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Poet of the Month: William Wordsworth

posted: 4.12.10 by archived

For Poetry Month, we chose an old favorite for poet of the month: William Wordsworth.

Wordsworth (April 7, 1770 –April 23, 1850) is one of the most important English Romantic poets. Critics consider Lyrical Ballads (1798), a collection by Wordsworth and fellow poet Samuel Coleridge, to be the publication that began the Romantic era in poetry.

Wordsworth and his Romantic contemporaries valued emotional experience over logic and reason, breaking with the values of the English Enlightenment. Poems like “The Daffodils” and “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey” have become classics because of their eloquent expression of the author’s personal experiences, close observation of nature, and evocative emotional content.

Wordsworth defined good poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,” and though these spontaneous feelings inspired many of his works, the quality of his poems shows that they were written with care. He began writing an epic poem about his life at age 28, and worked on it for the rest of his life. It was published as The Prelude after his death in 1850, and was dedicated to his contemporary and collaborator, Samuel Coleridge.

In the Classroom:

1. Have students research the fruitful but complicated relationship between Wordsworth and Coleridge and use it to fuel a discussion of literary friendship.  What can they make of the differences between “Tintern Abbey” and “Kubla Khan,” for example?

2. Some of Wordsworth’s language won’t be accessible to some students, but in his day Wordsworth strove for clear, everyday speech.  Use a few lines from his “Preface to “Lyrical Ballads” to talk about how language changes.  Ask students to think of examples of common language today that might sound “stuffy” in 100 years.

3. Have students use Poetry Foundation’s great collection of flower poems to find a poem to compare with “Daffodils.” Have students compare their descriptions of nature, the poets’ responses to nature, and the emotional content (or lack thereof) of the poems.

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blog-photo Cecilia Seiter is an associate editor at Bedford/St. Martin’s.

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Celebrate National Poetry Month!

posted: 4.7.10 by archived

It’s April.

This means that not only is it the cruellest month, but that it’s time to celebrate National Poetry Month in America.

As in many things poetry related, the American Academy of Poets sets the gold standard: here, on their Web site, you can find information about everything National Poetry Month.

They host a detailed FAQ about poetry month and its origins, a national map showing events that are occurring across the U.S., a poetry app for the iPhone, an overview of new poetry books, and resources for teachers, booksellers, and librarians. Sign up to receive a poem every day for the month of April.

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, famed publisher of numerous esteemed poets, has a yearly blog for poetry month, Best Words in Their Best Order, which should feature some neat pieces, especially on younger and international poets. FSG publisher Jonathan Galassi, who is also a poet and translator, kicks off the month with a discussion of poetry in translation. They are also running a poem-a-day e-mail, which you can sign up for here.

Probably the best way to get involved with National Poetry Month, though, is to check out what your local library has planned for April–many libraries across the country have poetry events over the next four weeks.

In New York City, for instance, the New York Public Library is running a poetry film series and sponsoring a reading. (If you are in Chicago, the Poetry Foundation has a list of events for the coming month.)  Check your local library’s Web site for what’s going on near you.

In the Classroom:

Poetry month can be a good reason to dig deeper into the standard curriculum. Here are three ideas for taking advantage of April’s offerings:

1. Have students research a particular poet (one you assign, or one they pick) and present their findings.

2. Give credit for attending a local reading and sharing their impressions with the class.

3. Host your own reading and invite family and/or the community: you could use student work or have the class memorize favorite poems.

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Andrew Flynn is an editorial assistant at Bedford/St. Martin’s. He graduated from Columbia in 2008, with a BA in history and philosophy. Before working at Bedford he interned at the Paris Review.

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Free Poetry Culture: LibriVox Edition

posted: 3.29.10 by archived

A couple of weeks ago, I posted about Yale Open Courses, and this week I’d like to highlight another great free audio resource online—LibriVox.

A sort of audio version of Project Gutenberg, LibriVox aims to put online audio recordings of all public domain books. This includes the novels of Dickens, Austen, Eliot, most of Conrad, and the bulk of Joyce.  (Membership in the canon is not a prerequisite, however; the database also includes selections such as “Selections From General Instructions For The Guidance Of Post Office Inspectors In The Dominion Of Canada”.)

There’s a lot of great  poetry in the public domain (by Yeats, Shelley, Keats, Tennyson, Hopkins, and many others), making Librivox a good resource for recordings of teachable poems. Additionally, LibriVox provides 84 mixed collections of short poetry,  perfect for loading on your iPod if you like to prep for class while jogging or commuting.

Volunteers, rather than actors, read the selections included in the LibriVox database, but the quality is generally high. (Even the best recordings of John Donne’s poetry couldn’t match the Richard Burton versions, though.)

If you find yourself intrigued by the project, you may want to volunteer yourself–or your students. (Instructions are found here.) It’s easy to get involved. Readers of this blog may be especially interested in recording a poem for the collections of short poetry.

In the Classroom

  • Start class by playing a recording of a poem before students read the poem.
  • Craft a short unit on the principles of reading poetry aloud.  Discuss poetry’s beginning in oral traditions. (LibriVox, of course, has recordings of the great, originally oral epic poems the Iliad and the Odyssey.) Split students into groups, and have them listen to several recordings and then make a list of what helps and/or hinders their ability to understand and enjoy the poem when they listen rather than read it.
  • Once students understand what makes for a good reading, have them choose a poem they’re drawn to and add it to the LibriVox canon.  They could even memorize it, participating in the oral tradition.  (See our post on the virtues of memorization.)

Related Posts

Poetry Speaks!

Memorization and Its Discontents

In Defense of Recitation

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Andrew Flynn is an editorial assistant at Bedford/St. Martin’s. He graduated from Columbia in 2008, with a BA in history and philosophy. Before working at Bedford he interned at the Paris Review.

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Twitter @TeachingPoetry

posted: 3.23.10 by archived

A few weeks ago, Teaching Poetry entered the world of Twitter. Yes, it’s true. You can follow us @teachingpoetry.

In case you think Twitter is a passing trend, consider this: Twitterature: The World’s Greatest Books in Twenty Tweets or Less, the work of two University of Chicago undergraduates, was published by Penguin in December 2009. It delivers works by Dante, Shakespeare, Stendhal, and Joyce in a series of bite size morsels. Poets & Writers magazine online writes about it.

Similarly, in 2009 Soft Skull Press bought a 480,000 character novel written entirely on Twitter.

Since we anticipate Twitter sticking around for a while, we thought we’d figure out the nature of the 140-character micromessage. We’ve had our first taste of what poets, publishers, and bookstores are doing in Twitterland. Here’s a sample:

Some people are composing poems, tweet by tweet, like Scott Reid @apwpoet. Others use Twitter to advertise the day’s poems posted to their blogs, such as Yiching Lin @yichinglin.

The haiku—or twaikuis popular on Twitter, naturally, since its small form doesn’t overrun Twitter’s character boundaries. There’s even a trend called haiku-throw-down in which fast-typing tweeters riff on each other’s tweets, creating new three-line poems every minute or less.

The Geraldine Dodge Poetry Festival is on Twitter, preparing for National Poetry Month in April.

Poets & Writers, “the primary source of information, support, and guidance for creative writers” is here, as well as the outstanding resource Poets.org, from the Academy of American poets. Poets House gives updated on events at their library, literary center, and hot-seat of poetic inspiration.

You can find news from publishers large and small such as Red Hen Press, organizations such as Poetry Speaks, and bookstores such as Powell’s and McNally Jackson (or McNally Robinson, if you’re in Canada).

All in all, Twitter threatens to unite poets, poetry-lovers, buyers, sellers, and performers of poetry. For those used to poetic solitude, this connectivity might just break all taboos and conventions. Can we stand it?!

Tell Us

Who are your favorite poets on Twitter? How do you use Twitter in your classroom? How do students use it? How do you think social media can be useful in poetry classroom activities? Send us your thoughts.

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Categories: Creative Writing, Joelle Hann (moderator), Literature, Popular Culture, Teaching with Technology
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Free Poetry Culture: Academic Edition

posted: 3.15.10 by archived

The Internet has exponentially expanded the lifetime learning opportunities for the educationally curious. Between podcasts, blogs, vlogs, online magazines and newspapers, even the most ravenous consumer of free culture would be overwhelmed.

Perhaps the most interesting development in free online culture is the advent of course materials—from lecture notes to full videos of lectures—from classes at top universities. Much of this material is collected online at the Open Courseware Consortium, where those eager for some mental exercise can check out the offerings from universities like MIT, Berkeley, Notre Dame, and Michigan.

Maybe the most interesting for readers of Teaching Poetry is Yale Open Courses which features no less than three full courses—these are real Yale courses, every lecture available for home viewing—devoted to poetry. Langdon Hammer’s course “Modern Poetry” is a nice way to get up to speed on poetry in the English world since 1900. It covers all of the greats: Frost, Yeats, Eliot, Crane, Hughes, Williams, Moore, Stevens, Auden, and Bishop.

Those interested in going in the other direction won’t be disappointed either. The English Department features an overview course on Milton taught by John Rogers. And Italian Language and Literature features “Dante in Translation” with Giuseppe Mazzotta, which covers the Divine Comedy.

In a different vein, anyone inclined to apply systematic analysis of poetry or literature of any kind, has a treat in store with Paul Fry’s course “Introduction to the Theory of Literature.” Fry’s course is a clear, comprehensive introduction to literary theory which runs the gamut of twentieth century thought from Russian formalism to neo-pragmatism. The course is mostly taught from Bedford’s own The Critical Tradition and is great for anyone interested in figuring out what academics are doing when they use incomprehensible language.

Happy learning!

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Andrew Flynn is an editorial assistant at Bedford/St. Martin’s. He graduated from Columbia in 2008, with a BA in history and philosophy. Before coming to Bedford he interned at the Paris Review.

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Poetry, Proliferating

posted: 3.8.10 by archived

Last month, David Alpaugh wrote an article for the Chronicle of Higher Education called “The New Math of Poetry.” In it he describes the explosion of poetry publishing, particularly online, and what it means for poetic culture. He bemoans the potential loss of a brilliant poet or two in all the poetic static.

Whether there are actually as many published poets as Alpaugh claims and whether we as a culture lose something when a brilliant poet goes unrecognized is up for debate (as the article’s comments section shows). But there’s no denying that poetry, like journalism, prose fiction, music, visual art, and most other media is easier to publish than ever. And poets of all ages and skill levels are rising to the challenge. Whether you like this development or not, it does make it harder to find new, good poetry outside of a few traditional venues like Poetry or The New Yorker.

With that in mind, we’re going to start a new feature here at Teaching Poetry where we round up some of the best poetry journals, magazines, and blogs out there. We’ll have a theme for each round-up, and we’ll try to find the best online examples of different types of poetry journals.

Hopefully this will help you navigate online poetry, and maybe find a new favorite poet. (As of right now, we have no affiliation with any of the blogs we’re going to mention. If we ever do mention an affiliated blog, we’ll disclose it.)

For our inaugural round-up we offer you one site that has the content and power of a thousand: Web del Sol. David Alpaugh mentions WDS at the beginning of his Chronicle article, and for good reason—the home page is teeming with literary content. Founded in 1994 by Michael Neff, and only the second organization to put a poetry journal online, WDS now calls itself the literary locus of the Web. It’s a collaborative cultural effort that includes several journals, reviews, and zines, as well as links to hundreds of other literary sites.

Feeling overwhelmed by the WDS home page? Click on eSCENE to narrow down your options a bit. eSCENE is a digest of highlights from fiction, poetry, and new media journals. They publish the editor’s selections at least six times a year—which should be enough to keep you  reading all year round.

Of course, please let us know of your current favorite poetry sources in the comments below—we’ll be sure to mention you if your recommendation winds up in a post.

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Poet of the Month: Robert Lowell

posted: 3.2.10 by archived

Born in Boston on March 1, 1917, Robert Lowell was the son of prominent New England parents. Lowell attended Harvard, Kenyon College, and Louisiana State University, where he studied with literary and critical giants like John Crowe Ransom, Robert Penn Warren, Cleanth Brooks, and Allen Tate. In his twenties, Lowell converted from Episcopalianism to Catholicism. Though he later left the Church, his strong religious beliefs during this period deeply influenced his early work.

From 1947-1948 he served as the Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress (the precursor position to the Poet Laureate). Lowell maintained a lifelong interest in history and politics—an interest that shows up in his work—and was a vigorous opponent of the Vietnam War. (During World War II, he had been jailed for conscientious objection.) His life was also dominated by emotional and marital instability—Lowell married three times—and he struggled with alcoholism. Lowell died of a heart attack in 1977 at the age of 60.

Lowell’s work is famously varied. His early books, Land of Unlikeness and Lord Weary’s Castle, were written under the influence of the New Critics with whom Lowell had studied. They display Lowell’s considerable skill in writing in traditional forms. He is most famous, however, for his 1959 book Life Studies, which was a departure from his earlier writing, and from the sort of writing that was most prominent in the world of poetry at the time. Lowell wrote loosely, without adherence to conventions, and incorporated autobiographical events heavily into his poetry. This volume is considered to have begun “confessional poetry” and altered the course of modern poetry.

A. O. Scott argues for Lowell’s enduring importance in his review of Lowell’s recently published Collected Poems:

Lowell’s story, of heretical, Promethean ambition dragged to earth and chastened, has struck a number of critics over the      years as overly melodramatic, and Lowell, since his death, has been somewhat overshadowed by less self-aggrandizing contemporaries like Elizabeth Bishop or Frank O’Hara, who neither made inordinate claims for the authority of poetry nor a big fuss when those claims proved to be untenable.

They left behind bodies of work, whereas Lowell, like Yeats and Milton and very few others, left behind the monumental narrative of a career, which may well, curiously enough, be remembered longer than any single poem he wrote. It is the entirety of that story—the saga of an audacious maker struggling with the raw materials of history, personality, and language—that gives so many of the poems their aura of courage and pathos.

Curious readers can find numerous online resources on Lowell’s life and poetry. The American Academy of Poets features a brief bio, along with a guide to confessional poetry, an overview of Lowell’s Life Studies, and numerous poems by Lowell, including recordings of Lowell reading “Skunk Hour” and “The Public Garden.” The Poetry Foundation features an extensive bio and bibliography, along with numerous poems by Lowell, as well as articles discussing his work. Recordings on the site include one of Helen Vendler discussing Lowell, one of Troy Jollimore talking about “Skunk Hour,” and one focused on “July in Washington” and politics. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux recently published Words in the Air, the complete letters between Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop. (Readers interested in the relationship between these two major twentieth-century poets can read Helen Vendler’s incisive review of the volume in The New York Review of Books.) Lowell’s Paris Review interview, conducted by Frederick Seidel, is available online.

Happy Birthday, Robert Lowell!

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Andrew Flynn is an editorial assistant at Bedford/St. Martin’s. He graduated from Columbia in 2008, with a BA in history and philosophy. Before coming to Bedford he interned at the Paris Review.

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Remembering Lucille Clifton

posted: 2.23.10 by archived

Teaching Poetry mourns the loss of poet Lucille Clifton, who died on February 10 at the age of 73, after a long battle with cancer.

Clifton, perhaps best know to students for her widely-anthologized poem “homage to my hips,” was the author of numerous books of poetry as well as prose. She grew up in Buffalo, New York, the daughter of working-class African American parents, and attended Howard University.

Her poems frequently focused on the African American experience and family life, and are marked by their sparseness—Clifton usually wrote in short lines without capitalization or punctuation.

Clifton was much lauded.  She was a two-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize; won an Emmy, a Lannan Literary Prize, and the Ruth Lilly Prize; and received two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities. She was poet laureate of Maryland from 1974 to 1985. She won the National Book Award in 2000 for Blessing the Boats: New and Selected Poems, 1988-2000.

There are numerous moving tributes to Clifton in print and all over the Internet. The New York Times featured a lengthy obituary that sums up Clifton’s life and work well. On the New Yorker’s Book Bench blog, poet Elizabeth Alexander writes a stirring remembrance of a poet she admired deeply:

No matter how elaborate the words they use, poets strive to tell elemental truths. As Clifton often reminded her acolytes, ‘truth and facts are two different things.’ Time and again, she made luminous poems premised on clear truth-telling, but always with a twist, and with space for evocation and mystery. Her style was as understated as the lowercase type of her poems, a quiet, even woman’s voice telling sometimes terrible truths. Like psalms, koans, and old folks’ proverbs, Clifton’s poems invite meditation and return.

The Poetry Foundation dedicated their Poetry Off the Shelf podcast to remembering Clifton. The American Academy of Poets main site prominently features a tribute to Clifton, and their resources on her include a recording of Clifton reading her well known “homage to my hips” and a lesson plan for teaching women poets.

The Poetry Society of America remembers Clifton on its blog. The PSA was scheduled to present Clifton with their Centennial Frost Medal on April 1. The event will serve as a tribute by other poets to Clifton’s memory.

Readers interested in learning more about Clifton can find a lengthy bio on the Poetry Foundation’s site, alongside a number of her poems that appeared in that magazine, and audio recordings of “praise song” and “why won’t you celebrate with me.”

Rest in peace, Lucille Clifton.

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Andrew Flynn is an editorial assistant at Bedford/St. Martin’s. He graduated from Columbia in 2008, with a BA in history and philosophy. Before coming to Bedford he interned at the Paris Review.

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Poet of the Month: Audre Lorde (1934-1992)

posted: 2.10.10 by archived

Audre Lorde, born on February 18th, 1934, was just as admirable for her activism as for her poetry. Indeed for Lorde the two were inextricably connected.

A native New Yorker born to Grenadian parents, Lorde attended high school and college in Manhattan. As a child she dropped the “y” from her given first name, “Audrey”, because she liked the symmetry between the “e” endings of her first and last names. What poet wouldn’t do the same?

Starting in the 1960’s, Lorde became a civil rights activist. However, as a black lesbian woman, she struggled with racism in the feminist community, sexism in the black community, and heterosexism and homophobia everywhere. Her essays urge her readers to stop fearing the differences between individuals—the fear leads to exclusion, and one group almost inevitably declares itself superior to the other.

In the late 1970s, Lorde was diagnosed with breast cancer. In 1980 she published The Cancer Journals, a nonfiction memoir of her cancer experience. She also co-founded Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press in the same year. In 1991, she was named poet laureate of New York state. She continued to write poetry and essays until her death from cancer in 1992.

You can read Lorde’s essay “Poetry is Not a Luxury,” in Sister Outsider on Google Books.

Listen to a 1977 clip of her reading “A Song for Many Movements” at Poets.org.

The Poetry Foundation has a biography and full text of eleven of Lorde’s poems.

Lorde’s poems and life can show students that not all poets are on a Search for Truth, or trying to Create Beauty, or Express their Innermost Feelings. Sometimes these pursuits are abstract to students: what do they have to do with the real world? Why should anyone study them?

Audre Lorde used her search for truth, and the beauty of language, and her personal experience, to tell people about injustice and try to change American society.

As she said to poet Mari Evans in “Conversations with Audre Lorde,”

“So the question of social protest and art is inseparable for me. I can’t say it is an either/or position…I loved poetry and I loved words. But what was beautiful had to serve the purpose of changing my life, or I would have died. If I cannot air this pain and alter it, I will surely die of it. That’s the beginning of social protest.”

Happy Birthday, Audre Lorde!

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Approaching Valentine's Day

posted: 2.8.10 by archived

What to do with poetry around Valentine’s Day? Assign students doggerel? Analyze Robert Burns? Recite Shakespeare?

Poets around the country have dealt with sentimentality in a few inventive ways.

In 2008, when Ted Kooser’s book Valentines had just been published, NPR’s All Things Considered recounted how the former poet laureate had been sending an original Valentine’s Day poem to women all over the country for the past 20 years.

In 1986, when the project began, his list contained a mere 50 women. In 2007, the number had grown to 2,700. According to the story, he spent almost $1,000 in postage that year.  Read the full piece and listen to Kooser’s valentines here.

But back to this year. Anticipating a sticky day of chocolates and roses, writer-provocateur Jonathan Ames, with poets Mark Halliday, Bob Hicok, Donna Masini, and “break-up expert” Jerry Williams, will host an anti-Valentine’s Day party in Brooklyn, NY (February 11). The poets are launching the compilation, It’s Not You, It’s Me: The Poetry of Breakup (powerHouse books) and celebrating, as the listing says, “the darker side of love.”

If you’re looking for well-loved poems as models for writing or for teaching, or even as gifts for friends, the videos on Favorite Poem Project’s Web site are quick and inspiring.

Finally, the Poetry Foundation has a fabulous resource page, organized by themes such as “funny love,” “classic love,” “teen love,” and “break up.” The page includes audio resources and feature essays such as “Love Lessons from High School Students,” by Brian Staveley, that should prove helpful for lesson planning, teaching, and getting through the day itself.

However you teach, ignore, deny, or celebrate Valentine’s Day in the classroom, drop us a line and let us know how you did it.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

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