Recommended Reading: Why Teaching Poetry Is So Important,
by Andrew Simmons
Review by Julie Carpenter
I have recently started tutoring. Whereas teaching is more like preventative healthcare, tutoring is surgical. Students are preparing for specific tests or trying to catch up in a specific subject. The teaching styles can be somewhat different. Still, I like to keep up with ideas about classroom teaching, and I find that some students need to wake up different parts of their brains before they can focus on the immediate skills they are trying to acquire.
While I was perusing the educational landscape, I came across this article: Why Teaching Poetry Is So Important, by Andrew Simmons. The article is thought provoking, and I recommend reading it even if you’re not currently in school, or you don’t have children in school; everyone is affected by the results of our education system.
Simmons feels that poetry has been shuffled aside in the modern classroom, and he regrets the fact. He says,
“In an education landscape that dramatically deemphasizes creative expression in favor of expository writing and prioritizes the analysis of non-literary texts, high school literature teachers have to negotiate between their preferences and the way the wind is blowing. That sometimes means sacrifice, and poetry is often the first head to roll.”
He mourns this fact because he notes that reading poetry aloud, writing, and analyzing poetry is a “gateway to other writing.” Poetry values the succinct, descriptive, subconsciously rhetorical rendering of moments and objects. This makes students better able to grasp the point, to summarize, and to understand the emotional depths in all kinds of argumentation. Even science writing can require emotional and rhetorical appeals. (Read Paul Bogard’s lovely and poetic Let There Be Dark, a mixture of science and poetry designed to win the reader to his point of view.)
Simmons notes that some students who don’t “get essays," love poetry, relieved by the ability to express themselves without fixed rules. Teachers can also use poetry to allow students to see how poets break and keep the rules of language and how the reader is affected in either case.
Simmons makes a good case for bringing poetry back into the classroom in this short article. More than that, this article made me think about what we prioritze in teaching and why? Should we always focus on the what over the why? Do we need to take a moment to look up and see some small piece of the world from someone else's perspective? Poetry acknowledges the mysterious intersection between individual and universal perception. If this is not a goal of common education, shouldn’t it be?
The Scent of an Iris
by Julie Carpenter
Today I was surprised by the scent of an iris. Tall and elegant irises don’t attack you with scent, like their slightly tawdrier friends, the gardenias. There aren’t a million perfumes that advertise iris in the scent. They seem too classy to spend a lot of time branding or hiring PR firms, but I would like to note on their behalf that they do have a lovely scent. In fact, if you don’t have irises yourself, your neighbors might. Dash out and give them a sniff. (Most gardeners I know would probably forgive your sneaking into their yards to place your nose in an iris - if you think to compliment them about the garden- but for your safety, please ask first.)
I have an odd notion that scent is one way that flowers talk to us, and I want to apologize to my irises for not listening properly to them. The scent of an iris is perhaps more intellectual than sage, which has a propensity to wear it wisdom on its sleeve and name. (And let’s not even go into the scent of lilacs and their weird nostalgia for “grandma’s common sense”, and doilies on top of the toilet.) The iris has a light floral scent, a sharp sweetness. She might at any moment toss out a bon mot or a well-placed, well-deserved barb, but there’s something more profound than wit and surface intellect. Listening to the scent, I’d credit the iris with something keener than that, some sort of bright discerning calm, a considered judgment, an ability to get straight to the point of some floriated argument. The iris keeps her scent to herself until the judicious gardener gets close enough to listen to it over the cacophony of mowed grass, honeysuckle and herbs.
So, go and have a word with your garden by using your nose, and let me put in a good word for the iris who may not be as flashy as some of the others, but has plenty to say.
by Jarad Johnson
I have been trying to force myself to get through a book for nearly two weeks, and I’ve come to the realization that what I am reading is boring me. I’ve been on a fantasy/fiction kick for some time now, and I. Am. Bored. Unstimulated. Unmotivated. Banging my head against the wall.
I was going to attempt to get through it so that I could review it, but it’s not possible. I need to find something else and get out of this rut. This is something that happens to me, and I assume most readers, about twice a year or so. I just get stuck reading basically the same book and genre, and I get to a point where I need some variation. You’d think that I would learn from my mistakes year after year, but sadly that has yet to happen. Typical.
Here is a piece Mekayla wrote concerning the Yellow Wallpaper and its theme of postpartum depression.
“The Yellow Wallpaper” is traditionally considered a feminist text, with scholars reading feminism in the way the narrator rips down the wallpaper that is symbolic of the heavy expectations on nineteenth century women. However, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s work also explores the experience of a mother suffering from what we now call postpartum depression; it reminds us that mental illness has always been a legitimate problem and it makes the story relatable even today. Gilman’s narrator experiences the pariah-hood that mothers experienced before the discovery of postpartum depression, and still often experience today.
A few rambling thoughts
by Julie Carpenter
We seem to live in a world of sound bites and memes. Every day on Facebook we see pithy sayings and joke pictures that try to sum up complex matters with a single quote (often enough attributed to someone who never said any such thing.) Sometimes the meme pretends to state a fact. Sometimes these facts are true, more often they are not. On rare occasions, if I feel that person posted the meme in good faith and would want to know if they are spreading a lie, I will doublecheck and let them know.
By and large, of course, these are not posted with any purpose other than to plant a tribal flag, to let people know which side you are on. There’s no point in checking these facts or disputing these memes; they are not arrived at by any rational thought process. They’re simply posted as symbols, meant to delineate the “good” from the “bad” and mark the poster as one of the “good”. It’s almost impossible to combat this type of thought process. These posts strip away context and flatten everyone into a hero or a villain.
One meme type that puzzles me the is the “everyday hero.” I can’t find it right now, but I recall a FB post which consisted of a picture of a middle-aged white man in a plaid shirt and an elderly white woman at a restaurant with a caption about how this son was visiting his elderly mother in a nursing home and wasn’t that a huge surprise in this day and age and wasn’t he a hero? It wasn’t a personal picture of the poster, but a viral picture I saw in several feeds. I am a middle-aged woman and almost everyone I know with elderly parents in nursing homes visits with them. The unspoken subtext of this meme seems to be that this bastion of middle America is doing something that “those people” don’t do. Who those people are is not clear, but the poster finds sainthood easily achievable by just acting as a normal person would in juxtaposition.
I’ve been thinking about memes and sound bites a lot lately and what if anything can counteract the flattened, reductive world of social media. The only thing I can think of is stories. Often memes will trigger my memory and a story will come floating to the top, some narrative connects itself to my train of thought.
Here’s an example. Before the 2018 mid-term election, I saw an awful lot of memes about how cruelty to undocumented immigrants is excusable because they are breaking the law. Doesn’t matter if this is a desperate attempt to feed their families. Doesn’t matter if the companies who benefit from this under-the-table labor also benefit from the fact that they can procure workers with no recourse when it comes to treatment or wages. None of this matters because undocumented immigrant broke the law. All this is beside the fact that asylum seekers are not breaking the law by coming to ports of entry. The point of these memes is the idea of law breaking and the fact that it allows for an almost infinite progression of punishment.
A story from my childhood came to mind, one that I bet a lot of the people sharing these memes read with empathy. The story comes from the book The Long Winter, by Laura Ingalls Wilder. The Ingalls sense that the winter will be a bad one and they move to town. By the end of the winter, the settlers are starving. Pa goes to Almanzo Wilder’s store, deduces where he and his brother, Royal, are storing seed in the wall, opens it and fills his bucket. He pays for it afterwards, but the Wilder boys have put it up for seed. They need it for the spring planting. Pa takes it without asking. Pa’s family is starving, and it’s a moral calculation that he feels comfortable with.
This is a context in which we see someone doing something that would be morally unacceptable in other circumstances. On any ordinary day, if Pa casually walked in and filled a bucket with grain from a hidden cache , it might get him a good punch in the nose, at least before Almanzo married Laura. Or try walking into a grocery store and casually walking in the back and getting something out of the back room where the inventory is without asking first. In this situation though, I can’t imagine one reader thinking that Mr. Ingalls was wrong. We know the context. We accept that there are circumstances that might require such moral calculations. We extend this moral courtesy to Pa for a couple of reasons. One because his story is told so well. Two, because many of us identify with him.
There's another story that came to mind, a news story. A young man's wife, who had already lost a leg to cancer was manifesting symptoms of a stroke, and he was speeding with her to the hospital. Their home was close enough that it was quicker fo him to take her than to call an ambulance. A police officer followed him, cursed at him and attempted to arrest him as he was taking his wife into the hospital. There is no doubt he was breaking the law, but everyone, including the judge, agreed that his wife's life took precedence over the law. In the context of this situation, we can see that breaking the law is only a small part of the story.
This begs the question: why can't we sympathize with others whose families are in crisis? Why do we strip context from people if they differ from us in skin color, religion, gender and sexuality? What context are we flattening, removing, reducing? What makes us villainize people? What is the thin line that separates their stories from ours? How often do I make the mistake of disallowing context myself?
So, what am I trying to say here? I don’t know if I’m sure, other than the fact that we should extend others the courtesy of their stories, their context, their narrative. And memes and sound bites don’t allow for that. I think there’s certainly a deeper problem. Content is the poison, the meme the dart that lands it. Still, I think it can pay to think about the how of communication as well as the what. And those are my rambling, half-formed thoughts for the day.
It's that time of year now where spring colds are rampant. Oftentimes, when you're sick you can feel too miserable to bother picking up a book. However, Jarad is sharing his thoughts on why you should bother. Happy reading!
I think I get sick every single spring. My sinuses go crazy, my nose stuffs up. In short, I always feel miserable around March and April. And it's around this time that reading becomes the most challenging for me. It's very easy to wallow in my misery and just watch Netflix all day.
Review by Julie Carpenter
In this short collection of sonnets, Drew Pisarra ruminates on the birth and death of a love affair destined to end, and all the stages in between. The poems are by turns touching, passionate, vulgar and hilarious.
By following the sonnet form, Pisarra provides a method to the madness of love that inspires distillation, each poem focused. Although sonnets can seem precious or even ponderous, the poet wields the style lightly, playfully. He pushes against but still somehow channels the passions of angsty first love. The sonnet form also provides an appropriate form for the more acidic currents of aging love and the bitterness of breakup.
In one of my favorites, Sonnet 411, the writer manages to convey the odd confusion of his doomed love affair:
There’s so much omitted, so much sidestepped
so much that never quite passes our lips.
What I never learn is what I’ll never forget.
You’ve touched me without leaving fingerprints.
Now half-truths smolder in a chipped ashtray
But what you mean to me, I couldn’t say
Pisarra uses humor to good effect, not as mask, but employing it to season the real, raw feelings of love, the way the bitters bring out the flavors of a cocktail or salt the flavor of chocolate. In this poet’s hands, the sonnet is a surprisingly modern form, primal, intense and funny.
You can purchase the book here.
About Drew Pisarra:The author once toured his monologues around the country and even had a ventriloquist act but has since retired from the world of dummies. His short story collection Publick Spanking was published by Future Tense some time ago. More recently as part of the installation art duo Saint Flashlight (with Molly Gross), he’s been finding inventive ways to get poetry into public spaces.
Jarad is sharing his thoughts on boxwood hedging today!
Boxwoods annoy me. There, I said it. They’re everywhere, in every yard and garden in America, it seems. They’re even in front of my house! And I don’t like them; to be frank, they’re boring, but since they’re living plants, I would feel bad taking them out of the ground. I prefer things with colorful blooms to form hedges or to put in front of a house: hydrangeas, butterfly bushes, even forsythia is preferable to the bland, green foliage of the boxwood. And people want to use them in every part of the yard, a decision that still baffles me every time I see it. The structural upkeep required to keep them in that square, even shape is, to me, overtly contrived and far too high maintenance. But really, what irks me about them is that they’re a representation of a mentality shared by most of the developed world. That is, dominion over nature, molding it to our desired shape. People like to think that they own the earth, the land they live on, and the soil they garden in. This is not true, a false idea perpetuated by a need to own everything. We are stewards of the earth, caretakers even, but not owners. But before I get too far into my Eco-Feminist rant, let me say that to a certain extent, all gardens are in a sense a crafting of nature. You’re not going to just let the weeds take over a carefully planted bed of flowers or fertilize the dandelions that spring up everywhere. However, boxwoods and topiaries are far too artificial for my taste. I like to let plants do what they want, and the most maintenance I do is pruning and deadheading. I cannot be bothered to shape these evergreens into their desired shape. The boxwoods in front of my house are overgrown and would likely grow to great heights if I didn’t desire to see out the window.
Every reader has a ritual. Some of us listen to music, drink tea or coffee. Some of us skim paragraphs, some of us read every word. Here's some of mine! Let us know what your reading rituals are!
If you’re a ravenous reader, the way I am, you’ve probably developed some sort of reading process, you’ve either consciously or unconsciously worked out a series of customs and traditions that help you get deeply into a book and leave the world outside. I’ve been thinking about this question quite a bit today, in between the chaos that the end of the semester always brings, and I realize that I’m pretty committed to reading no matter what. However, I do have certain rituals or methods to my reading process.
Review by Julie Carpenter
Jeff Weddle’s new book of poetry, Citizen Relent, is the poet at his most prophetic, calling out the inevitable at the cliff’s edge. As always, Jeff finds caches of hope and beauty as he feels the long sure pull of death. The poems consider the material realities of the present, the possibilities for hope and despair in the future, and the images and stories of the past from which we construct our own narratives.
There are poems grounded in concrete observation that somehow reflect an exact turn of mind, like Perfecto,with lines like,
Smoke hangs solid
like skin burns
Or Please Pay Attention, which exhorts the reader to use the present because
The stars are waiting,
And they have no sympathy for your weakness
But the present is gone by the time the poet acknowledges it. Blessed Land, which uses a future trip to Spain as a metaphor for death, is grounded in the present, with a narrator who still feels the future at a distance, but not at a comfortable one. There are also apocalyptic glimpses into the future, with poems like Twilight and In the End, mixed with signposts from the present that give us a glimpse of our wrong turnings on the way to dystopia, like Charlottesville, and Evangelical.
Only the past is disinfected enough to feel even a little safe. In poems like Buttercup and T-Bone and Eternal, the poet collects snippets of his past self as though he is finding a few precious stones in a pile of gravel. More than anything else I’ve read lately, this book feels like the passing of time, or a warning that time is indeed moving and perhaps to a bad end. He calls out the wrong turns on the path that may lead to disaster, feels that disaster can’t be avoided, then makes a certain gloomy peace with it. Oddly though, the sense of darkness distilled in these poems functions more like a vaccine to inoculate us from despair than to cause it.
As always, I can’t recommend Jeff’s books highly enough. Read this one and then go and get the others!