Poetry Day 3 – what’s up with that bird?

“Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” 

This is a poem that I love teaching in an introduction to literature class – it’s a great introduction to poetry for students because it’s rich with possibilities – because it’s open.

This is how we do it.

I hand-write the whole poem on the board. Then, we go through the poem line by line, stanza by stanza with this one question: “What could this mean?”  Then I write and draw all over the poem as the students contribute ideas.  If the class is engaged, then the whiteboard becomes quite an art work by the end of the class.  We don’t shoot down any ideas – as long as it makes some sense, linked even tangentially to the overall poem, we write it on the board. At the end, the students are quite proud of the unpacking they’ve done. They’ve split the poem wide open.

For example, we tried to understand these lines:

O thin men of Haddam,
Why do you imagine golden birds?
Me: “Why are these men ‘thin,’ do you think?”
  • Student A: Maybe it means poor. They’re thin because they’re poor.
  • Student B: Maybe it means transparent – thin like “I can see right through you.”
  • Student C: Maybe it refers to winter – makes you think of cold weather. I don’t know – maybe it doesn’t make sense.
To me all these made sense – they were possibilities. And a poem MUST have possibilities for the reader to do something with it, I think.
As Naomi Shihab Nye reminds us in her talk “The Art of Teaching Poetry” (below), it’s not about “getting” poetry. It’s about holding it, living it, and carrying it, as she says.
So, I don’t know if my students “get” this poem – and I don’t know if I “get” this poem. But I know that my students will hold it, live it, and carry it at least during the duration of the class – and if we’re all lucky, maybe even for the whole day.
Or maybe one day many years later, it will slip back into one of these students’ lives and sneak up on them asking them to hold it, live it, and carry it (and give it away) once again.

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