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Thursday, October 30, 2008

What I Ended Up Doing

I thought about which poems and searched the web waaaaay longer than practically anyone has time for (especially in light of phone banks for getting out the vote, having to bake homemade mac & cheese for a potluck, being behind on grading--way behind--and the house being a mess), but this is what I decided. 

I came up with 3 pairings of poems for a compare/contrast essay they'll write during week 8:

Martin Espada's "Niggerlips" gets paired with Langston's Hughes' "Theme for English B." [What I love about this match up is that Hughes' is so painfully careful to NOT talk about race in a militant or angry way. He is so f-ing subtle it kills you. But Espada gets our attention even before the poem begins with that title.  By pairing these two, Hughes' unspoken (or barely whispered) oppression, his dance around and away from potentially sticky subjects (um, "somewhat more free"??!!)  are suddenly magnified. I want to ask my students: now that you've read Espada's poem, what's missing from the Hughes poem? Is anger maybe missing? Do you think Hughes wasn't teased, and that's why he doesn't mentioned it?]

Sherman Alexie and his "On the Amtrak from Boston to New York City" go head-to-head with Allison Joseph's "On Being Told I Don't Talk Like a Black Person" (Sorry, not on the web. I found it in an anthology titled 250 Poems: A Portable Anthology by Peter Schakel and Jack Ridl. [They're both very angry, in-your-face poems, but it's interesting that both of them attack the enemy in the poem but do not dramatize an actual confrontation with the offending party. Is this b/c direct confrontation is scary for a person of color, or b/c no one of any color likes to directly tell someone off ? What does that say about American culture? Alexie tells us in his poem that he's kind and polite to the woman who's going on and on about Walden Pond b/c he was raised to respect his elders. It's part of his heritage. Is it Joseph's heritage that causes her to throw out an olive branch at the end of her poem ("Let us simply speak / to one another"). Is Alexie going against his culture  when he gets more and more steaming pissed and does not offer solace to ignorant whites who don't know about his people? ]

Finally, Allen Ginsberg's "A Supermarket in California" is lovingly paired with the 2nd section of "Song of Myself" (I've prepared the discussion questions on this one, and I am so pleased with how the coupling lends itself to questions about voice, word choice, homage, humor, misplaced loneliness, the asking of questions, and all the shadows in Ginsberg's poem. I always liked "what peaches and what penumbras!" for the sound of it, but now I realize "penumbra" is a brilliant word choice for its meaning. Later when he writes "the trees add shade to shade," he's harkening back to that imperceptible place between a thing and its shadow--him, in the shadow of Whitman, even though he's kinda being humble here--he definitely broke new ground in this poem. I mean, Whitman never complains of having a headache or feeling absurd (correct me if I'm wrong). Anyway, I'm still trying to figure out the shade, shadow, and fog in this poem. If you have ideas, please post them.  

If you want to find any of these poems, they're at  Oh, except for the Joseph and the Alexie. 

Have you ever done a pairing like this in your classes, assuming you teach? Which poems/poets have you paired up? I would love to know. Also, if you've got anything you want to share about any of the above poems or poets, please post --I am new to these (except  for the Hughes and Alexie), so I'm sure I'm missing important stuff. Thanks!


David Graham said...

Does Whitman ever complain of a headache, etc? Well, sure! The big optimistic sweeping oratory often overwhelms such stuff, but especially as he grew older, his poems include a lot of daily notation--duly noted by Ginsberg, of course.

For instance, this late lyric complaining about his old-age constipation:

As I Sit Writing Here

As I sit writing here, sick and grown old,
Not my least burden is that dulness of the years, querilities,
Ungracious glooms, aches, lethargy, constipation, whimpering ennui,
May filter in my dally songs.

-- Walt Whitman

Martha Silano said...

Thanks! I haven't had time to dig into Whitman's later work, so I didn't know he complained about his constipation and "whimpering ennui." Perfect!

shadowsinthemoonlight said...

Wonderful idea. I've taught English, but on a one-on-one resource level, where I was supplementing the course already decided by the English teacher.

I also love the word "penumbra", especially its sound. I'm sure your choices will result in much learning and energetic essays and discussions.