September 3:  Postcard Poem Day

On this date William Wordsworth (1770-1850) wrote his sonnet Composed Upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802.  Instead of taking a photo or painting a picture, he crafted an image made of words, vividly describing the city of London and the Thames River.  Like a postcard, his poem is permanently postmarked by its title, providing both the time and place it was composed.

Westminster Bridge and Palace of Westminster.jpgThe original manuscript of the poem bears a note that provides more details on the circumstances surrounding its composition:  “Composed on the roof of a coach, on my way to France” (1).

Unlike the typical bucolic scenes of his romantic verse, in this poem Wordsworth describes an urban scene:

This City now doth, like a garment, wear
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill;  (lines 4-10)

Today’s Challenge:  Vivid Views in Verse
Follow Wordsworth’s model by painting your own picture in words.  What are the most unforgettable scenes that you can remember witnessing? What made them worth capturing in descriptive words?  Select your single most vivid, memorable scene to immortalize.  Then, craft your description of the scene in a postcard poem. Select from your rhetorical palette the best devices to paint your scene:  metaphors, similes, sensory imagery, and concrete diction.  Strive to show rather than tell.  Try to evoke the scene in your reader’s imagination, and postmark it with your title:  the place and time of composition. (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Quotation of the Day:  . . . imagery does not occur on the writer’s page; it occurs in the reader’s mind.  To describe everything is to supply a photograph in words; to indicate the points which seem the most vivid and important to you, the writer, is to allow the reader to flesh out your sketch into a portrait.   -Stephen King

1- http://www.bl.uk/collection-items/manuscript-of-composed-upon-westminster-bridge-september-3-1802-by-william-wordsworth#sthash.0iX28xHH.dpuf

 

August 23:  Invictus Day

On this day in 1849, poet, critic, and editor William Ernest Hendley was born. Suffering from tuberculosis since he was 12, Henley was frequently hospitalized.  In 1875 his leg was amputated due to complications from the disease.  That same year as he recovered from his surgery, he wrote his best known poem Invictus (Latin for “unconquerable”) (1).

The poem’s brilliance revolves around its expression of the indomitable human spirit.  Also, the poem’s generalized statements of human anguish –“bludgeonings of chance,” “fell clutch of circumstance” — make it applicable to all manner of human struggles.

One example of the poem’s influence comes from the life of Nelson Mandela (1918-2013).  While imprisoned in South Africa for 27 years, Mandela frequently recited the poem to buoy the spirits of his fellow prisoners.  

Invictus

Out of the night that covers me,   
 Black as the Pit from pole to pole,   
I thank whatever gods may be   
 For my unconquerable soul.   
  
In the fell clutch of circumstance
 I have not winced nor cried aloud.   
Under the bludgeonings of chance   
 My head is bloody, but unbowed.   
  
Beyond this place of wrath and tears   
 Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years   
 Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.   
  
It matters not how strait the gate,   
 How charged with punishments the scroll,   
I am the master of my fate:
 I am the captain of my soul.

A short poem like Invictus is perfect for memorization.  As Mandela demonstrated, it is the kind of poem that can lift your spirits or the spirits of your compatriots when courage is needed to face what Shakespeare called “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.”

In his essay “Why We Should Memorize,” Novelist and poet Brad Leithauer talks about a bygone era (from 1875 to 1950) when the memorization and recitation of poetry was a staple of the curriculums of both Britain and the United States:

The rationales for verse recitation were many and sometimes mutually contradictory: to foster a lifelong love of literature; to preserve the finest accomplishments in the language down the generations; to boost self-confidence through a mastery of elocution; to help purge the idioms and accents of lower-class speech; to strengthen the brain through exercise; and so forth.

Leithaurer hopes for a revival of memorization, a process where students literally learn poems “by heart”:

The best argument for verse memorization may be that it provides us with knowledge of a qualitatively and physiologically different variety: you take the poem inside you, into your brain chemistry if not your blood, and you know it at a deeper, bodily level than if you simply read it off a screen. [N.Y.U Professor Catherine] Robson puts the point succinctly: “If we do not learn by heart, the heart does not feel the rhythms of poetry as echoes or variations of its own insistent beat.” (2)

Today’s Challenge:  I Am the Master of the Poem
What are the keys to effective memorization and recitation of poetry?  What process would you use to learn a poem by heart?  Begin the process of memorizing Invictus.  Read and reread the poem.  Read it aloud.  Write the poem down.  Break the poem down into smaller parts.  Then, memorize it line by line and stanza by stanza.  Decide what key words you want to emphasize and experiment with reciting it using different tones.  Finally, use the words of the poem to inspire your goal of memorizing the poem.  Don’t give up!

Quotation of the Day:  Sure I am this day we are masters of our fate, that the task which has been set before us is not above our strength; that its pangs and toils are not beyond our endurance. As long as we have faith in our own cause and an unconquerable will to win, victory will not be denied us. -Winston Churchill

 

1-http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/william-ernest-henley

2- Leithauer, Brad.  “Why We Should Memorize.”  The New Yorker.  25 Jan. 2013.

July 10: Clerihew Day

Today is the birthday of Edmund Clerihew Bentley (1875-1956) whose middle name became a form of light verse.

Bentley made a name for himself with a classic work of detective fiction called Trent’s Last Case, but he is best known for the four-line verse form that bears his middle name: the clerihew.

The clerihew is a biographical form that begins with the subject’s name (or at least contains the name in the first line). It is made up of two rhyming couplets (thus the rhyme scheme is AABB). The only other requirement of the form is that it should be light-hearted or humorous.

Bentley’s Biography for Beginners, published in 1905, was his first collection of verse. He followed this up with additional volumes of verse in 1929 and 1939.

Here are a couple of examples of Bentley’s clerihews:

Edward the Confessor
Slept under the dresser.
When that began to pall,
He slept in the hall.

 

Geoffrey Chaucer
Could hardly have been coarser,
But this never harmed the sales
Of his Canterbury Tales

Today’s Challenge: Terse Verse
Try writing your own clerihews.  Here are some possible topics:
-Write one about a friend, and use it in a birthday card.
-Write about someone in the news.
-Write an autobiographical clerihew as your epitaph.
-Write one about your favorite fictional character.

Here are a couple of examples:

Samuel Backman
Took on Superman.
It was a long night.
He forgot his Kryptonite.

 

Prince Hamlet was sad
Because his uncle killed his dad.
His father’s ghost appeared to him after dark.
“Something’s rotten in the state of Denmark!”

 

Joey McCool
Was a pretty big fool.
One day he fell asleep at school.
And drowned in a pool of his own drool.

Quotation of the Day:  Read no history: nothing but biography, for that is life without theory. -Benjamin Disraeli

1 – Brandreth, Gyles. The Book of Classic Puzzles and Word Games. London: Chancellor Press, 1985.

2 – Holman, C. Hugh and William Harmon. A Handbook to Literature (Sixth Edition). New York: Macmillian, 1992.

June 3:  Casey at the Bat Day

Today is the anniversary of the publication of one of the most popular of all American poems. Casey at the Bat was first published in the San Francisco Examiner on June 3, 1888. The author of poem was Ernest L. Thayer, a college friend of Examiner editor William Randolph Hearst. Thayer had worked with Hearst in college as a member of the staff of the Harvard Lampoon. When the poem was published it did not have Thayer’s name; instead, his Lampoon nickname “Phin” was used. This lead to future disputes about the actual author of the poem.

While Thayer was certainly the writer, another man should probably be given credit for popularizing the poem. The actor William De Wolf Hopper first performed the poem to an audience that included members of the New York and Chicago baseball clubs in August 1888. Hopper’s recitation was met with enthusiastic reviews, and he continued to share “Casey” with audiences around the country until it became not just America’s favorite poem about baseball, but one of America’s favorite poems period.

Casey at the Bat by Ernest L. Thayer

The outlook wasn’t brilliant for the Mudville nine that day:
The score stood four to two, with but one inning more to play,
And then when Cooney died at first, and Barrows did the same,
A pall-like silence fell upon the patrons of the game.

A straggling few got up to go in deep despair. The rest
Clung to the hope which springs eternal in the human breast;
They thought, “If only Casey could but get a whack at that—
We’d put up even money now, with Casey at the bat.”

But Flynn preceded Casey, as did also Jimmy Blake,
And the former was a hoodoo, while the latter was a cake;
So upon that stricken multitude grim melancholy sat,
For there seemed but little chance of Casey getting to the bat.

But Flynn let drive a single, to the wonderment of all,
And Blake, the much despisèd, tore the cover off the ball;
And when the dust had lifted, and men saw what had occurred,
There was Jimmy safe at second and Flynn a-hugging third.

Then from five thousand throats and more there rose a lusty yell;
It rumbled through the valley, it rattled in the dell;
It pounded on the mountain and recoiled upon the flat,
For Casey, mighty Casey, was advancing to the bat.

There was ease in Casey’s manner as he stepped into his place;
There was pride in Casey’s bearing and a smile lit Casey’s face.
And when, responding to the cheers, he lightly doffed his hat,
No stranger in the crowd could doubt ‘twas Casey at the bat.

Ten thousand eyes were on him as he rubbed his hands with dirt;
Five thousand tongues applauded when he wiped them on his
    shirt;
Then while the writhing pitcher ground the ball into his hip,
Defiance flashed in Casey’s eye, a sneer curled Casey’s lip.

And now the leather-covered sphere came hurtling through the
    air,
And Casey stood a-watching it in haughty grandeur there.
Close by the sturdy batsman the ball unheeded sped—
“That ain’t my style,” said Casey. “Strike one!” the umpire said.

From the benches, black with people, there went up a muffled
    roar,
Like the beating of the storm-waves on a stern and distant shore;
“Kill him! Kill the umpire!” shouted someone on the stand;
And it’s likely they’d have killed him had not Casey raised his
    hand.

With a smile of Christian charity great Casey’s visage shone;
He stilled the rising tumult; he bade the game go on;
He signaled to the pitcher, and once more the dun sphere flew;
But Casey still ignored it and the umpire said, “Strike two!”

“Fraud!” cried the maddened thousands, and echo answered
    “Fraud!”
But one scornful look from Casey and the audience was awed.
They saw his face grow stern and cold, they saw his muscles
    strain,
And they knew that Casey wouldn’t let that ball go by again.

The sneer is gone from Casey’s lip, his teeth are clenched in hate,
He pounds with cruel violence his bat upon the plate;
And now the pitcher holds the ball, and now he lets it go,
And now the air is shattered by the force of Casey’s blow.

Oh, somewhere in this favoured land the sun is shining bright,
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light;
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children
    shout,
But there is no joy in Mudville—mighty Casey has struck out.

Today’s Challenge:  Strike Out for a Good Story
What are some examples of good narrative poems?  “Casey at the Bat” is an example of a narrative poem, a poem that tells a story.  Like any good story, a narrative poem should have characters, a plot, a setting, and a conflict.  Some of the oldest known poetry is narrative, such as the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Iliad, and Beowulf.  These poems existed in the oral tradition long before writing was invented and were sung aloud.  Whether short ballads or long epics, these poems celebrated heroes and passed cultural values, ideas, and knowledge from one generation to the next.  Research some narrative poems, either long epics or short ballads.  Select one narrative poem that you would recommend, and write a paragraph explaining some of the background of your selected poem.  Identify what details from the poem make it a narrative, and why you feel it is an important story. (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Quotation of the Day:  The most powerful person in the world is the story teller. The storyteller sets the vision, values and agenda of an entire generation that is to come. – Steve Jobs

1-https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poets/detail/ernest-lawrence-thayer