Episode V-Ants on the Blacktop Weeds on the Hill

A poet can usually point to a defining moment when a poem leads the way into a new understanding of what poetry can be.  For me that discovery came in high school when I decided to do a paper on the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas.  In his poetry I felt like an explorer confronted with a landscape familiar yet charged with difference, a world lived in, looked at but never truly seen before.  Why not introduce students to that place where new ideas fell like a shaft of sudden sun on a stormy day?  Dylan Thomas challenges his readers to let go of the rules of grammar that corral our language behind well-constructed fences.  To introduce Thomas, I tell students where he was born and when he lived.  For elementary school, this is about all they need.  They are more interested in writing than in a long biography of the poet.  Older students probably would be interested in more detail.  However, in my situation I only have 45 minutes to an hour with upper grades so the focus needs to me on writing

I first used this lesson at the end of a ten session fifth grade residency.  For weeks, students have heard about active verbs.  With Thomas verbs and nouns appear again but they’re all turned around.  They follow the poem as I read for them one stanza at a time these excerpts from “Poem in October” published in 1946 near the end of Thomas’ life.  I include in parenthesis definitions of some of the more obscure words.

from Poem in October

It was my thirtieth year to heaven

Woke to my hearing from harbour and neighbour wood

And the mussel pooled and the heron

Priested shore

The morning beckon

With water praying and call of seagull and rook (a bird something like a crow)

And the knock of sailing boats on the net webbed wall

Myself to set foot

That second

In the still sleeping town and set forth.

 

My birthday began with the water-

Birds and the birds of the winged trees flying my name

Above the farms and the white horses

And I rose

In rainy autumn

And walked abroad in a shower of all my days.

High tide and the heron dived when I took the road

Over the border

And the gates

Of the town closed as the town awoke…

 

Here were fond climates and sweet singers suddenly

Come in the morning where I wandered and listened

To the rain wringing

Wind blow cold

In the wood faraway under me…

 

There could I marvel

My birthday

Away but the weather turned around.

 

It turned away from the blithe country

And down the other air and the blue altered sky

Steamed again a wonder of summer

With apples

Pears and red currants

And I saw in the turning so clearly a child’s

Forgotten mornings when he walked with his mother

Through the parables (a simple story illustrating a moral or religious lesson)

of sun light

And the legends of the green chapels

 

And the twice told fields of infancy

That his tears burned my cheeks and his heart moved in mine…

It was my thirtieth

Year to heaven stood there then in the summer noon…

O may my heart’s truth

Still be sung

On this high hill in a year’s turning.

At the end of each stanza, we look for new uses of words.  Discovery follows discovery:  “thirty years to heaven” instead of just thirty years old, the twist on “pooled”, “priested” is a made up word that becomes an adjective.  Students’ love of having the right answer leads to quite a competition as each student looks for new word uses and unusual placement of words.  They enjoy the birthday announced with “birds of the winged trees flying my name” while he walks in a “shower of all my days.” The verbal, “wringing,” surprises us when it is used instead of rain falls.  Then comes the turn of the poem “but the weather turned around.”  This phrase leads the poet down the path of memory to a simpler time when as a child he lived in the “parables of sun light” instead of in a world where war clouds the days.  At the end of my reading, I ask the students to share what they have learned about the poet from reading this section of “Poem in October.”

Before going outside to write, we try using language in unusual ways.  We create lines like “my childhood booked me into writing” and “the chase of trees, the sway of birds, they are no more.”  For the assignment, I encourage students to talk about memories or to create vivid word pictures while trying to use language in new ways or simply to turn their poems loose and let their images surprise them.  This is my last chance to remind them that the poet doesn’t need to know where the poem is going.  What a delight to surprise yourself as well as your reader.  For much of their lives as students, they have to plan ahead and march to a logical conclusion.  So I choose the following two poems to use here because they surprised their writers as well as their readers.

emptiness

emptiness of people

no one nothing

halls empty

streets empty

buildings empty

this makes my soul empty

my heart empty

my body empty

I am alone

me, my pencil

my paper

I am alone

no one there

 

still float stop go

there is no up there

is no down  there are

no cities  there are no

towns yet i’m stuck

in a fake world

no time no clock

there are no mountains

there are no rocks yet

i’m stuck there

is no punctuation

there are no lines

but yet i’m stuck

A.J. , Fifth Grade

 

Trapped

I’m trapped between two

parallel lines, no way out.

I’m trapped forever.

Somehow, I don’t feel

bad.  The music of other

happy things comforts me.

Just think,

to us music,

to them words.

Vlad , Fifth Grade

For me, the best part of being a poet-teacher lies in the thrill of showing students how to leap into new ways of thinking.  When students express the freedom they feel when they let go of their

minds as the controlling instrument of their poet, I know I can warm myself in the memory of those images that stretch into another dimension of language.

 

Brinnin, John Malcom, ed. A Casebook on Dylan Thomas.  New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1960.

 

About Winding Stream Press

Janice DeRuiter Eskridge, M.F.A. is a poet who worked for over a decade as a poet-teacher for California Poets in the Schools. Helen Shoemaker, Ph.D. L.M.F.T. is a university professor who teaches in the areas of child development and counseling. She is also a therapist in private practice.
This entry was posted in Articles, Lessons for Outside and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Episode V-Ants on the Blacktop Weeds on the Hill

  1. I have learned a lot about poetry from this series…thank you.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s