Monday 29 November 2010

Poetry Island (1)

Of the 21 poems we read in the first-year class, 11 were just voted off the island, including two of my favourites, "I Knew a Man" (unanimously) and "Anecdote of the Jar".

Among the casualties, innocent by-standers in banished poems, were "the sadness of pencils" ("Dolor", T.Roethke), "a moonless black, / Deep in the brain, far back" ("Night Crow", T.Roethke), "love's the burning boy" ("Casabianca", E.Bishop), "a boy is shot with England on his brain" ("Invasion Summer", L.Lee), "One-woman waterfall" ("Nude Descending a Staircase", X.J.Kennedy) and, one more time, "I placed a jar in Tennessee ("Anecdote of the Jar", W.Stevens).

Wednesday 24 November 2010

How We Read (Again)

I continue to torture my students by insisting on questions and resisting answers (as if I had many).  The latest sticking point: "Anecdote of the Jar".  Determined not to occupy the one-with-the-answers position, I said nothing at all about the poem before dictating it a line at a time, pausing after each line so students could annotate their reading.  This resulted in much doodling, much "I don't get this" and "I hate this."  That was Monday morning.  By this morning, Wednesday, I'd resolved to continue saying nothing, although I was rather impatient with those kinds of responses and in fact did scold the class, for about 10 seconds, about their own readerly impatience.  Then I read the poem aloud, handed out some blank paper, and asked them to draw the poem.

I've spent the last hour scanning 14 of these into a powerpoint thing to show them on Friday.  Not sure what I'll do after that.  Any suggestions?

Monday 22 November 2010

First-Year Essay Assignment: "Mr. Gatsby's Neighbourhood"

Pretend you are 100 years old, still sharp of mind, living in a wintry prairie city in the present day. Write a memoir of the summer of 1922, when as a 12-year-old you lived near the Jay Gatsby mansion and encountered the characters and events in The Great Gatsby. Your memoir will share what you remember of that summer and will reflect who and where you are right now, perhaps looking out the window of your room or turning the pages of a photo album.

You will have to invent the circumstances of your family’s life near New York in the 1920s. Perhaps they ran a flower shop, or a catering business hired for Gatsby’s parties, or a stable for Tom Buchanan’s horses. Perhaps your parents worked on the trains or as tradespeople. As that 12-year-old, you hung around the shop or area, observing the goings-on and listening to the stories. Your memoir will report on what you remember of those goings-on and stories.

What I’m looking for:
• writing that is deeply coloured by the world of The Great Gatsby,
• the details (details, details) of behaviour and personality an observant 12-year-old notices,
• personality in your speaker (who will be at least partly based, of course, on yourself) who passes judgement, speculates and interprets, expresses things in his/her own way,
• carefully formatted dialogue between yourself and at least one of the characters in the novel,
• the present-tense frame, which can be relatively brief,
• fresh language, varied sentences, paragraphs, and precise punctuation choices,
• about 4 pages, give or take a page—if you’re tempted to write more, don’t! If you can’t “do” the whole summer of ’22 in 4 pages, focus on a single scene.

Thursday 18 November 2010

A Nickname

        The grade four teacher was making a seating plan on the first day of school.  She started at the back of the left-hand row.
        "You," she said, pointing at my friend Larry.  "What's your name?"
        "Gus!" Larry said.  And he's been Gus ever since.

Friday 12 November 2010

The Giller flap

I just want to say I'm disgusted about the criticism of Gaspereau for producing only 1,000 copies a week of the Giller-winning book.  What's the hurry--people will read that book soon enough.  Relax!  Meanwhile, if you've ever picked up a Gaspereau book, like Tim Bowling's The Annotated Bee and Me, you know you've got a gorgeous thing, a triumph of book-maker's craft and art.

And I was disgusted enough about Rabinovitch and his pompous Giller posturing already.  Let me conclude with this: if I ever win the Giller, I'll leave it on J.R.'s table.

Wednesday 3 November 2010

How We Read

I got my first-year English students to read "I Know a Man" by Robert Creeley.

We got into a good-natured scrap.  I resisted readings of "drunk driver" or "drug runners" or "fugitives"; they resisted my apparent refusal to go beyond the sense of dis-ease, confusion, meaninglessness of the speaker as conveyed by linebreaks and other elements.  "Yes, but what is the reason for the meaninglessness," they said.  This went on for a while.

Next class, having been dissatisfied with our discussion, I proposed two vessels, each containing poem.  With the first, we attack with our analytical devices, closing in on the poem, pinning it down.  I drew a lid of this vessel, with arrows pointing in.  The second vessel remained lidless, a bunch of arrows spilling out, accompanied by question marks.  With this vessel, I claimed, we tease the poem open and let it stay that way.  So with "I Know a Man", I went on, let's settle for the questions, without stretching for the answers.

"But what kind of world is filled with confusion and questions," they said.

"Exactly!" I [may have bellowed].  "The world of the poem!  The world "surrounded by darkness"!  Sounds quite a bit like life to me."

"That's an interpretation!" they cried.  "How come you can say that and we can't say it's a drug deal gone bad or a couple of drunks out for a joyride!"

We had smiles on our faces, most of us in the room.  I mumbled something about, well, you're adults, you can do what you want, but on an essay or a final exam you'd better be able to make a case that your reading comes from THE LANGUAGE OF THE POEM and so on.  "We will," they said.  "No worries."

Then I got the best idea yet.  "You know," I said, "I'd prefer a poem like this any day to some poem you can read once and understand forever.  "Tell you what.  Let's turn to the first the war poem listed on that essay assignment.  Let's see which one you prefer."  We read "Arms and the Boy".

Not a bad little poem, I said to myself, after we talked about it a while.  An informal survey: Do you prefer this poem or the Creeley?  Results: Inconclusive.