Walt Whitman. I now associate him with Robin Williams’ Dead Poets Society when he is coaxing Ethan Hawks’ character to create a poem about “Uncle Walt.” A “sweaty-toothed madman” is the description that rolled out. Walt Whitman is a bit of a madman. He wrote and rewrote Leaves of Grass throughout his career–sadly his new approach to poetry wasn’t readily embraced which is reflected in this poem.
I can relate to Walt and his statement about being open-minded to new ways of thinking. While his writing was not fully embraced in his time, Whitman is now considered one of America’s greatest poets.
Shut Not Your Doors to Me Proud Libraries
by Walt Whitman
Shut not your doors to me, proud libraries,
For that which was lacking among you all, yet needed most, I bring;
A book I have made for your dear sake, O soldiers,
And for you, O soul of man, and you, love of comrades;
The words of my book nothing, the life of it everything;
A book separate, not link’d with the rest, nor felt by the intellect;
But you will feel every word, O Libertad! arm’d Libertad!
It shall pass by the intellect to swim the sea, the air,
With joy with you, O soul of man.
January is that in between month. The newness of winter’s snow has moved into icy gray lumps at the side of the driveway. In order to not lose myself in thinking I’m stuck into a Narnian winterland, I try to see winter from different perspectives. I appreciate the idea of stubbornly clinging on to the past season of leafy trees and, of course, Whitman always has a new view to consider. There is also William Carlos Williams and his take on the first month of the year.
Winter Leafage by Edith Matilda Thomas
Each year I mark one lone outstanding tree,
Clad in its robings of the summer past,
Dry, wan, and shivering in the wintry blast.
It will not pay the season’s rightful fee,—
It will not set its frost-burnt leafage free;
But like some palsied miser all aghast,
Who hoards his sordid treasure to the last,
It sighs, it moans, it sings in eldritch glee.
A foolish tree, to dote on summers gone;
A faithless tree, that never feels how spring
Creeps up the world to make a leafy dawn,
And recompense for all despoilment bring!
Oh, let me not, heyday and youth withdrawn,
With failing hands to their vain semblance cling!
Sounds of the Winter by Walt Whitman
Sounds of the winter too,
Sunshine upon the mountains—many a distant strain
From cheery railroad train—from nearer field, barn, house
The whispering air—even the mute crops, garner’d apples, corn,
Children’s and women’s tones—rhythm of many a farmer and of flail,
And old man’s garrulous lips among the rest, Think not we give out
Forth from these snowy hairs we keep up yet the lilt
January by William Carlos Williams
Again I reply to the triple winds
running chromatic fifths of derision
outside my window:
You will not succeed. I am
bound more to my sentences
the more you batter at me
to follow you.
And the wind,
as before, fingers perfectly
its derisive music.
at least according to some of my freshmen. I can understand their point. Who wants to study grammatically incorrect phrasings and try to make sense of what they are talking about when you are doing all you can at trying to get a handle on whether it’s “A” day or “B” day and what lunch you have (“ummm, first lunch on “A” day or was that “B” day?). But we’ve made a commitment to Common Core and it’s full speed ahead.
Cover of Dead Poets Society
Actually, I’ve always been a proponent of poetry. I’ve brought cowboy poets into the classroom, Beatle songs, clips of Robin Williams doing his crazy wonderful teacher in Dead Poets Society, and provided recipes for poems. I had football players writing love poems and entering contests, mud boggers writing sonnets about their trucks. We’ve explored performance poetry through Taylor Mali’s incredible YouTube videos and we’ve participated in a packed-out community program of youth performing their own poetry.
Common Core though, I’ve noticed, has dented my zing. I’ve been having students prepare for their SBAC (I should know what that means) by writing up reaction paragraphs to each poem as a means of them practicing their critical thinking skills. There is nothing wrong with understanding and recognizing how, or what, or why the poem works, yet poetry is so different from prose. It should encourage the soul to sing. I’m afraid in my zeal for my students to do well on their tests by getting their writing skills up to stuff I’ve lost my way towards my original goal of greeting me with “What’s the poem today?” with that anticipation of a new flavor to relish.
Hmm, some Walt Whitman and Song of Myself might do it…
It’s been too long since I paid attention to my Musings of a Voracious Reader list. Tidying up my files I discovered entry #9: Poems to Know and Grow On and it seems quite appropriate as a post-Valentine’s Day post, since poetry is the food of love (right next to chocolate).
As I teach poetry, especially as I prepare my AP students for their exams in May, I am reading more and more poets and poetry. This is a good thing. In fact, I am now taking on what I have deemed as the “Emily Project” which is discovering Emily Dickinson. Understanding her would be another project in itself.
As I teach, read, and study poems I have gathered a few along the way. I dearly wish I had a better knack for memorization because I would like to pull out a poem for any occasion and dazzle, delight, and demonstrate the power of poetry to any willing listener. I love it when that moment arrives in a movie when one character starts a poem and another finishes it. Remember Willoughby and Marianne from Sense and Sensibility? *sigh*
This is simply a sprinkling of poems I have deemed worth knowing and to grow on:
7. This Is Just To Say by William Carlos Williams–after I discovered this was actually a note to his wife I embraced the poem even more
8. The Tyger by William Blake–imagine seeing a tiger for the first time; how can something so exquisitely beautiful be also so incredibly deadly?
9. One Art by Elizabeth Bishop–the more I read Bishop the more I realize what talent she has for capturing life’s moments
10.I Hear America Singing by Walt Whitman–“a sweaty-toothed madmen” claimed Todd from Dead Poets Society, when asked what he thought of Uncle Walt; Whitman is clearly underrated (check out the Poem Flow when you hit the link or better yet check out this YouTube)
11. Sonnet 130 by William Shakespeare–the Bard employs his wit whilst he poketh funneth at the syrupy nature of sonnets
12. We Real Cool by Gwendolyn Brooks–no matter the era, youth’s self-destruction prevails
13. Fog by Carl Sandburg–its simplicity speaks volumes
14. The Daffodils by William Wordsworth–my heart gladdens of spring’s promise as the daffodils lift their golden heads above winter’s chilly grasp
And there are fourteen poems, a drop of verses in the deep well of that which stirs the soul, as a nod to Valentine’s Day and the tradition of sweet rhymes, chocolate, and roses.
One last poem to know and grow on, not necessarily my favorite, but definitely memorable. True love is memorable, as Poe so deftly renders in this tribute to his lost love. This one usually makes my ninth grade students pause, which is one reason I refer to it.
It was many and many a year ago,
In a kingdom by the sea,
That a maiden there lived whom you may know
By the name of Annabel Lee;
And this maiden she lived with no other thought
Than to love and be loved by me.
I was a child and she was a child,
In this kingdom by the sea:
But we loved with a love that was more than love--
I and my Annabel Lee;
With a love that the winged seraphs of heaven
Coveted her and me.
And this was the reason that, long ago,
In this kingdom by the sea,
A wind blew out of a cloud, chilling
My beautiful Annabel Lee;
So that her highborn kinsman came
And bore her away from me,
To shut her up in a sepulchre
In this kingdom by the sea.
The angels, not half so happy in heaven,
Went envying her and me--
Yes!--that was the reason (as all men know,
In this kingdom by the sea)
That the wind came out of the cloud by night,
Chilling and killing my Annabel Lee.
But our love it was stronger by far than the love
Of those who were older than we--
Of many far wiser than we--
And neither the angels in heaven above,
Nor the demons down under the sea,
Can ever dissever my soul from the soul
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee:
For the moon never beams, without bringing me dreams
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And the stars never rise, but I feel the bright eyes
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side
Of my darling--my darling--my life and my bride,
In her sepulchre there by the sea,
In her tomb by the sounding sea.
Virginia Poe watercolor painted after her death in 1847. From eapoe.org Category:Edgar Allan Poe (Photo credit: Wikipedia)