What with getting sick the week before last and zooming back and forth to appointments last week, I never found time to write about something I absolutely must chronicle. I mean, it was only one of the finest surprises of my entire life. As I’ve mentioned, I taught a six-week poetry workshop to a group of our homeschooling friends. These were the same kids as my Journey North group; I had so much fun doing Mystery Class with them that my friend Erica (who generously hosts our meetings at her house and is a far better planner than I am) and I put our heads together and decided to start a Literature Club for this enthusiastic bunch of kids.
Our age range was wide: from a ten-year-old or two up to a number of teens, including one 18-year-old who arrived home from college midway through the session and asked, to my delight, if she could drop in. (Not Jane: her school gets out late and she missed the whole thing.)
Over the course of the six weeks, we discussed rhyme scheme and meter, many kinds of meter, and several kinds of figurative language. We had examples from lots of poets but each week (except the last) I chose one poet for close readings—someone wonderful whose work had example of the meter and/or tropes we were encountering that week. Yeats (you know I had to start with him), Frost, Hughes (Langston, not Ted), Dickinson, Blake.
We had ourselves a fantastic time. Most of our meetings ended with my giving the kid a few starter lines in a particular meter and having them form groups and finish up the poem. This was their favorite part of the class, and the group readings provided much merriment.
For our last session, I wrote a poem incorporating all their names, sorted by meter—a stanza each for our iambs, dactyls, and trochees (written in the appropriate meter), with some lines full of spondees for the single-syllable names. It ends with an appeal for an anapest: we had none in the group.
I was pretty excited about my little surprise, and they seemed to get a big kick out of it. But then they revealed they had a surprise for me: they’d all written poems to thank me for the class. They read them out loud and I was crying before the first poem was finished. These kids, they blew me away.
I sailed away with my good friends three, Up and out to the Poet’s Tree, There I wrote poems about sharks and dogs, And giants galore who got smacked with fat logs But we couldn’t have done all of this without you, Yes Mrs. Peterson you’ve made that fact true.
—”The Poet’s Tree” by Peter H., age ten
(Peterson’s my married name, as I think most of you know.)
Couldn’t you just melt? Best thank-you gift I’ve ever been given, these poems. All the kids presented me with copies to keep, which I will forever.
Alliteration, synecdoche, and onomatopoeia, Learned a ton, Love you lots, Until next time—see ya!
—lines from “My dear Melissa Peterson” by Olivia L., age 13
Bring me all of your dreams,
Bring me all your
That I may wrap them
In a blue cloud-cloth
Away from the too-rough fingers
Of the world.
SUCH a great poetry class with my Journey North kids today. Iambic meter with lots of examples; personification & anthropomorphism; Langston Hughes. Lots of laughter as they thought up ending lines for an unfinished poem in iambic tetrameter. Only three more meetings to go in this short six-week session, before we break for the summer. It’s gone so fast! We’ll pick up again in a bit, though.
“Song: Go and Catch a Falling Star” by John Donne. Their introduction to the metaphysical poets. We’ll spend the next week or so on Donne, with a little Herbert and Marvell. Read some biographical info on Donne. I always enjoy him so much and it’s been quite a long time since I’ve read him. This meant I put a bit of time in this week reading up, refreshing my memory on these poets. Consequently I haven’t begun a new book yet—but I’ve got the Muriel Spark autobiography burning a hole on my desk.
Overslept this morning, thanks to Daylight Savings Time (which I nonetheless adore) and to having stayed up past midnight, too wired from sending off a manuscript (yippee!) to sleep—or to read, for that matter. Fumbled at a crossword puzzle on my phone instead. Well, after talking at my poor exhausted husband for an hour.
So no early-morning reading for me today. And a whirl of a morning, catching up on the housework and garden work I’ve neglected these past weeks. It’s spring out there! Who knew! Loads and loads of freesia sweetening the air—almost knocked me over, the scent was so lovely and so unexpected. And the pink jasmine is blooming, and the lime tree and grapefruit (not as exciting as it sounds, those two—they don’t seem inclined to produce fruit, ever). Nasturtiums and sweet alyssum and loads and loads of lavender. I might have to live outside for a while. “I think your garden needs you, Mom,” said Rose only a little reproachfully. She’s right; the clover is overrunning everything, and let’s not even speak of the bermuda grass.
But inside, there was Spenser. We’re reading it in excerpts, with plot summary between the passages—Marshall’s English Literature for Boys and Girls is wonderful for this—if you, a 21st-century teenager, can forgive the condescending name. Today was great fun, as the girls kept spotting parallels to Narnia (Una happening upon the dancing fauns and satyrs, not to mention her devoted lion)—Rose or Beanie, which?, said “I think Lucy is supposed to be an Una, Mom.” And the description of St. George going forth unto the dragon’s darksome hole:
“And lookéd in: his glistering armour made
A little glooming light, much like a shade,
By which he saw the ugly monster plain…
Most loathsome, filthy, foul, and full of vile disdain.”
I thought of Bilbo and Smaug, but Beanie thought of Eustace. They know a lot about Tolkien’s literary credentials and influences from our Beowulf studies, and now they know about Lewis’s too. You can’t help but see it, reading Spenser.
Oh, and we returned to our Poetry 180 journey, poem #8, “Numbers” by Mary Cornish.
Now, during all this poetry-reading, Rilla was perched in her usual spot at the kitchen table, drawing, and suddenly she flitted across to the shelves behind my rocking chair and started piling up books—mostly volumes from our Poetry for Young People collection, plus Child’s Garden of Verses. Later, I found this pile on my bed. She informed me gravely that she has decided to be a poet as well as an artist, “and I’m going to need to study everything about poetry. All the poems, and the poets’ lives, and everything.”
Arthur Rackham illustration from Some British Ballads, 1919.
Image source: Wikimedia Commons.
Our poetry selections for today, as we move out of Chaucer and into some medieval ballads: “The Twa Corbies” and its English cousin, “The Three Ravens.” Just a little something light and cheerful for a chilly November day. You know, light like sunbleached bones.
The Twa Corbies
As I was walking all alane,
I heard twa corbies makin a mane;
The tane unto the ither say,
“Whar sall we gang and dine the-day?”
“In ahint yon auld fail dyke,
I wot there lies a new slain knight;
And nane do ken that he lies there,
But his hawk, his hound an his lady fair.”
“His hound is tae the huntin gane,
His hawk tae fetch the wild-fowl hame,
His lady’s tain anither mate,
So we may mak oor dinner swate.”
“Ye’ll sit on his white hause-bane,
And I’ll pike oot his bonny blue een;
Wi ae lock o his gowden hair
We’ll theek oor nest whan it grows bare.”
“Mony a one for him makes mane,
But nane sall ken whar he is gane;
Oer his white banes, whan they are bare,
The wind sall blaw for evermair.”
We went to Balboa Park again today. This time we visited the Museum of Man, lingering particularly long in the Egyptian wing. The kids were fascinated by the mummies, but I was a little bothered by the sad remains of the Lemon Grove Mummy, the body of what seems to have been a girl around fifteen years of age, possibly pregnant, curled into a fetal position. Her skin sags loosely around her old, old bones. She was found in a cave near Chihuahua, Mexico, in 1966 by two teenagers, who stole her and smuggled her home to Lemon Grove, California. Apparently she sat in a garage for 14 years because the boys didn’t want their parents to find out what they’d done. Eventually she was discovered and donated to the Museum of Man. She’s a special part of the mummy display, but I felt uncomfortable gawking at her in her glass case: it seems like a violation of her humanity for her to be cached there in public view next to the interactive media display about how scientists determined her age and origin. She’s one of several mummies there, and all the others had struck me as simply fascinating until we got to the Lemon Grove girl. Maybe it’s because she wasn’t wrapped up in linens like the Egyptian mummies. She reminded me of the Irish Bog People, and Seamus Heaney’s poems about them.
Some day I will go to Aarhus To see his peat-brown head, The mild pods of his eye-lids, His pointed skin cap. In the flat country near by Where they dug him out, His last gruel of winter seeds Caked in his stomach…
And that made me think of grad school, where I first read Heaney’s poems, back in the early ’90s when I had no inkling that one day I would stand in a Southern California museum, recalling those lines while watching four blonde heads peer at a long Mexican teenager in a glass case…
In a 2009 interview, Mr. Heaney was asked about “the value of poetry was during times of economic recession.”
The answer, he explained, is that it is at just such moments of crisis that people realize that they do not live by economics alone. “If poetry and the arts do anything, they can fortify your inner life, your inwardness,” Heaney said. At first, that may seem like a quaint observation — one of those poet-as-holy-fool lines. Yet an effort to “fortify your inward side,” Heaney explained to another questioner, can act as a kind of “immune system” against material difficulties.
You mustn’t take me too seriously if I now proceed to brag a bit about my exploits as a poet. There is one qualifying fact always to bear in mind: there is a kind of success called “of esteem” and it butters no parsnips. It means a success with a critical few who are supposed to know. But really to arrive where I can stand on my legs as a poet and nothing else I must get outside that circle to the general reader who buys books in their thousands. I may not be able to do that. I believe in doing it – don’t you doubt me there. I want to be a poet for all sorts and kinds. I could never make a merit of being caviar to the crowd the way my quasi-friend Pound does. I want to reach out, and would if it were a thing I could do – if it were a thing I could do by taking thought.
My name is Rilla. I am 6. Mommy read Forest Has a Song to me. I think that It Is really pretty poetry and i also think that deer are pretty too. I really love nature. And deer are one of my favorite animals and it said a lot about deer. In the picture of the fiddlehead ferns, I really like the pattern of the colors. And the fossil looks so realistic. When I grow up i want to be an illustrator like Robbin Gourley. And also, i love the Spider poem and the Dusk poem. I love the never-tangling dangling spinner part. And I love baby animals. They’re so cute and fluffy when they’re birds at least.
One of my favorites is “Farewell.” How it says “I am Forest.”
(Doggone spellcheck. She made me correct all her invented spellings—the red dots under her words tipped her off. Then again, “rhille priddy powatre” might have been hard for you to parse. Also, of course, recognizing that a word just looks wrong is a big step toward learning to spell and I can’t very well stand in the way of that progress just because the invented stuff is adorable.)
As for the book, I wholeheartedly agree with Rilla’s review. What a gorgeous, gorgeous volume. The poems sometimes wistful, sometimes whimsical, always lyrical. Beautiful for reading aloud, full of delicious internal rhyme and alliteration. And infectious: I predict a lot of original nature poetry in our future. This collection begs you to take a fresh look at the world around you and see the magic of the curled fern frond, the mushroom spore. Of course I’ve been a fan of Amy Ludwig VanDerwater’s workfor years.
I can’t imagine a more perfect pairing for Amy’s poems than Robbin Gourley’s art. Lush watercolors, rich and soft. I kept coming across pages I’d like prints of. Actually, this is exactly the kind of book where you want a second copy for cutting up and framing. (If you can bear to. I always think I’d like to do that, but the one time I actually bought a spare copy for this purpose—Miss Rumphius—I couldn’t, in the end, bring myself to dismantle it.)
Beanie’s favorite poem was “Forest News”—
I stop to read
the Forest News
in mud or fallen snow.
Articles are printed
by critters on the go…
—which she loved for its intriguing animal-tracks descriptions, its sense of fun, and its kinship with her favorite Robert Frost poem, “A Patch of Old Snow.” (“It is speckled with grime as if / Small print overspread it, / The news of a day I’ve forgotten — / If I ever read it,” writes Frost, perusing a somewhat more somber edition of the woodsy chronicle.)
Wonderboy’s favorite was the puffball poem, and he later wrote (in his customary stream-of-consciousness style) this string of impressions the book made on him: “dead branch warning and woodpecker too dusk burrow in a burrow chickadee sit on my hand and come fly here”…