By COLLEEN LEDDY
I discovered the book “I Am a Pencil” by Sam Swope in the wonderful Bas Bleu catalogue and was charmed by the title and description. Swope is a children’s author who set out to do a 10-day writing workshop with a third grade class of immigrants in Queens in New York City. He had so much fun he turned it into a three year project with the same group of kids. “I Am a Pencil” tells of his experience.
I was going to buy the book as a Christmas present for several budding teachers, but I interloaned it from another library instead, thinking maybe I should read it first. And good thing, I thought, as I plowed through the preface. It was full of poetry—all the stanzas of Wallace Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” interspersed with explanations and commentary from Swope as well as samples of poetry written by his students. He instructed them to write about a tree in as many ways as they could using Stevens’ poem as inspiration.
Those of you with a long memory may recall my aversion to poetry. I wrote about it in a June 23, 1999 column.
I’m not real big on poetry—especially the kind that has layers of meaning and obscure references. I don’t normally seek out poetry when I’m looking for something to read. I’m incompetent when it comes to symbolism and I’m dense when it comes to figuring out the hidden meanings. Just lay it on the line, Lefty. Make it clear and make it easy. That’s what I want to tell poets.
And I wanted to tell Swope I was put off by his opening to a book I was hoping would be inspirational and worthy of gift-giving. I grumbled through the preface until I came to the fifth stanza of Thirteen Ways:I do not know which to prefer, The beauty of inflections Or the beauty of innuendoes The blackbird whistling Or just after.
Then I had one of those déjà vu experiences. I knew I had had a pleasant encounter with this poem before, but I couldn’t place it. So I just skimmed through the rest of the preface and arrived at the great part: the rest of the book. Swope recounts his interactions with the kids and the writing process, and the innovative projects he guides them through.
As we packed for a short trip to New York last week, I tossed “I Am a Pencil” in my tote bag along with “Poetry in Motion: 100 poems from the subways and buses” which was on the bookshelf among our N.Y.C. guidebooks. Our niece Janell, who loves poetry, was traveling with us, so I thought she might want to read it in the car.
Perhaps you are wondering why I own such a book if I hate poetry. Well, I love the concept of poetry—especially in public places. I even wrote about it in a column back in 1995. That déjà vu feeling had possessed me so I looked through old columns until I discovered that I had indeed encountered that poem by Wallace Stevens—and on the subway. It is such a kick to be sitting on the train scanning the ads and have your eyes fall on a poem. It’s an unexpected treat, like someone has handed you a square of rich dark chocolate. Or a puzzle that you can’t figure out.
from “Le Monocle de Mon Oncle”This luscious and impeccable fruit of life Falls, it appears, of its own weight to earth. When you were Eve, its acrid juice was sweet, Untasted, in its heavenly, orchard air. An apple serves as well as any skull To be the book in which to read a round, And is as excellent, in that it is composed Of what, like skulls, comes rotting back to ground. But it excels in this, that as the fruit Of love, it is a book too mad to read Before one merely reads to pass the time.
On the number 7 Flushing line into Manhattan we came across that poem twice. And wouldn’t you know it, it was another by Wallace Stevens—a bit eerie because we were reading it as we were traveling through Queens where Swope had taught that other Wallace Stevens poem.
The first time we read it, Janell said she liked it, but I was left wondering, What the heck?
“It’s really rich,” she said.
“It’s really obscure,” I thought.
The second time we came across it she explained what she thought it was all about and it was like a magician revealing a trick. It was just amazing to hear her talk about the images and meanings she saw in the poem. Apples and skulls, rotting fruit and wasted knowledge.
“What I really like is how it incorporates the beginning of mankind and the root of the problem and how we’re still dealing with it. We still deal with same problems now as we did at the beginning,” she said. “We don’t use knowledge properly; we’re wasteful with new ideas and don’t make use of them as we should.”
For her, it brought to mind somebody going to college surrounded by all that knowledge, but not being changed by the experience. They’re just going through the motions of getting an education.
We had seen one other poem in our subway travels, “Communication,” by Alicia Partnoy. It’s more my speed—short and sweet, uncomplicated, light and lively. Here’s an excerpt that pretty much sums up my ineptitude with interpretation.
I am talking to you about poetry
and you say
when do we eat.– Jan. 5, 2006