You can lead a high school senior to poetry but you can’t make him drink. I want to sidestep (or sidepass, as the case may be) the problematic imagery of student as horse, but I can’t, because it’s at the root of the issue — there I go switching again — so it goes (shout out to Vonnegut Jr.), so yesterday, really, yesterday, as in the day before today, this aforementioned horse student (centaur?) says he didn’t like the poem we read, didn’t think “words of encouragement” were enough in the world, if you wanted to help someone you should give them a hand or, even better, give them money, not write some dumb poem. Wait, so, does this poor creature really think that Nikki Giovanni is talking about spiders? Or e.e. cummings and a mouse? Or Maxine Kumin and woodchucks? Or, perish the thought, but that Elizabeth Bishop just really liked to fish? Stafford’s poem is NOT about a (pregnant) dead doe on the side of the road. I mean, yes, of course it is, of course they are, but they are all about so much more. So much more. We’re talking about “imaginary gardens” with “real toads” in them here! And hat tip to WCW because we overlook that to our peril, and, I think, it was this, that my student didn’t understand, he is just scratching the surface, pawing his hoof on the ground to mimic the arithmetic of logic, but not digging deeper, not plumbing his inner depths, which is, ultimately, perhaps, what great poetry can do for us (to hold a “mirror up to nature” and show us the inmost part of ourselves), and I realize that amidst all the craziness and horror of this current moment — this is my job, this is what I signed on for, so I roll up my sleeves, mop my brow — what? thinking about the work is sometimes more exhausting than the work itself — grab for Seamus Heaney’s spade and start to dig.
Slaughter-House Five by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
“Allowables” by Nikki Giovanni
“Me Up at Does” by e.e. cummings
“Woodchucks” by Maxine Kumin
“The Fish” by Elizabeth Bishop
“Traveling through the Dark” by William Stafford
“Poetry” by Marianne Moore
“Asphodel, That Greeny Flower” by William Carlos Williams
Hamlet by Shakespeare
“Digging” by Seamus Heaney
Note from Scott about the poem: And the poem he didn’t “like”? “The Miracle of Morning” by Amanda Gorman