Jane Gentry

Jane GentryJane Gentry was born in central Kentucky, on a farm in Athens. She has published two full-length collections of poetry, A Garden in Kentucky and Portrait of the Artist as a White Pig, both from Louisiana State University Press. In 2005, Press 817 in Lexington brought out her chapbook, A Year in Kentucky. She has also published a short volume of local history, Looking Back at Athens, with William M. Lamb. An English professor at the University of Kentucky, she has won the UK Alumni Association’s Great Teacher Award, teaches in the Honors program, and is advisor to Jar, a student-edited literary magazine. Her poems have appeared widely in journals, including Sewanee Review, Hollins Critic, Harvard Magazine, New Virginia Review, Southern Poetry Review and The American Voice. As a critic, she has published many reviews, essays and interviews. Of particular interest are her essays about Mary Lee Settle, which have appeared in Southern Literary Journal, Mississippi Quarterly and Iron Mountain Review. She has been awarded two Al Smith Fellowships from the Kentucky Arts Council and has held fellowships at Yaddo in Saratoga Springs, New York, and at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. She served as Kentucky's Poet Laureate from 2007 to 2008.

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TEACHER RESOURCES

Jane Gentry’s poems are the most intimate in this volume. In the selection of her work presented here, she speaks from the perspective of an aging woman, a grandmother, in fact, who speaks to reveal, if not to resolve, the paradoxes presented by daily life, family, love and death. While this perspective may seem removed from the presumed interests of the typical high school student in the era of the iPod and MTV, love is probably teens’ primary concern. Many have experienced serious difficulties and losses, and most are facing these issues indirectly in the lives of their own grandparents, about whom they care very deeply. Though students may initially be uncomfortable with the deeply personal quality of Gentry’s work or its starkly honest address of difficult topics, her example and the study of her poems will offer them a model for engaging their own greatest concerns, for illuminating and alleviating the tenderest places in their own hearts.

To enhance focused study, the poems are organized in three groups. Students should be aware that these groupings are not those of the author, but only for study purposes. The poems are arranged below as if for a week’s study of Gentry’s work, opening with the basics and proceeding to a more in-depth project. However, the poems can clearly be studied individually and in any order. Any sections would also make a good mini-unit.


A. SELF IN THE WORLD
“May Weather”
“Winter Moon”
“Crows”


The three poems grouped here would coordinate very well with a study of Imagism and “The Red Wheelbarrow” by William Carlos Williams, one of the most famed, if not beloved, poems of the 20th century. Pairing it with Gentry’s works can help students access Williams’s work and enhance their appreciation for hers.

NOTE: The lesson below only offers a minimal introduction to the concepts of Imagism, but teachers may expand it as desired. Also, if the class has already covered Imagism and Williams’ poem, simply skip the analysis of “The Red Wheelbarrow.” The activities below are designed for two days on a block or 90-minute class schedule and would require more time if covered in a shorter

DAY ONE

WAYS IN:


Gentry and Imagism

Words to Consider:(Both Days)
bivouacking
raucous
fey
(smudge)


Literary Features:
Image


“May Weather”

READING:

Review the Words to Consider and read “May Weather” as outlined below.

  1. Cloze Exercise—The “First” Word Versus the Right Word.
  1. Give students copies of the Cloze exercise below BEFORE letting them see the original of the poem “May Weather.” The words that follow have been removed and replaced with a blank: selfish, bivouacking, fresh, lean out, tender necks, kites, pluck back, edges, sharp, black arrows and territorial.

  2. Ask them to quickly fill in the blanks, WITHOUT SEEING THE ORIGINAL.

  3. Read the poem with their suggestions.

  4. Read Gentry’s poem.

  5. List the removed words in one column on the board. In an adjacent column, list the words that quickly came to mind as fitting the blanks—teacher’s example below, so as not to embarrass the students.

  6. Ask students to explain the difference in the words in the two columns, with particular emphasis on what emotional context they create. The words from Gentry’s poems are specific and suggest conflict and vulnerability. The words from the cloze are more general, more predictable, and more positive (they also use “cheap” rhyme and alliteration).

Handout JG-1 MS Word
Handout JG-1PDF

MAY WEATHER — CLOZE COPY
Because I knew you
the air shines blue as the backs
of the ______jays ______tree
to tree high up among ______ leaves
that ______on ______ ______ toward
a world where colors bright as ______
against this sky ______ their ______
______ as the ______
of the jay’s ______ cries.


MAY WEATHER — CLOZE SAMPLE
Because I knew you
the air shines blue as the backs
of the squawking jays soaring tree
to tree high up among lovely leaves
that blow on gentle breezes toward
a world where colors bright as crayons
against this sky open their eyes
pretty as the music
morningcries.

Connections with Williams and Imagism

  1. Put “The Red Wheelbarrow” on the white or black board and ask students what makes it a poem. Tell them that many people have reacted strongly against the poem, and some may still not consider it a great poem, but that it dramatically represents the early 20th-century poetic revolution called “Imagism” which has proved one of the two great influences on modern poetry.

(The poem is reproduced below for the sake of convenience and clear reference.)

“The Red Wheelbarrow”
William Carlos Williams

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens


Beside this, on the same board, put this counter-example:
I saw
a red wheelbarrow
and
some
white chickens

  1. Ask students what particular words seem to make the Williams example a poem in a way that the second example is NOT. Students will reliably identify the phrase “So much depends upon” and the word “glaze.”

  2. Ask what these words do, or how they make “The Red Wheelbarrow” more complex and more poetic than the other example. Students will respond that the phrase gives the poem an emotional quality, an allure and sense of urgency and purpose, albeit mysterious. They will explain that “glazed” suggests the perception of beauty.

  3. Lead a discussion of the themes suggested by these insights—that the poem asks us to pay attention to the world, that it offers a simple reflection on the beauty of the world, that it suggests that happiness can be found in such a reflection, etc.

  4. Have students examine the poetic form of the poem, and assure them that there is a very distinct form. If they need help, have them consider syllables, leading them to the recognition that the poem is carefully patterned to have stanzas of two lines with three words in the first line and a single word in the second. (The poem can also be considered in terms of the syllables and/or beats per line, though this is more complicated.) Point out that the single words all have only two syllables and that the stanzas each offer a separate element of the scene. Contrast this with the “bad” example above.

  5. Connections with Gentry. Explain that Gentry, like Williams, considers the image the basic element of the poem, and that the three poems selected for the day’s study all create a complex image to carry or create emotional resonance, as indicated in the definition of the image by Ezra Pound, American poet and founder of Imagism: “that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.”

  6. Ask students to compare the two poems using the questions below (either Xeroxed or displayed via projector).

Handout JG-2 MS Word
Handout JG-2 PDF

GOING DEEPER: QUESTIONS FOR ANALYSIS

  1. Compare the structure of “May Weather” with the structure of “The Red Wheelbarrow.” Both poems are built from a suggestive first line, a first line that carries distinct human emotion and voice, followed by a specific image. Gentry’s poem, like Williams’, is a single sentence.

  2. If the question raised in Williams’ poem is “What depends on this scene?” What question is created by Gentry’s poem? Answers will vary, but, overall, the reader wants to know how the world is different because of the relationship, or in what way the speaker’s perception of the world has changed because of the “you.”

  3. Based on the words in the column from Gentry’s poem, what is the “weather” or impression given by the image of this May world? It is a complex image—the colors are too bright, even sharp, and the jays are quarrelsome, warlike creatures (“black arrows,” “selfish,” “territorial”) in an encampment within a vulnerable nature (“tender necks” of the leaves “lean out” as if to fall, as precarious as a kite in the wind). If students have trouble, ask them how the jays, colors, and tree are described, and what the image of the kite seems to bring to the picture. The poem depicts the world is a dangerous place.

  4. How does the speaker indicate the scene has been changed by knowing the “you”? Is this positive or negative? The air “shines” and the sharp colors “pluck back their edges.” Positive

  5. Write this summary of the Cloze Poem on the board: “Because I knew you, the world is wonderful.” Ask student to try to complete this same sentence for Gentry’s poem: “Because I knew you, . . . .” Answers will vary, but here are two reasonable examples: “ there is comfort despite the harshness of experience” or, “I see the vulnerability of the world.” Overall, the cloze poem does not have the emotional complexity of Gentry’s poem.

  6. Ask students to share. Ask if this was hard to do and whether they feel that their summaries do Gentry’s poem justice. Point out that it would be equally difficult to summarize Williams’ poem, and that a poem that can be easily summarized may not be a very good poem! If what a poem does can be done just as well in a prose summary, perhaps it should be done that way. What students should learn from attempting these summaries is that a poem says complex things that can’t be easily reduced to a flat statement or moral.

Homework:
For homework, and as the first step in the writing assignment below, have students write two fully developed, complex images of their world. These may be based on nature or not, but should be specific and honest, rather than general and sentimental. Tell them that they should select things that deeply interest them and that they must actually look at the things they are describing! (Based on Gentry’s example, this would mean actually watching crows in a tree.) They should use only a single sentence to build each image, though the sentences need not be short or simple.


DAY TWO: From Image to Metaphor

READING:

Have students silently read both “Winter Moon” and “Crows,” considering how these two poems work with images, and how they may differ from “May Weather.” Use the questions below to focus discussion and lead into work with metaphor.

GOING DEEPER: QUESTIONS FOR ANALYSIS

“Winter Moon”

  1. How is the moon represented in the poem? As a bird, a wise old owl, perhaps, though the poet avoids that cliché.

  2. What is the effect of the word “fey” on the poem? Gives it a bit of a fairy tale atmosphere.

  3. Thinking concretely and literally, why are the houses “luminous triangles”? The roofs are triangular, and they are luminous because the lights are on.

  4. What is the “bright bone” in line 6? It is the moon as it rises in the sky and slips in and out of the clouds.

  5. Where is the major shift in the poem? How are the two parts of the poem related? The two sentences each compare the moon to something else—the bird and the bone.

“Crows”

  1. Like “Winter Moon” this poem is built around an image developed into a metaphor, commonly defined as a comparison of two unlike things. This poem both contains and is about metaphor. How many metaphors are in this poem? What two things does each metaphor compare? The aging mind is compared with an empty tree; crows are compared with words.

  2. What happens to the words/crows in the second stanza? They abandon the mind, which is left empty.

  3. What might “winter” represent in the poem? Aging

  4. Describe the poetic form of this poem. What patterns can you find? Each of the stanzas is a single sentence. All of the lines are roughly 8 syllables.

Literary Feature--Metaphor
Metaphors usually use concrete objects to illuminate a more complex phenomenon or abstraction, as in “My love is like a red, red rose,” which suggests that love is beautiful, soft and sweet smelling—full of sensual pleasure. Thus, the metaphor is essentially developed from and derived from the image.

Handout JG-3 MS Word
Handout JG-3 PDF

FROM READING TO RESPONSE: YOUR OWN WAY, IN YOUR OWN WORDS!

Writing a Metaphor Poem
Select one of the images you created for class and use it to represent something abstract that matters to you, such as a relationship, a problem, or a question. This involves releasing the thing from reality and letting it drift into the dream world of metaphor, somewhat like the images in Dali’s famous Surrealist painting, “The Persistence of Memory.”

When you have finished writing your metaphor, attempt to give the words a pattern as in Williams’ and Gentry’s examples—perhaps based on number of words or syllables per line. Add stanza breaks between distinct elements.

If you have trouble with fitting the images you brought to something you want to write about, you may create a new image to represent the abstraction you have chosen, just be sure to make it as specific and fully developed as possible, since you are doing it from memory this time. Try to make your poem a single sentence!

Teachers may want students to turn in the completed draft of the poem by the end of class, or they may allow them to revise and type up a second draft for homework.

Alternate Assignment: Students may be allowed to substitute a fanciful, Surrealist illustration of “May Weather,” “Crows” or “Winter Moon” for this assignment. (Just as the poems would be rough drafts, this would be a first attempt or “sketch,” to be developed further as the other students revised their poems.) If allowing this option, teachers would want to be able to display a copy of the Dali painting and briefly point out its metaphorical qualities.


B. FAMILY REFLECTIONS

“From my passing car I see in the cemetery”
“In the First House of Your Life”
“Sleeping in the Bed with Jake, my Three-Year-Old Grandson”


WARNING!! Students expecting freshly baked cookies or lace doilies may be abruptly awakened. But, of course, awakening students is a good thing!

WAYS IN:

After briefly reviewing the literary terms and vocabulary below, have students read the poems without prologue, silently. Have them individually answer the “Initial Response” questions prior to discussion. They should turn in these answers before beginning group work.

Literary Features:
Allusion
Metaphor/Figures of Speech
Imagery
Sounds Effects (Alliteration, Assonance and Consonance)

Words to Consider:
spooned
relief
sarcophagi
Odysseus
deconstructing
voracious
pinwheel
gutter
indigo


INITIAL RESPONSE:

  1. What interested or surprised you most about these poems? Quote the poem and line you find most through provoking and explain why. Answers will vary.


“From my passing car I see in the cemetery”

  1. What is unusual about the title of this poem? It is part of the poem, flowing directly into the first line.

  2. What does “spooned” mean as it is used in this poem? It refers to the position of the parents in bed—like stacked spoons, facing the same direction, the one in front “nested” in the arms of the one in back.

  3. How does the fact that it is winter affect the poem? Winter is the season of death in nature and accentuates the bleak, cold “bed” in which the parents now lie.

“In the First Hour of Your Life”

  1. What is the “cliché” described in the first two lines? The cliché is that of the grandmother—sweet, soft old granny, out of touch with the world, but loving.

  2. How does the rest of the stanza work against that cliché? It speaks powerfully and directly about the birth, voicing things a grandmother might not be expected to say.

  3. In the final stanza, what does “more than thought or kindly sentiment” refer to? It refers to the previous stanzas, the thoughts, as well as to the cliché (“kindly sentiment”). It claims a more powerful role than such a cliché might suggest.

“Sleeping in the Bed with Jake, my Three-Year-Old Grandson”

  1. What echo from a previous poem can you hear in “You curl backward in the curve of my body”? This line echoes the intimate “spooned” sleep position of the parents in “From my passing car I see in the cemetery.”

  2. Explain the playful and alliterative similes in the second stanza. The child’s flopping and shifting motions are depicted as the rotation of a pinwheel and the nestling or settling in of a puzzle piece—lots of p sounds here!

  3. Does the grandmother in the poem get a good night’s sleep? Is this part of the poem realistic? Explain. No, she does not, due to the restless movement of the child. Yes, this is a realistic portrayal of sleeping with a child.

  4. What are the “tongues, orange and indigo” of the final stanza? Flames.

GOING DEEPER: QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION

When students have completed and turned in their initial responses, have them choose groups, according to which of the three poems they liked best or want to examine further—“first come first served.” There should be 9 groups, three for each of the poems (Groups A to I, for instance). For purposes of later discussion, it would work well for groups to be assigned in a semi-circular pattern around the room. Though student choice is preferred, the groups should be approximately 3 students each, 4 at the most, so some students may end up studying poems they would not have named as first choice. If the names of the poems are listed on the white board and locations for each group are indicated, students may simply sign up and go to the area assigned to their group. When students have finished answering their questions (after about 10 minutes), have them remain seated in groups. Facilitate a large group discussion of each of the poems, starting with a reading. Next, have students volunteer to answer initial questions and discussion questions below. If no students volunteer, solicit responses from the groups designated for each poem. (All students should have copies of all questions.)

Handout JG-4 MS Word
Handout JG-4 PDF

GROUP INSTRUCTIONS:

In your groups you are to answer the questions below about your selected poem. You will have no more than ten minutes, so you can only work with each question for about 3 minutes! You will need a scribe to complete a paper copy of your group’s answers. Turn in these answers with the names of all group members. Group members will be called at random to lead our large-group follow-up discussion, so you should be prepared to report on your group’s discussion and answers to all the questions about your chosen poem. Be sure to answer each question as fully as possible.

“From my passing car I see in the cemetery”

  1. Explain the use of the bed as an extended metaphor in the poem. The mound of the grave is said to be pillowy like a bed, but contrasts the memory of the parents’ intimacy in their real bed. The end of the poem recalls the notion of the grave as a bed when it refers to the “blanket” of snow and shows the parents in the dark bed of death, “clasped in the black arms of the black trees” rather than nested together.

  2. In the second sentence of the poem, lines 8-11, the speaker alludes to Egyptian sarcophagi and to the story of Odysseus in the underworld. What is the effect of these allusions? Answers will vary, but they make the parents’ lives seem like part of “ancient” history and gives them, in death, a larger-than-life mythical quality. The passage about Odysseus being separated from his mother also adds a scene of painful separation.

  3. In the final sentence of the poem, lines 13 to 21, the speaker imagines and describes in detail the skeletal remains of the two parents. This section may strike some readers as macabre. What could you respond as to the value or purpose of this section or as to why a child would reflect in this way on the decaying bodies of beloved parents? The section is pure lament for the lost individuality of the mother and father—the disappearance of their very particular flesh “her bright,” “his dark”, “hers like silk, his like sand.” The vision of decay is a way of accepting the reality of death, like the skull on the desk in past centuries, a memento mori. The description also represents the parents in positive, loving ways, speaking of their “sturdy bones” and the “fountain” of their breath.

“In the First Hour of Your Life”

  1. Find examples of sound effects (alliteration, assonance and consonance) in the first stanza. In the first stanza, there is alliteration in the first line on “g,” assonance with “u” in the third line, and alliteration with “d” in the fourth. The final line combines alliteration with b and consonance with g.

  2. The “gates of horn” in the second line of the second stanza are a classical allusion, referring to the gates of the underworld, the source of dreams and location of the afterlife. Why on earth would a grandmother think about the new grandbaby’s passage through those gates or the end its life? What is this thought combined with in the second stanza? Birth and death are shown as in the classical tradition, as two gateways, one in and one out of this life. So, this day of birth, this passage, will have a parallel. Birth is also a time of mortal danger to mother and baby. The speaker acknowledges these truths and wishes the baby a good life ahead, a bit as the fairy godmothers do in “The Sleeping Beauty.” In other words, she is giving the baby her blessing for the journey.

  3. How does the third stanza tie back in with the previous poem? “Much loved bodies fallen back to darkness” echoes “From my passing car I see in the cemetery.” The poem describes the baby as the new embodiment of the family.

“Sleeping in the Bed with Jake, my Three-Year-Old Grandson”

  1. Trace the images of heat through the poem. The body is “hot as a sausage,” the smell is “flaming” from the scalp, the heat of the head “burns” through the grandmother’s gown, and is spoken of as “fire” that will not gutter; the tongues of orange and indigo are flame.

  2. What do the images of fire and heat represent? Life. That “fire sunk in the rock of yourself” is the life that will not cease or “gutter” until the grandmother is herself dead or “dark and cold.”

  3. The final sentence of the poem suggests that the flames may “speak” the name of the grandmother. Explain your understanding of these final lines. The flames speaking the name of the grandmother represents a continuity, a tribute to and extension of her spirit in his life. There is an echo here, also, of the spiritual life represented in the Christian tradition by the Pentecost with its tongues of flame and speaking in tongues.

FROM READING TO RESPONSE: TWO OPTIONS

A. Which of the poems studied today did you like best? Why? Write a one-page explanation of how the poem worked and what you liked about it, directed to a friend, relative or teacher who has not read Gentry’s work. Try to explain why your reader should give Gentry’s poetry a try, and use the poem you selected as an example. This could be prewriting for a more fully developed portfolio piece (analytical) on one of Gentry’s poems or on her poetics. For such a piece, the student could select a poem or poems from Gentry’s most recent volume, Portrait of the Artist as a White Pig, to use in expanding the analysis or giving it context.

B. “Sleeping in the Bed with Jake, my Three-Year-Old Grandson,” and “In the First Hour of your Life,” are both apostrophe poems, which directly address a “you.” Traditionally, the “you” to whom the poem is addressed cannot respond, either because it is an inanimate object or abstraction or because it is a person who is gone, dead or simply unapproachable on some topics. Write an apostrophe poem to a relative to communicate something you could not say in person. Begin the poem by thinking of a scene that you would like that person to see. Try to get your poem to communicate through images by focusing it on showing that scene, rather than trying to tell your feelings!


C. ELEGY SERIES

“Tantalus”
“The Blessing”
“Intensive Care, Oncology”
“The Lamp”
“The Berry Bowls”
“Crossing from Providence to Newport”

The study of the Gentry’s elegies begins with the large group analysis and discussion of the first poem of the series, “Tantalus.” This models the process for the group analysis of the other five poems. After group work on the poems is completed, presentations and a large group discussion will lead into the composition of student elegies. Students will need copies of the questions on “Tantalus” in addition to the group instructions (and questions) below.

Literary Features:
A brief review of these literary features will enhance the study of this group of poems. The questions on “Tantalus” are designed to review these poetic devices, to prepare for group work.

Allusion (Classical, Historical, and Biblical)
Apostrophe (See Assignment B above)
Figures of Speech (Metaphor)
Line Breaks

Words to Consider:
Several words are highlighted here for each poem. Not all will be unfamiliar to students; some are included for consideration of how they are being used by the poet. Some names of historical figures may have to be looked up on the Internet. Keeping a classroom computer on and ready for use will be helpful, so students can use it as needed for this purpose. (For discussion of the first poem, led by the teacher, such reference information has been provided.)


“Tantalus”

Words to Consider:
Tantalus: figure from Greek mythology who was tortured by hunger and thirst. He was “tantalized” by having to stand in a pool, yet not be able to get a drop of water and by having luscious fruits dangled over his head, just out of reach.

Apollo Belvedere: a famed Greek sculpture, considered among the greatest works of art in history and considered to epitomize the beauty of the human body (male). (Display a copy of this picture, if possible!)

firmament—synonym for the skies or “heavens”
dallied
stoic


GOING DEEPER: QUESTIONS FOR ANALYSIS

  1. Setting
    Fully and specifically describe the setting of the poem. What words help create this setting? The poem is set in the height of summer, in a rich fruitful time of warm weather, not blistering drought. It seems to be midday, and the setting is a garden in Georgia.

  2. The fourth line of the poem contains a classical allusion to a famous Greek sculpture. What does the comparison to the Apollo Belvedere suggest? Strength, vigor, beauty and admiration.

  3. Line Breaks
    A difficult aspect of writing free verse is determining where to end the lines or where to put line breaks. Words at the ends of lines receive special emphasis. What do you notice about the line breaks in this poem that seems particularly significant? Lines 4, 18, and 19 end with “you”. This emphasis is also present in the endings of Line 6 “You’re here,” Line 7 “You look straight,” Line 8 “your face,” and Line 10, “Your hand” All this gives the poems an immediacy—“You’re Here.”

  4. Sound Effects
    Listen to the sounds in lines 18 and 19—“I, framing you / in rocks, red fruit, and foliage; you.” What are the sound effects here? Alliteration with r and f along with assonance with “u” create a rich sound that underscores the lushness of the scene.

  5. By the end of the poem, though there is no direct reference, there is a sense that this idyllic garden scene, a garden of pleasure and dalliance, has been lost, like the Biblical Garden of Eden. What are some clues that this bright summer did not last? Lines 9 to11 describe “your face / alive with a smile not yet broken / open.” Literally, this indicates that the smile is partial, incomplete. Figuratively, particularly with the line break, it suggests that the smile will be “broken.” The line break at the end of line 14 “Above your head, a loaded” also carries ominous tones. Line 16 and 17 “promising / this summer, and other sure to come.” give some foreshadowing that this promise was not kept, particularly when followed by “Neither of us think . . ..” The final image (metaphor) of the growth “snaking” “its branches / to your brain, its taproot to your gut” clearly represents the development of a fatal illness. Point out to students that this metaphor is also a Biblical allusion.

  6. What does the classical allusion of the title add to the poem? The stance of the “you” in the garden parallels that of Tantalus, who was tortured by the apparent bounty he could not enjoy. The title indicates that the idyllic scene in the garden is an illusion.

After reading this poem and leading a discussion using the questions above, the teacher should give the students time to read the other poems. Then, the students should be assigned to groups and given the assignment below to use in analyzing and presenting their poem to the class. There should be one group per poem, so the size of the groups will vary depending on the number of students in the class, but, no more than five students should be assigned to a group.


Handout JG-5 MS Word
Handout JG-5PDF

GROUP ASSIGNMENT:

ELEGY

An elegy is a lament, a poem of loss. In literary history, the elegy stands as possibly the most ancient and prevalent form of writing. Loss, simply, is almost unbearable for all of us. What is it about loss, then, that humans have tried to address through art, particularly through writing? Why has the urge to write about a loss been shared across the world, across recorded history? What do elegies try to do with the experience of loss? How do they do it? To answer this question, we will closely examine an elegiac series of poems by Jane Gentry. Then, you will use your understanding of the elegy to write your own elegy.

To analyze the poem you are assigned, please do the following:

  1. Look up and prepare to explain to the class any words that you don’t know or that seem to be used in confusing ways.

  2. Describe the setting of the poem—be as specific as possible in terms of place and time (season, time of day, weather, etc).

  3. Find one particularly effective line break. Describe how it works.

  4. Explain one clear example of sound play or sound effects (alliteration, assonance, consonance).

  5. Select one line as the group’s favorite. Explain what makes it powerful or effective.

  6. Explain the significance of the title. What does it contribute to the poem?

  7. Try to articulate what your poem contributes to the series. “Tantalus,” for instance, recreates a scene before the loss, but looking backward with the knowledge of the loss. Each of these poems offers a slightly different perspective. What “angle” does your group’s poem add to the series?

You will need a scribe to record your answers on paper, a reader to read the poem aloud to the class, and a presenter to lead a discussion of the poem and present your answers to the questions above. Be sure to turn in your written work with each member’s contributions highlighted. If some members served mainly as “thinkers” who provided ideas, indicate that as well.

Group A: “The Blessing”
Group B: “Intensive Care, Oncology”
Group C: “The Lamp”
Group D: “The Berry Bowls”
Group E: “Crossing from Providence to Newport”


ALTERNATE QUESTIONS FOR GROUP WORK, DISCUSSION, OR INDIVIDUAL STUDY:

“The Blessing”

Words to Consider
puckish
litany primal
radical


GOING DEEPER: QUESTIONS FOR ANALYSIS

  1. What does the phrase “as if it were” in lines 2 and 11-12 tell the reader? It is NOT an ordinary night.

  2. This is a poem built around lists. What are the different lists and what is the effect, overall? The first is a list of medications. This is followed by a list of symptoms. Later, there is a list of people in the waiting room, with their own problems. In the third stanza, the diagnoses and treatments are listed. The listing structure has a cumulative effect that helps the reader understand the burden of the illness over time.

  3. Consider and explain the significance of the title. The poem reveals the amazing transformation of this scene of suffering into a deep appreciation for life.


“Intensive Care, Oncology”

Words to Consider
oncology
registered
Magritte
levies
port
riptide


GOING DEEPER: QUESTIONS FOR ANALYSIS

  1. List words associated with water from the poem. “swept,” “storm,” “float,” “levy,” “surge,” “port,” “current,” “anchored,” “riptide,” “wash,” “watery” and “sink.”

  2. Explain the sound play in the first line of the poem. A blend of “s” and “w” sounds creates a swooshing sound, like the sound of the winds of the storm.

  3. Why is there a stanza break? What is the difference between the two parts? The first part recreates the scene with the couple watching of the coverage of Hurricane Katrina. The second part describes the hurricane-like devastation of the cancer treatment.


“The Lamp”

Words to Consider
(none)

GOING DEEPER: QUESTIONS FOR ANALYSIS

  1. What is indicated by “the ghost of a ghost”? What would a “ghost of a ghost” be like compared to just a ghost? What does this phrase indicate about the moon? It is at a greater distance, fainter, paler, more ethereal.

  2. Find the paradox in the poem. What is the poet trying to express by this apparent contradiction? “I was spent, afraid, full of you, your absence.” She is “filled” with the loss—overwhelming emotions and heightened awareness of his absence.

  3. Explain how the poem uses the images of the moon and associations with the phases of the moon to create a broader metaphorical comparison. The moon typically represents the cycles of life—the new moon “waxes” to the full moon, a symbol of full or abundant life, of sexuality and “fullness” of life, and then it wanes until the “dark” of the moon, when the moon is apparently dead and gone, only to reappear again as a new moon. This process symbolically links light with life and darkness with death. The mysterious events with the lamp in the room seem to reflect the cycles of life, just as the moon does, but this “ghost of a ghost”--artificial light, removed from nature--ultimately, cannot return to “full” and bring back the presence of the lost loved one.


“The Berry Bowls”

Words to Consider
illusions
feigned
gilded
shards
ostracism


GOING DEEPER: QUESTIONS FOR ANALYSIS

  1. What are the promises of spring mentioned in the first line? The promise of new life, warmth, fruition and flowering, a time of summer abundance and pleasure ahead.

  2. Lines 3 and 4 contain an embedded metaphor—what event or experience is embedded there? Flood and drowning.

  3. What does the language of geography do in the poem? Words such as “border,” “country” and “village,” represent death as a place.

  4. Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary defines ostracism as “exclusion by general consent from common privileges or social acceptance.” What is the common privilege that has been denied? Life, the company of the living.


“Crossing from Providence to Newport”

Words to Consider
iridescence
tiers
Gamma Knife


GOING DEEPER: QUESTIONS FOR ANALYSIS

  1. The purpose of the journey, the wedding, is not mentioned until the third stanza, but the poem has already set the scene, using words associated with marriage. List or describe how the first two stanzas are linked to this event. Stanza one speaks of the twinkling star as a “holy promise” like the vow of matrimony. It also describes the boat in the bay as similar to a wedding cake. Stanza two speaks of “promises.”

  2. Describe the shift from stanza one to stanza two. Stanza one is a “heavenly” vision of the morning, the beauty of the world. Stanza two is the “hellish” memory of suffering and death.

  3. Trace the development of the theme of sight or vision throughout the poem and explain what claim or comfort the speaker finds through it. Stanza one IS a sight. Stanza two moves to memory, but uses the visual image of the illness of the speaker, as well as the verb “draw,” which carries visual associations. Stanza three uses “see” your daughter married, rather than phrasing such as “attend,” and it speaks of an enduring connection through sight—she sees the event through his eyes. The speaker does not make the grander claim that he sees through her or is present through her presence, but offers the more limited affirmation that her way of experiencing the world has been shaped by him.

WRAP-UP DISCUSSION:

After groups have presented their work, lead a brief discussion of the elegy from a “writerly” perspective, as a way of leading into the assignment below. List responses on the white board.

  1. What do Gentry’s poems suggest about why people write elegies or what elegies can do? Answers will vary. Some possibilities are listed here:
  1. record and preserve memories
  2. re-create, through vivid images, the presence of that which has been lost, in that way bringing those lost “back to life” in the poem
  3. process or register the loss and its impact
  4. share and convey the extent of the loss
  5. work toward understanding or acceptance of the loss (healing)
  6. Gentry’s poems can be discussed as representing these categories, though most could fall under more than one.
  1. Why is apostrophe so heavily used in elegy? It creates a great sense of intimacy and the semblance of the presence of those who have been lost.


Handout JG-6 MS Word
Handout JG-6 PDF

FROM READING TO RESPONSE: YOUR OWN WAY, IN YOUR OWN WORDS!

People of all sorts write elegies, not just professional poets, but everyday citizens. Check out your local newspapers, and you’ll see “amateur” elegies for the tragedy of the son or daughter whose lives did not reach the birthday the poem commemorates, for the aching though more timely loss of the beloved grandparent and parent or even for the dear pet. You have all experienced loss. What kinds of losses are there? Death, yes. Loss of ability. Loss of self esteem. Loss of an important relationship with a friend, parent, boyfriend/girlfriend. Loss of a friend. Loss of confidence. Loss of some thing or place you loved. Loss of your earlier selves.

Select one significant loss you have experienced as the subject of your own elegy. Though you need only write a single poem, rather than a series, you are to attempt a three part poem, with three distinct scenes. The first scene in your poem should recreate a scene before the loss, somewhat like Gentry’s “Tantalus.” The next should provide an image or scene that represents the loss itself, as in “Intensive Care, Oncology” or “The Blessing.” The last should reflect a scene after the loss, possibly a scene of absence or a scene of looking back as in Gentry’s “The Lamp” or “Crossing from Providence to Newport.” Make sure your poem has a strong grounding in a particular setting, a real place with real objects and that it is focused on sensory images, as Gentry’s poems are. In your poem, try for a casual, personal voice, your own voice with simple, clear and honest language. Finally, be sure not to tell your feelings about the poem’s subject. Let your emotions be shown through your images and the connotations of the words you use. If you are writing about a person you haven’t seen recently, consider looking at pictures to help you create images, as Gentry has done.

If writing or integrating the three parts seems terribly difficult, don’t worry. This is a first draft. You may choose later to develop only one section of the poem and let the others go.


National Endowment for the Arts

The publication of Five Kentucky Poets Laureate: An Anthology is a project of the Kentucky Arts Council (an agency in the Tourism, Arts and Heritage Cabinet) and is made possible through funding from the National Endowment for the Arts.


 

Kentucky Arts Council