I Am a Pencil
was featured on National Public Radio's program "All Things Considered." Listen to Melissa Block's interview of Sam Swope here
To read advance notices from Dave Eggers, Alex Kotlowitz, Philip Lopate, Vivian Paley and Linda Perlstein, click here
Here's an excerpt:
Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.
First we went over some hard words -- pantomime, indecipherable, Haddam, lucid, euphonies, and equipage. Then, as I handed out copies of "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird," I told my fifth graders, "This is a famous poem written by an American businessman named Wallace Stevens. Iím telling you that so you know you can be a writer and still have another career." I said, "Before we discuss it, I want you to read it silently."
Thirty-six children put their elbows on their desks and leaned over the poem. I had been this classís writer-in-residence for three years and knew them well. They were a smart group, immigrants to Queens, New York, from over twenty countries, speaking 11 languages. Many were poor, their sights set on doctoring as the clearest way up the American ladder, and although they enjoyed reading and writing, most had the idea that math and science were the only subjects that really mattered.
Their classroom was crowded, not much space for anything but students, tables, and chairs. But it was a bright, tall room, at the top of a fat old schoolhouse made of brick and limestone. The roomís windows started eight feet up the wall, so that even when standing you had to look up to look out, and all you ever saw was sky. It was like being in a deep box with the lid ajar.
Twenty snowy mountains. It was late January, but seventy degrees and sunny. We were hot. "El NiŮo!" cried my students. "Global warming!" What could they know of mountains and of blackbirds? The school had no recess, and when the kids were not in class, most were stuck in tiny apartments, forbidden to play in the city streets.
The room was silent as the children read.
I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds.
The moving "eye" of the blackbird becomes the "I" that is the poet, the blackbirds an unsettling metaphor for the poetís thoughts. Throughout this poem, Stevens juxtaposes the actual blackbird with the blackbird of his mind. At least I think thatís what heís doing, but itís hard to know for sure. Itís a fair question: Is "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" too difficult for fifth graders?
Kenneth Koch, a poet whose useful, entertaining books on writing poetry with children have earned him my gratitude and trust, describes in his book Rose, Where Did You Get that Red? the way in which adult poems can inspire children to write their own poetry. Koch uses poems by Blake, Donne, Whitman, Lorca, Ashbery and others, each providing an example of what he calls a "poetry idea." He makes a special pitch for "Thirteen Ways of Looking at Blackbird," finding in it both a "gamelike quality" that is appealing to children and an obvious poetry idea: write about an ordinary object in as many different ways as you can. This assignment was well-suited for my yearlong unit on The Tree, and I hoped it would help my students approach our subject from new and interesting directions.
I waited for the children to finish reading the poem. One by one they looked up, faces blank. "Uh-oh," I thought. The less confident cast sidelong glances round the room, checking to see if others were as lost as they. I told them, "This is a difficult poem. Donít worry if you didnít understand it. But before we discuss it, Iíd like to hear your first reactions."
Not a hand went up. Everywhere I looked, eyes avoided mine.
I called on Simon, a bright-eyed kid with sticking-out ears. Simon was the baby of a Dominican family, so lovable and so well-loved he never was afraid to say he didnít know. "This is like a college poem, Mr. Swope," he said. "Whyíd you give us a college poem for?"
"Yeah!" said Rafael. "I didnít understand a word of it!"
"Yeah!" said Aaron. "I thought I was falling asleep!"
Smelling blood, everyone perked up, eager to join an uprising ó yeah! yeah! yeah!
"Itís not a poem!"
"Itís like a set of instructions!"
"Directions to see a blackbird!"
"Itís a how-to thing!"
"Itís got numbers!"
"Yeah, itís like so weird!"
I was of three minds: I am a rotten teacher; this is a rotten class; Stevens is a rotten poet.
The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds.
It was a small part of the pantomime.
Stevensís economy of language is impressive. In just two lines he moves us from a single bird to the whole sky. If this were a scene in a movie, the soundtrack would be silent as the camera tracked the bird then gradually pulled back to reveal an autumn panorama in which the ever-smaller blackbird soared.
"Now Iíll read the poem out loud," I said. "Just make yourselves comfortable and listen." I turned out the lights; the room went gray and dusky. Several students put their heads down. Itís a marvelous thing, reading to children. My voice, Stevensís poem, blackbirds in the room. No one fidgeted, no one whispered, and when I finished, the poem hung in the air.
Students lifted their heads, rubbed their eyes. I called on Mateo, a polite boy whose mother had been a schoolteacher back in Ecuador. He smiled apologetically, sorry to disappoint.
"Come on, Mateo," I said. "What did you think of the poem when you heard it read out loud?"
"When you read it, it made more sense."
"Yes," I said. "In what way did it make more sense?"
He smiled and squirmed, nothing to say.
Rosie, a thoughtful Indian girl with beaded corn rows, put it this way: "When you read something, you canít explain the feeling: itís the feeling you have, whatever you do."
"What do you mean, Ďwhatever you doí?"
"When you read this, itís a feeling. It gives you a feeling."
"I canít explain it."
Is this enough? To read a poem out loud, cast the spell, give your students a feeling, and move on? Not talk about what canít be talked about? Perhaps, but even if we say that sometimes the reading of a poem is enough, is "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" that sort of poem? I doubt it. If I had let it go, Stevensís words would have whirled in the room and vanished.
Itís a tough poem to hold onto. It has no characters, no plot, no humor, no rhyme, no clear-cut beat, no uplifting sentiments, and its pleasures are subtle, quiet, abstract, intellectual. Koch is right.
"Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" is a puzzle, a Cubist collage -- precisely the kind of poem you get to know better by talking about it. But how to do that with a room of ten-year-olds?
Following Kochís advice, I focused on the poemís more accessible sections, then asked the children to write about a tree in as many ways as they could. Most came up with four or five separate thoughts, of which these are typical:
It looks like eyes on the trunk
A stick with a bee hive on the end
I wish it was Spring so my tree could grow leaves
A tree is a place that keeps people trapped inside
You are the wall I hate that covers the sun when Iím cold.
I was both heartened and disappointed. They had gotten the poetry idea, as Koch promised, yet they hadnít written poems. To help them do so, I decided weíd discuss the poem line by line but in small groups and then, using Stevensís poem as a model, write "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Tree."
Later, after I explained this assignment, Rosie looked at me and said, "Let me get this straight: You want us to use all 13 techniques but with different words, and about a tree?"
"Yes, thatís the idea, but if a section seems too hard," I said, "skip it. Make up something all your own."
"No, no, itís not too hard," she said. "No problem."
The world around the tree
Was hectic and moving
Yet it stood still
With a brave heart.
A man and a woman
A man and a woman and a blackbird
Here the style of the poem changes. In plain, declarative sentences, Stevens announces a spiritual idea of unity. We are all one. Thereís nothing more to say.
I met with students in groups of five or six. What a difference intimacy makes! One group was all boys, and by the time we got to this part of the poem, each of them was fighting to be heard. Simon, the boy who scolded me for giving them a college poem, was so eager to talk he couldnít sit still.
"Simon, please donít stand on your chair."
"But I want to say what section IV means!"
"Okay, whatís section IV mean?"
"It means a man and a woman get married and become one because they love each other so theyíre not two separate people."
Cesar disagreed. "No, it means like the man and woman do like a matrimony and then they look at blackbirds and see the blackbirds do the same."
"But a man and a woman and blackbird are not going to get married!" said Gary.
"No, not like get married exactly," explained Cesar, "but birds, people, they do basically the sameó"
"No!" said Simon. "He said that a woman and a man and a blackbird are one. Heís not comparing them."
"Then what is Stevens doing with the blackbird here?" I asked Simon.
He went quiet for a moment, then he said, "It might be that that birdís their pet."
Everyone liked this idea. "Maybe they are bird lovers," suggested Gary. "The man and the woman, they get married, so then they treat the blackbird like a child."
Cesar smiled, happy at that thought. "Part of the family," he sighed.
You are one.
So am I.
But trees are part of us
I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes.
The blackbird whistling
Or just after.
I begged him, Miguel, write! Write something! Try!"
He hadnít written a thing for months, rarely had his homework, and in class he couldnít sit still. Miguel was immensely confident, capable of unusual, interesting thought, yet lazy and disorganized, angry and socially awkward. He often drew while other children wrote, but he wasnít very good at it, and what he drew upset me.
"May I see?"
Miguel had scrunched his drawing in a corner of the page. It was typically sloppy and mostly indecipherable. There were scratchy men with limbs that didnít bend, and there were guns and bombs. At least he had a bird, an eagle decently drawn, but even it was bleeding from the heart. There were blotches of explosion and lots of smudgy death, not the joyful ruin happy children draw, no flashing zigzag lines and gaudy color.
"Oh, Miguel," I said. "Why are your pictures always so violent?"
He smiled, happy to be noticed, and continued drawing. We had had this conversation many times before.
"It worries me, Miguel. It makes me feel like youíre not happy."
"Oh, Iím happy, Mr. Swope. I just like drawing violence, thatís all."
I knew him well enough to say, "This picture makes me think youíre going to grow up and be a mass murderer, Miguel, and I think you can do a little better than that."
Miguel giggled as he kept on drawing.
"Do me a favor. Stop drawing and try to write. Write at least one way of looking at a tree, okay? You can do this."
"Okay," he said, and cheerfully pulled out his writing folder.
It grows big
are happening inside.
There are no euphonies here, and even though his poem isnít perfectly clear, it has some interesting innuendo going on, a lot of promise. I gave it a Good!!!
But itís hard to know what I responded to -- the poem itself, or the boy behind it; my student as he was, or as I wanted him to be.
Icicles filled the long window
With barbaric glass.
The shadow of the blackbird
Crossed it, to and fro.
Traced in the shadow
An indecipherable cause.
This section was a class favorite, with its prison made of ice, its menacing shadow, and its goosebumps sort of evil. Yet when I asked Su Jung how sheíd do something similar, but with a tree, she shook her head and told me that was hard.
Her classmates disagreed.
"Through the icy window--"
"Or its shadow--"
"It looks like a monster or something--"
"Suddenly the wind blows and you see this branch--"
"And it looks like a hand--"
"Yeah, and you get scared--"
"And you see a UFO!"
As other children huddled round and spun this silly horror, Su Jung sat in silence. She was often quiet, not always by choice. Sometimes sheíd join in a discussion, then startle us by going mute, eyes looking out at me as from a cell. She couldnít speak, not even when she wanted to. No one could explain these strange and sudden silences, least of all Su Jung. It was as if she were under a curse, and in a way, tragic girl, she was. When you suffer as a child and have the blackbirdís shadow in your heart, do you lose the fun of fear, the happiness of horror? Throughout the years I had her as a student, Su Jung never once wrote of a happy ever-after. No prince ever rode into her stories.
We want to know our students, and knowing, try to help. I searched her writing, certain that I understood, but is her life, as I have told it, her deciphered cause? Am I so wise? Can I say I know this child so well I see into the window of her soul? What arrogance is that?
Su Jungís only comment on this section of the poem was, "I donít like looking out an icy window Ďcause I feel like itís destroying my eyesight."
"Because you canít focus?"
The tree is an angel
That god sent down
To watch over the earth.
But in the winter
The snow covers its eyes
So it canít see.
-- Su Jung
O thin men of Haddam,
Why do you imagine golden birds?
Do you not see how the blackbird
Walks around the feet
Of the women about you?
Itís hard to look at the world and really see it.
One day we were outside, and the kids were drawing trees. I was watching Rafael, a skinny Cuban kid with shiny blackbird hair.
Rafael, why are you coloring the tree trunks brown?"
"ĎCause thatís what color they are."
"Take a look around you. What color is the bark?"
He squinted at some nearby trees and said, "Itís brown."
"No, itís not. Itís gray."
"No, itís not. Itís brown."
"Look!" I told him. "Use your eyes!"
Rafael looked again, and when he saw that I was right, he said, "I donít care what color real trees are. In comics, trees are brown."
Rafaelís parents were divorced. To support her son and daughters, his mother worked six days a week as a receptionist. She was a kind, decent woman with a sad smile, and she always looked tired. She came to school several times, worried about Rafael. He didnít read books, was bored by school, didnít do his homework, hadnít tested well. All he cared about was comics and cartoons. What should she do?
"Buy him paper and paints and markers," I said. "Send him to art class."
"I donít want to encourage him."
"His comics are really good. Maybe heíll be an artist."
"Thatís what Iím scared of," she said. "An artistís life is very hard."
"Itís scary, yes. But if he is an artist, thereís nothing you can do. You wonít change that. Itíll be better for Rafael, and better for you, if you encourage him."
This made her sad.
"Donít worry, heíll be fine. I think heís got a gift. Besides, thereís money in cartoons."
It was easy to see him as an artist type. Rafael was a loner. He was quiet and sensitive, quick to cry, but he had a rattlesnake temper when roused. He loved to dance. Although happy if I let him make a comic and not write, if I didnít, Rafael would make a comic anyway, drawing one in words. It didnít matter what sort of writing I got him to do -- essay or story or poem -- it was always a comic strip struggling to get out.
When Rafael handed in his "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Tree," I asked him, "While you were writing this, did you glance at a real tree even once?"
I threw up my hands and said, Rafael!"
"Heh, heh, heh," he answered, mimicking Beavis.
But Rafael was right, just following the master. I donít imagine Wallace Stevens sat on some old rock while writing of the blackbirds at his feet.
O crazy mimes of Staten Island
Stop giving free performances
to the tree, canít you see the
Tree is one of you, you mimes,
The Tree is a very still mime!
I know noble accents
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;
But I know, too,
That the blackbird is involved
In what I know.
In the beginning was the thump, screech, and grunt. Then came words, or was the whistle first? Long before our noble accents, back when speech was being made, what models did our early wordsmiths use? Where did the sounds of language come from -- the whoosh of wind, a gurgling stream, the songbird warble? Somewhere lost in time did Nature help to shape our tongue, and so inform our thought? Is that what Stevens meant: "the blackbird is involved in what I know"?
I asked Fatma, a gloomy Pakistani child and the schoolís top speller, what she had made of "Thirteen Ways." She didnít like it, telling me, "The thing is, it doesnít say very much, but then you donít understand it."
Good point. Even when his words are simple, reading Stevens is like trying to understand a language you donít know very well. You have to do a lot of guessing.
But Noelia, a carefree Caribbean child, showed her gap-toothed smile and said, "Thatís why I like this poem."
"Because I didnít understand it!"
"But why do you like that?"
"Because I learn new things," she said. "And itís kind of weird."
"Weird is good?"
"Oh, yeah! Weird is def-i-nite-ly good."
Noelia loved the funniness of words, their boing-a-doing and tickle: "In-you-EN-doe!" "YOU-fun-knees!" But with Stevens I suspect she loved the word equipage best of all, and when I said, "That word is kind of fun to say. Letís say it all together," Noelia pogoed up and down and shouted out of synch, "Equipage! Equipage! Equipage!"
Later, I told this story to a friend of mine, a fan of Wallace Stevens and a poet. When I was done, she asked, "Thatís how you pronounce it? Are you sure that itís eh - kipí- ij?"
"No, Iím not sure," I said. "How would you pronounce it?"
"Itís French. I think itís ehī- kee - pahj."
"My God, how stupid, yes, of course youíre right." Whatever was I thinking?
But then I looked equipage up, and found we both were wrong. A French word, yes, but come to us by way of England, its Gallic murmur filtered through a Henry Higgins nose. Itís ekī- wuh - pij.
The hands of
reach for the
When the blackbird flew out of sight,
It marked the edge
Of one of many circles.
If Stevens were my student, Iíd have written in the margin: "Interesting image, Wallace, but Iím not quite sure what youíre referring to here. What circles do you mean exactly?"
I think about my students. I can see them in my mind -- or sort of can -- the whole class in a circle, holding hands.
I still see the
At the sight of blackbirds
Flying in a green light,
Even the bawds of euphony
Would cry out sharply.
I told each group, "I have no idea what this section means. Donít bother imitating it. Just make up something of your own. Now, letís move on."
I didnít understand the section, true enough, but thatís not why I hurried to get past it. I wanted to move on because of the word bawd. I had looked it up, expecting it to mean Ďa libertine,í but bawd instead means prostitute.
It wasnít that I didnít think the kids could handle that. They watched TV, they flipped the bird, they spat out words both coarse and sexual. Some of them knew a lot more than they should. My worry was their parents, who didnít know how much their children knew (or half-knew, even worse) about the whores who nightly worked the nearby strip with all the garish lights. My worry was the school board and the armies of the right.
I looked out my window
And there the tree stood,
Gazing into my eyes
Like it knew something.
He rode over Connecticut
In a glass coach.
Once, a fear pierced him,
In that he mistook
The shadow of his equipage
This oneís fun. The glass coach crossing Connecticut is a nice touch, almost surreal, with the rider -- I see someone noble -- vulnerable, exposed, as though inside a bubble. Then the sudden fear, a gasp!
"How would you do that, but with a tree?" I asked one of the groups, and had them write.
Whip-smart Ella needed time to think, but not too much. That girl could get her words down quick.
As I ride the bus
along the road
I see the tree
moving but not
me, am I crazy?
Yes! Sheíd even got the startle right, the shock we feel when things arenít what we think.
Ella came from Hong Kong, skinny as a stick, and everything with her was fast, fast, fast. On Field Day when the whistle blew, off sheíd fly and leave the rest behind. In class, no sooner did I give a task than snap! she had it done -- and neatly, too. And when it came to math, her hand shot up, the numbers figured out inside her calculator head. Thereís more: Eager to grow up, she was the first to place a hand upon her hip, to roll her eyes and say to me, "Oh, please!" And long before the other girls, Ella played the teen and wore short shorts, her shirt tails knotted up above her little bellybutton.
Two birds on a
tree. Two minds
in one. As two
minds in one
Brava! Not only had she understood the birds as metaphors for thought but she extended that and made them metaphors for love. I told her, Ella this is really good. Profound, in fact, and beautifully expressed."
She said, "I got this idea from a commercial."
"The two always stick together," she said and slyly smiled.
I didnít understand, but Ella swatted at the air and gave a huff and told me, "Never mind!"
Noelia turned to me and said, "Itís from a toothpaste commercial, and part of it is tartar control and part is whitening, and together they are one."
The river is moving.
The blackbird must be flying.
Jessica always thought too much, which made her stories so complex and so confused that the only way she could think to end them was to write: "To Be Continued!" And when she made her first attempts to mimic Stevens, her words were typically perplexing:
The land was
of five minds
like my tree.
I said to her, "Donít think. Just write whatever comes into your head!" When our work that day was done, among the other bits she handed in was this:
My tree is so big
that no one
Some days later, I read this poem to the class and Jessica cried out, "But thatís not mine!"
"It has your name. Itís in your handwriting."
"Iíd remember if I wrote it."
I handed her her paper, which she studied, disbelieving.
"You wrote it, thatís for sure, and good for you," I said. "That is a good poem."
Jessica looked surprised. "It is?"
"Oh!" she said, and beamed with pride.
Then she got to thinking, and later said to me, as if confessing, "That poem that I wrote you liked? I donít know what it means."
It was evening all afternoon.
It was snowing
And it was going to snow.
The blackbird sat
In the cedar-limbs.
Thereís a lot of quiet in this poem.
Earlier, when Miguel discussed the blackbird whirling in the silent autumn winds, he said, "I think what Wallace was trying to say is like the blackbird would make no noise when he was going through the wind and so he was like part of the stillness of what was around him."
"But if he was part of the stillness," said Maya, "he shouldnít be moving, right?"
"Stillness can also mean quiet," I said. "It doesnít only mean motionless."
"Oh," said Maya, dreamy eyed, her straight black hair so long that it was like a cape.
I asked Jorge, "What is Stevens doing in the last section?"
Speaking softly, Jorge said, "Itís the end of his poem, so itís gonna be like itís gonna be darkness, and itís snowing a little, but it was gonna snow more, so he has to go home."
"Why does the poet end with this simple image?"
"Because he probably doesnít want to write no more and so he wants to end it in a way that people can understand."
"Mmm-hmmmm. How do we know that itís ending?"
"Heís saying itís evening and he has to go to sleep or something."
Sleep, perhaps, or maybe there is here a deeper stillness, the blackbird on the snowy limb a metaphor for death. Many children heard the poemís darker echoes, but Maya, who loved horror, reveled in them. "Isnít thirteen a dreaded number?" she had asked me with a hopeful smile. "Isnít black an evil color?"
"Yes," I said. "Thatís in the poem, too."
Maya was a model student with a peaceful, pleasant manner. When we studied Stevens, I did not sense that anything was wrong, and did not know her favorite uncle had just died, or that her best friend had betrayed her. It wasnít until sometime later that her mother called to tell me Maya was often overwhelmed with tears and cried out to her parents, "I want to die! I want to die!"
As still as night
as night is
The wind blows
the bird chirps
the dog barks
the tree is still.
The bark falls off
but there is no sign
of pain, or suffering.
How can this be?
no nothing that a
in its way.
We worked with Stevens for two weeks. And then, at the end of a February day, several children read their poems to the class, and we said good-bye to blackbirds. Everyone was tired, yet everyone seemed happy. It was time to go home.
"All right," I said. "That was good. Thank you. That was very interesting."
When I asked Simon if he liked the poem now, his face lit up. "Oh, yeah, a lot!" he said, and others quickly cried out they did, too -- oh, yeah! yeah! yeah!