Friday, April 4, 2008

Shall I call this post "A lesson in irony?" or "Google Claims Another Victim"

I just finished up a poetry unit with my 9th graders. For the unit assessment, each student was to create a poetry portfolio consisting of a collection of original poems as well as a collection of poems gathered from a list of approved poets I provided. For each poem, the student was to write the poetic device the poet used next to the example. One student included this poem, by the great Billy Collins.


Sometimes the notes are ferocious,
skirmishes against the author
raging along the borders of every page
in tiny black script.
If I could just get my hands on you,
Kierkegaard, or Conor Cruise O'Brien,
they seem to say,
I would bolt the door and beat some logic into your head.

Other comments are more offhand, dismissive -
"Nonsense." "Please!" "HA!!" -
that kind of thing.
I remember once looking up from my reading,
my thumb as a bookmark,
trying to imagine what the person must look like
who wrote "Don't be a ninny"
alongside a paragraph in The Life of Emily Dickinson.

Students are more modest
needing to leave only their splayed footprints
along the shore of the page.
One scrawls "Metaphor" next to a stanza of Eliot's.
Another notes the presence of "Irony"
fifty times outside the paragraphs of A Modest Proposal.

Or they are fans who cheer from the empty bleachers,
Hands cupped around their mouths.
"Absolutely," they shout
to Duns Scotus and James Baldwin.
"Yes." "Bull's-eye." "My man!"
Check marks, asterisks, and exclamation points
rain down along the sidelines.

And if you have managed to graduate from college
without ever having written "Man vs. Nature"
in a margin, perhaps now
is the time to take one step forward.

We have all seized the white perimeter as our own
and reached for a pen if only to show
we did not just laze in an armchair turning pages;
we pressed a thought into the wayside,
planted an impression along the verge.

Even Irish monks in their cold scriptoria
jotted along the borders of the Gospels
brief asides about the pains of copying,
a bird signing near their window,
or the sunlight that illuminated their page-
anonymous men catching a ride into the future
on a vessel more lasting than themselves.

And you have not read Joshua Reynolds,
they say, until you have read him
enwreathed with Blake's furious scribbling.

Yet the one I think of most often,
the one that dangles from me like a locket,
was written in the copy of Catcher in the Rye
I borrowed from the local library
one slow, hot summer.
I was just beginning high school then,
reading books on a davenport in my parents' living room,
and I cannot tell you
how vastly my loneliness was deepened,
how poignant and amplified the world before me seemed,
when I found on one page

A few greasy looking smears
and next to them, written in soft pencil-
by a beautiful girl, I could tell,
whom I would never meet-
"Pardon the egg salad stains, but I'm in love."

And here is where I'd like to stun you all with my great teaching skills by saying the student wrote, in thick-lined red sharpie, scrawled down the entire length of the margin, the glorious word --
Sadly, this student wrote "metaphor" next the to paragraph that contained the word "metaphor". Because, I'm sure, this is the poem Google gave her when she keyed "Billy Collins metaphor" into its search bar. *sigh*


Soul-Fusion said...

I love Billy Collins! Although I hadn't read that one - thanks for sharing.

Tiffany said...

I'm so glad you posted this poem! I haven't been able to remember the title for years. All I could remember was, "Pardon the egg salad stains, but I'm in love." I want that on a T-shirt.

Your students are hilarious, by the way!