Saturday, October 22, 2011

A Poem is a Frog

For those in classrooms

The first thing you need to know about poetry is that it's a living thing, and that your aim, in reading or teaching it, is exposure. Exposure and infection, so that your blood flows with it and you exhale lines like this:

I have my heart on my fist
like a blind falcon*

and breathe in others:

For a time I rest
in the grace of the world**

A poem is a frog, a thing built of breath and movement and sound, its form a skin around the heart's rhythm.
Something our children observe, like the fall of leaves, the texture of feather, barrenness flowering into colourful confusion, the refuge of the subterranean.

Encourage observation. Take a stanza like this and see where it takes you. Hear what you can hear.

When I wrote of the women in their dances and wildness, it was a mask,
on their mountain, gold-hunting, singing, in orgy,
it was a mask; when I wrote of the god,
fragmented, in exile from himself, his life, the love gone down with song,
it was myself, split open, unable to speak, in exile from myself. ***

The poet is speaking to you.

Take time to listen, to puzzle out your own response. To dissect this poem now is to snatch the frog from its pond and pin it, limb by limb, and in the tearing apart, whose purpose is sense and explication, to destroy the living thing.

Watch. Listen. Learn its rhythms instead. Let the poem live with you. Read it at first light, in a moment stolen from the hustle of the day, in the hollow insomniac hour.

When the poem has you by heart, when, as in a dream, the frog turns into a room you can conjure and live in at will, when the mood of the poem is the mood of the room - ecstatic, grieving, ironic or detached - then - then, you begin.

* from The Tomb of the Kings by Anne Herbert
** from The Peace of Wild Things by Wendell Berry
*** from The Poem as Mask: Orpheus by Muriel Rukeyser


  1. This really moved me. Being a very literal person, I've only experienced what you describe with a few poems.

    So glad I read this before reading more poetry with my son. Thank you.

  2. Thanks for the comment Gabriela :)

    I think I'm going to do a series of posts on poetry - practical suggestions as well as poetic! - so hope you will enjoy those too.