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Starting the Year with a Poem

Linda Derezinski, English Department Head

The first days of a school are always a wild ride. All of a sudden, the halls are full of energy; our classrooms are loud again, and students’ enthusiasm, nervousness, chatter and joy permeate the atmosphere. On this unique moment — the first day of school in English classes — I skip the syllabus and class policy speeches, and we jump right into a poem together.  

It feels a bit like cannonballing into the deep end of school.

Before we read the poem, I invite my students to think about their favorite song, the one that feels so personally meaningful to them. You probably have a song like that in your memory, too. The first time you heard that song, it probably did not give you everything it had to offer; it did not have as much meaning or carry as much weight. But then you heard it again and you noticed a really touching lyric, and then you heard it again and you talked with your friend about how much you loved it, and you found something new there, and you grew closer to that song. Over time, that song became important to you; it wormed its way into your heart. 

Poetry does that, too, if we give it a chance to be experienced several times in order for it to find its pathway into your soul. As scholars in my classroom, we can give poems that opportunity. Poetry, I always tell the students, wants to be read out loud. Poetry wants to be spoken and heard.

So we give this poem what it wants.

When we read a poem in my class, we read it aloud, several times. We might proclaim it in a performing voice, then murmur it quietly to ourselves in our seats, then recite it again to a classmate with our desks pushed together.  

Only after we have given the poem a chance to come into us can we start to consider what its parts mean. We may need to learn some new words or pursue some allusions or metaphors. What, exactly, does “phantasmagoria” mean? What does it mean when the poet says they are like Don Quixote? How is the ocean like a black hole? Perhaps we need to rearrange the sentence so its parts make sense to us. We may need to take it apart a little in order to understand how it is put together. 

As we talk about it, we share the experience by discussing what we noticed, what it says to us, and where we felt connections to the poem. I always remind students at this stage that the poem has many things to say and many ways to be; that is why it is a poem. If the poet wanted to just tell you a statement of fact, they would have written a paragraph. But they wrote a poem, and poems are expansive.

Together, our understanding of the poem grows and changes, and each time new words, phrases, images, and ideas emerge. We have let the poem in, we gave it what it wanted — a chance to be heard. It is moving in, making a home in our souls. It has started to show us something new about the world.

And then the bell rings, and our time is up. The First Day of School marches on, but we have made something special within it.

Here is the poem we started AP Literature: Being Human with this year:

Be Monster
by Nathan Spoon

All mouth. Out of  orbit
due to an insatiable need to be
orbited. At some point there are clouds
or waves filled with the foul kelp
of cornering questions. Like a black hole
yeeting a star through space, it was real
when monster queried, Why do you think you carry
a small stack of  books with you?  Out of orbit
is perhaps a phantasmagoria of blankness.
It was real when the foolishness I was
meant to feel oozed from the kelp instead.
What I carried out of my own need was
innocuous enough. It felt how pages smelled
as I turned them. Like Don Quixote made
a helmet, I wanted to make the books,
with their sturdy covers, a shield. I succeeded
almost. Almost, except an impulse rose
as I walked starrily away from monster.
Almost, except it is impossible to protect
what I was protecting indefinitely. Naivety
that is ready to crumble does. When it crumbles
its pieces fall into a womb where the thing
most feared gestates. All mouth. All hunger.
All claw. All tooth. All stirrer of disorder
I now will be. Hidden and large. Large. Large
as the thick-haired ocean of  space.

Source: Poetry (October 2020)