Friday, October 27, 2006

Poems

Sixteen autumns ago, when I first went off to university, I was startled by how isolated we eighteen- and nineteen-year-olds were from the rest of the demographic universe. Months before, I had been a babysitter, bribing ten-year-olds into bed with Kraft caramels, coaxing babies into quietude with increasingly desperate renditions of "You are My Sunshine." I had been a Junior Astronauts leader at my small village church where all the little old ladies greeted me by name on Sunday mornings while I struggled to distinguish Doris from Ruth. Each December I had canvassed the neighbourhood for the SCROOGE campaign, collecting "oodles and oodles of goodies etc." for the local food bank.

And then I graduated from high school and entered the decade of estrangement from those babies and families and identically-permed-white-haired ladies. For years to come, my world was populated by fellow students, fellow twenty-something singletons and too-hastily-weds, and I became no more than an occasional visitor to the community that had once defined me.

I was reminded yesterday of that divide between home and school as I browsed through two thousand pages of the Norton Introduction to Literature, looking for poems to include in the syllabus for the course I’m jumping into next week. I’ve been madly cobbling together sonnets and dramatic monologues, short lyric poems suitable for introducing students to the workings of metaphor and symbolism. And I’ve been finding little gems – a poem dedicated entirely to the lush pleasures of the word "plum," for instance, and a bitter little sonnet that concludes with the words "they have eaten me alive" (referring to the speaker’s two young children and nursing baby). Self-indulgently, I’ve thrown the latter into my unit on the sonnet, serving it up as a little break between Shakespeare and Donne. My students will not care about the rigours of breastfeeding, but they will, perhaps, relate to this poem, Seamus Heaney’s "Mid-term Break."

Blog Antagonist asked us, awhile back, to post a poem that speaks to us. I’ll link to it rather than copying it here (displaying an unusual degree of respect for copyright, I think you’ll agree). But go and read it, and see if it helps you recall that uncomfortable stretching sensation of leaving behind the dorm room with its Casablanca poster above the bed, its wine-bottle candles and dry-erase calendar, and re-entering the world of babies and grandparents, of embarrassing inter-generational demands. Read the poem, and understand why it reminds me of what it felt like to be twenty, and yet reminds me also of how irrevocably connected I have become since then, tied by a thousand spider-web threads to my hometown, my family, my children. (Yes, they’ve eaten me alive – but not without offering something painful and real and true in exchange for that small little thing, my old self.)

24 comments:

Terri B. said...

What a powerful poem by Seamus Heaney. I wasn't able to rediscover my family connections until fairly recent. My trip to university was essentially a productive chance to run away from some pretty serious family troubles. I married at the end of my sophomore year and was able to create new family connections that have sustained me as I've worked at rebuilding those of my birth family.

Momish said...

That was a beautiful poem. And, I have to sheepishly admit that I am not one for poetry per se. But, yes, it did remind me of going away a complete family member, only to return a new person but one that still belonged none-the-less. Good luck with your class, I am sure they will appreciate all you have to offer them.

TrudyJ said...

Oh God. I'd never read that poem before.

Wow.

cinnamon gurl said...

That's interesting that that poem spoke to you in that way. I haven't read that poem before, and I really couldn't get past the horror of a dead child. Maybe on subsequent readings...

Good luck with your class!

bubandpie said...

CG - I realize that I discussed only the peripheral issues in my post, but I didn't want to reduce the poem's impact by analyzing the death of the child. But now that we're here in the comments, I can speak a bit more clearly: the last line of the poem rips my heart into tiny shreds, and it does that, I suspect, because I am a mother. And that is what makes me so aware of the fact that I'm no longer an individual - an awareness I find especially poignant in response to a poem that is all about that tension between the newly individualized college-student self and the old, just-barely-left-behind "eldest son" self.

Beck said...

I have a four year old son. That poem killed me. It was beautiful but utterly unbearable.

Pieces said...

I am suddenly filled with a longing for my Norton. Where did it go? With its pages thinner than a Bible's...How is it that the Loved and I have neither of ours? We fought bitterly over whose Riverside Shakespeare we would keep.

And I completely agree with that feeling of isolated other-worldness of the campus years. I'll never forget the first time I saw children after going to college--they were so short. Tiny, in fact.

penelopeto said...

wow; i was not expecting that.
i have many norton anthologies and have read a lot of poetry, but not that. i suspect that before i was a mother i would think about the rhythm and syntax and turn of phrase and like it for those reasons.
now? my response is purely emotional; purely visceral. all i can think about is a dead child, and why that child had to die and why he had to write about it and why why why.

metro mama said...

Wow, powerful indeed. I've never seen that poem before.

As a mother, not an English major, I put aside any kind of poetic analysis and just felt that punch in the gut when I read that. That's what poetry's all about, right?

I'd love to hear more about the course...are you doing any Yeats?

bubandpie said...

The Norton Introduction to Literature is a bit different from the usual Norton Anthology: shorter poems, a lot more recent poetry, short stories, suitable for a more introductory level.

And yes, MM, so far I've got "Easter 1916" and "The Second Coming" scheduled - I've got some more hammering out to do before Monday.

nomotherearth said...

I was not prepared to read that poem. I can't get past the imagery of "a foot for every year". That will stick with me.

I'd be interested to know what sonnets you're doing. Besides the obvious favourites of 29 or 116, I think 143 is really interesting. I never really got that one until I had The Boy.

cinnamon gurl said...

Oooh... B&P, beck and penelopeto all said it so well.

And B&P: any Al Purdy? Or is he outside the scope? I did a huge long post a while back about my obsession with him.

bubandpie said...

CG - No Al Purdy. Blame Norton, though, not me. ;)

something blue said...

Even before becoming a mother, any mention to death has always made me come undone. The loved ones unbearable pain, the finality and the unknown are too much for me to endure.

It is strange how returning to your hometown after being away will always bring you back to your former self.

anne said...

Thank you for reminding me of You are My Sunshine.

My twenties, let me just brush away the cobwebs here...

Good luck jumping into the course!

Mommy off the Record said...

"A foot for every year"

That was the line that got to me too. I can't bear to hear about children being hurt or dying, especially now that I am a parent.

Lady M said...

That was an intense poem. I have to admit that I often let my eyes skim over poetry - it takes something really riveting to make me read it all the way through. Thanks.

I never really had contact with small children until I had Q. I had held babies exactly three times prior to him, so I feel like this is a whole new world, rather than returning to a previous world.

Bobita said...

Wow. Wiping away tears, trying to catch my breath and off to kiss my children...

Kristen said...

Like others have said, that shocked me...I was expecting only references to the awkwardness of not "fitting in" at home, etc. The funeral mention threw me, and when I got to the last line, my heart dropped.

Rock the Cradle said...

Seamus Heaney is one of those writers with the ability to punch the breath out of you with their writing.

The last line is the one that bruised my heart. Totally, B&P.

I'm so glad you're using "The Second Coming" It's one poem I took the time at one point to memorize, just because I always wanted it with me.

Her Bad Mother said...

I had forgotten about this poem. Took my breath away, reading it again. But this time, now a mother, it was a much different breath taken.

Thank you.

kittenpie said...

I particularly liked the plum, actually, it really got the essence of the thing.

Aliki2006 said...

This is a beautiful post. I've always loved that Heaney poem--he's one of my favorite poets. What a treat to read it again, here.

edj said...

We get so busy with kids and dishes and daily life and sometimes we forget to take the time to stop and read poetry, not just fiction. Thanks for reminding us, and for re-creating again that strange and wonderful decade that is our 20s.
I love that poem but, like HBM, read it totally differently now.
Have fun with your class!