Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Who Will Teach the Teachers? A Poet: Baron Wormser Steps Forward

With three books released this year, Baron Wormser is very much in demand -- which made it especially nice that he could speak today with the high school teachers at the Advanced Placement Institute in St. Johnsbury. He just completed his annual session at the Frost Place, where he directs the unique Conference on Poetry and Teaching. Today's session gave a taste of what he delivered on Frost's mountain earlier in the summer.

Long a Maine poet and now a Vermont resident, Wormser served as a K-12 librarian in rural Maine while also writing poetry and building, then living in, a one-room cabin "off the grid" with his family. One of his books this year is the softcover edition of his memoir of that life, THE ROAD WASHES OUT IN SPRING, which AP instructor Tim Averill calls "our contemporary Walden."

The teachers today were most sstruck by Wormser's readings from his book THE POETRY LIFE, in which ten fictional narrators talk about the influence of poetry in their lives -- part of the process that Wormser calls "the most important gift you can give your students." Each narrator has a special reason for being drawn to the poem and poet presented; for instance, a teenage girl offers her connection to Elinor Wylie's poem "Address to My Soul." After reading an excerpt, Wormser added, "So that's one way in." He had three more to offer in his challenge to teachers to connect their students with poetry.

For A SURGE OF LANGUAGE: TEACHING POETRY DAY BY DAY, Wormser and his co-author David Cappella made up a teacher, Mr. P., based on their wn teaching practice and opening with Randall Jarrell's poem "Big Daddy," about the football player Big Daddy Lipscomb. The book illustrates how to lead a discussion of the poem, beginning with syntax: "We always keepour eyes on how the poem works.... how the sentences are constructed -- poetry asks for that kind of attention and I think it carries over into how the students write prose."

Third came the memoir, THE ROAD WASHES OUT IN SPRING, where among other strands, Wormser follows his attraction to Robert Frost and to Frost's poem "The Need of Being Versed in Country Things." Wormser said, "That's a poem that's haunted me forever. I think one reason Imoved to the country was I wanted to be with the phoebes and find out who they were." He believed that writing poetry and living in the country were somehow the same tihing.

"Frost's example is an important one in our poetry because Frost is really the only American poet who is both popular and a great artist," he assered. He added that teaching poetry includes communicating who the poet was, in terms of the poet's spirit.

At last, Wormser read from his own poems in SCATTERED CHAPTERS: NEW AND SELECTED POEMS, which covers 30 years of his writing. Again referring to the demand for paying attention in poetry, he suggested: "Whatis that? -- that's the question poetry asks." Poetry tries to experience that questioning, through language. "That means that really the sources of poetry are in awe and wonder."

Between reading the poems "Falling" and "Shakespeare in Mud," Wormser reflected: "I think most poets have a totem from the natural world, because poetry comes to us from our feet, it doesn't come from our heads. It comes from the living earth." His own, he said, is snow -- as painted with words in "Falling."

Wormser's main teaching method is to dictate poems to his students -- he reads it, and the students write it down. He describes the result as "Better even than reading, because they experience the poem word by word, the wayit was written. ... How do you incite kids to ask you about the placement of a comma in a poem? That's one way. How do you get kids to ask you about word choice? -- By writing it down!"

The audience question that received the most intense reply from this "teacher of teachers" was, "Do we have to write poetry to be in the culture of poetry?" Wormser responded that the Greeks saw writing poetry as crucial to being human. "Almost everyone has written a poem in their life. Typically love and death produce poems. You go to one of those places, and that's all that's left standing." Poetry.

No comments: