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
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
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
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
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 of people
no one nothing
this makes my soul empty
my heart empty
my body empty
I am alone
me, my pencil
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
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.
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.