Monday, December 10, 2012

What your kids can do

My favorite poem is O Captain, My Captain by Walt Whitman.
It truly is a powerful poem, but this poem is probably my favorite because it is the only poem I ever memorized in school and the only one I remember. It's pretty much been my only poem for years.

My other two favorite poems are these (found in the fantastic The Random House Collection of Children's Poetry illustrated by the fabulous Arnold Lobel): 
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A peanut sat on a railroad track
His heart was all a-flutter
The five-fifteen came rushing by
Toot-toot, peanut butter


Algy met a bear
The bear met Algy
The bear was bulgy
The bulge was Algy

Both of those make me laugh every time I read them. Like crying-laughing, I think they're so funny. But you will notice they are both written by Anonymous, which may have some deeper, psychological meaning. Maybe I long to be anonymous. Or maybe I feel anonymous. Or maybe I just really like the word, "a-flutter."

But, anyway, after reading this post on Sam's cousin's great blog:
I got to thinking.

Since I'm homeschooling two of my kids right now, why not force them to memorize poetry? It just seemed like the right thing to do, though I will admit that in my heart of hearts I felt like a big, fat hypocrite doing it because I don't really like poetry. And all I can remember of O Captain, My Captain is, "O Captain, My Captain our fearful trip is done. Our ship has weathered every wrack, the prize we sought is won."

Not much.

And then I had Mary memorize this:

Five A.M. in the Pinewoods 

I'd seen
their hoofprints in the deep
needles and knew
they ended the long night

under the pines, walking
like two mute
and beautiful women toward
the deeper woods, so I

got up in the dark and
went there. They came
slowly down the hill
and looked at me sitting under

the blue trees, shyly
they stepped
closer and stared
from under their thick lashes and even

nibbled some damp
tassels of weeds. This
is not a poem about a dream,
though it could be.

This is a poem about the world
that is ours, or could be.
one of them—I swear it!—

would have come to my arms.
But the other
stamped sharp hoof in the
pine needles like

the tap of sanity,
and they went off together through
the trees. When I woke
I was alone,

I was thinking:
so this is how you swim inward,
so this is how you flow outward,
so this is how you pray.

Mary Oliver

Mary (my Mary) first had to memorize this poem which gave me lots of chances to listen to it. (lots)
I began to fall in love with it, though I wasn't sure why.

Then I asked her to analyze the poem. Explain the shape of it, I said, or Oliver's comma choices, or her line breaks, or how it makes you feel. Anything.

This was not good. This caused for some serious stressing out on Mary's part (perhaps because of the vague instructions...), and since I had no answers to any of these questions myself (knowing nothing about poetry), I just kept saying, "You can do this. You can come up with something."

Which only led to more stressing out by Mary.

Then I finally said, "What do you think the ending means? Even just the last line, and not what it means to Mary Oliver, but what does it mean to you?" (I might have said this in a louder voice than necessary)

Mary threw up her hands and went back to the table. By now, I had lost all hope that this would turn out well. I couldn't analyze poetry, how I could I expect Mary to?

Then she came to me and read her brief essay which essentially said, when the deer was about to come into the her arms, she felt like she was with God, with something higher than her, something bigger than her, like she was playing God maybe. But then the other deer stamped, breaking the spell. That is like prayer. You pray and there is a magical moment, when you're talking with God, you're on the same level with God in that instant—talking like a friend. Then something happens and real life sets in and the spell is broken, but you remember the moment. You remember the moment you were so close to God.

Holy cow, Mary, was all I could articulately say in response. If I had been asked that question, I would have mumbled vaguely about how prayer is like going into nature and coming closer to God, blah, blah, blah.

But Mary came up with something so much better and deeper. Something that was hers completely. Something I hope she'll remember.

I'm not sure if this post is about the wonders and beauty of poetry or if this post is about the wonders and beauty of our children.

Maybe it's both.

By the way, if you are interested in a fantastic collection of Mary Oliver's poetry (I now love her and am beginning to love poetry in general), get this:

Mary Oliver: New and Selected Poetry Volume One
New and Selected Poems, Volume One

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