Sunday, January 13, 2013

Cathy Cartier

Something to Look Forward To
When the new year arrives and the holidays are over, we can’t help but feel a little disappointed.  What is there to look forward to now except serious dieting and the return lines at Target?  We’re back to getting up in the dark when the alarm screams and feeling like zombies by 7:00 p.m.
Fortunately, English teachers everywhere have something to look forward to because the month of January brings with it Poetry Out Loud, a competition for high school students from around the country who study, memorize and recite poems.  Teachers enjoy perusing websites and listening to podcasts along with students, discovering and rediscovering poets and poems, marveling at the perfect word or metaphor in a poem, and always hoping that our passion is contagious. 
This year I have introduced my classes to Seamus Heaney’s “The Underground.”  We have used this poem to illustrate how much easier it is to recite a poem if we look at its parts and discover what the poet is really saying.  Just listening to Heaney read “The Underground” is an experience.   One writer in Newsweek described his vernacular as “muscular language so rich with the tones and smells of earth that you almost expect to find a few crumbs of dirt clinging to his lines.”  As we listen to his recordings on YouTube, we feel as if he is sharing secrets about his life with us; the intimacy is a bit unsettling, yet intriguing.
Something else English teachers can look forward to is watching our students rise to the occasion and surprise us with their sophisticated thinking about literature.  We have spent two days listening to and discussing “The Underground,” trying not to “torture a confession” out of the poem, but looking for important poetic devices that Heaney uses.  After some hints from Heaney himself and a little research, students have recognized the allusions he uses in his poem. 
Explicating the poem together has prepared my students to explicate the poems from the Poetry Out Loud website that they will be reciting next week.  In a paragraph which served as a formative assessment, students drew conclusions about “The Underground” and then about the poem they will recite next week.  Here are two of many that I am excited about and a video of one student’s recitation.
In “The Underground,” Seamus Heaney flawlessly creates the image of a man in love spending time with his newlywed wife by using allusion to guide the narrative.  Her memory is what drives the speaker to recount the tale, and he compares himself to Hansel, following the bread crumbs to find his way home or literally to retrace his steps back to his honeymoon.  The speaker is joyous as he recalls his wife; but as he reveals her death, the tone becomes dark and we are taken to hell.   Orpheus’s task to not look back at Eurydice symbolizes the speaker’s passion for his wife and determination to keep her memory alive.
In Edwin Arlington Robinson’s poem “Richard Cory”, the speaker uses a shift in tone in order to introduce the honorable characteristics of Richard Cory and also to give more of an impact to the irony of the ending.  The poem starts with an admiring tone, with the speaker saying in the first stanza, “Whenever Richard Cory went down town, / We people on the pavement looked at him” and going on to the third stanza to tell more about Richard, such as “And he was rich – yes richer than a king.”  The line “And he was always human when he talked” shows that although Richard had so much, he wasn’t arrogant, which makes him more admirable.  The tone switches to envious in the third stanza when the speaker states how everyone wanted to be in Richard’s place and have all that he had.  By the end of the fourth stanza, the tone turns blunt and dispassionate.  The speaker is straightforward by clearly saying Richard Cory “put a bullet through his head.”   The sharp twist of the tone gives the reader a shock, and makes him question why someone who had so much and was admired by so many, wouldn’t want to go on living what seemed like a perfect life.
 January can be cold and devoid of the glitter of the holidays.  If you need something to look forward to, join us for our Poetry Out Loud assembly Wednesday, the 16th, when we will snap our fingers in response to the stirring recitations of students who now share our passion for poetry.


  1. Cathy--Simon and Garfunkle did a song based on the poem Richard Cory. As I recall, it has the same title.

    I wonder how your students would respond to a musical version?

    Today is your assembly. I will be surrounded by my third graders so, alas, I cannot join you. But I am sure it will be a wonderful experience for your students.

  2. Yes, I remember the song well!

    The assembly met all our expectations, and the winner recited "Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg" by Richard Hugo. Being a judge was difficult because all of the participants performed like winners.