Every Day Is a New Day

I don’t know how many people have jobs with built-in opportunities for do-overs. I teach school, therefore, this past Monday was a new beginning for me—in so many ways.

On my first day of school, I opted for the stairs vs. the elevator, from the lower level of the parking garage to my fourth-floor classroom. 71 steps from the garage to the second floor, 98 to the third floor, 125 to the fourth floor. But who’s counting?

One thing I’ve noticed about my co-workers who take the stairs—they’re fit. What if the stairs are their not-so-secret secret? Game on, Stairs. Game on.

Students at the performing and visual arts high school started the day in their art areas—theater, dance, instrumental, vocal, creative writing, or visual arts. Academic teachers, like me, joined one of the art areas for crowd control, so I went to the theater department. Theater, however, had everything under control, so I simply stood by in awe.

The senior thespians, thirty or so, stood center stage, one by one, in the Black Box Theater. Each offered their advice to the underclassmen, and their words were sheer power. “Be kind and easy to work with. It will open doors for you.” And so many more I can’t recount, but what I heard set the tone for my day.

And my students—each class period—were quite possibly the loveliest ever in my twenty-two new beginnings. No one complained about sitting in alphabetical order, which is my strategy for memorizing 192 new names. They folded printer paper into thirds like a brochure and wrote their name on one side where I could see and call on them. On the inside, they wrote a goal for themselves before they graduate and one piece of advice for me. Then, they worked together on a poem puzzle, fill-in-the-blank with cut-out pieces of words and phrases. (By the way, not my original idea. I borrowed the lesson from a generous giver found here.)  I had kids who pulled it off. Here’s the key to the puzzle:

Good Bones by Maggie Smith

Life is short, though I keep this from my children.
Life is short, and I’ve shortened mine
in a thousand delicious, ill-advised ways,
a thousand deliciously ill-advised ways
I’ll keep from my children. The world is at least
fifty percent terrible, and that’s a conservative
estimate, though I keep this from my children.
For every bird there is a stone thrown at a bird.
For every loved child, a child broken, bagged,
sunk in a lake. Life is short and the world
is at least half terrible, and for every kind
stranger, there is one who would break you,
though I keep this from my children. I am trying
to sell them the world. Any decent realtor,
walking you through a real shithole, chirps on
about good bones: This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful.

Students annotated the text, and then we discussed the importance of certain words and phrases and clauses. They liked Maggie Smith’s poem and the freedom to say “shithole.”

“Good,” I said. “But what’s this poem about?”  

“It’s about a mother protecting her child from the dark side of life,” they said.

“Yes,” I said, “but what’s it really about?”

“It ends on a note of hope,” they said. “It’s about the duality of life…She believes her child can make the world beautiful—We can all make life more beautiful.”

And like that, my students analyzed poetry on Day One.

“And we all bring our own experiences to our reading,” I said. “Could the speaker be a teacher? Could her children be students? Life is short and half terrible, but we have the power, especially as artists, to make it beautiful.”

At the end of my school day, I read their advice to me. One said, “Just love us. We love you already.” My heart burst a bit, broke a bit, and I breathed a prayer of gratitude. From my classroom, I walked down the hallway to the stairwell, took six flights down to the parking garage, and hopped in my car to drive home—to wait for another brand-new day.

Tetrameter?

27. “Which of the following lines is written in tetrameter?”

I shook my head. I was reading a test written by a high-stakes test-making conglomerate when I stumbled upon this question. This is the type of test kids taking advanced English classes in the US must pass to receive college credit while in high school. The type of test I would give as a semester exam—as a practice test for the real deal in May. “That’s one of the dumbest questions I’ve ever heard,” I said to myself.

I suppose, if students knew that any poetry term ending in “meter” had to do with rhythms and syllables, they might have a fighting chance at the answer. If they counted the syllables of all five answer choices and realized that four of the choices had ten syllables and one choice had eight syllables, they might realize that one of these things is not like the other. As an English teacher of twenty plus years, I had never used the word tetrameter in my classroom. Pentameter. Yes. Iambic pentameter.

In Shakespeare’s tragedy about Julius Caesar, Mark Antony looks upon Caesar’s fresh corpse and says,

“Oh, par | don me, | thou bleed | ing piece | of earth…”

We could discuss the apostrophe, the personification, the metaphor, and the perfect iambic pentameter. We could divide the line into five feet, each two syllables, also called an iamb. An unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. If I put my hand under my chin and say the words aloud, my chin will drop on the stressed syllable. “Oh” is unstressed. The “par” in pardon is stressed. The rest of the line follows the same pattern. Anything beyond iambic pentameter, I must look up and study.  

And so, in preparation for the semester exam, I gave my students my best iambic pentameter lesson as a quick segue into what the test wanted them to know about tetrameter. We haven’t studied Shakespeare yet. “If penta in Greek means five, what does tetra mean?”

“Four,” they said.

“Good!”  I gestured to the line from Julius Caesar written on my white board, “So, if iambic pentameter is five feet of two syllables, equaling ten syllables total, how many syllables do you think tetrameter would be?”

“Four,” they said.

I slapped my own forehead. “No. Eight,” I said, trying not to sound frustrated over a misunderstood mini-lesson and a stupid test question. “If you see a question on your test asking about tetrameter, count the syllables and look for eight.” I paused to make sure they were listening. “I have no doubt there are exceptions to this rule, and we’ll discuss a few later. On your semester exam, tetrameter means eight syllables.” That was the best I could do aside from saying, “The answer to number 27 is C.”

They nodded their heads up and down, and I tried very hard not to tell my students this question was ridiculous. I might have anyway.

***

Flash forward to exam day. I actively monitored, walking up and down the aisles, when a book on my shelf caught my eye. Sin and Syntax by Constance Hale. I grabbed it. The subtitle—How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose—called my name. The teacher before me had left it behind.

“For the writer or wannabe, Sin and Syntax is an urgently needed, updated, and hip guide to modern language and writing.” —Jon Katz, author of Geeks

I opened the book and thumbed through the pages about words and sentences and stopped at Part 3—Music. “When you get your grammar down, when you simplify your syntax, you are halfway to mastering the craft of writing,” Hale says. “Appreciate music in prose, and develop your ear for it. Devour novels. Cue up recordings of famous speeches. Fall in love with poetry. Go to the video store and check out all those Shakespeare movies. Read your writing aloud.”

“Nice advice,” I thought and flipped further.

In the last chapter on “Rhythm,” Hale says, “Metric feet can have up to five syllables, but the most common have two or three.” And that’s why a question on tetrameter twists my panties. Tetrameter could be any number of syllables. Stupid. Stupid. Stupid.

I don’t know Richard Lederer, but I think he’s genius.

“As a prose stylist, you don’t really need to memorize the names of metric feet,” Hale says, “but you do need to appreciate their effect….When we listen carefully to our writing and reshape its rhythms to our liking, prose can become music.” She says the verses of the Bible, especially the King James, “are so easily received, remembered, and recited because of their rhythms.”

Hale cites the iambic pentameter of playwright, David Mamet, the rhythms of Winston Churchill and John F. Kennedy, the repetitions of Ernest Hemingway and Tim O’Brien, the musicality of Virginia Woolf and Martin Luther King, Jr. She writes about parallelism and a Jell-O commercial, rap and Grandmaster Flash.

And Hale’s last chapter reminded me of my last MFA class, Topics and Genres. A study of mentor texts with a focus on opening lines. Dr. Boyleston said, “Your story is only as good as your command of the language.” And he wrote Isak Denison’s first sentence from Out of Africa on the whiteboard:

“I had a farm in Africa at the foot of the Ngong Hills.” 

Our class discussed. I took notes. The first six words of the novel are iambic, and the “had” emphasizes the past tense conflict. The narrator no longer has the farm. The prepositional phrases, “in Africa at the foot of the Ngong Hills,” reveal a general location—Africa—and a specific location—the Ngong Hills. The repeating anapestic rhythm connects the music of language and beauty of landscape. In this simple sentence, there are only two polysyllabic words. The rest are monosyllabic, which slow you down and lend a sense of gravity. It’s almost Biblical. “The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.” This lesson on rhythms was one of my favorites of my MFA at HBU.

And still, who cares if I can identify a dactyl or trochee by name? Uh, not me. Tetrameter. Shrameter. The technicality makes no difference. But the musicality? Now that’s another story.  

At the Art Institute of Chicago

Gustave Caillbotte’s Paris Street; Rainy Day, 1877. Artwork captured by iPhone.
Little Dancer Aged Fourteen by Edgar Degas, 1881
Georges Seurat’s A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, 1884
My date knows the way to my art. July 2017.
Portrait of Jeanne Wenz by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, 1886
Self Portrait by Vincent Van Gough, 1887
Vincent Van Gogh’s The Bedroom, 1889
Vincent Van Gogh’s The Drinkers, 1890
Notre Dame de Paris by Jean-Francois Raffaelli,
1890 – 1895
At the Moulin Rouge by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, 1892 – 1895
The Girl by the Window by Edvard Munch, 1893
The Old Guitarist by Pablo Picasso, 1903-04
Fisherman’s Cottage by Harald Sohlberg, 1906
Water Lilies by Claude Monet, 1906
American Gothic by Grant Wood, 1930
Cow’s Skull with Calico Roses by Georgia O’Keefe, 1931
René Magritte’s On the Threshold of Liberty, 1937
White Crucifixion by Marc Chagall, 1938
Nighthawks by Edward Hopper 1942
Nude under a Pine Tree by Pablo Picasso, 1959
Ohhh…Alright… by Roy Lichtenstein, 1964
Four Mona Lisas by Andy Warhol, 1978
Anybody know this one? Credit fail.
???
Stamford after Brunch by John Currin, 2000 (or as I like to call it, The Three Sisters)
At The Art Institute of Chicago
	
I gazed at the blue-eyed
Vincent Van Gogh. 
With turbulent stroke, 
deep dejection clear,
hospitalized a whole year 
before the ear incident.
Then death by suicide.

His eyes held mine. 
“I want to touch people 
with my art,” he said.
“I want them to say: 
he feels deeply, 
he feels tenderly.”
I felt it down deep, 
faced him, and cried.		

“You remind me 
of my son,” I said.
“His gift, the cello,
sings. Yet other voices 
reside inside his mind.
Relentless and mean. 
I see you, dear Vincent.
Your help arrived too late. 
My worst nightmare 
is your fate.”

Memorize?

A couple of weeks ago, I read The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr, and I’m one chapter short of finishing her 1995 bestselling memoir The Liars’ Club now. As the Peck Professor of Literature and Memoir at Syracuse University, she offers expert tips and provides an appendix of must-read memoirs. The list is so worth the purchase for those interested in studying the genre.

In Chapter 19, “Old School Technologies for the Stalled Novice,” Karr encourages intellectual enterprises to keep you studying the craft of writing. Here are some of the tools she uses to learn from mentor texts. Some of these include writing longhand. She says it will slow you down as typing can’t.

  1. Keep a notebook, where you copy beloved poems or hunks of prose. Nothing will teach you of great writers’ choices better. Plus, you can carry your inspiration around in compact form.
  2. Write reviews or criticism for an online blog or a magazine. It will discipline you to find evidence for your opinions and make you a crisper thinker.
  3. Augment a daily journal with a reading journal. Compose a one-page review with quotes. Make yourself back up opinions.
  4. Write out longhand on 3×5” index cards quotes you come across, writer’s name on the left, source and page on the right. Karr has thousands of these from which she cobbles up lectures.
  5. Memorize poems when you’re stuck.
  6. Write longhand letters to your complicated characters or even to the dead. You’ll learn more about voice by writing letters, how you arrange yourself different ways for each audience, than in a year of classes.

Number Five spoke loudest to me. Funny how I can still remember chunks of verse from days gone by. I memorized the “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost in the eighth grade for my English class. Anytime I take another look at that poem, the words come flooding back. When I taught sophomores, I memorized Mark Antony’s “Friends, Romans, Countrymen” funeral oration from Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Julius Caesar. And when I taught juniors, I memorized Macbeth’s “Out, out, brief candle” soliloquy. Because the students had been tasked to memorize, I wanted to prove I could do it. I loved to show them a three-year-old’s ability to memorize, too. Here’s a toddler’s version of “Litany” by Billy Collins.


Here’s one I’m working on, at Mary Karr’s suggestion and just because I love it:

[i carry your heart with me(i carry it in]
by e.e. cummings

i carry your heart with me(i carry it in
my heart)i am never without it(anywhere
i go you go,my dear;and whatever is done
by only me is your doing,my darling)
                                                      i fear
no fate(for you are my fate,my sweet)i want
no world(for beautiful you are my world,my true)
and it’s you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you

here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life;which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that's keeping the stars apart

i carry your heart(i carry it in my heart)

Villanelle

img_3920

The crack is moving down the wall.
Defective plaster isn’t all the cause.
We must remain until the roof falls in.

It’s mildly cheering to recall
That every building has its little flaws.
The crack is moving down the wall.

Here in the kitchen, drinking gin,
We can accept the damndest laws.
We must remain until the roof falls in.

And though there’s no one here at all,
One searches every room because
The crack is moving down the wall.

Repairs? But how can one begin?
The lease has warnings buried in each clause.
We must remain until the roof falls in.

These nights one hears a creaking in the hall,
The sort of thing that gives one pause.
The crack is moving down the wall.
We must remain until the roof falls in.

Weldon Keys

I stumbled upon the villanelle form in my book Staying Alive for my summer poetry class. My class is mainly poetry appreciation intended to inspire poetry of my own. I quite like Weldon Keys “Villanelle.” Sometimes cracks are visible, and for whatever reason, we often seem to wait for the roof to crash. As for my own poems, I have my work cut out for me, nothing ready to share.

The villanelle is a nineteen-line poem with two rhymes throughout, consisting of five tercets (three-line stanzas) and ending with a quatrain (four-line stanza). The first and third lines of the opening tercet recur alternately at the ends of the other tercets and with both repeated at the end of the closing quatrain. Some of the tercets above might look a wee bit, um, janky (with a fourth line) via phone. On my laptop, they come across as intended. 

Probably the most famous villanelle is Dylan Thomas’s poem, “Do not go gentle into that good night.” Who knew that this one is a villanelle? I did not. You are welcome.

If you have a minute and a half, here is Thomas reciting his poem in 1952, a year before his untimely death at age 39. For Dylan’s text, click here.

Source:
Staying Alive, ed Neil Astley, Miramax Books, 2003.

 

The Journey

by Mary Oliver

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice—
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
was terrible.
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do—
determined to save
the only life you could save.

Source: Being Alive, ed Neil Astley, Bloodaxe, 2004