TASIS The American School in Switzerland commemorated National Poetry Month with a special High School assembly in the Palestra on the morning of April 4.
Several brave students recited poems from their seats in the bleachers, 5th-grade teacher and published poet Mr. Matthew James Friday shared an original poem, High School Theater Director Valerie Bijur Carlson spoke about the history of National Poetry Month—which has evolved into the largest literary celebration in the world since its inauguration by the Academy of American Poets in 1996—and English Department Chair Dr. Chris Love used a quote from American poet and physician William Carlos Williams—“It is difficult to get the news from poems yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there”—as the foundation for an impassioned argument that we all could benefit from having more poetry and less news in our lives.
“National Poetry Month allows us to bracket off some time to engage with the kind of language, ideas, and humanity you can only get with poetry,” noted Dr. Love afterward. “The cliché is that life is full of poetry. The truth is that we sometimes need to be intentional about finding the time and space for poetry in our lives. At TASIS, we try to take full advantage of Poetry Month’s emphasis on an art that the rumpus of our days tends to muffle.”
Dr. Love, who organized distinguished poet Van Jordan’s visit to TASIS in October, also encouraged students to submit their original work in pursuit of this year’s Linda Buchanan Jacob Poetry and Creative Writing Prize (submissions are due by May 17). Linda Buchanan Jacob ’66 fell in love with poetry while at TASIS, and after her passing in September 2014, her family made a generous gift of $100,000 to establish The Linda Buchanan Jacob Memorial Fund, which aims to inspire TASIS students to share Linda’s passion for poetry by providing support for a biennial poet-in-residence program in addition to the Poetry and Creative Writing Prize.
Ms. Carlson closed the assembly by discussing the history behind Poem in Your Pocket Day and encouraged students and faculty members to make a selection from several well-positioned baskets of poems as they departed the Palestra.
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In a new National Poetry Month initiative spearheaded by Dr. Love, English teachers and their students interviewed one another to learn more about their favorite poems and feelings about poetry in general.
Ms. Andra Yount and Samantha Walker ’19 had a lovely conversation and submitted this exchange:
Ms. Yount: What is your favorite poem and why?
Samantha: One of my favorite poems is “Warning” by Jenny Joseph, and I like it for a number of reasons. The main one is that it reminds me of my great grandma. The poem is about this woman who is daydreaming about all the things she’ll get to do when she’s old. She can wear clothes that don’t match, she can steal from other people’s gardens, and she can spit on whatever she wants to. My great grandma doesn’t like to listen to anyone, and she’s not really supposed to drive, but she says, “If I want to go to the hairdresser, I can go to the hairdresser.” Then she just goes by herself, and everyone is annoyed by her, but my mom says, “Well, she’s 80 and she doesn’t have anyone to tell her what to do anymore, so she can do that.” And I think this poem illustrates that really well. I also like all the imagery that she uses. One of the lines is, “And gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells.” The initial reason why I remember this poem is that purple is my favorite color, and the first line is, “When I am an old woman, I shall wear purple.” So that’s why I like it.
Ms. Yount: Do you plan on wearing purple when you’re old?
Samantha: Yes, when I’m young, too...What is your favorite poem and why?
Ms. Yount: I have a lot of favorite poems, but if I had to choose one that sums up my personality and the way that I see the world, as I’m an aspiring poet myself, it’s “Comment” by Dorothy Parker. She’s one of my favorite poets because she has a very sarcastic, American sense of humor. “Comment” is an easy poem to memorize because it’s only four lines long, and I like things I can memorize. It begins, “Oh, life is a glorious cycle of song,” the way that a lot of Romantic (capital R) poems begin, but then she unconventionally rhymes “extemporanea” (a noun) and “Marie of Roumania,” which is completely unexpected. The last two lines are hilarious: “And love is a thing that can never go wrong, and I am Marie of Roumania.” I like that the poem is a product of its time—Marie of Roumania was a famous royal when Parker was writing in the 1930s, known for being a “princessy” dresser. Parker is commenting on how life is just a series of extemporaneous, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants adventures, in which love does often go wrong, and there are no perfect relationships like in the storybooks and movies. It’s as if she’s saying that people are delusional if they think that love can’t go wrong. It doesn’t bother her, though. It seems that the speaker (and maybe Parker, herself) hasn’t had the best of luck romantically, and that’s ok. It might seem a bit sad to read, but it’s a message I relate to as a single, independent woman. I have the same cynicism towards love as she does. As a writer, I like to make up words like “extemporanea,” too. Anytime I can make up a word, I feel like I’ve done something kind of ingenious.
Samantha: Especially if you can get people to think that it’s an actual word.
Ms. Yount: Yeah, it’s convincing! Dorothy Parker isn’t even one of the most famous poets. She’s not known as a “deep” poet, but I could read her all day long. So, that’s why I like all of her poetry, and this poem highlights her tone and craft really well.
Mr. Matthew Federico and Moritz Mohr ’20 identified their favorite poems and discussed how Moritz’s feelings about poetry have evolved:
Mr. Federico: I want to preface this by saying that I chose you for this interview because you used to dislike poetry.
Moritz: That’s true—and because we already have a picture together.
Mr. Federico: And we have a picture together already, which is a requirement for this interview, I guess...But you have grown to appreciate poetry.
Mr. Federico: And I knew that that would happen because I think you appreciate good storytelling and you have a soul. In fact, I was surprised when you mentioned that [for this interview you didn’t choose] a poem that we read in class, but rather a poem that you read on your own. And that makes me very happy as your English teacher.
Moritz: Yeah...I didn’t like poetry. I’m still not a ginormous fan of it, but I understand how important it is. I enjoy it now because I actually think about it, I don’t just see it as words on a piece of paper. And so that’s what I think your class taught me, is that it’s not just words that have some meaning—the words have impacts. And I think that’s interesting. Even if it might be hard to understand sometimes.
Mr. Federico: Well, good, I’m glad I’ve, umm—
Moritz: Changed my mind?
Mr. Federico: What is the poem you chose?
Moritz: My favorite poem is called “Ulysses” by Alfred Tennyson. I like this poem because it reminds me of something that I haven’t experienced yet but will experience in the future—I feel that it’s a poem for the future because I know that in the future...because it’s life, it won’t always be good. And in the end, you have to solve a problem however it comes. And you have to have meaning to what you’re doing, and you can’t just mindlessly do it. So, I feel like this poem is...not a goal, but a reminder for the future, that one day, I will have to put me together with other people—because I’m not usually a team player, I like to do things myself because I have my own mind—and this shows me that working together as a conjoined group is not just helpful for the moment but also helpful for the future, and that what you’ve done in the past doesn’t necessarily predict what will happen in the future. That the people you are enemies with now...it doesn’t mean you’ll be enemies [later]. And I feel that’s why the poem speaks to me.
Mr. Federico: That’s an optimistic outlook.
Moritz: Yeah...I haven’t experienced what the poem talks to me about, but I think I will.
Mr. Federico: And you hope so?
Moritz: I hope so! Because I feel like in the end, it’s only helping me. And this poem is, in a way, a script for the future. I really like the idea that at the end you’re not just you, you’re you and other people. You can’t always stand alone, you need to stand with other people. You can’t fight every battle alone.
Mr. Federico: That reminds me of a moment in Coates’ book [Between the World and Me] where he says that he never accomplished anything alone. He always had people. It reminds me of that sentiment. [Pause] So now you ask me.
Moritz: So I ask you what’s your favorite poem? What’s your favorite poem, Mr. Matthew Federico?
Mr. Federico: Well, I’ll start by saying that I don’t have a favorite poem.
Moritz: [Groans in annoyance] I would have expected you to say that.
Mr. Federico: But, umm, if I had to choose, if my life depended on it...I would probably choose Theodore Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz,” which we read in class.
Moritz: It’s a good poem.
Mr. Federico: It is a good poem! And it’s interesting that you chose a poem for the future because I chose a poem for the past. I chose a more sentimental or nostalgic poem. Or nostalgic to me, anyway. And I chose it, first of all, because it’s a poem that I’m deeply familiar with—it’s one of the few that I’ve committed to memory. I also shared the poem with my father, and I asked him what he thought of it.
Every time I teach this poem, the class naturally has this dual reading of it—some read it as a euphemism about an abusive father...others read it as a poem of affection toward the speaker’s father. And when I gave it to my own father to read, he read it affectionately, and I knew that the poem had had an impact on him. I think that we were probably thinking the same things when we read it and the way that we felt when we read it. It reminds me of when I was a kid and [my father and I] would wrestle. To me, at that age, he was the biggest, most powerful person, and you sort of fear that in an affectionate way…Generally, what I find most enjoyable about good writing and storytelling is the ease by which you can combine what you feel about what you’ve read with what you think about what you’ve read. And I think this poem allows us to combine thought and feeling so naturally.
Riccardo Borghesi ’19 explained to Ms. Anna Kavalauskas why he considers Bob Dylan, recipient of the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature, to be as much of a poet as a songwriter. He then analyzed Dylan’s masterful “All Along the Watchtower.”
Sasha Tsenter ’19 revealed to Ms. Kavalauskas that her favorite poem is “You’re” by Sylvia Plath, which Plath wrote while she was pregnant with her daughter Frieda. Sasha explained that she finds the verses to be beautiful because they’re full of positive emotional energy despite the struggles Plath was having with her own mental health.
Ms. Holly Wiens and Middle School student Nika Grigorian ’23 chatted about their favorite poems:
Ms. Wiens: Hi, Nika! What is your favorite poem and why?
Nika: My favorite poem is “A Poison Tree” by William Blake because I can relate it to daily life and relationships I know of. My favorite lines from this poem are
I was angry with my friend;
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not, my wrath did grow.
Do you have a favorite poem, and why do you like it?
Ms. Wiens: One poet I am fond of is Emily Dickinson because she is almost a botanist in the way that she approaches the nature around her. What I particularly like about the poem “A Bird Came Down the Walk” is that it combines a detailed description of a bird’s behavior in a way that a scientist might conduct research about a bird. However, at a certain point in the poem, Dickinson inserts herself, the observer, into the poem, and then she finishes off the poem with complex and interesting metaphors. I think it is always fascinating when an artist can combine technical and artistic skills.