Tuesday, May 1, 2012

National Poetry Month: A Meditation on Yeats, Out of the Dust and fifth graders

Carol Tanzman checking in. This is my (admittedly late) tribute to April's National Poetry Month.

Part One: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold…”

I recently re-read William Butler Yeats’ famous poem, “The Second Coming.”  It was during the time I was working on line edits for my upcoming thriller, Circle of Silence.  I was looking for snippets of poems or quotes to use as epigrams for the various journal entries that a character writes. Here is the first stanza. 

The Second Coming

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

I chose, “The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere/the ceremony of innocence is drowned” to use in the book––or rather, my character chose it!

But the line that’s been resonating in my head since then is this one: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.” Yeats wrote this poem in 1919, after WWI ended, a decade before WWII begins, yet he could see what was coming. Like so many great poets, Yeats was incredibly prescient: The center cannot hold; mere anarchy loosed, the blood-dimmed tide is loosed….Every line is filled with the Cassandra cry, warning the world of what is to come.
In a further testimony to Yeats, and poetry, is the fact that “The Second Coming” resonates so strongly today, almost 100 years after he wrote it. Who among us does not know someone whose life is not “falling apart”: lay-offs, un-and-under employed friends, foreclosed homes, a relative who can’t get health insurance because of a “pre-existing” condition that is under control, students who eat two meals at school because their folks have fallen into such hard times they cannot afford to feed them a decent breakfast.

When I read the last lines of the stanza: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/are full of passionate intensity,” it occurs to me that Yeats could have been talking about American politics in 2012. To me, at least, it’s as if he penned this poem last month. The true power of poetry.  

Part Two: “I get it! We are all Billie Jo!’

In addition to being a YA writer, I am a traveling drama teacher in L.A.’s public school system arts education program. I teach in 10 elementary schools over the course of the school year.

In one of my 5th grade classes, a classroom poster  of a Dorothea Lange photo inspired the class.  It is a migrant mother and her children, taken during the 1930’s Dust Bowl era. 

The classroom teacher and I decided that students should read Karen Hesse’s Newbury award winning novel-in-verse, Out of the Dust to follow up on their interest. The book tells the story of Billie Jo and her family, who live in Oklahoma during 1934 and 1935, at the height of the Dust Bowl. The goal was to create a “play” using excerpts from the book.

As the students read, they were tasked with choosing poems that should be in our play. The discussion was lively as each person “nominated” a poem and had to tell why it should be included. (My favorite part was watching the passion of the boys as they spoke up for their choice). It was hard; every poem in that novel is beautifully written––and the students felt that. They were saddened at the central tragedy in the novel, they laughed in acknowledgment when Billie Jo and her classmates had to take State Tests the way they do, and they were thrilled when Billie Jo ultimately triumphed.  I put together a script from the top choices.

It will be an ensemble piece; all thirty students will be on stage at the same time. After we read through the script the first time last week, assigning lines, one student waved her hand.

“I get it,” she cried. “We are all Billie Jo!”

Yes, Eleni, we are all Billie Jo. This is the power of poetry, of fiction, of theatre. It is the reason writers write, photographers take pictures, dancers dance. The arts give us the opportunity to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and understand the world from a different perspective. In this case, it also brought the beauty of poetry to a group of ten year old inner city kids during National Poetry Month.

Part Three: The Centre Cannot Hold, Redux

As of this writing, the entire arts education program in our district is scheduled to be cut in June.  Had this happened last year, as was threatened, thirty students would not have fallen in love with poetry, with the beauty of Karen Hesse’s novel. Thirty students would not understand how different, and how similar, the lives of Dust Bowl students were to theirs. Thirty students would not get the chance to create their own meaning for the rest of the students at the school when they perform the play in June.

Once again, Yeats said it best: “the falcon cannot hear the falconer.”  l leave it up to you, the reader, to decide who is the falcon in this case, and who the falconer.

1 comment:

Jordan Dane said...

Sorry to hear about your budget cut woes, Carol. It must be frustrating to care so much & not be funded. My prayers are with you.