Saturday, March 27, 2010

The "Delightful Surprise": Poetry 101

"O me, o life of the questions of these recurring, of the endless

trains of the faithless, of cities filled with the foolish.
What good amid
these, o me, o life?”

- Song of Myself, Walt Whitman

Why am I always taken back by those experiences that are little delightful surprises? You know what I mean. I am marking time doing this or that throughout the day and then suddenly out of nowhere comes an unexpected, un-planned, unseen event or person that brings a humble smile across my face and my heart. These surprises seem to come in all forms, sizes and scope. Some are more dramatic than others. Some seem some so coincidental or unnatural that others consider them as miraculous. Some call these graces, blessings or tender mercies. Some say it is a result of just being present to the world, as sometimes we move so fast that we can often miss those “delightful surprises.”

Recent meditations and reflections on where I have been and what I have done with my life and discerning where I want to go from here have been arduous exercises that would seriously disappoint Ignatius of Loyola. Weaving in and out of the busy-ness of the day and the consideration that my journey so far had been a series of Odyssean mis-steps that kept me away from being open to the current song of the morning bird or immersing myself in the beauty of bright piercing orange-red streak across the heavens at sunset. Opening the street posted mailbox the other day I received a package from the college where I recently served as advisor and faculty member. The departure was not planned and I had been attempting to put

the complete experience behind me. That desire for amnesia would change with the opening of the packet.

In the package was a computer summary and detail of the student evaluations for an English class I had taught on the main campus a year ago. Opening the report I critically thought” Well, this is typical” not realizing that what was about to happen was one of those “delightful surprises”, “gift”, “blessing “ and “grace.” The students rated me, the learning environment and so on and so forth. I hate to say that I wasn’t too surprised with the almost perfect scores I received on teaching, methodology, and helpfulness and so on and so forth. What took me back completely was the number of handwritten comments about what they learned and liked most about the class and the experience. Most of the eighteen students wrote about how they liked and appreciated the sections and lessons on poetry. Comments like “ I never liked poetry before”, “who would have thought poetry can be fun”, “I like learning about the different types of poetry”, “Mr. S made learning poetry interesting and fun,” to “ “I just bought my first collection of poetry because of what I learned in this class.” Flabbergasted! Unbelievable! Humbled. These were the comments a group of 18 and 19 year olds that I struggled to keep awake in our class at eight am three mornings a week.

If you know me you already know that I am not being boastful with this illumination of sorts about my students’ perceptions and feedback about my teaching. What is important is that “who would of thought one who in his early pre- teen years hated poetry would eventually be delighted to no end that he would be a catalyst to helping young adults finding some joy in their own discovery of poetry.” So this “delightful surprise” was the seed that transformed my personal reflections into “gratitude” for those teachers and friends who took the time and care to introducing me to the world of poetry – reading and even attempting at writing my own…. specifically: Irving (professor/mentor), Bill Z. (my creative writing professor), Kirk (counselor, poet and journeyman) and all of course the gratefulness is abundance of all those poets!

It is interesting to say the least to recall those teen years and how I was embarrassed to share with my best friends that I had been a closet poet of sorts. A member of a secret society of one I struggled to craft ideas and feelings in poetic format or just rewrite favorite verses from favorite poems in a spiral notebook. I had made sure that I securely hid this collection under my bed with old paperback poetry anthologies of Blake and Frost and of course a few Playboy magazines .It was a number of years later that as teacher I had hoped to pass on what I had learned and share with my students the joy I had found in the world of poetry... and somehow maybe reach another “closet poet” or two. The “delightful surprise” suggests that maybe; just maybe I was able to do just that.

Who would have predicted that this “surprise” would happen just days before “National Poetry Month?” So here are a few items and links I used in my classes when I would teach poetry.

There is a moving introductory monologue about the purpose of poetry in the movie Dead Poets Society where the teacher, Mr. Keating, gathers his class full of prep school boys and says:

We don't read and write poetry because it's cute. We read and write poetry because

we are members of the human race.
And the human race is filled with passion.
Medicine, law, business, engineering, these are all noble pursuits, and necessary
to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.
To quote from Whitman:
"O me, o life of the questions of these recurring, of the endless
trains of the faithless, of cities filled with the foolish. What good amid
these, o me, o life?”

Answer: that you are here. That life exists, and identity.
That the powerful play goes on,
and you may contribute a verse. That the powerful
play goes on and you may contribute
a verse. . What will your verse be?”

(watch 9 minutes)

Here is from My Favorite Poem Project. It is famous and everyday folks reading their favorite poems.

May I suggest watching the following:

We Real Cool


The Holy Longing

Then there is a collection of videos of famous poets reading their poetry at the Dodge Poetry Festival and I have collected a few of my favorites here.

One of my favorite poems about finding one's voice.

Autumn Poem

In the last jovial, clear-sky days of autumn
the mockingbird
in his monk-gray coat
and his arrowy wings

from the hedge to the top of the pine
and begins to sing — but it's neither loose, nor lilting, nor lovely —

it's more like whistles and truck brakes and dry hinges.
All birds are birds of heaven
but this one, especially, adores the earth so well
he would imitate, for half the day and on into the

its ticks and wheezings,
and so I have to wait a long time
for the soft, true voice
of his own glossy life

to come through,
and of course I do.
I don't know what it is that makes him, finally, look

to the sweet spring of himself, that mirror of heaven,
but when it happens —
when he lifts his head
and the feathers of his throat tremble,

and he begins, like Saint Francis,
little flutterings and leapings from the pine's forelock,
resettling his strong feet each time among the branches,
I am recalled,

from so many wrong paths I can't count them,
simply to stand, and listen.
All my life I have lived in a kind of haste and darkness
of desire, ambition, accomplishment.

Now the bird is singing, but not anymore of this world.
And something inside myself is fluttering and leaping, is

to type it down, in lumped-up language,
in outcry, in patience, in music, in a snow-white book.

--- Mary Oliver

Two more interesting poetry web sites....


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