Friday, March 3, 2017

Horse Sense About Poetry

So already, better to feel your way through a poem when you first meet it than to think your way through it

Kentucky Horses on the Fields of Praise*
Better to see, hear, and feel the worlds it creates than puzzle over its meaning. 

Better to let it wash over you, then stay immersed in the bath of it for days before you ponder it, if that's your wish.

Better that it starts to "mean" to you because of the worlds it sparks in your heart and your mind's eye and ear--and not because of some parsing protocol. Too analytical an initial approach will dampen its fire, reduce its genius and emotion to craft. 

You might think your role is to explain what it means and why you think so. But the poem doesn't exist to be explained by you or anyone else. Its lines are not evidence. The craft it embodies may be downright marvelous, worthy of admiration and note. But describing the poem isn't the point, and neither is explaining it. Experiencing it is. Making it part of you is.

And selling all of the above ideas is really hard work. Especially in many school settings.

So why am I talking about all of this right now? Because my choir, the Unicorn Singers, is learning John Corigliano's setting of Dylan Thomas' "Fern Hill" for mixed chorus, mezzo-soprano soloist, and piano for our April 2 concert. I've always loved "Fern Hill," loved helping students appreciate how its imagery and allusions help it express the often blissful, sometimes knowing ignorance of childhood. But re-encountering it through Corigliano's setting of it is making it resonate in a whole new way. Presently, it's rocking me, as both a cradle and a seismic shift might. I've gone from carrying the poem in my heart and my mind to feeling it in my bones

This changed relationship has sent me back to Mark Doty's "Source,"** another favorite poem in which an encounter with horses presents the poet with the gifts of both insight--into the cycles of life and the aspiration of poetry itself--and language. And it has me thinking anew about how and why we personally enter, and as teachers help others to enter, into deep, ongoing relationships with particular poems and poetry more generally.

Poetry Question from the 2015 Exam
Pacing and curriculum guides that cultivate the skills of students without nurturing their identities as learners and people don't help with this. Reading poetry or anything else becomes first and foremost an exercise in applying skills in the service of academic performance. I remember watching my first Advanced Placement English Literature and Composition students approach poetry as if it were another test or trial along the road to success, one more nut be cracked correctly, and therefore nothing but a cruel torment. Each poem was a snare created by a minor malevolent god determined to thwart their ascents to academic achievement as defined by good grades, high test scores, and admission to admired colleges. 

AP test-prep made the student and the poem adversaries. With the clock ticking, the student had to subdue the poem, slay it with an initial insight s/he could substantiate with persuasively interpreted quotations organized to lead to final statement of larger meaning. At the forty-minute mark: "Time's up." Sometimes the student won; sometimes the poem won. Occasionally a student actually liked a poem s/he met while the clock was ticking and the gloves were off.

Not that there isn't value in students' being able to develop and communicate some understanding of a baffling complex phenomenon fast. But when that complex phenomenon is a poem, the message is that high school is for interpreting and writing about poetry rather than reading and writing it. My students often came to high school loving poetry: many could recite Maya Angelou's "Phenomenal Woman" or "Still I Rise" from memory (these poems come to mind because I just watched the American Masters portrait of Angelou on PBS); others wrote poetry outside of school, and some participated in public poetry events. But almost all of them quickly came to expect that a "rigorous" high school English class was not a place for writing, sharing, and personally loving poetry.

That's why whenever possible, I included a unit-length study of a long, beautiful, enigmatic poem. In AP Lit, it usually was Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock."*** Two unit-guiding questions deliberately addressed students' initial confusion and anxiety. "How can I make sense/meaning of a poem that initially makes little or no sense to me?" invited students to be alert to the various ways they were getting under the skin of the poem; "Can I love a poem that I don't fully understand?" got them thinking together about various possible meanings "understanding a poem" could have while acknowledging and honoring their individual attractions and attachments to particular lines, images, and stanzas.

There were two things I had the kids do early in the unit when the poem's elusiveness was most unnerving them. I think they help explain why encountering "Fern Hill" in a musical setting has catapulted me into a deeper kind of knowing and holding of it 

The first was to write informally about what they thought they knew about "Prufrock" and Prufrock--the poem and its narrator--which I assured them wasn't nothing. To the right, you can see an example (in a  VoiceThread post) of one student's response.

Several Student Representations of "the yellow fog"
The second, to be done as homework so students would initially approach the task as individually as possible, was to represent visually a word, image, or line that really grabbed or moved them. 

When the students came to class the next day, they hung their representations on the wall--there were paintings, drawings, photographs, collages--in the order in which they "appeared" in the text. Then they read the poem aloud again, each of them taking a stanza, while viewing the pictures individually and collectively. 

Discussion followed. As individual students fielded their classmates' questions about the artistic choices they had made in creating their visual representations, they referred closely to the text of the poem often and further developed their working intimacy with the poem's language. By the end of the class period, they had experienced themselves as "teamed up" with the poem to convey something precious and important. Most of them were hooked.

YouTube Opening Frame of Eastman Performance Video
As I've been learning Corigliano's "Fern Hill," rereading the text of Thomas' poem, and listening again and again to the Eastman School of Music's performance of the piece, Corigliano's music is deepening my connection to the poem much as my students' visual representations led them into a more intimate relationship with "Prufrock." 

In my case, since the representation is auditory rather than visual, it's sometimes the shape of the musical line to which a portion of the text is set that provides me with a new perspective. Other times, it's the composer's choice of what voice(s) will sing what text at what moment. Yet other times, it's the shape, rhythm, and tempo of the accompaniment on (or against, or above) which the text floats that opens a new door.

Before I'd heard this piece, the Genesis-related imagery and allusions of the poem most shaped my experience of it. But Corigliano's setting has opened the stable door and awakened me to "All the pretty little horses"***** that are ever active in the poem." I heard them first and unmistakably in the musical setting of the poem's second stanza in which the narrator recalls his childhood foxhunt games: both the choir's voices singing "And green and golden, I was huntsman and herdsman, the calves/Sang to my horn, the foxes on the hills barked clear and cold" and the piano accompaniment beneath them cascade and gallop with reckless intensity. They flowed under and over me, carrying me like a torrent.

Marc Chagall's "A Red Horse"******
And then they deposited me at the edge of the third and fourth stanzas, in which the narrator, speaking in a calm, melodic, knowing solo female voice, explains that he "rode to sleep" each night and "heard, blessed among stables, . . . the horses/ Flashing into the dark." If the third-stanza horses are the stuff of night-time dreams that suggest a dawning awareness of mortality, the fourth-stanza horses are beautiful, thrilling embodiments of bright morning's power to eradicate night-time knowing and to re-enthrone eternity:
So it must have been after the birth of the simple light
In the first, spinning place, the spellbound horses walking warm
     Out of the whinnying green stable 
          Onto the fields of praise.
"Music from the Chimneys"*******
Had I not become more attuned to the presence of the horses through Corigliano's foxhunt music, I might not have wondered at the juxtaposition of the horses "Flashing into the dark" and the horses trotting "On to the fields of praise" in the middle section of the poem. That wondering has made all the difference in my experience of the poignancy of the poem's bittersweet, universal truths about childhood, aging, and time.

My romance with Thomas' image of the horses newly, endlessly emerging from the beginning of time sent me back to Mark Doty's "Source," another poem in which life, embodied by horses, cascades from fertile, primordial nothingness into the world, and then eventually and ultimately, rolls back into the warm, generative void from which it came. 
Candlelit "Ovalisque" Detail********
. . .: Would you believe me
if I said that . . . a clear channel

ran from the three horses to the place
they'd come from, the cool womb

of nothing, cave at the heart
of the world, deep and resilient and firmly set
at the core of things? Not emptiness,

not negation, but a generous cold nothing:
the breathing space out of which new shoots

are propelled to the grazing mouths,
out of which horses themselves are tendered
into the new light.        
I sometimes shared this poem with students not only because its narrative line is so identifiable and ordinary--Doty's narrator twice encounters three horses grazing in a field, first by chance and then by intent--but also because it makes the cycle of birth and death so vivid, natural, and beautiful. My students experienced the poem best when they put their heads on their desks, closed their eyes, and listened to me read it. It was much more alive to them if music and images created by the poem's words washed over them before they saw those words printed on the page.

I saw some horses yesterday as I drove across the Needham/Dover line. While the treetops behind him dipped and tossed, a white horse stood still and watching. I stopped to photograph him. He wasn't the "old white horse that galloped away in the meadow" in Eliot's "Journey of the Magi." But the sight of him brought to mind the question posed late in that poem--"were we led all that way for/ Birth or Death?"--as well as those two other poems I'd been reading.

It's early March. Spring's coming. Birth will be everywhere, bringing with it the slightest shadow of death, which we'll overlook for now, as is our human way. And why shouldn't we? "There will be time, there will be time"********** later and soon enough. In the next month, I'll commune often with "Fern Hill" at the intersection of Dylan Thomas' language and John Corigliano's music. The experience of extended immersion in words, music, and nature starts to feel like poetry and rebirth. 

[P.S. If you're now eager to hear Corigliano's "Fern Hill" sung in springtime, please join the Unicorn Singers on April 2 at 4:00 at the House of Prayer in Hingham.]

* Photo to the left is a screen shot of an iPhone screen saver: "Kentucky Horse Farms Wallpaper" [photograph by Gene Burch].
** "Source" is the second poem on this web page, beneath "Broadway."
*** Screen shot of one page of the pdf of the 2015 AP English Literature and Composition Exam: 
**** The next three photos are screen shots of pages of VoiceThreads created by my AP Lit students.
***** A line from "The Little Horses," a song that Aaron Copland arranged and orchestrated as one of his "Old American Songs." 
*(6) Screen shot of pinterest image at  
*(7) Screen shot of "Music from the Chimneys" desktop wallpaper: music-from-the-chimneys-17656-1920x1200.jpg 
*(8) "Ovalisque" by Scott Ketcham:
*(9) From "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"