Tuesday, April 13, 2010

It all comes down to the basics.

I know that I have been blessed with well behaved and intelligent scholars in my mentor group (kept in line with the promise of candy and recess), but it still fascinates me every day when they throw themselves so earnestly and excitedly into the new challenges that the lesson plans present them. The upcoming event at Higher Achievement is titled a “love poetry” contest. Well, as ten year olds have yet to grasp the concept of deep romantic love, the result is something much franker and simpler, something less cliché and more all-encompassing. Our lesson in poetry was about repetition. We were to find the meaning of the poems that used repetition, and we focused particularly on poems that used this technique to demonstrate the meaning that a particular person or memory held in the author’s life. When we finished, it was their task to do the same thing. Justin began scribbling down his rap right away.

“I know who I’m writing about!” He declared.

I held a straight face and pretended to roll my eyes. “Yourself.” I guessed.

He just grinned at me over top of his flying pen. “You’re catching on.”

Of the past four poems that we have had to compose, Justin has written them all about himself. They have all met the requirements of the lesson, they have all been smart, and they have all made me and Asia laugh out loud. This weeks poem incorporated the repetition of “When my heart falls apart my brain starts,” a line that was accidentally fallen upon when I tried to force him to plan before he wrote. “I just need it to be from the heart, if I think too much it sucks!” he tried to explain, smirking. I suppressed my similar grin and told him that he could do what he had to.

Meanwhile, Asia took her time carefully composing (with heart-warming spelling errors and sweet little grammar mistakes), a poem about the Earth. She repeated all of the things on “her world” and that it was a place that she loved but also a place that needed saving.

I looked at these two poems, written with the ideas of love and personal story in mind, and I was struck by the unintentional grandeur of what they had to say. Tell a college student to quickly jot a poem about love, and they might agonize over cheesy comparisons to roses and violets before giving up. But these kids let it happen naturally, writing what they knew and what they saw, unembarrassed by the results and exploring the connections that they made without hesitation or doubt.

When we examined Bryson in class, we talked often of his attention to the tiny details of everyday life that we might overlook. His absence from the country gave him a fresh perspective on a familiar place, and he brought attention to it by analyzing the tiny details that make up his days. It was brilliant in the connections that this enabled between the humor of these minute foibles in an all-too-normal person’s experience and the same situations that other human beings find in the time that they pass here too (for example, his battle with filling out tax forms is something that I’m sure we’re all sympathetic of). It was funny because we could relate, but also in that we would never see these things for how ridiculous they are and the discovery is delightful in its incongruity from our normal observations. I couldn’t help but note that looking at poetry with fifth graders offered up the same opportunity. Sure I was familiar with poetry, and I was all too used to the people I know taking it very seriously and contemplating it very intensely for the layers upon layers of meaning hidden deep within it. But just seeing it all laid bare, stripped down to the most basic delights of meaning in a few short lines, was a refreshing return. The kids humorous poems were about the simple and the everyday, and they might be overlooked as juvenile or silly, but they were magnificent in this contrast to the heavy expectations that so often tire people when it comes to poetry.

I was struck by the similar nature of Kalman’s book. Though it does indeed explore the ideas of the meaning of life and self discovery, and it delves into personal stories and interests, never once is it bogged down with the traditional sweeping revelations. It is simple, a month by month look at her human inhabitance in many places around the world as well as her home in New York. Some of the pages include the most mundane and overlooked items (like a painting of the string that she bought in NYC). But the simple fact that she gives attention to the small details in life allows the reader to bask in her enjoyment and unexpected appreciation of these tiny things that culminate into the bigger picture. She does so with imaginative and peculiar illustrations, accompanied by a personal and zany scrawl that addressed her wandering thoughts and musings. She was unafraid to include the little steps that she saw, and that she knew because more meaning may be drawn out of these tiny moments and they are worth a second look. She alludes many times to her fascination with fruit arrangements, and there indeed a vast array of paintings of them. They are funny because this simple and under-appreciated item juxtaposed with her use of it to distract from her sadness or worries is absolutely delicious in its mundane qualities. It is simple, and sometimes you need the simple to break up the density of poignant meaning. Sometimes the simple lets you escape from unfixable stresses, and sometimes it lets you realize that love for yourself, and love for the Earth you inhabit is just as important as love for some romantic partner.

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