I Don’t Hate Poetry

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I really don’t.  But I don’t love it either.

As a retired English teacher this is practically heretical.  Through most of my 36 years of teaching, I used poetry sparingly, but during the last 10, when I began teaching Advanced Placement English for seniors, it needed to become a central part of my curriculum in order to prepare kids for the AP Literature and Composition Exam.

Early on, I went to every AP Lit workshop I could find and tried to glean an approach, a unit, a set list of poems or literary terms that would lead me to a greater comfort level, and I discovered many wonderful plans created by lit teachers much smarter than me.  But none of them were a fit for me and my understanding of how 17-year-olds think.  Some of the literary terms were so obscure that even if I could force a kid to memorize the definitions, the chances of the student actually recognizing the technique or being able to comment on its relevance seemed iffy at best.  When it came to teaching meter (the metric rhythm of a poem), which some of my colleagues would spend hours on with great relish, I was a total failure.  Beyond iambic pentameter, I couldn’t recognize a line that was trochaic, spondaic, or anapestic if you held a gun to my head.

So, I shortened and simplified my list of lit terms, focusing on ones that kids could actually remember and that seemed most often applicable to the kinds of poems that showed up on the test.  I abandoned meter entirely with nary a feeling of guilt, and I created Poetry Day.

I decided that I needed to provide opportunities for kids to sit together, look at dozens of poems, struggle through them, and come to some kind of meaning. I wanted them to become a poetry salon, one day a week, and to begin to look to each other for understanding with as little help from me as possible.

Poetry Day was a risk for me, and I firmly expected it to be a failure. My idea was that once a week, four students would sign up ahead of time and be tasked with the responsibility of choosing a poem from our anthology for discussion. The class would form a circle and each of the chosen students would be the discussion leader for the poem that he or she had selected.  My role (I hoped) would simply be to sit in back and keep track of participation and try to keep my mouth shut.

The discussion leaders’ job was simply to read the poem, maybe take a minute to tell why they had chosen it, and then direct the traffic of the hoped-for participation that would then follow.  The shock to me was that the participation came.   The kids seemed to like the new approach–the freedom to explore, no teacher to tell them the “right” answer, how the more they looked at the poem, the more that they began to see.  What excited me the most was seeing how the students would throw out an assertion, listen to the response of their classmates, and then reconsider and revise their thinking. On an exceptional day, I might say nothing more during the entire hour than, “Good job.  Let’s move on to the next poem.” Those days felt like great successes to me.  I had created an opportunity where kids were learning, questioning, thinking, cooperating with the gentlest bit of direction from me.  Those days felt like good teaching.

Not every Poetry Day went that well.  The ebb and flow of the semester, the ebb and flow student enthusiasm, the absence of caffeine, the approach of more important things like prom, all made for good and bad days.  My role evolved also.  I found that it helped to ask clarifying questions and force students to refine their thinking when they were oh-so-close to a gem of an idea, but might be missing a critical element.  Then there were the times when, despite their best efforts, they simply missed the meaning entirely, and I’d have to force them, as a class, to go back to the poem, look more closely, think again.  We jokingly established a part of the classroom that we labeled as “left field” where we figuratively sent students whose interpretations had flown so far off track that I had to call them on it.  In fact, it became part of our lexicon.  Students would sometimes begin their explanation of a difficult passage with, “This may be out in left field, but I think…”  I absolutely loved them for that.

My most memorable Poetry Day moment came when one of my student’s had chosen Deborah Pope’s agonizingly painful and beautiful poem, “Getting Through.”

Like a car stuck in gear,

a chicken too stupid to tell

its head is gone,

or sound ratcheting on

long after the film

has jumped the reel,

or a phone

ringing and ringing

in the house they have all

moved away from,

through rooms where dust

is a deepening skin,

and the locks unneeded,

so I go on loving you,

my heart blundering on,

a muscle spilling out

what is no longer wanted

and my words hurtling past,

like a train off its track

toward a boarded-up station,

closed for years,

like some last speaker

of a beautiful language

no one else can hear.

I remember the discussion leader reading the poem aloud and nearly 40 kids staring at the text with no idea of what to say.  I suggested the leader read it aloud once more, which we did quite often when confronted with a challenging poem.

The silence continued until suddenly Sarah, a thoughtful and sensitive young woman, gasped as she internalized the sadness and the pain of the poem.  In that one moment, she had grasped the whole poem with it’s string of vivid similes, each becoming more detailed, that described the speaker’s devastating sense of loss and hopelessness.  Once she gave the class the key, the images suddenly made sense, and the class piled on with an appreciation of the beauty of the language and the universality of the experience of loss.

I truly loved poetry on that particular day.  Sarah’s gasp, her identification with the pain of the speaker, spoke to everything that I find to be important about poetry.  The poet that can distill the human experience, can craft the perfect metaphor, provides a human connection that helps us to defy loneliness and isolation.  They are magicians. They create the connection that tells us that, even in our worst moments, we are not alone.

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Oh, the Bitter Pill of Irony

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So, it ends up that four hours after I posted my previous piece on the pitfalls of hypochondria, I ended up in the emergency room with chest pains.  It was the perfect storm of chest tightness, occasional pain, a raised level of blood pressure, with a touch of vertigo thrown in that pushed me to my 6% threshold of uncertainty and led me to ignore my own certain wisdom and call the Kaiser “advice nurse.”

Once I got on the line with her, she prepared me for the 150 questions she was about to ask me, but I already knew there was only one that was important:  “Are you experiencing chest pain?”  The rest of the questions were all relevant but unrelated to my immediate future.  I was going to the emergency room.

9 PM on the Tuesday night after the Memorial Day weekend and it was SRO in Kaiser emergency, and a lot of these people looked profoundly uncomfortable.  In fact, just being around them made me feel more sick than when I had come in. “Chest pain” used to get you right in the door and into a room, but once they established I was stable, I was sent back out to the waiting area.  In fact, I half expected one of the nurses to come out and look at my chart and yell at me, “Your pain level is a 2?!  You call that pain?!  I’ll show you pain, mister!!  Man up and come back when it actually hurts!”

Sitting, watching the waiting room slowly empty out until almost midnight began to re-define the entire concept of an “emergency” for me.  Once, my name was finally called, I was ushered into a very nice, private observation room where the hospital protocols kicked in and in short order blood was drawn, my chest was x-rayed, and a series of nurses and doctors stopped by to ask me the same, exact questions, over and over again.

It took until 4 AM for them to decide that I was going to spend the night, although that ship had clearly already passed, and that I was going to stay with them until I got a cardiac stress-echocardiogram done, hopefully in the morning.

Somehow the word “hopefully” got past me.  My weary and long-suffering wife left me to go home, and I passed out, finding it easy to follow their orders to not eat or drink anything before it was time for the test.  By mid-afternoon, when they decided they could starve me no longer, they broke the bad news that there were no openings for the procedure and I would have to be admitted to the hospital to spend yet another night eating hospital food and watching re-runs of Law and Order SVU.

Around 9:30 PM a bed finally opened up in the hospital, and I was transferred out of my fairly comfortable private digs to a regular room, a room that came complete with a roommate.  After ten minutes in the room with him, I became convinced that the only reason the bed had become available was that the previous occupant had begged to be removed, offering to sleep in a closet or to be taken off life support—anything to get away from this guy.  A nurse came in to ask me my list of questions again and then threw in a new one.  “Do you ever have thoughts of harming yourself?” she asked.  “Not until just recently,” I deadpanned.

He was in pretty bad shape and hard of hearing so the nurses had to repeat everything they told him, loudly, and he talked loudly in return.  And he loved to talk.  Every nurse’s visit prompted a new story about his wretched physical condition or his adventurous life.  He had been a musician his whole life and owned hundreds of musical instruments, had traveled the world, and spoke lovingly of his wife. He veered horribly close to insulting both a Hispanic and Pilipino nurse and somehow managed to re-engage them, turn on the charm, and became nothing but grateful for their help.

I was almost starting to like him somewhere around 11:30 PM when he suddenly began trying to cough up a lung.  He hacked and spat and swore and then started all over again.  In deference to me, he went into the bathroom to hock up the other lung, but it was impossible.  I could hear everything.  I decided to give up on sleep for the night as he settled in to watch some late-night TV which turned out to be the perfect tonic. Before I knew it, I was sound asleep.

The new day brought an introduction to new modern miracles of medicine.  By 7:30 AM I was being whisked away for a 4-hour chemical stress echocardiogram.  This involves having pictures of your heart taken at rest to create a baseline and then injecting you with chemicals which stress your heart so they can take more pictures to see if your heart is functioning efficiently.  It seemed somewhat counterintuitive to me to mess with such chemicals, but since I was not feeling the whole treadmill thing, I went for the drugs.

When I was ready for them, I was taken into a room with a treadmill and lots of monitoring equipment.  I was told that I was going to get a “lexi-walk” which was a combination of actually getting me started on the treadmill and then administering the drugs that would give me the jolt.  I started my stroll on the treadmill, but couldn’t get the term “lexi-walk” out of my head.  I’m sure it was my sleep-deprived state, but it kept conjuring two competing images in my brain.  In one, I was strolling down the beach with an adoring young thing named Lexi on my arm, and in the other I was being forced to walk someone’s annoying poodle, whose full name was actually Alexandrika.  The images faded quickly when the nurse pumped two injections into my IV and suddenly I felt like I was running a marathon–badly.

After more pictures, it was back to the room.  My roommie had vacated temporarily, and my nurse was kind enough to have the nutritionist come in and let me make a special order for my lunch.  Oooh, the salmon sounds good and of course I want the mashed potatoes and gravy, and broccoli–not those nasty canned green beans from the night before.  How nice, I thought.  Personalized service! Peace and quiet!

Within the hour, my lunch arrived:  chicken, undercooked carrots, and a bread roll made from sawdust (gluten free, I’m sure).

The only thing remaining, besides getting over my disappointment over lunch, was the visit from a doctor to tell me the results.  He was effusive.  “A model heart!  Your heart sets the gold standard for how we’d like these tests to come out!  Yeah, we have no idea what was causing your pain or discomfort, but you seem to be feeling better, so you are good to go!!”

40 hours.  40 hours to hear that despite all of the symptoms and a bucket load of worry, I was just fine.  Better than fine.  A model that other 61-year-olds should aspire to.  It almost made me wish that nurse had come out and yelled at me 40 hours earlier.  “Call that pain?!  You come in hear and bother us with a level 2 pain complaint?!  You don’t know the meaning of pain!  You ain’t even coughin’ up a lung like that poor old guy in 5011B.  Now, that’s an emergency!”