Saturday, July 21, 2007

Teaching the Teachers to Teach Poetry: Baron Wormser & Teacher Karma

When poet and ardent professor Baron Wormser greeted a room full of Advanced Placement teachers last week at St. Johnsbury Academy, he admitted, "I have a lot of teacher karma" -- his mother, uncle, and daughter all teach, and he has worked in classrooms from kindergarten through college, particularly at the University of Maine at Farmington and the Stonecoast MFA program at the University of Southern Maine, which he directs. He also developed a workshop at The Frost Place in Franconia, NH, where high school teachers connect directly with poets for four days. He wants the teachers to know that to a poet, "A poem is not ABOUT someting -- it IS something."

Wormser's own text, TEACHING THE ART OF POETRY (written with his colleague David Cappella), opens with the words, "Poetry frightens." He sees his calling as making sure teachers and students lose that fear, and he leads them toward the deep end of the pool through a focus on words. "I teach poetry as an art and the kids respond to it because it's an art ... A poem is a series of very careful word choices.

Using Donald Hall's poem "The Names of Horses," Wormser demonstrated the process he's developed: reading the poem aloud and insisting that students write it, as dictated, so they become familiar with the word choices, the punctuation, the line breaks -- all of which they will later question and test. During this, he asks his listeners to keep in mind some word from the poem that surprises them. When those words emerge in discussion, he builds fresh awareness of how physical the nouns, verbs, even adjectives and adverbs are within the poem. From here, he urges expansion from the poem to the world of the listeners/readers.

The desire of the naive teacher, Wormser proposes, is "to reduce the poem to a nugget; you get it as small as possible and then it's gone." Instead, he suggests teaching the poem as a pebble landing in water, with ripples that extend outward infinitely. "Art is expansive."

Wormser scaffolds his training with multiple texts, including his work of creative nonfiction, A SURGE OF LANGUAGE (also co-written with Cappella), a teacher's journal through a year of classroom work with poetry. Next year he also brings out THE POETRY LIFE, where fictionalized narrators in varied walks of life describe their encounters with poems that proved significant to them. (Next year he also brings out his own "New and Selected" collection, a great gift to those looking for his increasingly scarce early work.)

Transplanted this summer from his Down East life (he was Maine's second poet laureate) to a small town in Vermont, Wormser tours heavily and can be contacted through his web site, -- and here's one of his poems, borrowed from that site:

Homage to Montale

This morning
The hummingbird’s
Pure zigzag
Surprises you—
Its indifference to
The long steps
Of your mood.

The bellflowers hold
Open their careful mouths,
The wind booms softly,
Stone breathes in and out,

In various media
The Leader smiles as if
His teeth
Were a balm of sorts.
He repeats words
As if lecturing
A class of children
Who pretend to be listening.

Aieee! Your head
Is full of human hurt.

Phrases will never
Anneal one
Scattered kiss of rain.
You must walk
In the patrician light.

You raise your hands
Above your head
And birds stream
Through your cautious love.

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