Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Kids, It's That Poem I Always Had on My Wall at School

Eccentricities in Your Teacher

I love quotations and put them up each day I was a teacher; even when I floated, I'd go room to room each morning and stake out a corner of the chalkboard. I liked to close the year with Emerson, "I hate quotations. Tell me what you know." And I think he's right.

Words, words, words. Love 'em.

I also hung up favorite poems. My wonderful directing teacher, Maureen, had been a poetry major in college. She studied with a poet named Robert Francis and showed me this poem, "Summons," which I copied out. ("That's what's special about you, Lisa," she said when I pulled a notebook out of my backpack and started to copy it out. I'm glad she didn't say, "insane.") I later wrote it neatly in India ink on tie-dye paper a student gave me when I was a student teacher, and had it on my wall all the years of my teaching life. It's my little credo. (It was among the first things former students asked me about when they friended me on Facebook. Everyone can do with a good poem.)


Keep me from going to sleep too soon
Or if I go to sleep too soon
Come wake me up. Come any hour
Of night. Come whistling up the road.
Stomp on the porch. Bang on the door.
Make me get out of bed and come
And let you in and light a light.
Tell me the northern lights are on
And make me look. Or tell me clouds
Are doing something to the moon
They never did before, and show me.
See that I see. Talk to me till
I'm half as wide awake as you
And start to dress wondering why
I ever went to bed at all.
Tell me the walking is superb.
Not only tell me but persuade me.
You know I'm not too hard persuaded.
--Robert Francis

[2012 NOTE: "Summons" is what I would call a "gettable" poem. You can "get it" on one read. I would also say it's deceptive, because the speaker is more complicated than might first appear, and is asking for more than he might seem to be--it's what the poet has left out: what my friend, poet Jean LeBlanc, calls "the thing behind the thing behind the thing." "Summons," while a very physical poem--all that stomping and banging and getting out of bed and going outside--is the poem of a depressive; it's a call to action, but the call is from a speaker to another (to friends, to God perhaps) for himself--keep ME from giving up, keep me from dying: Keep me. Hold me. Alert me to the possibilities, show me it's not over, life is not hopeless. I'm not hard to persuade, but I need help, I can't do this alone. It's a poem for me, in other words--the creative depressive, one who loves the world but cannot help living alone and very often feeling the effects of the aloneness. Read it again. Read in five years from now. It's a different poem, emotionally, spiritually. It's why I love it so.]

But Miss O', I Don't "Get" Poems!

Maureen also taught me how to TEACH poems. "Lisa, you are going to do this right." And she told me it's exactly the way you study lines as an actor, the way you learn a speech by Shakespeare: You read the speech straight through first, and then return and parse it line by line by line for meaning, and then read it through again (watch Ian McKellen do this with "Out, out, brief candle..." in videos of his show Acting Shakespeare). Do this, she said, with every single poem you teach. And I did, and I really think it helps unlock a poem. So try that.

1) Read it straight through once.
2) Read each line and think about what each line says, what image it conjures, and then, and only then, what it means.
3) Read the poem straight through again. Preferably aloud.
4) Now you have a poem to help keep your heart whole for the rest of your life.
5) It's sure cheaper than Scotch, though Miss O' often finds she can do with both.

Here's my other poem credo, first shown to me by my friend Hugh when I moved to New York. It's the complement to the Francis poem, one that comes with life experience, and not only a wish to experience life, if you know what I mean. It's called "To Be of Use" by Marge Piercy:

To be of use
The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half submerged balls.

I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.

I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who stand in the line and haul in their places,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.
The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.
                                    --Marge Piercy
I absolutely long for work that is real, and I thank Marge Piercy from my loins; I long to be awakened to joy, and so I thank Robert Francis from the bottom of my heart. (And I need to sleep, so I thank Mssrs. McClelland and Jameson and Powers for their contributions, as well.) So that's your Miss O' Show for today. Assignment: Read a poem. Study it line by line. Read it again. Reward: A poem. And then, a drink. Tea is fine.

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