Category Archives: poetry

Reading Aloud

Many of us probably remember round robin reading with a slight shudder of horror whether as students or teachers. I suppose at the time, it seemed the most efficient and effective way to hear every student, but it could be deadly for listeners and humiliating for readers. Is it still done?

A better way, I think, is to take a page from former US Poet Laureate Billy Collins who recommends giving students time to read over the material so they can prepare themselves and be able to read in a natural style. Collins is referring specifically to poetry but I think his suggestions can apply to any kind of recitation.  Collins’ tips are part of a program called Poetry 180 that asks teachers and schools to read aloud a poem every day of the school year:

The goal is to give students a chance to listen to a poem each day. The best time for the reading would be at the end of the daily announcements, whether they are delivered over a public address system, at an assembly in an auditorium or by teachers in their individual homerooms. The hope is that poetry will become a part of the daily life of students in addition to being a subject that is part of the school curriculum.

The site provides a helpful list of poems that seem to be mostly modern and contemporary poems from mostly North American writers. Collins cautions that this is not an exercise in interpretation. The goal is to hear a poem:

Unless students really want to discuss the poem, there is no need to do so. The most important thing is that the poems be read and listened to without any academic requirements.

I find this a fascinating bit of advice.Just listen and absorb. It is similar to  Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac without the extra interesting tidbits and Keillor’s drawl.

Reading aloud as performance or art has been a minor theme of the last two books I’ve read. In his Essays After Eighty, Donald Hall writes about doing poetry readings with some history of reading aloud along with warnings for readers. He describes the move from imagining the poem’s sound through the eyes to needing to say aloud the “mouth-juice of vowels, or mouth-chunk of consonants” (p. 41).

His descriptions of the great poets he heard read match quite nicely with Billy Collins’ tips for reading out loud:

Eliot was good, but most performances were insufferable–superb poems spoken as if they were lines from the telephone book. William Carlos Williams read too quickly in a high-pitched voice, but seemed to enjoy himself. Wallace Stevens appeared to loathe his beautiful work, making it flat and half audible…Marianne Moore’s tuneless drone as as eccentric as her imitable art. (p. 42)

Only Dylan Thomas seems to have met his expectations with his “rich and succulent Welsh organ” (p. 43).

As I read Hall’s essay about reading poetry, I was reminded of James Agee’s preface to Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. “This text,” he writes, “was written with reading aloud in mind.” He seems to contradict himself and offer a reverse process to that described by Hall when he goes on to say,

That cannot be recommended: but it is suggested that the reader attend with his ear to what he takes off the page: for variations of tone, pace, shape, and dynamics are here particularly unavailable to the eye alone, and with their loss, a good deal of meaning escapes. (p. xi).

For Agee, sound adds meaning. As I wrote in the review on my book blog:

His prose tumbles along, piling up details and impressions, swirling the story into the midst. Sometimes, it made for daunting reading and I would look ahead for the next break. Other times, I found myself in the flow, not worried so much about exact meaning but absorbing impressions as I rode along the natural energy of the words.

I even read some of it aloud.

Poetry All Around Us

I continue to pursue getting more poetry in my life.

This week, an email from James Madison University highlighted the Furious Flower Poetry Center, introducing me to the nation’s first academic center devoted to African American poetry.  The center is dedicated to Gwendolyn Brooks and the name comes from  one of her poems.  During this year’s National Poetry Month, they will be celebrating the 100th anniversary of Brooks’ birth with special events and the awarding of the Gwendolyn Brooks Centennial Poetry Prize.

But, even if you can’t get to campus in Harrisonburg, they have extensive online resources from archived live events, a database of African American poets and an online journal called The Fight & the Fiddle.

One of my favorite poems in middle school was Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note by then LeRoi Jones. It was in a small paperback anthology of African American poetry that I probably got through the Scholastic book club.

Jones is now poet Amari Baraka and he did a reading as part of the Furious Flower 1994 conference. He shows the power of performance for making poems come alive. Sound, words, meaning flow together and force a new perspective on the listener. And listening to poetry with the words in front of you is a very different experience as you must immerse yourself in the performance. You can’t multitask. Take 20 minutes and add poetry to your day:


Welcome, April!

April is here! I’m not a fan of April Fool’s Day which is fine since the human, furred and feathered beings I live with do not appear to celebrate, and I wouldn’t have any idea how to fool them. We lead a simple life here on the farm, and I think a prank would stand out too much to be seen for anything except what it is.

I do LOVE that April is National Poetry Month. We, as a species, do not read enough poetry, I think. It’s too hard or too deep or too esoteric, perhaps, and demands a stillness and thoughtfulness that is hard to carve out in our always on lives. April has been celebrated in poetry from T.S .Eliot’s famous opening to The Waste Land:

April is the cruellest month, breedings
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

to Chaucer’s Prologue to the Canterbury Tales:

WHEN that Aprilis, with his showers swoot,
The drought of March hath pierced to the root,
And bathed every vein in such licour,
Of which virtue engender’d is the flower;
When Zephyrus eke with his swoote breath
Inspired hath in every holt and heath
The tender croppes* and the younge sun
Hath in the Ram <1> his halfe course y-run,
And smalle fowles make melody,
That sleepen all the night with open eye,
(So pricketh them nature in their corages);
Then longe folk to go on pilgrimages,
And palmers <2> for to seeke strange strands,
To ferne hallows couth in sundry lands;
And specially, from every shire’s end
Of Engleland, to Canterbury they wend,
The holy blissful Martyr for to seek,
That them hath holpen, when that they were sick.

My plans for National Poetry Month include reading as much by Wendell Berry as I can, creating some book spine poetry and deciding what poem to carry around with me on Poem in Your Pocket day, which will take place on April 21 this year.

Here’s your bit of poetry for today. Berry’s poem “The Peace of Wild Things” is one of my favorites. A collage created around the text of my poem hangs by my desk.

Listen to Wendell Berry reading The Peace of Wild Things

And as a final treat…the choral version of the poem by Joan Szymko. There are lots of renditions available on YouTube. This one is from the NJ All State Chorus in 2010:

Happy April!

Golden Shovel Poems

There is a poem nestled in my email each morning. It’s the Poem-A-Day from the National Academy of Poets. I often skip it by, moving into the more urgent emails first. And then the day goes by without reading the poem. One of my resolutions for 2014 is to actually read the poem first.

Today’s poem is from Camilla Dungy and follows the Golden Shovel acrostic form created/popularized* by Terrance Hayes. Hayes used the words from Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem We Real Cool as the last word in each line to create his poem The Golden Shovel. Dungy also used Brooks’ poem to write Because it looked hotter that way. In her entry, she describes why she likes using “received forms” for her own creativity and to help her connect to other writers.

It occurred to me that this would be a great ds106 assignment. You don’t have to use the Brooks’ poem, and you can use a memorable line rather than the whole poem. Here are the guidelines from the 2012 Golden Shovel call for submissions. (The editors of the anthology asked for a contribution from President Obama. Funny what you find on the Internet. I definitely want to get back to the database of letters.)

I submitted the suggestion to ds106 and thought I should also try my own hand at it. Here’s the ten minute version:

Rainy Day Farm

Another rainy day. We
shake ourselves dry after the chores, pondering the fact that the real
work of farming must be done despite all.  But it’s cool.
This is why we
the suburban world for this often tough school.
have learned that the farmer cannot linger or lurk.
You must commit to the work, commit to the land. Pigs don’t like being fed late.
When hungry, they may decide to pay a visit to the house even though we
ran the electric wire. Each day we strike
out into the barnyard, our way hardly straight
as we
move from hen house to pig pen, dragging lengths of hose and hauling buckets of food. The animals sing
their greetings, happy in their ignorance of sin.
raise our voices with them, joyful despite the thin
margin of our bank account. There is, indeed, more to work than a paycheck. At night we toast our lives with tumblers of gin
and tonic. We
jig to jazz
and dream of the warm wonderful days of June
when we
will plant the fields again, sowing seed that will grow and yield and die
as the winter comes again too soon.



*The Write Mondays website credits Hayes with inventing it while Dungy suggests he popularized it. None of the bios of Hayes seem to think it’s worth a mention. Acrostics are very old with several found in the Old Testament so maybe a new version isn’t a real cause for celebration.