Five years have past; five summers, with the length Of five long winters! and again I hear These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs With a soft inland murmur.—Once again Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs, That on a wild secluded scene impress Thoughts of more deep seclusion;
poems & poets
You are as gold as the half-ripe grain that merges to gold again, as white as the white rain that beats through the half-opened flowers of the great flower tufts thick on the black limbs of an Illyrian apple bough. Can honey distill such fragrance As your bright hair— For your
I caught a tremendous fish and held him beside the boat half out of water, with my hook fast in a corner of his mouth. He didn't fight. He hadn't fought at all. He hung a grunting weight, battered and venerable and homely. Here and there his brown skin hung in strips like ancient wallpaper,
Giraffes, how did they make Carmen? Well, you see, Carmen ate the prettiest rose in the world and then just then the great change of heaven occurred and she became the prettiest girl in the world and because I love her.
Lions, why does your mane flame like fire of the devil? Because I have the speed of the wind and the strength of the earth at my command.
Oh Kiwi, why have you no wings? Because I have been born with the despair to walk the earth without the power of flight and am damned to do so.
Oh bird of flight, why have you been granted the power to fly? Because I was meant to sit upon the branch and to be with the wind.
Oh crocodile, why were you granted the power to slaughter your fellow animal? I do not answer.
—Chip Wareing, 5th grade, PS 61
Last year at PS 61 in New York City I taught my third-through-sixth-grade students poems by Blake, Donne, Shakespeare, Herrick, Whitman, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, John Ashbery, and
riddle: “A mystifying, misleading, or puzzling question posed as a problem to be solved or guessed often as a game” (Webster’s Third New International Dictionary). Though the dictionary definition focuses on the riddle as a question and describes it as a game, the riddle is more than a puzzle. It is both an interrogative and an expressive form, possibly the earliest form of oral literature—a formulation of thought, a mode of association, a metaphor.
The comparative work of folklorists suggests that riddle-making is virtually a universal activity, a lyric root, a contest of wit, a process of naming. The earliest riddles on record are preserved on a clay tablet from ancient Babylon. They are inscribed in Sumerian along with Assyrian translations. Here is one that Archer Taylor, the premier scholar of riddles, presents in The Literary Riddle before 1600 (1948):
Who becomes pregnant without conceiving,
who becomes fat without eating? The
Twelve people sitting around a table talking about poems is not going to ruin poetry.
This isn’t an endorsement of the writing workshop as it is currently taught; but in imagining how it might be done better, it seems important to understand exactly what the flattening or engaging possibilities of the thing might be. So it bears repeating, as we struggle to vomit up the Kool-Aid of heroic individualism: of itself, a dozen people puzzling over a poem at a shared table is not a problem. And it even has the possibility of possibility.
The problems though are obvious and have been inventoried again and again by those other than us. They include boredom, the pedantry of professionalization, the policing of group norms, a pedagogy of proofreading and minor revision, an unacknowledged aesthetic elitism and narrow-mindedness, anxiety about outcomes other than the outcome of the poem. You will note that these are different names for one linked problematic, and that the all-too-