Friday, February 20, 2009

Certainty, Uncertainty, Sand, Sphinx

"Probably some of us were taught so long and hard that poetry was a thing to analyze that we lost our ability to find it delicious, to appreciate its taste, sometimes even when we couldn't completely apprehend its meaning. I love to offer students a poem now and then that I don't really understand. It presents them with the immediate opportunity of being smarter than I am. Believe me, they always take it. They always find an interesting way to look through its window. It presents us all with a renewed appetite for interpretation, one of the most vibrant and energetic parts of the poetry experience."

This sense of undetermined meaning is something I think poetry excels at, and, like Naomi Shihab Nye, who is quoted above, I love offering up the mysteriies of it to children. Kids spend far too much of their time in school being taught specific, determined answers to specific, determined questions. It's not the fault of the teachers, but of those people who ask for "measurable" progress....the Assessment Squads with their standardized tests. Where does poetry (much less mystery) fit into standardized curriculum? One of the great joys of being able to come in as a special guest to schools is the permission I have to send kids off into mystery and uncertainty. They take to it like fish to water.

"If we can offer each other a cognizance of mystery through the poems we share, isn't that a greater gift? Won't a sense of inevitable mystery underpinning our intricate lives serve us better than the notion that we will each be given a neat set of blanks to fill in -- always? Poems offer that mystery. Poems respect our ability to interpret and translate images and signs. Poems link seemingly disparate parts of experience -- this seems particularly critical at the frenzied end of the 20th century."

Again, Nye captures something with I agree completely - that a sense of "inevitable mystery underpinning our intricate lives" is a more useful philosophy than a sense that the answers are the point. That's why I filled my latest book, IMAGINARY MENAGERIE, with questions, not answers. And one of my favorite poems from that book is the one that I allowed to stay the strangest. I love to think a child will go to bed thinking about this:


The riddle maker
is silent now.
So the sand asks:
But the cat-man sleeps.
He never even stirs.
No one can answer
the sand.

Poetry Friday this week is hosted by The Holly and the Ivy. Though April, you can find out who's hosting by going to A Year of Reading, where Mary Lee is taking over the organizational responsibilities of lining up hosts for awhile. Thanks to Kelly Herold, Organizer Extraordinaire, of Big A little a for all her hard work keeping Poetry Friday healthy and hosted - she'll be taking a break now.


  1. I really enjoyed this. Where are the NSN quotes from?

    And yes, the photo in my banner is indeed Ocean Beach. I've lived in the Sunset my whole life, so there's no view I love better. I hope you get to make your way back to the city sometime soon to be reunited with your heart (you know, where you left it, high on a hill etc.).

  2. I found again and again when I was teaching that delving into a mystery with my students -- even when I started off thinking I was going to be guiding the learning -- that I found out more about what I thought I knew than what I knew previously.

    I don't think I really embraced the mystery and uncertainty in learning until graduate school, where I was gifted with teachers who understood what Nye states so implicitly. What a gift to be able to pass that on to a child -- what a difference it would make to them to grow up with an acceptance of the fact that some things aren't known, and to make it their business to think about things they don't understand, and leave room for their brains to expand - and their teachers' brains will expand, too.

  3. I love Naomi Shihab Nye's work. One my favorites is Flag of Childhood.

  4. I love this post! I agree that kids should have something to ponder instead of facts to spit out! Love the poem, too!

  5. Such a big fan of NSN. This is a great quote. I have been working with my students on observations and poetry ala NSN. Thanks.

  6. Cuileann - the NSN quotations are from an essay of hers titled "Lights in the Window." It was first published in the Alan Review in Spring of 1995. You can Google it, or you can link to it at the very bottom of my Saturday February 14th post.

  7. I love this idea of leaving kids with questions and mystery. It's one of the gifts they give us too! That's a great line at the end of your poem. It points in so many directions.

  8. Oh, those Assessment Squads! I could accomplish so much more if they would fall off the edge of the planet! Thanks for giving me the courage to include mystery and uncertainty in my curriculum.

    Interesting side note -- in a session yesterday at the IRA conference I'm attending, we were given a NSN poem to which our first response was, "I don't get it!" But the more we talked, the more we realized we DID get it!!!

  9. Julie, would you please send me your email address and/or phone number? I need to talk to you about something. Thanks!

    Mary Whittington

  10. Julie,

    Could you email me when you have an opportunity? I have a question for you. Thanks.