In his "Ode to Autumn," John Keats somewhat cheekily asks the question, "Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?" Well, spring is back and singing again. And as for autumn, Mr. Keats, scholars revealed last week that the rosy-hued plains that inspired your great ode might well be buried under a car park. No kidding.
I've collected a few fine songs of spring below. And if I seem a little cheeky myself today, well, blame a season that's more than a little intoxicating. Emily Dickinson explained the phenomenon much better than I ever could:
A little Madness in the Spring
Is wholesome even for the King,
But God be with the Clown-
Who ponders this tremendous scene-
This whole Experiment of Green-
As if it were his own!
William Shakespeare, too, paints a glorious scene of spring in his 98th sonnet. But he's overwhelmed with thoughts of something even more bewitching: an absent love.
From you have I been absent in the spring,
When proud-pied April, dressed in all his trim,
Hath put a spirit of youth in everything,
That heavy Saturn laughed and leaped with him,
Yet nor the lays of birds, nor the sweet smell
Of different flowers in odor and in hue,
Could make me any summer's story tell,
Or from their proud lap pluck them where they grew.
Nor did I wonder at the lily's white,
Nor praise the deep vermilion in the rose;
They were but sweet, but figures of delight,
Drawn after you, you pattern of all those.
Yet seemed it winter still, and, you away,
As with your shadow I with these did play.
We'll turn from Shakespeare's lush lines to the sparse and striking imagery of Matsuo Basho, the 17th-century master of haiku. Here is "Spring Air" (translated by Lucien Stryk)
and plum scent
Here's another of Basho's to meditate on from "Four Haiku" (translated by Geoffrey Bownas and Anthony Thwaite):
a hill without a name
veiled in morning mist
Finally, we'll return to that lover of autumn, Keats, and the immortal opening of his poem "Endymion," which describes how beauty is always returning to this world in a passage that reads like something of an ode to spring.
A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.
Therefore, on every morrow, are we wreathing
A flowery band to bind us to the earth,
Spite of despondence, of the inhuman dearth
Of noble natures, of the gloomy days,
Of all the unhealthy and o'er-darkened ways
Made for our searching: yes, in spite of all,
Some shape of beauty moves away the pall
From our dark spirits. Such the sun, the moon,
Trees old and young, sprouting a shady boon
For simple sheep; and such are daffodils
With the green world they live in; and clear rills
That for themselves a cooling covert make
'Gainst the hot season; the mid forest brake,
Rich with a sprinkling of fair musk-rose blooms:
Enjoy this new green world we live in, at least until (I feel obligated to add) someone decides to build a parking lot over it.
I have intentionally given little indication of how to present these lessons in the classroom, because I believe they can be presented in many different ways and teachers know best how to motivate their own students at a given moment and how to plan a presentation of literature or how to structure an assignment based on the character of teacher and students alike. As noted above, I expect the Analytical Questions to serve as topics for class discussion, cooperative group work, homework, and reflective journal writing, and I spend a good month or more of class time on this unit. Certain of my own teaching practices are not mentioned here, such as administering written tests and assigning a favorite poem recitation. One general assumption that underlies my conception of teaching is the idea that students motivate each other better than I can; while I believe teacher input is crucial to a worthwhile lesson, as often as possible I try to sneak my input into a lesson in response to student questions. Thus, the questions I pose to students are as open-ended as possible, though often they are intentionally leading questions. Plenty of specific assumptions underlie my conception of teaching this unit. For example, the two Analytical Questions that address the poetry of Dickinson and Whitman are decidedly intended to be reflective journal writing questions at the start of class periods that will be devoted primarily to class discussion. (I find I do more whole group discussion when I am teaching poetry than when I am teaching novels or plays: students are on less familiar ground with poetry and need more teacher input.) When teaching Dickinson and Whitman in just a couple of class periods, I find that these simple questions asking students to observe differences between the two poets and to invest themselves in some opinionated preferences lead them to bring up for discussion nearly all of the formal, thematic, and autobiographical details about the poetry that I want to inform their reading. (I regularly ask students to state preferences and choose favorites, even on written tests, but never so much as when I teach poetry, where sensuous and intuitive enjoyment often can and should eclipse intellectual interpretation.) In this "Teaching Guide," I will try to articulate other specific assumptions, objectives, and rationales underlying the lesson plans as well as give a few indications of specific directions I expect the Analytical Questions to take in the classroom.
Lesson 1: What Is Poetry?
This topic affords high school students a (hopefully cathartic) opportunity to express negative experiences with reading poetry, since Moore and Szymborska tackle that subject head on! Strand offers as substitute a daringly positive vision of enjoying poetry, and Stryk models a cool acceptance of popular hostility to poetry. Wright and O'Hara again encourage readers to examine their assumptions about poetry and poets. This lesson is perhaps the hardest of the three, since it focuses on humor and irony, the adult versions of which are often a foreign idiom indeed to teenagers. For this reason, I feel it is worthwhile to spend some time defining, at least partially, the rhetoric of each poem (Strand, fantasy; O'Hara, psychoanalysis; Szymborska, skepticism; Moore, concession; Wright, recusal; Stryk, observation).
Lesson 2: Poems of Childhood
One complaint my students have about this lesson is that I have chosen predominantly dark and depressing poems about childhood! In any case, the first seven Analytical Questions and the Writing assignment can be used generically with any poems of childhood, so you may wish to alter the reading list. Lorde's dark poem is a winner with my students, since its adolescent voice and concerns are so close to their own. Hayden's gorgeous poems filter their childhood pain through the eyes of an adult speaker, and I think their frank exploration of emotion is both challenging and healthy for my students. Roethke is an indispensable study in ambiguity and an important opportunity to study scansion and talk about the formal looseness of most twentieth-century poetry. (The poem's iambic trimeter momentarily shifts to anapestic dimeter to mark the father's "beating time" on the child's head.)
Lesson 3: Self and Society
Talking about history in English class is one of my favorite things. The more political and cultural history brought into this lesson, the richer the poems on the reading list become. Especially important are the Harlem Renaissance, the civil rights and Black Power movements of the fifties and sixties, the history of racism in the United States military, and the long history of American perceptions of the Vietnam War. Rukeyser's poem responds to the German Holocaust but is eloquently fashioned to make a universal statement that encourages study of the many lesser known examples of ethnic intolerance in the twentieth century. The Dickinson and Clifton selections reward study of women's roles in history. Whitman's voice by itself conjures up so much of nineteenth-century America. The imagery which propels and embodies Komunyakaa's reflections, Rukeyser's stark metaphor, the stylistic and ideological originality of Dickinson and Whitman, Hughes's tender tributes to Whitman and to the endurance of African-Americans, the extraordinary voices created by Brooks and Clifton—these make this lesson endlessly fascinating.