Poe(try)

It started when my phone pinged with a text from one of my English teachers: “Nerding out over Poe in prep for some Halloween poetry. I’m proud of the pattens the kids caught here!”

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That pride, indicative of the relationship so many of our teachers share with students, moved me. I love being invited in to visit classes, and am always pleased to see teachers sharing a sense of wonder with their kids. It was late in the day when I got that message, but vowed to myself to visit the poetry class later in the week. 

The week got away from me.

The next week looked like it might too.

And then I got another text from that English teacher: “Next week, on Wednesday the 30th, in 6th per, we will be sharing our ‘Poe-try.’ I told the class I would invite you, and challenge you to draft an attempt. We are using the last line of “Annabel Lee” as a model. I’ll send you our scansion.”

And the world got a little better.

I said “I’m in!” of course, and took a look at “Annabel Lee.” Poe is a favorite of more high schoolers than you’d imagine, not just at ACMA, but an author I don’t read as often as others, so it took me a couple of days to get the meter and rhyme into my head enough to give my own stanza a go.

I opted for a holiday themed entry in the parade of poems, something I hoped was a serviceable stanza, one internal off rhyme, and a nod to both our school and our poet of inspiration.

Each year on Halloween, here at ACMA it seems
That the costumes I see are divine.
And the students and staff, with a smile and a laugh,
Show creativity greater than mine.
But this national holiday, here at our school anyway,
Is a glimpse of ACMA at play,
With capes and masks, a splendid show
And some poems in the style of Poe.”

The students, of course did even better.

Now I’ve been doing my best to read a book of poetry each week this school year, so it felt like I was coming home when I arrived at the classroom, a creative space filled with two dozen poets and a palpable positive energy.

After a few minutes of spooky music someone noticed aloud that it was far too sunny a day to be talking about Poe. Poetic smiles blossomed around the table. Then, the students looked up at the inspiration stanza from “Annabel Lee” and talked about some of the challenges they found in imitation: meter, refrains, internal rhyme.

Out of nowhere a student asked if anyone had a band-aid for her paper cut; a little blood on this day of “Poe-try” didn’t seem out of place.

A discussion of anapestic tetrameter broke out. It was glorious. 

poeThen the poets got to sharing.

Most followed Poe’s lead and took as their subject matter “real-life fears” from anxiety to climate change. Images of paralysis and abandoned roller coasters, people encased in tree sap and children drowning beneath the ocean waves rose from the pages. These amazing authors filled the room with a poetic energy that would have made the old Baltimorian proud. 

Some poets veered into satire (“Awful Edgar Poe”) or wit (a devilish voicemail) and others fully embraced the idea of the macabre. From pills and pixels to brain trauma and the synecdoche of a simple white sheet, these delightfully dark poems embraced the spirit of the day before Halloween.

One poet offered that she had two poems, the first “really gross” (which only made the class more curious) and asked us which we’d like to hear. “Both” was the only correct answer. When she told us the title of the first was “Fresh Meat” I heard a classmate whisper “Oh my god.” It got better from there, ending with the teacher’s wry question to the poet “Are you okay?”

She was, and we were, and the morning of poetry (Poe-try) could not have been better.

So I raise a glass to all those teachers who are proud of their students, so proud that they tell friends, call colleagues, and even text administrators like me. Caring, engaging, and making art together, here’s to everyone having the opportunity to “nerd out” over something we love and then share that with someone else.

Reading

“A million candles have burned themselves out. Still I read on.”
-Edgar Allan Poe

No one gets to the end of their life and says “I wish I’d read more Nietzsche.”

I was a philosophy major, taught English for a dozen years, and get kidded today for reading Sartre for fun. “Who reads Sartre anymore?” Evidently just me. And yet I know the truth that for most, Nietzsche is more a phase than a philosopher.

I’ve also reached a point in my life when rereading some books stems less from a desire to really understand them and more because I simply don’t remember as much about their content as I do have memories of them being good.

Tess of the D’urbervilles is on my list to reread, The Black Prince by Iris Murdoch too, and Haruki Murakami’s Wind Up Bird Chronicle. It will be interesting this summer to see how the tastes of my undergraduate years have changed.

In the first draft of that last sentence I put “if” instead of “how,” though I know that there is no way those tastes (a way of summing up perspective, attitude, and understanding) haven’t developed as a result of the varied experiences of an adult lifetime.

I thought of this last week when my assistant principal, himself a former English teacher, mentioned to me that as he was walking with a student from his office to her Creative Writing class he asked her who her favorite writer was.

photo (5)“Poe,” she answered.

When he told me the story, he and I both had the same response: That will change.

And it will, and that’s okay. Heck, I still keep a couple of old copies of Poe on my bookshelf, some essays and Eureka, and while I don’t consult them for wisdom or guidance, their presence, like some kind of talisman, reminds me of the person I was when I read them back in my younger years.

Working at a high school means that I get to be around students who are actively engaged in developing their own tastes. They’re in the process of reading Hamlet and Heart of Darkness for the first time and they get pushed in their four years before graduation to think critically and creatively about science, and history, and math.

Some might pick up Siddhartha or Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and whether they agree with the author or not, they may find their minds stretched in ways that help them become the people they are becoming.

It’s our job as educators to nurture this.

And if some of the titles or authors who so inspired their teenage selves feel flat or flawed by the time they reach thirty, all the better. If that’s the case, they’ve continued to grow and learn.

We oughtn’t mock the stones we step on as we cross the stream, but thank them, imperfect as they are, for giving us the footing to walk to the other side.

On a high school campus that means nodding when a student tells us about the merits of Edgar Allan Poe or asks us to think about an maxim they’ve discovered in Beyond Good and Evil.

While we do, we might mention James Baldwin or Zora Neale Hurston, or even Jean Paul Sartre. Well, probably not him. And all the while I’m convinced that it’s right to celebrate these authors our students connect with, these authors they may even find themselves rereading some summer when they’re in their forties.