his poem, "A Blessing." Certain people have a strongly negative reaction to it (some are even professed fans of Wright), attacking its adroit melodrama and purple prosiness, but its intense earnestness could be what makes it such a teachable poem. An argument could be made that its intensity of feeling is a kind of naivete that works well with inspiring kids, but I think its unguardedness is a quality, an emotional plus, that transcends age barriers. Navigating its narrative to reach the poem's startling denouement -- its last three lines -- was a trek well taken, and while the concept that initiated the students' own poems might have been deceptively straightforward (and some of the resulting work superficial), the depth charges that combusted during our discussions of the poem itself were well worth it.

Once again, please read these Shields and Solomon student poems, and enjoy!

Saturday, December 05, 2009

John Haines, "The Sweater of Vladimir Ussachevsky"

The impetus for last week's Hands on Stanzas poem idea was the change in seasons. We've had a mild (and lengthy) fall here in Chicago, and only recently did winter begin to make itself known and felt -- while no snow currently clings to the landscape, just a few days ago we had our first serious flurries which transformed seemingly instantly into a full-fledged whiteout. Temperatures have also dropped into the thirties; my ritual morning check of the Weather Channel's Local on the 8s offers, as of this writing, no surcease from winter's chill.

Rather than have students write a weather poem -- a reliable and flexible idea unto itself -- I used the onset of winter to have them consider a favorite (or unfavorite) article of clothing. I asked them to describe it using as much detail as possible: color, size, shape, condition (old/new), material (cotton/wool/leather/fur/denim/rubber). How does it feel when you wear it? Warm, safe, (un)comfortable? Did it belong to someone else before? If so, who? Does it have an emotional component then? For the purposes of this poem, I defined "clothing" as anything they could wear, which would also include jewelry, glasses, hats, gloves, etc.

The poem I chose to read and discuss for inspiration is an interesting one: "The Sweater of Vladimir Ussachevsky" by John Haines. Haines is not a poet I was familiar with, and I found this particular poem by searching using a variety of different terms and databases. While there were others on my critical radar beforehand (Neruda has some terrific clothes poems, especially "Ode to My Socks"), I like how Haines begins his poem, focusing on the borrowed sweater and the more or less contemporary sense of place (New York City), and erodes reality through the first three stanzas to find the speaker, by the fourth (and longest) stanza, "in Siberia or Mongolia, / wherever I happened to be." Students reacted well to this slippage of time and place; even if the geographical layout was unclear to them, they knew something had happened to transport the speaker from urban New York to a mountainous terrain elsewhere. I also gave them some background on the poem courtesy of the poet himself, including information about the titular sweater-lender.

A poem such as this really opens the door to multiple interpretations and ideas, and at both of my schools we enjoyed discussing it as much as possible in what time we had. Here are the poems from Shields and Solomon students.

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