While most of my students had a good sense of poetry, some of them really believed that poetry was written with the intention to confound kids in school. They believed that most poems existed in some weird vacuum, useful to "artsy teachers" and maybe a few overly sensitive people.
My mission became focused: I had to debunk these assumptions about poetry and the intended audience. So I started bringing in poetry from current sources, from songs, from contemporary anthologies. Little by little, some of my misbelieving students woke up to it.
One of my favorite moments in the classroom centered around some poems I brought in for Valentine's Day. I taught English at a university where the student population is overwhelmingly male, and a few of these young men had asked me for suggestions of good poems for a girlfriend. So I created my own little anthology of love poems, some of which we read aloud in class. Among them was the poem "Variation on the Word Sleep" by Margaret Atwood.
When I finished reading this, there was a palpable hush in the room. I looked up from the paper and saw some of the guys shaking their heads slowly, or nodding in appreciation. As class ended, a few of them asked me if they could keep the copy of that poem. And I knew that some of them had felt the living, moving force of a poem that spoke directly to them.
Here is that poem, in a new context, powerful and important as ever. Happy Valentine's Day Weekend!
Variation on the Word Sleep
I would like to watch you sleeping,
which may not happen.
I would like to watch you,
sleeping. I would like to sleep
with you, to enter
your sleep as its smooth dark wave
slides over my head
and walk with you through that lucent
wavering forest of bluegreen leaves
with its watery sun & three moons
towards the cave where you must descend,
towards your worst fear
I would like to give you the silver
branch, the small white flower, the one
word that will protect you
from the grief at the center
of your dream, from the grief
at the center. I would like to follow
you up the long stairway
again & become
the boat that would row you back
carefully, a flame
in two cupped hands
to where your body lies
beside me, and you enter
it as easily as breathing in
I would like to be the air
that inhabits you for a moment
only. I would like to be that unnoticed
& that necessary.
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