A Poetry Resource for Teachers

By accident, I found a great poetry resource that I can use in my teaching and my own personal research and writing: Representative Poetry Online. The site says of itself: “Representative Poetry Online includes 3,162 English poems by 500 poets from Caedmon, in the Old English period, to the work of living poets today. It is based on Representative Poetry, established by Professor W. J. Alexander of University College, University of Toronto, in 1912 (one of the first books published by the University of Toronto Press), and used in the English Department at the University until the late 1960s. Its electronic founder and editor since 1994 is Ian Lancashire, who is a member of the Department of English, University of Toronto.”

The value of the site is that there is so much material and so many poems together in one site. I often would have Google search for the text of a particular poem or a short bio of a particular poet, but I’m sure this site will lesson my search time. Here is the Web address: http://rpo.library.utoronto.ca/display_rpo/intro.cfm

I’ll close this post with a quote of Matthew Arnold (1822-1888) in his poem, “Bacchanalia.” He had a few insightful words to say about poets:

The world but feels the present’s spell,
The poet feels the past as well;
Whatever men have done, might do,
Whatever thought, might think it too.

Kirpans, Pocketknives and Southern Boys

Being a Southern boy, I’ve carried a pocketknife for as long as I can remember. Now, my knife of choice is a Spyderco. I learned at an early age how to sharpen and care for one, and I literally can remember every pocketknife I’ve ever owned, and every one that I ever lost. To Southern boys pocketknives are not weapons, they are tools and symbols.

Southern boys are not the only ones who view blades in this way. For example, the Sikhs carry a knife called a kirpan, a ceremonial dagger. According to About.com, kirpans are a reminder to fight for justice and against oppression. The knife is one of the five khalsas, or dress rituals. Kirpans range in size from large ceremonial swords, to tiny knives worn around the neck. It is required that all Khalsa Sikhs wear the kirpan. According to the Religions Paths Web site, the kirpan is one of the five symbols of the Sikh faith. The site says, “The kirpan, alongside the unshorn hair of the believing Sikh, is certain the most visible symbol of Sikh masculinity, and the very potency of the kirpan appears to signify to an outsider the martial qualities of the Sikh.” You can see photographs of kirpans here: http://images.google.com/images?hl=en&q=kirpan&btnG=Google+Search&ie=UTF-8&oe=UTF-8&um=1&sa=N&tab=wi

Sikhs have encountered opposition to the carrying and display of their knives on planes and in public. Yet, though I’ve read of many terrorists attempting to use C4 and other explosives, I haven’t read of a single Sikh terrorist wielding his knife yet to take over a plane. Maybe I’ve missed some incidents, but I doubt it. If I have please let me know. I don’t plan on carrying such a blade, but my pocketknife? That will stay with me.

John Steinbeck

I remember reading a book a few years ago, Steinbeck: A Life in Letters, edited by Elaine Steinbeck and Robert Wallsten. I’ve always been inspired by reading biographical material and this book was a powerful and influential read for me. At 860 pages (not counting the appendix), it is a formidable book to attack. From the reading, I learned much about Steinbeck. I learned he hated the telephone, and that for him, “letter-writing was a preparation for work” and a way to express his thoughts on people “he liked and hated; on marriage, women, and children, on the condition of the world, and on his progress in learning his craft.”

I had always admired Stenbeck’s writing, though I was a late bloomer in the reading of his work. Looking at the book, I see the lines I underlined and I wished I had memorized them. A line from the preface sums the book up well: “[I]t is the record of a man learning his craft.”

I did learn much about what it meant to be a writer, and I identified with Steinbeck in many ways. I was much impressed with the honesty of the letters. For example, when he was having his affair with Elaine Anderson (Scott) who would later become his wife until his death, he wrote her these words in a letter: “I’m not afraid of anything now. And surely I won’t force anything and surely I’ll let it go on happening. And I know it will work out. I’m sure of it. Completely sure.”

And it did work out between them. Steinbeck wrote books that changed America. Every time I pick up a pencil, I think of his ritual of sharpening two dozen or so (some say up to 60) in the morning to write with, and I think of how great a writer he was, and of how far I have to go. I’ve taught Steinbeck in the past to high school students, allowed him as a choice for research papers for my college students, and those that have read him are always affected. Several of his books are still on my list to read.

I’ll end this post with another quote of Steinbeck on writing. Dennis Murphy was in the middle of a book and having some difficulty finishing. Steinbeck said: “You must finish this book, then you must finish another. If anything at all, saving your own death stops you, except momentarily, then you are not a writer anyway . . .”

Ladies of the Tower

A few years ago, I taught theatre at Seagoville High School.  The high point of my year there occurred with my Theatre II class with the performance of Ladies of the Tower, a one act play by Ruth Perry and Tim Kelly. The play required a cast of nine females, and my girls really got into the play.  Like the historical women of the play, my girls were beautiful and about the same age.

The Dramatic Publishing site says this of the play: The Tower of London provides the setting for this provocative play. Two cleaning women come to scrub down a forgotten room and are visited by the spirits of the ladies who met death inside the dark walls. Each is doomed by her own bitterness to walk the Tower. What is particularly interesting is their youth: Lady Jane Grey (15), Queen Catherine Howard (19) and Lady Rochford (18). Much of the dialogue is taken directly from historical record. In a brief overlapping of the present and the past, there is a touching scene of communication and understanding that sets the embittered women free of their bondage to the past. Bare stage w/props. To read more of the play go to:

Thinking of the coming series on Showtime, The Tudors,  I thought again of this play and how Henry, though not present on stage in Ladies of the Tower, permeates the play. You can read about the six wives of Henry here: http://tudorhistory.org/wives/

Beth Patterson at Enoch’s

Tonight, I went to Enoch’s, Monroe’s Irish Pub, with my fellow band member, Tom, and heard one of my favorite Celtic performers, Beth Patterson. She was in fine form tonight. The weather was warm enough that we were able to hear her perform outside on the pub’s patio. I stayed until midnight. There was a good crowd tonight, bascially there were two different crowds that drifted in, and all were really into the music. Beth knows how to work a crowd, and she had them laughing at her jokes (she is brilliant) and even singing along with some songs. Bold, sometimes naughty, sometimes irreverant, the people in the audience adored her. I loved her show. One example of a joke she told: What do the 6th Sense and the Titanic have in common? Icy dead people.

Beth has a My Space site: http://profile.myspace.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=user.viewprofile&friendid=50774964

You can also find much about her music here: http://www.littlebluemen.com/beth.asp

Battlefield Louisiana: Third Night

Tonight was the third night in the series I’m facilatating at the Winnsboro library. In this session, we discussed When the Devil Came Down to Dixie: Ben Butler in New Orleans. As was true in earlier sessions, the meeting room was packed, the discussion was lively, and the audience receptive. It seems that Ben Butler made an impression on all of us. As Hern’s book says, “He was a man who left few people indifferent.” We discussed various points made by the book about Butler, and read and discussed several key passages. Then, I used an Elmo Digital Visual Presenter (see this link to take a look: http://www.elmousa.com/presentation/index.html that two school teachers brought with them to show them an early New Orleans map, pictures of Butler, and a photograph of a chamber pot with Butler’s picture pasted in the bottom.

During the break, we ate some of the finest gumbo I’ve ever tasted. Afterwards, we talked some more about Butler, and using the Elmo, we showed some period Civil War photographs of Confederate ancestors that two participants had brought, as well as original hand-written letters. One letter was written on original Confederate stationary!

I’ve three more presentations remaining in this series. The next one deals with the Red River Campaign. Several in the meeting said they had seen the interview (about my writing and my new book) in the Monroe News Star. You can see that interview yourself here: http://www.thenewsstar.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20070305/NEWS01/703050313

Teacher Stress – Writer Stress

Louisiana schools go into lockdown in a couple of weeks when the GEE (Graduation Exit Examination) is administered. This is a time of stress for core teachers, so much stress that I understand why it is called the LEAP test: This is the time of year when the madness of standardized tests cause teachers to leap from windows, or  to drink themselves senseless, or to graze on grass like Nebuchadnezzar in the book of Daniel.

As we teach to the test blind—for teachers are not allowed to look at a test, ask a student about a test, or listen to students talk about a test—and the state provided materials are woefully inadequate, teachers are required by the pharoahs of the State to make bricks without straw.  As the apathy of this lost generation of students thickens, and the poison of ignorance spreads through their veins, teachers know what administrators do not: You can’t cure the condition of the patient by ultimatums or wishful positive thinking.

We were asked in a meeting if we really thought all kids could learn. Of course, the teacher/correct answer is “yes.”  But I didn’t raise my hand in agreement. The question is loaded, an oversimplification, a fallacy in itself. There have to be some qualifications discussed. One thing is sure: The way students are now, and the way we’re trying to teach them–some of them are not learning anything.

Ernest Hemingway on Africa

I find myself teaching and talking to my gifted students a great deal about Africa. Not the typical, insipid, cliched, politically correct mush, but the facts, the history, the amazing cultures, the diversity, the wildlife, and geography of the continent. One book I’ve used is Waiting for the Rain, and it seems to work well, though since Apartheid is no longer a hot news item, it doesn’t work as well as it used to. But it is a fine read.

Of course, a gifted teacher can always use Hemingway to expose students to Africa. According to http://crawfurd.dk/africa/hemingway.htm, Hemingway traveled twice to East Africa, was probably the one who introduced the Swahili word “safari” into the English language, and Hemingway’s personality contributed greatly to the image of the “Great White Hunter.” At any rate, Hemingway’s African experiences contributed to his writing some of his finest novels and short stories: The Green Hills of Africa, of course, and “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.” This short story was made into a movie in 1947, called The Macomber Affair. Then there was “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” which was also made into a movie in 1952. My favorite African writing of Hemingway is True at First Light, a fictional memoir that was completed by Hemingway’s son, Patrick after the death of his father. When I won the Ernest Hemingway Short Story Competition, I met Patrick and heard him talk of this book.

Here is a great quotation from True at First Light, an opening epigraph, which reveals Hemingway’s thoughts on Africa:

“In Africa a thing is true at first light, and a lie by noon and you have no more respect for it than for the lovely, perfect weedfringed lake you see across the sun-baked salt plain. You have walked across that plain in the morning and you know that no such lake is there. But now it is there absolutely true, beautiful and believable.”

Deo Vindici

In the summer of 2004, I attended Lagniappe, a symposium in Lafayette for teachers of gifted students. The three days were wonderful, and the symposium proved to be a life-changing event.
While there, I wrote this poem. I submitted it and it was published in a magazine with national circulation: Confederate Veteran Volume 62, No. 5 September/October 2004. p. 53. Deo Vindici was the official motto of the Confederacy during the War Between the States, and it means, “God will vindicate us.” I decided to post the poem here.

Deo Vindici

I am a Southerner . . .
I won’t apologize
I won’t be reconstructed.
I will not surrender
My identity, my heritage.
I believe in the Constitution,
In States’ Rights,
That the government should be the
Servant, not the Master of the people.
I believe in the right to bear arms,
The right to be left alone.

I am a Southerner . . .
The spirit of my Confederate ancestor
Boils in my blood.
He fought
Not for what he thought was right,
But for what was right.
Not for slavery,
But to resist tyranny, Machiavellian laws,
Oppressive taxation, invasion of his land,
For the right to be left alone.

I am a Southerner
A rebel,
Seldom politically correct,
At times belligerent.
I don’t like Lincoln, Grant, Sherman,
Or modern neocon politicians like them.
I like hunting and fishing, Leonard Skynnard,
The Bonnie Blue and “Dixie.”
I still believe in chivalry and civility.

I am a face in the Southern collage of
Gentlemen and scholars, belles and writers,
Soldiers and sharecroppers, Cajuns and Creoles,
Tejanos and Isleños, Celts and Germans,
Gullah and Geechi, freedmen and slaves.
We are all the South.

The South . . . My home, my beautiful home,
My culture, my destiny, my heart.
I am a Southerner.
Deo Vindici.

Ernest Hemingway on Writing

In 1996, I read E. Hotchner’s book, Papa Hemingway: A Personal Memoir. It was one of those books that changed me. The book has an opening epigraph, a quote of Hemingway’s, that I memorized after reading the book and have used at the beginning of every freshman composition class I taught. The quotation reminds us of the work required to produce good writing and how Father Time must be paid before quality writing can be produced. Here are Hemingway’s words: There are some things which cannot be learned quickly, and time, which is all we have, must be paid heavily for their acquiring. They are the very simplest things, and because it takes man’s life to know them the little new that each man gets from life is very costly and the only heritage he has to leave. –Ernest Hemingway