Thursday, April 30, 2009

"Maybe Dat's Your Pwoblem Too" by James W. Hall

To end National Poetry Month on a tragicomic note (since April is indeed the cruelest month), what better poem is there to read than James W. Hall's "Maybe Dat's Your Pwoblem Too"?

Since this blog links to Mr. Hall's excellent discussion of his own poem, I'm not even going to try and discuss/ analyze it. Despite his unassuming disclaimer at the beginning of the analysis, his discussion of how he came to write the poem provides some fascinating insight into the writing process and how he takes an idea and translates it into a poem. I particularly like this paragraph:
Of course "buining" one's suit is the punchline of the poem. It's a hard thing to do--recreate yourself, reinvent yourself. Become someone different, someone new. Throw away one identity (and mask) and put on another. We all struggle with that in some way or another. We want to change, to grow, to abandon one set of personality features for better ones. That's why people go to school, to church, to the shrink, and it's one of the reasons why we write. To reinvent ourselves.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

"Stopping to Buy SparkNotes on a Snowy Evening:" A Poem for the End of the Semester

The end of the semester means utter panic for most students. The deluge of studying, finals, and papers can overwhelm even the most diligent, most hard-working, most organized individual. Right now, I feel like I am drowning in paperwork and projects, but this is only to be expected.

Although I have always had a love/hate relationship with CliffsNotes and SparkNotes, I find the following poem somewhat charming. It manages to take the beloved Robert Frost poem on meditating on life, death, and mortality and makes it into a rather effective way of shilling SparkNotes. While the poem's main point (use SparkNotes and pass your classes!) isn't really that truthful (SparkNotes will give you the main ideas from a piece of literature but most teachers are wise to this), it does put a humorous spin on the craziness of the next few weeks.

For those of you who are preparing to start this final push for the semester, good luck (and use SparkNotes with a great deal of discretion :).

Stopping to Buy SparkNotes on a Snowy Evening
(a homage to Robert Frost by the editors of SparkNotes)

Whose words these are you think you know.
Your paper's due tomorrow, though;
We're glad to see you stopping here
To get some help before you go.

Lost your course? You'll find it here.
Face tests and essays without fear.
Between the words, good grades at stake;
Get great results throughout the year.

Once school bells caused your heart to quake
As teachers circled each mistake.
Use SparkNotes and no longer weep,
Ace every single test you take.

Yes, books are lovely, dark and deep,
But only what you grasp you keep.
With hours to go before you sleep,
With hours to go before you sleep.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

"I Was Not There" by Karen Gershon: A Poem for Yom Hashoah

When I taught high school English, I always liked trying to find ways of bringing in different types of literature within our very traditional curriculum. In honor of Yom Hashoah, the Jewish day of Holocaust remembrance, I brought in "I Was Not There" by Karen Gershon, a Jewish author who left Nazi Germany as child on the Kindertransport. Unfortunately, her parents were not able to escape. "I Was Not There," like many of Gershon's other works, addresses the issue of survival and the horror and burden that comes with survivor's guilt.

The poem is powerful, not only for its language, which is in turns evocative and straightforward, but also for the sense of inevitability and sadness that comes when reading the poem out loud. It is almost impossible to read this poem without feeling the weight that comes with surviving a situation while knowing that your loved ones have not survived.

This sense of weight, guilt, and inevitability is also emphasized by the poem's lack of punctuation. Besides the dashes used in the first and final stanzas, the poem is completely without punctuation. When reading it, there are no set pauses and thus no time for the reader (or the listen) to have a chance to absorb the story that is unfolding. Instead the poem and the speaker are relentless in telling the story in its entirety.

What is also notable in this poem is that the speaker repeatedly tries to justify her absence and how her presence would have made no difference in her parents' fate. However, just as the dashes and the lack of punctuation indicate, she (or he) almost immediately rejects such justifications.

This poem makes a profound partner with the other works on the Holocaust and the Kindertransport. Diane Samuels's play Kindertransport addresses many of the same themes Gershon does. Like Gershon's poem, Samuels's work refuses to give the story a neat and tidy ending, and both question what happens to the ones who leave and those who are left behind.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

"Fire and Ice" by Robert Frost

In the bookstore where I used to work, there was a tangible hierarchy of books. General fiction was fine, as long as you stayed away from erotica (Zane), novels with incredibly embarrassing covers/ titles (Thong on Fire was a personal favorite for us to mock), or chick lit. We also took a perverse pleasure in the romance novel section, for it provided us with hours of entertainment (those descriptions! those titles! those covers!) and some of us even enjoyed reading them in secret. However, the most despised books had to be the Left Behind series, which offers an interpretation of the end of the world.

For my money, Robert Frost's "Fire and Ice" offers a much more interesting and succinct version of what might happen at the end of time.

Fire and Ice
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

Although it lacks the unforgivable length, overt fear-mongering tactics, and intense sanctimoniousness of the Left Behind series, Frost's vision of the apocalypse is actually just as bleak as anything Kirk Cameron could ever transfer to the small screen. Unlike the gnashing of teeth and rending of garments of other end of the world scenarios, Frost takes a much more understated and sardonic tone. From these brief lines, you get the feeling that the speaker couldn't really care less how (or possibly even if) the world ended. Fire or ice - the end result doesn't matter.

However, on another level, Frost invites the reader to make his or her own connections and conclusions. Do we want the end to be fire and brimstone, not unlike the apocalyptic visions carefully provided for us in many a sermon? Or do we want an ice age where everything dies out? Furthermore, just what do fire and ice stand for? Are they, as this column argues, symbols for good and evil? Or do they mean passion/ anger and apathy?

If all of these questions makes you have flashbacks to English class, you can always listen to this classic from REM while you ponder Frost's brilliance.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Musicals for the Easter Season

I admit that some holidays seem more predisposed to musical theatre. Independence Day has the woefully underrated 1776, several holidays (Christmas and New Year's most notably) are encompassed in Rent, and Christmas, for better or worse, has the stage adaptations of White Christmas, Meet Me in St. Louis, and approximately 500 versions of A Christmas Carol. However, some holidays don't seem suited for musicals. Imagine, for example, a musical about Arbor Day or Columbus Day, and you will see what I mean.

With this in mind, I've been trying to think of musicals that work with the Easter season. Besides the allegedly wretched musical version of The Ten Commandments (to give you an idea of how bad it was it starred Val Kilmer and never got remotely close to Broadway), there are some musicals that seem to fit this season of springtime, renewal, Christianity, and bunnies. Here are a few for you to consider:

Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat - Before I begin on my discussion of this, let me point out that I said nothing about the quality of these musicals. While Joseph is not a terrible musical (I would watch it before Cats), the very fact that a revival once starred Donny Osmond sort of undermines its overall quality. However, for a musicalized version of the Old Testament, you could do a lot worse. The music is very hummable (to the point of being an ear wig) and the song that names every color possible is hysterical just because you can imagine Tim Rice frantically going through the dictionary trying to find any many colors as possible.

Godspell - This is not for everyone's tastes, and while I enjoy it to an extent, it is not my favorite musical ever. However, that said, if you want a musical about the New Testament and you find the very idea of watching Jesus Christ Superstar sacrilegious at this time of year, Godspell fits the bill. In short, it is a series of vignettes about the parables Jesus tells in the New Testament. He has followers (usually in clown makeup) and the story culminates in Jesus's death (sorry to ruin the ending). Interspersed with the often jokey and nonexistent storyline are a number of songs by Stephen Schwartz, who is also responsible for Wicked (you can make your judgment about this). A perennial favorite for high schools and community theatre, there is also a trippy and sometimes unwatchable film version of this movie starring a very young Victor Garber (and his enormous afro) as Jesus.

While I sound very critical of Godspell, it has some excellent moments. I happen to love Victor Garber, and he makes a convincing, if somewhat disturbing, Jesus in the film. One of my favorite songs in the play (and in the movie) is the vaudevillian "All for the Best," performed by Jesus and Judas. The film version of this song is particularly notable for the song's final moments, which take place on the then-uncompleted World Trade Center.

Jesus Christ Superstar - If you and your family are not of the purely religious persuasion or if you want to anger your super-Christian relatives during Easter, your best bet is this angry rock opera. This show managed to piss off a lot of people when it first premiered in the early 1970s. Besides neglecting to mention the resurrection to the argument that Judas was too sympathetic to the portrayal of Jesus as a person rather than as the Son of God, this musical had something for almost everyone to dislike.

Besides all of the controversy, the musical also features some of the best work of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. "I Don't Know How to Love Him" and "Superstar" are two of the best songs either man has ever written. The anger, irony, and sarcasm in "Superstar" is almost palpable.

Monday, April 6, 2009

"The Times They Are A-Changin'"

Although I've long considered (most) song lyrics poetry, I sometimes have to wonder if a song's words would carry the same power if they did not have the music behind it. On the other hand, this paradigm works both ways - most melodies definitely would not evoke the same emotions if the words didn't contribute to the overall feeling. With this in mind, I've been thinking about Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are A-Changin'," a song that irrevocably is enmeshed with the political unrest of the 1960s but remains relevent in these uncertain times.

As in many folk songs and ballads, the song opens with a call for people to unite. However, the song does not want to tell a story about the past. Instead, it is a call to action that aims to make people aware that society is changing at a rapid pace and that these changes are irrevocable and cannot be ignored. Consequently, in order to survive, Dylan advises that we stop doing nothing and start adapting to the changes surrounding us ("If your time to you/ Is worth savin'/ Then you better start swimmin'/ Or you'll sink like a stone").

While the words are very moving on their own, there is something about the combination of the impassioned lyrics with the strong melody that makes listening to this song a moving experience. Musically, the melody does not hold any surprises - it remains steady without any surprising dips or key changes. Together, the lyrics and melody simultaneous create a feeling of urgency ("Come mothers and fathers/ Throughout the land/ And don't criticize/ What you can't understand") while maintaining a sense of inevitability ("Please get out of the new one/ If you can't lend your hand"). It is this dichotomy and balance that, to me, makes the song so successful. The real passion (and potential anger) that comes with the song is tempered by the utter certainty in the lyrics and music.

What I find fascinating about this song is the number of covers people have done of it. In addition to the Bob Dylan original, it seems like almost every artist in the past 25 or so years has covered it, which speaks to the song's continued relevance (its this or recording this song is a rite of passage for musicians). For instance, this song has been covered by Billy Joel, Bruce Springsteen, The Beach Boys, Simon & Garfunkel, Phil Collins, and Peter, Paul & Mary. If you are still scratching your head over Phil Collins and The Beach Boys doing this song, try to wrap your mind around the fact that Burl Ives, who is best-known for his role as Sam the Snowman in the stop-motion special Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, did a version of this song.

Despite the potential humor that listening to some of these covers might invite (just imagine Sam the Snowman whipping out his banjo and singing this song to Rudolph and Santa), for my money, if you want to go with a cover of "The Times They Are A-Changin,'" your best bet is Tracy Chapman's version:

Saturday, April 4, 2009

The Trauma of Change

I'm not a fan of change. For the most part, I (like many other people) like things to stay exactly as they are, and even small changes kind of freak me out. Today, I've spent the better part of the afternoon/ evening working on getting my new computer set up. Even though it is the same brand as my old laptop, the big (Vista is confusing!) and small (why is my delete button in a completely different place?) differences are throwing me for a loop.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

"Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)" by John Lennon

I've been reading The World in Six Songs, and there is a very thoughtful section devoted to the poetry of song lyrics. With this in mind, one of the best lyricist-poets is John Lennon. While I love many Beatles songs ("Eight Days a Week," "With a Little Help From My Friends," "Hey Jude" - the list is very long), "Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)" is one of my favorite Lennon compositions.

Even without the the "aww" factor that he wrote the song for one of his sons (or the "uh" factor when you realize that Lennon didn't spend a great deal of time with his first son, Julian), the lyrics are still powerful and moving. There is a sweetness and optimism in the song that wasn't always present in Lennon's work (see "Happy Xmas (War is Over)" for a true example of a real downer from the Lennon songbook). Besides my favorite part ("Before you cross the street/ Please take my hand/ Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans"), the assertion that "Every day in every way/ It's getting better and better," which many take as a homage to Paul McCartney's lyrics in the Beatles' song "Getting Better," illustrates Lennon's sense of hope.*

While the song has been covered by many singers (Freshly Ground, Ben Harper, and *shudder* Celine Dion), Lennon's version is the gold standard. However, if you want to see something completely manipulative and sentimental yet still oddly touching, check out Richard Dreyfuss's take on the song from Mr. Holland's Opus. Vocally, Mr, Holland would be cut down by Simon Cowell, but there is something that works about the performance.

*For the record, McCartney's chorus for "Getting Better" is "I have to admit it's getting better/ A little better all the time." Lennon, who was always the more cynical of the two, added "It can't get no worse."

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

"Introduction to Poetry" by Billy Collins

For the first day of National Poetry Month 2009, there is no better way to start than with Billy Collins, poet extraordinaire and former Poet Laureate of the United States. While he has written many great poems, his "Introduction to Poetry" is one of my favorites.

This poem brings to the forefront the problem that many an English teacher faces: how does one teach about poetry without beating the life out from it? The speaker wants his or her audience to interact with poetry in a meaningful way, which is what many English teachers want from their students. However, sometimes teachers' best intentions get in the way of their ultimate goal. For a long time, students have been asked to figure out exactly what a poem means and what devices the author employs to convey this meaning. Between looking at the use of assonance, slant rhyme, and metaphor and trying to decide how a poet's mother issues influenced his or her writing, we often forget that poetry is something to be savored, not something that should be beaten with a hose.

During one of his terms as Poet Laureate, Collins started Poetry 180 to encourage teachers to share poetry with their high school students for the sheer enjoyment of sharing poetry. Without the pressure of literary terms or standardized test questions, Collins hoped to make poetry enjoyable for a new generation of students.

With this in mind, here's to National Poetry Month 2009. Let us aim for enjoying the poetry along the way.