In these Edward Field poems you will find an excellent example of poetry from popular culture.
This summer I had been part of of a group rolling out the Common Core standards. We were doing a “pair share” on an article, and my partner was a literacy coordinator from a neighboring school. I said that it was comforting that the Common Core emphasized those traditional deep reading skills colleges have always had, but recognized that the middle school curriculum was the foundation for developing it.
My partner smiled the polite smile of someone who thinks you’re an idiot and said she felt the article said the exact opposite. In her reading, deep reading skills were not about traditional text, but being able to use graphs, sidebars and even incorporate video–our literacy leaders seem particularly taken with the notion that video might be on future assessments. Our world is diverse with media, and kids get it all thrown at them, she argued. Common Core demands they are able to sort it out.
One reason to use poetry is that if you can break down, deconstruct and analyze a poem you can do a novel, a textbook, or an episode of “Beyblade”. Structure. Vocabulary. Layers of meaning. We don’t know the next media, but chances are the skills will be similar. To believe that these skills don’t translate to video is someone who has no vision and should not be leading middle school teachers in the area of language. To her credit, she listened.
What has changed, I countered, was the structure of school. Back in the day, we sat six hours. We were bored. And, in front of us, was a book or mimeograph. Our selection of text was limited. “A Separate Peace”. “The Red Pony”. “Flowers for Algernon.” All desks faced front. And because there was nothing else to do, we delved into that text. The worst of us, even through the osmosis of taking up space in the room, got something out of “To Build a Fire.”
Block classes demand movement. Independent reading and papers asking for personal connections compliment video and computer research. Last week I watched as students did research starting with Google Images. What has changed with regard to structure is that there is no structure. We cannot count on osmosis. I have no interest in going back, so the question remains on how to demand depth.
Nancie Atwell is a good place to start. Having been handed that book the summer I got my middle school position, I’ve been wary of the recent push of Lucy Calkins programs. (Instead, I look at the Wikipedia entry on Writing Workshop and crib the structure.) I also wrote an article “The Power of Boredom in Learning to Read“.
My response? Strip it down. If a student can analyze one difficult media, they can transfer those skills to others. Poetry provides an accessible yet challenging medium. It can be taught in ten minutes at the start of class, or be the class. Structure, vocabulary and meaning.
And, it can adapt to our changing cultural literacy while introducing a few classical references.
But what of Edward Field? Your students are experts. Unfortunately, we no longer have a common cultural literacy. Every year I am amazed at what historical or cultural experiences I take for granted that they have never heard of. Still, they know what they know. Like Edward Field, they can tap “Call of Duty” and say something relevant.
Of course, you have to push for depth. Good luck with that.
Note, the first poem is pretty straightforward. It’s mainly a retelling of the plot. Note how Field makes it light; like a friend retelling something they saw. Yet, if you read it backwards, every line leads to the theme. No fat.
The second and third poem are similar, although the need for some cultural knowledge might be required. The basics of “Frankenstein” are still cultural currency, but not the Bride. Also, there is some language you should be aware of–know your audience. I include the second and third for your advanced students, who might want to see how complex a mythology–even a popular movie mythology–can be.
Three Frankenstein Poems
The monster has escaped from the dungeon
where he was kept by the Baron,
who made him with knobs sticking out from each side of his neck
where the head was attached to the body
and stitching all over
where parts of cadavers were sewed together.
He is pursued by the ignorant villagers,
who think he is evil and dangerous because he is ugly
and makes ugly noises.
They wave firebrands at him and cudgels and rakes,
but he escapes and comes to the thatched cottage
of an old blind man playing on the violin Mendelssohn’s “Spring Song.”
Hearing him approach, the blind man welcomes him:
“Come in, my friend,” and takes him by the arm.
“You must be weary,” and sits him down inside the house.
For the blind man has long dreamed of having a friend
to share his lonely life.
The monster has never known kindness ‹ the Baron was cruel —
but somehow he is able to accept it now,
and he really has no instincts to harm the old man,
for in spite of his awful looks he has a tender heart:
Who knows what cadaver that part of him came from?
The old man seats him at table, offers him bread,
and says, “Eat, my friend.” The monster
rears back roaring in terror.
“No, my friend, it is good. Eat — gooood”
and the old man shows him how to eat,
and reassured, the monster eats
and says, “Eat — gooood,”
trying out the words and finding them good too.
The old man offers him a glass of wine,
“Drink, my friend. Drink — gooood.”
The monster drinks, slurping horribly, and says,
“Drink — gooood,” in his deep nutty voice
and smiles maybe for the first time in his life.
Then the blind man puts a cigar in the monster’s mouth
and lights a large wooden match that flares up in his face.
The monster, remembering the torches of the villagers,
recoils, grunting in terror.
“No, my friend, smoke — gooood,”
and the old man demonstrates with his own cigar.
The monster takes a tentative puff
and smiles hugely, saying, “Smoke — gooood,”
and sits back like a banker, grunting and puffing.
Now the old man plays Mendelssohn’s “Spring Song” on the violin
while tears come into our dear monster s eyes
as he thinks of the stones of the mob the pleasures of meal-time,
the magic new words he has learned
and above all of the friend he has found.
It is just as well that he is unaware —
being simple enough to believe only in the present —
that the mob will find him and pursue him
for the rest of his short unnatural life,
until trapped at the whirlpool’s edge
he plunges to his death.
The Bride of Frankenstein
The Baron has decided to mate the monster,
to breed him perhaps,
in the interests of pure science, his only god.
So he goes up into his laboratory
which he has built in the tower of the castle
to be as near the interplanetary forces as possible,
and puts together the prettiest monster-woman you ever saw
with a body like a pin-up girl
and hardly any stitching at all
where he sewed on the head of a raped and murdered beauty queen.
He sets his liquids burping, and coils blinking and buzzing,
and waits for an electric storm to send through the equipment
the spark vital for life.
The storm breaks over the castle
and the equipment really goes crazy
like a kitchen full of modern appliances
as the lightning juice starts oozing right into that pretty corpse.
He goes to get the monster
so he will be right there when she opens her eyes,
for she might fall in love with the first thing she sees as ducklings do.
That monster is already straining at his chains and slurping,
ready to go right to it:
He has been well prepared for coupling
by his pinching leering keeper who’s been saying for weeks,
“Ya gonna get a little nookie, kid,”
or “How do you go for some poontang, baby?”
All the evil in him is focused on this one thing now
as he is led into her very presence.
She awakens slowly,
she bats her eyes,
she gets up out of the equipment,
and finally she stands in all her seamed glory,
a monster princess with a hairdo like a fright wig,
lightning flashing in the background
like a halo and a wedding veil,
like a photographer snapping pictures of great moments.
She stands and stares with her electric eyes,
beginning to understand that in this life too
she was just another body to be raped.
The monster is ready to go:
He roars with joy at the sight of her,
so they let him loose and he goes right for those knockers.
And she starts screaming to break your heart
and you realize that she was just born:
In spite of her big tits she was just a baby.
But her instincts are right —
rather death than that green slobber:
She jumps off the parapet.
And then the monster’s sex drive goes wild.
Thwarted, it turns to violence, demonstrating sublimation crudely;
and he wrecks the lab, those burping acids and buzzing coils,
overturning the control panel so the equipment goes off like a bomb,
and the stone castle crumbles and crashes in the storm
destroying them all . . . perhaps.
Perhaps somehow the Baron got out of that wreckage of his dreams
with his evil intact, if not his good looks,
and more wicked than ever went on with his thrilling career.
And perhaps even the monster lived
to roam the earth, his desire still ungratified;
and lovers out walking in shadowy and deserted places
will see his shape loom up over them, their doom —
and children sleeping in their beds
will wake up in the dark night screaming
as his hideous body grabs them.
The Return of Frankenstein
He didn’t die in the whirlpool by the mill
where he had fallen in after a wild chase
by all the people of the town.
Somehow he clung to an overhanging rock
until the villagers went away.
And when he came out, he was changed forever,
that soft heart of his had hardened
and he really was a monster now.
He was out to pay them back,
to throw the lie of brotherly love
in their white Christian teeth.
Wasn’t his flesh human flesh
even made from the bodies of criminals,
the worst the Baron could find?
But love is not necessarily implicit in human flesh:
Their hatred was now his hatred,
so he set out on his new career
his previous one being the victim,
the good man who suffers.
Now no longer the hunted but the hunter
he was in charge of his destiny
and knew how to be cold and clever,
preserving barely a spark of memory
for the old blind musician
who once took him in and offered brotherhood.
His idea — if his career now had an idea —
was to kill them all,
keep them in terror anyway,
let them feel hunted.
Then perhaps they would look at others
with a little pity and love.
Only a suffering people have any virtue.