Halloween approaches, and the birth of a child. It gives the fall air a special wonder this year, I think. It’s good story-telling weather, and good poetry weather. So let’s have a little story about poetry.
This holiday has always been a poetic one for me since I was a student teacher at Mount Vernon High School. I was teaching a bunch of students in Poetry classes—electives, most of these students had no interest in poetry but were looking for an easy A—and as yet I still hadn’t worked out how to win them over, to me as their fearless leader and to poetry as the art that bewitches and beguiles. All October they’d been moaning about their assignments, laughing at the wrong parts of poems, showing off for their friends. The worst seemed to be memorization—every student had to memorize a poem at least 10 lines in length (there was a minimum word count too, but I’ve forgotten it…it was my supervisor’s assignment, though I did think it was worthwhile) and recite it in front of the class. They hated it. They refused to take it seriously. They did a sloppy job of memorizing and then pleaded for “Line?” after “Line?” from their prompter. I was losing them, and I was having trouble remembering why I wanted to be a language arts teacher in the first place. So, I took a chance, setting myself up for what would be a career of risky ventures in which I made myself at least a bit vulnerable to ridicule in front of a classroom of high school students. It’s nowhere near as high-stakes as a hundred more dangerous professions, but in the moment, standing in front of the class and knowing they’ll either go with you (and then they are yours, though you lead them through the darkest valley) or else stare and laugh (and then heaven help you), it feels like a pretty reckless thing.
What’s this tight-rope I was walking? I decided I needed to recite a poem from memory for them. Not just any poem—it had to be something captivating, something they’d latch on to right away and then puzzle over, years later. Something that gets past the walls they were building to protect them from poetry and what it can make you feel. And it had to be audaciously daring—no 11 line poems for me. If I was going to convince them that I had what it took, I had to toss my cap over the wall (as the old Irish parable goes)—take on a poem so tough that I simply had to get it right, and something tough enough they wouldn’t believe I could do it. I have literally no idea what came over me. Two parts desperation, two parts loneliness (my fiancée was in another city, so I had nothing to do in the evenings but sit quietly and stew about these classes), and at least one part sheer cussedness. I spent a couple of days gearing up for what I knew was basically a roll of the dice, although I felt good about the odds. Maybe too good, looking back on it now, but I think being young and unaware of how badly I could crash gave me the shot of confidence I couldn’t have otherwise achieved.
Halloween morning, I walked into my classroom, a long narrow room with a view of the Skagit River (which had just recently flooded its banks—that’s another story) and a radiator that barely put out any heat. The classroom filled for my first of two sections of “Poetry”, juniors and seniors jostling each other, joking about their plans for the evening, ready to cruise through another day at MVHS. I stood at the front of the room after the bell rang, and told them we were going to discuss a poem today. I said that I’d been working on memorizing it, though, since I thought it was only fair that they not be the only ones with that assignment, so I’d be reciting it for them from memory, before we discussed it. One of the kids in the back (Anton, maybe? Ross? the years cloud my memory) pops out a little quip: “Hey, is it TEN LINES LONG?” The whole classroom giggles. “No, it’s a bit over a hundred lines long,” I said. The silence dropped on them like someone had pressed a mute button. Their facial expressions were priceless (so was mine, honestly—it sounded a LOT worse when I said it aloud, and I was getting nervous). After a beat, someone said “Hey Rosy,” yes, the jocks all called me Rosy since ‘Rosenzweig’ was intimidating, I guess, “Rosy, how will we know if you get it right?” “You’ll have to watch me the whole way,” I said, handing over a copy of the poem to the kid who asked. I looked at him again, more closely: “I may have some trouble in the middle. If I ask for a word, be ready to give it to me.” He nodded.
Maybe I was the only one tense that morning—maybe it was just my nerves twanging like a cello string, and not the air in the room. I don’t think so. I think they knew I’d really done it now—my cap sailing over a wall they had never seen climbed before, and I was going to have to go over and get it or else stand there looking like a fool. They were either going to be mine, now, or else I was going to be that student teacher who flamed out like dry tinder one October and left town after dark, just lit out for the territories and was never heard from again. Based on the thumping in my temples, it felt like heart failure in front of the class was the only 3rd option available.
“The Raven,” I said, my voice catching just once. “The Raven, by Edgar Allan Poe.” And then I was off and there couldn’t be any starting over. And it worked. I’d fumbled with “The Raven” for years, ever since I was a child sitting up late with the leatherbound Poe from my mother’s bookshelf, struggling to memorize this creepy, tense, dramatic, mesmerizing poem for no other reason than that I thought it would be really cool to know the whole thing. I’d never quite gotten it all down as an 11 year old, but after a few dedicated October evenings in Mount Vernon, I really did have it together, and as the energy got going I was an 11 year old kid again, inside the poem and delighted by it. I started to act out everything, pointing madly at an imaginary raven perching on an imaginary bust of Pallas above the American flag hanging by the chalkboard, the hall door serving for a chamber door, my heart beating wilder and wilder but no longer in panic, instead because I leapt into the crazed voice of the nameless speaker of the poem and just played the part. I pushed the energy as high as I could go and then, of course, for that last haunted stanza suddenly threw the gears back and finished in almost a whisper as the poet’s soul falls into the shadows. I swear, 99% of teaching, or more, is nothing at all like Dead Poets Society or Mr. Holland’s Opus or any of those other “inspirational” teacher movies, but that one day, that one class, I got to the end and they cheered and laughed and I think a couple of them high-fived me. They paused just long enough to ask the kid with the poem in front of him if I’d missed anything, and he just smiled and shook his head, and they went back to buzzing about how weird and cool and creepy that poem was. We hauled out our literature textbooks and turned to “The Raven” and spent the rest of the day with it. I won’t say we never had another moment’s trouble again—they were kids, and I was a student teacher, and we had our moments. But they were mine after that, and it made all the difference.
The shadow, out from which the poet’s soul could never wander, and into which my career nearly fell. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I don’t tell this story because it’s an example of “what an awesome teacher I was”—if I had to list the things I did best as a teacher, this kind of thing wouldn’t be very high up it. And frankly I don’t know if it was the best choice under the circumstances—it’s just a thing I believed I could do, and I figured if I really could, it would turn the corner with a tough bunch. As I note several times above, it really could have gone horribly wrong, and if it had, I would have had a very hard time rebounding—me flailing through the thing might have convinced a lot of them to just tune me out. I bring it up for a few reasons. First of all, because it’s a story about Halloween and poetry, and I remember it every year at this time, so sooner or later it was bound to come up here. Rather than just allude to it today, I figured I might as well tell the whole thing. Secondly, it’s a pretty good story—a protagonist who thinks he’s on his last piece of luck, a tense setting, a performance that makes or breaks it. I mean, I’m biased about it, sure, but if it was a story about you I think I’d still like it almost as much as I do. Part of the point of loving books and poems is getting to fall in love with stories of any kind—not just the made-up ones but the crazy, impossible, mad-cap stories that happen to you and me every year, which we’ll latch on to and remake with “improved” memories and retell over and over because we like the fact that stories go on forever. If they do, maybe we will. Lastly, and most importantly, it’s a reminder of how powerful literature, and particularly poetry, can be when read aloud with passion. I don’t think I gave the best performance of the Raven ever, but I didn’t have to: it’s such a great piece that even a decent job by a kid in his mid-20s, half-frazzled by nerves, can captivate a room full of teenagers who have already basically decided that poetry is for wimps and dweebs and that one “creative” girl in the corner who can’t seem to write a bad poem (and, in fairness, Sarah seemingly couldn’t, not that semester). We don’t perform enough for young people, and because of this, they never realize the joy accessible to them with just a little energy and ambition and a nice piece of writing. I think too many teachers are skittish about this—I certainly was, from time to time—and the times when I was most willing to fling myself out there and try to make things come alive for students, I was always glad about it later. They weren’t all spotless triumphs like that day at MVHS, of course, but they ended well enough.
I return to this poem every year, now. For years I was still a teacher, and so each year I’d stand up in front of one class of juniors and trot out “The Raven”—a little rustier each year, I think. I still loved it, and so did my students, but by then I was good enough at enough other, more important parts of being a teacher that it was just a fun Halloween morning, rather than a daring caper designed to win over a tough bunch. Then came the years when I wasn’t a teacher anymore, and I would stand in my house on Halloween and recite “The Raven” for my wife and my cat, Houdini, who was usually a little unimpressed. This is our first Halloween without Houdini, so maybe it’ll just be my wife this year, or maybe I’ll finally put Poe back on the shelf and let this become only a memory, a fading phantom that I hold in my mind on a drowsy winter’s evening. Someday my daughter will be old enough for Poe, and when she is maybe her old father will work up the poem again and make it a part of her holiday—a little less cool, of course, as anything associated with your parents has a tendency to be, but still a great story and a beautifully creepy way of welcoming in a night of candles and shadows, of silken sad uncertain rustlings and unseen spirit-wafted censers. I won’t say anything about this gorgeous poem this year other than the already lengthy piece I’ve typed above, but I include it in full because to excerpt it would be criminal. Thanks for your patience through a much-longer-than-usual Poetry Friday: this is “The Raven”, by Edgar Allan Poe—
“Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
‘Tis some visitor,’ I muttered, ‘tapping at my chamber door –
Only this, and nothing more.’
Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December,
And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.
Eagerly I wished the morrow;—vainly I had sought to borrow
From my books surcease of sorrow—sorrow for the lost Lenore—
For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels name Lenore—
Nameless here for evermore.
And the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me—filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;
So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating
‘Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door—
Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door;—
This it is, and nothing more,’
Presently my soul grew stronger; hesitating then no longer,
‘Sir,’ said I, ‘or Madam, truly your forgiveness I implore;
But the fact is I was napping, and so gently you came rapping,
And so faintly you came tapping, tapping at my chamber door,
That I scarce was sure I heard you’—here I opened wide the door;—
Darkness there, and nothing more.
Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before;
But the silence was unbroken, and the darkness gave no token,
And the only word there spoken was the whispered word, ‘Lenore!’
This I whispered, and an echo murmured back the word, ‘Lenore!’
Merely this and nothing more.
Back into the chamber turning, all my soul within me burning,
Soon again I heard a tapping somewhat louder than before.
‘Surely,’ said I, ‘surely that is something at my window lattice;
Let me see then, what thereat is, and this mystery explore—
Let my heart be still a moment and this mystery explore;—
‘Tis the wind and nothing more!’
Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,
In there stepped a stately raven of the saintly days of yore.
Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he;
But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door—
Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door—
Perched, and sat, and nothing more.
Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore,
‘Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou,’ I said, ‘art sure no craven.
Ghastly grim and ancient raven wandering from the nightly shore—
Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night’s Plutonian shore!’
Quoth the raven, ‘Nevermore.’
Much I marvelled this ungainly fowl to hear discourse so plainly,
Though its answer little meaning—little relevancy bore;
For we cannot help agreeing that no living human being
Ever yet was blessed with seeing bird above his chamber door –
Bird or beast above the sculptured bust above his chamber door,
With such name as ‘Nevermore.’
But the raven, sitting lonely on the placid bust, spoke only,
That one word, as if his soul in that one word he did outpour.
Nothing further then he uttered—not a feather then he fluttered—
Till I scarcely more than muttered ‘Other friends have flown before—
On the morrow he will leave me, as my hopes have flown before.’
Then the bird said, ‘Nevermore.’
Startled at the stillness broken by reply so aptly spoken,
‘Doubtless,’ said I, ‘what it utters is its only stock and store,
Caught from some unhappy master whom unmerciful disaster
Followed fast and followed faster till his songs one burden bore—
Till the dirges of his hope that melancholy burden bore
But the raven still beguiling all my sad soul into smiling,
Straight I wheeled a cushioned seat in front of bird and bust and door;
Then, upon the velvet sinking, I betook myself to linking
Fancy unto fancy, thinking what this ominous bird of yore—
What this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous bird of yore
Meant in croaking ‘Nevermore.’
This I sat engaged in guessing, but no syllable expressing
To the fowl whose fiery eyes now burned into my bosom’s core;
This and more I sat divining, with my head at ease reclining
On the cushion’s velvet lining that the lamp-light gloated o’er,
But whose velvet violet lining with the lamp-light gloating o’er,
She shall press, ah, nevermore!
Then, methought, the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer
Swung by seraphim whose foot-falls tinkled on the tufted floor.
‘Wretch,’ I cried, ‘thy God hath lent thee—by these angels he has sent thee
Respite—respite and nepenthe from thy memories of Lenore!
Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe, and forget this lost Lenore!’
Quoth the raven, ‘Nevermore.’
‘Prophet!’ said I, ‘thing of evil!—prophet still, if bird or devil!—
Whether tempter sent, or whether tempest tossed thee here ashore,
Desolate yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted—
On this home by horror haunted—tell me truly, I implore—
Is there—is there balm in Gilead?—tell me—tell me, I implore!’
Quoth the raven, ‘Nevermore.’
‘Prophet!’ said I, ‘thing of evil!—prophet still, if bird or devil!
By that Heaven that bends above us—by that God we both adore—
Tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Aidenn,
It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels name Lenore—
Clasp a rare and radiant maiden, whom the angels name Lenore?’
Quoth the raven, ‘Nevermore.’
‘Be that word our sign of parting, bird or fiend!’ I shrieked upstarting—
‘Get thee back into the tempest and the Night’s Plutonian shore!
Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul hath spoken!
Leave my loneliness unbroken!—quit the bust above my door!
Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!’
Quoth the raven, ‘Nevermore.’
And the raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming,
And the lamp-light o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted—nevermore!”