Writing, reading, and teaching poetry: Messages in bottles

One of my favorite classes in high school was a quarter-long course I took on vocabulary. Yeah, I know: I was doomed even then to be an English major. Mr. Whalen taught the class, each day we memorized ten words for a quiz, and it was where I got introduced to and began to revel in Latin and Greek roots. Pugnacious evolved from the Latin word for fist, pugnus. Gregarious from the Latin grex, which meant flock or herd. Corpulent, the Latin corpus, body. Prolix, the Latin liqui, to flow, also from which liquor and liquid come. Oligarchy, the Greek oligo, few or scant. Octopus, the Greek podos, foot. I was giddy.

I think also that I was giddy since Mr. Whalen was cool, at least to this impressionable sophomore. He wore black turtlenecks and jeans; they would’ve been black jeans, but back in the mid 70s, black jeans hadn’t been invented. He shaved his head before that was cool and marched up and down the aisles of our classroom, revealing the mysteries of loquacious, keening, limn, miasma, and hoi polloi, puffs of dust from chalk-covered hands.

I think it was Mr. Whalen and that class that was the beginning of my love of teaching poetry. It took a while for that to kick in, for I remember never being much of a poetry-liker or -reader and not having teachers that pushed us when it came to poetry. Ms. Fox and Ms. Drazba taught us some in high school, but I better remember our inflamed discussions about Flannery O’Connor short stories than about Robert Frost poems. I took no poetry classes at college, and when I first started teaching, I did not bring much enthusiasm to its teaching, fitting in a poem here or there when I had breaks from Lord of the Flies or Romeo and Juliet.

Richard Wilbur

But Mr. Whalen’s class stuck with me, and I think that it was several poems by Richard Wilbur that turned me – their formal structure, their play with rhyme, the importance of words – in fact the turns these poems took on a single word. The word figure in the fourth stanza of The Writer. Fleshed in June Light.

And so I got hooked and felt I had to make up for all that lost poetry time. I took a poetry-writing class in graduate school with Wyatt Prunty and then another at Brown, just down the street from where I was teaching. A colleague and I began to team-teach a creative writing class, and as part of that class – and future ones – I just started writing with my students, playing with language, with the Mr. Whalen words that caroused the aisles of my head – copacetic, noisome, bunkum, vim, bevy.

Friend, former student, and poet (see here) David Roderick shared with me his own path.

David Roderick

“I bet I was a student in some of those high school literature classes you taught,” he wrote, “in which poetry only found a place in the seams of other more ambitious teaching projects. Junior year I remember doing some Frost poems, reading the poems aloud, but the overall coverage of poetry was thin. This didn’t bother me back then. Though I was also a student inherently inclined toward stories, sentences, and words, poetry intimidated me. I wasn’t mature enough to settle into a poem’s evocations and ambiguities. Even later, when I became a teacher of adolescent boys, I still found myself uncomfortable with the genre. Pressed with the charge of teaching a whole unit of poetry, I floundered. Mostly I cheated my way through the unit by sharing a lot of sports poems, with a dash of Langston Hughes and Frost.”

“In college I immediately signed up for the fiction workshops. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was in over my head. I could craft beautiful sentences and could really develop a sense of atmosphere, setting, mood. However, I couldn’t build drama or flesh out characters. My attempts at dialogue were stilted, and in every story I foolishly chased after a Flannery O’Connor-like epiphany. Of course my efforts were overwrought. Probably what happened is that I was inhabiting the wrong genre. Instead of fleshing out a character or sharpening the arc of a plot, I fussed over the rhythmic sounds of sentences and made a fetish out of arranging syllables into a pleasing rhythm.”

James Tate

“I didn’t even know it was poetry I was after until, on the brink of graduating, a friend shared with me a poem by James Tate, call Deaf Girl Playing.”

“I like to think that for each of us there are specific poems that are waiting to charm us. The Russian poet Osip Mandelstam said that a poem is ‘a message in a bottle,’ composed in solitude and cast into the world. It can only forge a relationship with the reader if it happens to find the right one. Tate’s poem served that role for me just as Wilbur’s poems did for you. I was old (mature?) enough to receive that poem, and it became something of a ‘gateway’ poem for me. I would remain intimidated for a good while longer, but my guard came down just a little bit. Eventually this put me on the track of reading and enjoying poems on my own and then writing them.”

Thanks, David. Gateway poems, yes, and gateway people too, such as Mr. Whalen for me. And my former student David, an already fine writer in high school who pushed me to listen more carefully when he read and talked about his writing, to speak more thoughtfully about his work, to just be more aware as I taught. Our students are messages in bottles too, if we take the time to remove that crinkled up note, press it out flat so that we can read all that’s written, and respond in kind, floating with them in the warm Pacific of the classroom.

Dictionary image from here. Richard Wilbur pic from here. James Tate image here. David’s pic came from here, where you can also read his poem Green Fields.

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