“Oh, Mom, we do enough of that in school.”
My daughter’s reaction to the news that I’d be leading a poetry jam with her Girl Scout troop was pretty much what you’d expect from a hipster 10-year-old. But our troop leader had loved the idea, so it was a done deal, school poetry lessons or not.
When the day arrived, of course we started with a snack. The troop had come straight from school on that May afternoon, and being fifth graders, they were as famished as if they’d just come from a 10-mile trek. Because poetry was the theme of the day, we’d have a “poetic” snack. First on the menu was Edamame Salami, which I had invented for the poetry dinner chapter of my book, Friday Night Bites. The name came to me first, and then I made up the recipe to go with it: finely diced Genoa salami, crisped in the microwave, tossed with ready-to-eat edamames. For the less adventurous, there was Delish Fish: goldfish crackers dipped in melted chocolate. Both disappeared in minutes.
And then it was time for poetry. I had asked the girls to bring poems to share and had prepared a selection of my own favorites—poems I had loved as a kid, and others that I had discovered later on.
We began with “My Favorite Things.” We all know it as a song, but I wanted the girls to look at it sans music, both because the title fit the hodgepodge of poems I’d gathered and because, well, the thing is built like a brick wall. Oscar Hammerstein’s verses are just so well constructed. Not only is there a cunning little word picture in each line, but the rhyme scheme is deceptive in its simplicity, with a new rhyme and a refrain alternating in every other couplet. I passed out copies and pencils so the girls could analyze it for themselves, and soon they had labeled the whole thing:
But we weren’t done. Next, we looked for alliterations, and found one in almost every line. “Raindrops on roses,” “copper kettles,” “warm woolen,” etc. Suddenly, the verses that had seemed so familiar and so simple took on a new dimension.
For something a bit more contemporary, we looked at Adele’s “Someone Like You.” We talked about how she used the second person to give her song a sense of immediacy. Then came a lighter selection: “Fossils” by Ogden Nash, from the poems he wrote to accompany Saint-Saens’ “Carnival of the Animals.” It had some vocabulary to define first; 10-year-olds didn’t know that “wassail” is a kind of a drink or that “mastodontic” refers to the girth of a prehistoric mastodon. But they needed no coaching to chuckle at Nash’s mischievous punch line:
Amid the mastodontic wassail
I caught the eye of one small fossil.
“Cheer up, sad world,” he said and winked—
“It’s kind of fun to be extinct.”
Next was A. A. Milne’s Sneezles, in which Christopher Robin contracts a case of wheezles and sneezles. It’s a wonderfully whimsical poem with a strict meter—tetrameter, to be exact. I clapped out a few lines with the girls, but they kept going until the end of the poem through beguiling lines like:
…They asked if he suffered from thirst.
They asked if the sneezles
Came after the wheezles
Or if the first sneezle
They said, “If you teazle
May easily grow.
But humour or pleazle
Will certainly go.” …
Then came Robert Louis Stevenson, Nikki Giovanni and Shel Silverstein, the latter brought to us by several of our Scouts. By then we were ready to tackle something more challenging. Our troop had visited Ellis Island together, so Emma Lazarus’s “The New Colossus” seemed in order. First we considered the title; we learned that the “old” Colossus was a giant statue on the waterfront of ancient Rhodes until an earthquake crumbled it to bits. We noted how Lazarus contrasted a militaristic symbol with the strong but welcoming lady of New York Harbor. Again, there was challenging vocabulary to review, but they got the gist:
Not like the brazen giants of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch whose flame,
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. …
Call me sentimental, but the last lines always get to me:
“…Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
It was late in the afternoon, but I had two more poems to share. The first, one of my all time favorites, is by Emily Dickinson, and it’s as short as it is profound.
To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee.
One clover, and a bee.
The revery alone will do,
If bees are few.
A tricky poem for a kid. We reviewed the hard words and then I told them how Emily Dickinson had lived at the time of the westward migration, which they had studied in fourth grade. She herself never went west and probably never saw a prairie in her life. So what was she writing about?
“Imagination,” ventured Hannah.
There was just time for one last poem, and again I chose a grown-up one, Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.” We defined the vocabulary words and then read: “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood/And sorry I could not travel both….”
It was May, after all, with just a few more weeks of school. I got out my soapbox. “I wanted to share this poem with you because you are all going off to middle school next year, and there might be times when you have choices to make. Somebody might offer you drugs, or there might be a bully who wants you to be a bully, too. I think this poem is about life—and about how not taking the easy road can make all the difference.” They were silent. I wondered if they were listening.
Clearly, it was time for a poetic art project. Concrete poetry—the arrangement of text in shapes that convey meaning. I handed out sheets of words that I had typed out and they got to work cutting and gluing and adding colorful flourishes with markers.
While they worked, I asked them which poems they had liked best. The answers were as different as the girls. “Sneezles,” said one. “Bed in Summer,” said another. “My Favorite Things,” said our troop leader. Around the table we went, and when it was Lauren’s turn, she said, “’The Road Not Taken,’ because it’s about making decisions that might not be popular.”
I said a silent YEE-HAAA!
On the way home, I asked my daughter what she thought about the afternoon. She replied, with the eloquence of a kid, “It was good.”
“Ya’ know,” I said, “Some of these poems you might remember for the rest of your life. I first read some of them when I was young, and I still remember them”
“I guess so,” she replied.
That was good enough for me, because, well, I know that she will.