Joe Survant

Joe SurvantJoe Survant grew up in Owensboro, Ky., on the Ohio River. He attended Owensboro High School (OHS) where he met his wife, Jeannie Ashley, and, with his friend, science fiction writer Terry Bisson, started OHS’s first literary magazine. He graduated from the University of Kentucky in 1964, part of a group of writers and friends that included Lamar Herrin, Louise Natcher Murphy, and Richard Taylor. On an NDEA Fellowship he attended the University of Delaware where he received his Ph.D. in 1970. In 2007 he retired from Western Kentucky University after thirty-eight years of teaching. The majority of his teaching career he was at Western, where he helped establish its creative writing program. On a Fulbright Fellowship in 1983-84, he taught at the Universiti Sains Malaysia (in Penang, Malaysia). His collection of poems, The Presence of Snow in the Tropics, came out of that year in Southeast Asia. After years as an academic, largely neglecting his poetry, he began to write and publish poems in earnest in the late 1980's, jumpstarted by his year in Malaysia. In 1995, he won the State Street Press Poetry Prize where his first collection, We Will All Be Changed, was published. His second book, a collection of narrative poems, Anne & Alpheus, 1842-1882, a story of rural life in south central Kentucky, won the 1996 Arkansas Poetry Prize from the University of Arkansas Press. In 2001, Landmark Books of Singapore published The Presence of Snow in the Tropics. In 2002, the University Press of Florida published a second collection of narrative poems, Rafting Rise, a story of log rafting and a river witch in the Green River Basin of the early 20th century. He served as Kentucky’s Poet Laureate from 2003 to 2004.

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TEACHER RESOURCES
Poems by Joe Survant

Like the rivers they often feature, Joe Survant’s poems have deceptively smooth surfaces and unexpected power and depth. Students may consider them “easy” initially, because they use familiar words and do not require the reader to come armed with a dictionary. However, as in the poetry of Emily Dickinson, the brevity and simplicity of language in the poems may cause the reader to underestimate the challenges they hold in their address of philosophical or spiritual concepts and in their unusual and open-ended work with metaphor. Fortunately, as students are advised below, poems do not have to be understood to be enjoyed. If relieved of the responsibility of pinning Survant’s poems down, many students will fall in love with their almost mystical lyricism.

To focus study, the poems are grouped below on the basis of shared characteristics or themes.

• The Angel
• After My Father's Illness
• Owl
• Maya
• Benediction
• Disturbing a Nest
• Letter to RPW
   On His 100th Birthday

• When the Great House is Broken
• Upon the Water's Face
• Anne Waters
• Alpheus Waters
• The Golden Circumstance
• Tongues of Light
• Robin Floyd Remembers
  His First Trip


A. Among the Animals

“Disturbing a Nest”
“Owl”
“Maya”
“Benediction”
“When the Great House is Broken”


WAYS IN:

This group of short, mostly accessible poems offers a clear introduction to the themes and poetics that run throughout Survant’s work, in particular his fascination with nature and tendency to represent humans as outsiders, almost intruders, in the mystery of the natural world.

Literary Features:
Parallel Structure
Connotations
Rhythm or Poetic Beat

READING:

To give the poems space, they could be read in a “Poem-of-the-Day” format, at the beginning of classes during a unit that was complementary, but preferably NOT a poetry unit. Given the themes of the poems, they would enhance the study of many 19th century novels, in particular, novels like The Scarlet Letter or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in which the characters’ relationship with nature is central. Other novels that come to mind as a good fit include My Antonia or To Kill a Mockingbird. (The poems will not set the stage as well for writing focused more heavily on society, such as The Great Gatsby or The Crucible.) Another interesting pairing would be to bring the poems in during a study of Thoreau or the Transcendentalists, given their philosophical inclination and emphasis on nature. Alternatively, the poems could bring some spice to a unit on grammar or language skills.

In the “Poem-of-the-Day” format, the poems would be briefly discussed at the beginning of class using the questions below, but not analyzed in depth. Students would be told at the beginning of the week that they would read a series of poems on which they would later base a piece of their own writing. They would not need to take notes or turn in written responses to the poems, but should simply experience the poems and see if they find connections among them. The poems are addressed below in order of increasing difficulty, thus more time will be needed for the later poems, particularly the last.


“Disturbing a Nest”

GOING DEEPER: QUESTIONS FOR ANALYSIS

  1. In stanza one, what do we learn about the quail? There is a mother, the “hen” with tiny babies.

  2. What is meant in this stanza by “the woodpecker’s code”? Paraphrase what the speaker has forgotten, according to this section. The woodpecker’s code is probably his tapping on the trees. He has forgotten to pay attention to nature, specifically, to the birds.

  3. What is the affirmation of the poem, and of the last stanza, in particular? Answers may vary, but, overall, the poem affirms that nature matters.

  4. Look at the pattern the words make in this poem. Consider the number of lines in each stanza, and any clear rhythms. The poem is written in two eight line stanzas, followed by one four line stanza. The last stanza ends the poem with a regular rhythm and rhyme to emphasize a sense that all is now in order (happy ending).

“Owl”

GOING DEEPER: QUESTIONS FOR ANALYSIS

  1. What do you suppose is meant by leaf flush? (Or, what can leaves do??) It refers to about the only thing leaves can do apart from falling—growing! Quiet indeed.

  2. What does it mean to say that an owl “knows the quick motives of chipmunks, / the intimacy of mice”? The owl preys on these creatures and pays careful attention to their habits.

  3. How are the crows contrasted with the owl? They are noisy and travel in a pack, rather than alone.

  4. What does the speaker mean in saying “The paths of deer / have deceived me / with thicket and briar”? He may not be lost, but has accidentally gone beyond areas where he is comfortable into a wilder area.

  5. What does the speaker of the poem want to be able to do? He wants to be able to communicate with and understand nature, represented by wanting to understand the “talk” of the creatures.

  6. In the last line, what is indicated about the owl with the use of the pronoun “my”? The speaker, out alone in nature, identifies with the solitary owl.

  7. Can you find a pattern in the arrangement of this poem in lines and stanzas? The poem is arranged in two eleven line stanzas.

“Maya”

GOING DEEPER: QUESTIONS FOR ANALYSIS

Before this poem and the two that follow, it may useful to point out that one need not “understand” a poem to appreciate and enjoy it. We can love poems without being able to say what they “mean.” However that doesn’t mean that we can’t still say quite a bit about what such a poem does!

  1. What do you think of when you hear of something facing east? The rising of the sun, or dawn, clearly, but also spiritual significance of some kind—the emphasis on the east in the story of the wise men, for instance.

  2. How are the cattle depicted in the first stanza and how does this change in the second stanza? In the first, they are solid and stable—hard as coal; “stand” is repeated twice for emphasis. But in the second stanza, they seem to become less stable. The light trembles around them and their hooves “vanish.”

  3. Can it make literal sense for the hooves to have “vanished”? Perhaps they can’t be seen in the grass.

  4. How is what happens to the dandelions and cattails related? Both are falling apart, though both started out in a firm state—the dandelions as “yellow heads” and the cattails as “tight” and “emphatic.”

  5. How is the speaker in the last stanza related to the other beings? The speaker is set apart, “watching” nature, rather than part of it, but feels a common fate— “wearing[his] heaviness like a coat.” He isn’t “inon” something that the cattle seem to know.

  6. What is the emotional emphasis of the end of the poem? Fear of dissolving.

  7. Without knowing about the Maya, mentioned in the title, what would you guess after reading this poem? Answers will vary, but should suggest that their religion emphasizes impermanence and the cycles of life, represented by geometric calendars and cardinal directions.

“Benediction”

GOING DEEPER: QUESTIONS FOR ANALYSIS

  1. Start by thinking about the pattern that this poem makes or its poetic form. How is it structured? Most obviously, the poem is built around repetition and parallel structure. If students don’t already know this concept, use the poem to teach it--after the first two identical lines in stanzas one and two, the poet uses the same simple sentence structures: noun- simple present verb- optional prepositional phrase(s). The final stanza varies this pattern, AND is one line shorter, with only four lines. The shift and missing line give the ending emphasis.

  2. According to the first stanza, what is the effect of the return of the deer? Other creatures are happy, and they have brought a “stillness” or silence—even the responses of the dog and cat are silent.

  3. Based on structural similarity, we would expect stanza two to do something very similar to stanza one. How are they alike? How do they vary what they tell us about the return of the deer? The effect of the return is seen in the happiness or well-being of the plant world. Again, the response is silent.

  4. What does the final stanza suggest about the return of the deer? Who is the “we” of this part of the poem? How is the effect on this group different? The “we” here seems to be the humans. The effects are mental (memories), rather than physical, and unlike the other beings, they attempt to articulate their feelings.

  5. What is a distinctively human noise? What, then, would “almost human” noises be like? Speech is human. Some “almost human” noises might include moans or cries, emotional sounds brought on by memories.

  6. A benediction is a blessing or a wishing well, a speaking (diction) of goodness. How does this word relate to the rest of the poem? There is the “blessing” of the deer’s return. The dog and cat respond gratefully, but the humans attempt to respond through sound. Their sounds are, perhaps, a kind of blessing on the deer, a kind of prayer.

“When the Great House is Broken”

GOING DEEPER: QUESTIONS FOR ANALYSIS

  1. This poem, like the last, has a definite structure. Explain how the poem is structured. The poem has four stanzas of eight lines each. Each stanza opens with a repeated line or “refrain.” That refrain builds tight parallel structure in the first two stanzas, where the dependent clause is followed by a complex compound sentence with this pattern: noun-verb- (present tense) - object/complement - conjunction (while) - noun - verb- conjunction (and) - noun - verb. (Slight variations have been simplified here for clarity.) Line breaks reflect this parallel structure, with breaks between parallel parts. The third and fourth stanzas have the same repeated lines, with similar parallel structure.

  2. What is the central question this poem raises in the reader’s mind? What is meant by “the Great House”? What is broken?

  3. The poem represents the “breaking of the Great House” with mysterious images, rather than plain statements. To puzzle out some sense from the riddle posed by the images, pay careful attention to the connotations or associations of the words used. Is the overall tone positive or negative? List several words that create a particular emotional effect. The overall tone could be described as one of alarm. This results from the negative connotations of words such as “lost,” “rigid,” “indifferent,” “clamor” and “explode.”

  4. “Lupine” and “bleeding heart” are wildflowers. Knowing this and noting the play on “bleeding,” what does the first stanza indicate? Nature is damaged — seems paved over by the streets.

  5. The phrase “whole cities sit at attention” is paralleled in the second stanza with “deep woods clamor with longing.” Though cities and deep woods are opposites, what do they share in these lines? Cities and woods are both upset or alarmed.

  6. Possibly the strangest lines of the poem inform the reader that when the great house is broken, people take up “boulders” or burdens and “memory root sprouts indifferent as fur upon their shoulders.” What can we make of this metaphor and image? What seems “unnatural” about it? Roots grow downward, not on shoulders, certainly not outward like fur on an animal. The mix of plant and animal is particularly odd. And, memory seems “indifferent” here, unable to root as it should.

  7. Why do geese fly in formation? According to the poem, what happens when that pattern is broken? They fly in a pattern to stay together, to follow the leaders who know the way “home.” When the formation is broken, they are lost like the wildflowers.

  8. The last two stanzas tell the reader that “yellow winds / flush out / the hidden coveys / of small quail” and “the tangled hearts / of weeds explode / and are laid bare.” How are these two related? Creatures normally protected by being hidden are exposed.

  9. Overall, what seems to be damaged by the Great House being broken? Nature is weakened, while the “rigid geometry of streets” is asserted or takes power.

  10. Consider the meaning of “house” and speculate about what the “Great House” represents. Perhaps “house” can be seen here as “habitat” or “abode.” One way or another, it is nature that seems to be broken.

Optional Analysis of Poetic Form
Ask students to count the syllables in each line of the first and third stanzas.

Ask if there is a clear pattern. There is not.

Have students try to count the beats in the lines, doing the first stanza for them as an example, as below.

Whén the gréat hóuse
is bróken,
lúpine and búrsting héart
are lóst
while stréets assért
their rígid geómetry,
and whóle cíties
sít at atténtion
3 beats
1 beat
3 beats
1 beat
2 beats
2 beats
2 beats
2 beats

Counting the beats in the following stanzas, even if imperfectly done, should reveal very similar patterns, particularly stanza three, where the only variation is in line four, which has two beats rather than one.

Explain to students that much poetry has been based on the number of beats per line, including Anglo-Saxon poetry, arguably the first “English” poetry.

Handout JS-1 MS Word
Handout JS-1 PDF

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

The poems we have read this week by Joe Survant all represent nature as holding secrets that humans do not share. The humans, standing a bit apart, do not know what the animals do. Nature keeps silent about its secrets, or, at least, humans do not understand its speech. We all share the fascination with the “secret” that these poems reflect. Think of PostSecret, the Internet phenomenon self-described as “shared confessions in art form,” in which people send their deepest secrets to be anonymously posted for the world to see. PostSecret demonstrates both the tremendous curiosity we have about the secrets of others and our desires to tell our own secrets, despite our need to keep them safe. In Survant’s poems, the secret is cosmic or philosophical in nature. In PostSecret, the secrets are personal, human. Some secrets are good, some are hideous. A gift or a party may be a secret. Love may be a secret. On the other hand, the identity of the assassin of John F. Kennedy is also a secret.

You are now to write a poem focused on a secret. Start out by free writing and listing secrets you have and those you long to know but do not. What has been kept secret from you? How did you find out?

Select one of these secrets as the subject of your poem. You can focus your writing on a secret you wish you knew or on one you wish you didn’t. Or, you can choose to write about your self in the moment of revelation. Read the options below and select one, or with permission, write about secrets in your own way. (The options below are meant to help, not fence you in.) Whatever you do, play some in writing this!

  1. A Secret You Have, Unfortunately.
    Write a poem in which you do NOT tell the secret, but you either use a metaphor to describe the secret or describe the world of those who have this secret. Be sure to use vivid images like those in Survant’s poem.

  2. A Secret You Wish You Knew.
    Follow Joe Survant’s example in not explaining about the secret or who has it. Just show those who know or hold the answers. Use your word choices, the connotations of the words, to create the emotional atmosphere you need for the secret you are writing about (fear, excitement, bliss).

  3. Write about the moment in which an important secret was revealed to you. Consider using one stanza to convey the “before” and one to convey the “after.”

When you have finished a first draft, make sure that you have created a pattern with the lines and stanzas. If you can, try to use line breaks to create a regular pattern of beats.


B. On the Border

“After My Father’s Illness”
“Upon the Water’s Face”

WAYS IN:

These two poems about loss draw on some of Survant’s most characteristic settings and imagery. Both take place in boats on rivers, and both involve beloved older relatives. Each seems to recreate a dream and, if not actually a dream poem, has a dream-like quality. The suggested activities use the poems as a way of looking closely at imagery and initiating the writing of a dream poem. The pre-writing could either be done in class or assigned in advance and brought to class on the day the poems are addressed.

Handout JS-2 MS Word
Handout JS-2 PDF

Pre-Writing Assignment:
Tomorrow we will be reading poems with dream-like qualities. Dreams have always been very important to writers and artists, since they seem to carry emotional and symbolic significance. Many have considered dreams the border between the conscious and unconscious mind or even between this life and the spiritual realm. As such, dreams would carry great significance. Think back over your dreams. Free write about important dreams you have had, good or bad. If you have no memory of dreams of your own, write about dreams you have been told by others. Or, write about a dream you would like to have. In writing, think about what dreams are like. How are dreams different from waking life? Do you ever know you are dreaming? When someone tells you a dream, how can you tell it was a dream and not a real experience? Have you ever had recurring dreams? Are there any things that seem to reappear in your dreams? Try to recreate a single dream, with detail, if possible. If not, simply write anything you can about dreaming or sleep.

Literary Features:
Image

READING:

Have students read both poems silently and write three questions about each. Allow about 15 minutes for this.

Take up the questions.

Read each poem aloud and use student questions to lead discussion. If needed, insert a few of the questions below to generate pertinent discussion. (Most likely, the student questions will do the job.)


“After My Father’s Illness”

GOING DEEPER: QUESTIONS FOR ANALYSIS

  1. The speaker and his father are in a canoe. How do people sit in a canoe? In this position, can they see each other? In a canoe people sit facing the same direction, so while his father can see him, in the prow, or the front, he can not see his father.

  2. Why is the speaker watching for rocks and “snags”? He is watching out for danger ahead, anything that might damage the boat or cause them to capsize.

  3. An image describes a sensory experience. There are images for each bodily sense: sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell. Find three kinds of images in the poem: Visual: “leaves curled up like hulls,” a field “unfold[ing] with rolls of millet and rye.” Hearing: “His breath is even,” “I hear the deep machinery of water on rock.” Maybe even “No noise.” Smell: “Varnish smell of mold rises / in shafts of light.” Touch: Maybe “snags,” and “curled up like hulls.”

  4. What if you removed the title of the poem? Why and how is it so important? The title is important because otherwise, we have no context for the last line.

  5. Explain how the title and final line work together. They create a sense of urgency and make the poem seem dream-like. If the father has been ill and is dying, he would probably not be paddling the canoe. His comment seems like a thing people say in dreams, but not in real life.

  6. If the poem tells a dream, what does the dream indicate? The son dreams that his father is in control, strong, and alive. Though the son cannot turn and see his father, he is reassured that his father is somehow o.k.—“It’s just death.”

  7. Read lines 5-6 and the first two lines of the second stanza. What sounds do you hear there? Lines 5 and 6 are full of the liquid sounds of L and U. The first lines of the second stanza play off of the E and R sounds for a similar flowing sound.

“Upon the Water’s Face”

GOING DEEPER: QUESTIONS FOR ANALYSIS

  1. What is indicated by the first line, “my mother’s last sister”? The other siblings have died.

  2. How would you interpret the line in the second stanza stating that her husband drifted away “thirty years ahead”? He has been dead for 30 years.

  3. What does the conversation reveal about the aunt? She is losing her mind. She does not know her nephew.

  4. The failed communication between aunt and nephew seems crucial. Find other words and images related to communication in the poem. Her hands “signal” as the boat moves out. The words “scatter.” The wind is “eating” their words.

  5. In the end of the poem it seems that the speaker is not in the boat—he reaches out to pull the boat back to shore. The rope he reaches for dissolves into moss. Is this a metaphor? The rope seems to be a metaphor for a connection with the aunt, and specifically, for a “line of communication” with her, to pull her back into reality.

  6. If the rope is not real, is the boat real? If the boat is metaphorical, what could it represent? Consider that both of these poems are set in boats, on the water. The aunt’s “drifting away” and “moving further out” could represent her leaving the solid ground where she can communicate with others—the “land of the living,” so to speak. Boats clearly symbolize a journey, and both of the aging people in these two poems seem to be somewhere between the land of the living and dead.

  7. What elements of this poem make it seem as if it could be a dream? The strange inability to communicate, present even before the revelation of the dementia, seems dreamlike. The futility of the speaker’s actions and words also seem dreamlike, especially his surreal attempt to pull the boat back in the final stanza.

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

Use your pre-writing to begin a dream poem. Focus your poem on a single scene, such as the canoe on the water or the boat with the rope of moss trailing behind it. Represent your scene with specific images as Survant does in his poem. Don’t try to tell the whole dream and don’t tell the feeling. Think of how the dream made you feel, and try to build that feeling with the scene you re-create.

IF you simply cannot remember dreams or write about a dream, write a poem about NOT dreaming, about the experience of sleep or sleepers without the internal component.


C. Within a Literary Tradition

“The Angel”
“Letter to RPW On His 100th Birthday”


“The Angel” and “Letter to RPW” have been paired here to highlight the way that all poets work within a literary tradition, ‘conversing’ with each other through their writings, as signified by the epigraphs of these poems. The lesson below would work best at the end of a poetry unit to give students the maximum exposure to poetry beforehand or even at the end of a course when they have sampled many different writers. Ideally, it might follow the study of a poet such as T. S. Eliot, whose “The Love Song of Alfred J. Prufrock” and “The Waste Land” exemplify the use of quotation in poetry and epitomize poetic intertextuality. However, it could as easily follow the study of “Raisin in the Sun”, which invokes Langston Hughes’ poem in its title. Of course, the poems could stand alone in representing the use of the epigraph, without any explicit connection to the curriculum. To enhance the writing task associated with the reading, students need advance warning and time to find copies of two poems they love or find compelling.

WAYS IN:

Open the class with vocabulary work to prepare students to read both poems with no difficulty. Consider having students look up yarrow and stamen, but working more fully with the other seven words in terms of connotations, antonyms, and use in a sentence. Explain that both the poems for the class use epigraphs and give the definition, but tell students not to worry about the function of the epigraphs until after they have a basic understanding of the poem. The significance of an epigraph, like that of a title, may not be clear until a poem has been read and comprehended.

Words to Consider:

yarrow
stamen
regiments
cloying
cloistered
hone
profess
narcotic
fodder

Literary Features:
epigraph: Literally an engraved inscription, or writing on the “top,” in literature it means a quote which introduced a piece of writing and sets its context.

READING:

  1. Read the poems aloud as students read along.

  2. Assign each of the two poems to half of the class and place students within each half in pairs.

  3. Have students in pairs answer the questions about their assigned poem.

  4. Take the questions up and lead a discussion of their answers. Evaluate the answers only for effort, since many of the questions allow for interpretation, and since there will also be many levels of understanding.

“The Angel”

GOING DEEPER: QUESTIONS FOR ANALYSIS

  1. What qualities does the angel have, according to the poem? She is light, airborne; she “floats,” and “drifts.” She sees the earth, but she will not touch it or walk on it. She herself is vaporous, diffuse, and can pass through things like a ghost, “disturbing no particle of atom.” She will not speak to humans or tell them what they need to know. She is among the things of the world but removed, detached.

  2. What is the most surprising word in this poem? What is it doing here? Students invariably respond “parachutes,” though regiments may also be suggested. Use the question to elicit discussion of the simile—the lightness of the angel is compared to the floating of dandelion fluff over into the lawns of the previous stanza. Interestingly, both words, regiments and parachutes, as well as “enemy lines” suggest conflict between the human world of lawn and road and the thicket and “weed” represented by the yarrow.

  3. Why won’t the angel touch the ground? There is no “correct” answer here, but presumably because she is not “of this world.”

  4. Pick apart the phrase, “the knotted language of thistle.” What kind of language would a thistle speak? What is implied by the fact that it is “knotted”? Why must humans know this kind of language? The language must be difficult, painful, or confusing. All humans must know the language of trouble, of suffering.

  5. What do you think is meant by “under the hill, / where we must go”? Death

  6. What is the desire underpinning this poem? There is a yearning for contact, for communication with the angel, for her to guide and teach the speaker. Also, there is a desire for belief in the angel, but both are refused.

  7. The poem takes as its epigraph a line from a famous series of poems about angels by the German poet, Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926). What connection can you find between the epigraph and the poem itself? Think in terms of theme, or insights. The quote from Rilke emphasizes the here and now, the immediacy of human experience. It implies that the human duty is to acknowledge what is, before it is lost in time. The poem recognizes the unseen presence of the divine in the here and now, in the things of the world, and in the humans, themselves. It indicates that we must not focus our attention on belief or help from another realm but on our own world.

  8. Consider the form of the poem. What patterns can you identify in the stanzas and sentences? Is there a common or typical pattern of beats? The poem is written in three 11 line stanzas with mostly two-beat or dimeter lines. Each stanza is composed of two sentences.

“Letter to RPW On His 100th Birthday”

GOING DEEPER: QUESTIONS FOR ANALYSIS

Students will need to know beforehand that “RPW” is Robert Penn Warren (1905-1989), Kentucky poet and first U.S. Poet Laureate.

  1. The poem opens with a quote from a work called Audubon: A Vision. What assumption might the reader make about this work, given the title? It is a work by Robert Penn Warren.

  2. What could “blood still cries for blood” mean? What would the “flower” of this be? Revenge—the “flower of revenge.”

  3. The next stanza speaks of “Absolute Knowledge.” Who possesses absolute knowledge? No human—perhaps God.

  4. These two stanzas pit “Those given Absolute Knowledge” against “Those who would never profess such certainty.” What type of conflict seems to be represented here? Who is the aggressor? The victim? Conflict over religious or philosophical differences, the basis of most wars. Those who believe that they are all-knowing attack those who acknowledge doubt.

  5. Explain the metaphor of the knife. The knife represents the way humans use knowledge against each other, to create weapons, perhaps. The key here is that knowledge IS the weapon.

  6. Because of how the italics are used, the next stanza seems to have a quote. What can the reader assume? It is a quote from Audubon: A Vision. (It is from the poem “Tell Me a Story.”)

  7. The rest of the poem gives images that describe a particular character and scene. What is it and what is the overall impression it gives in contrast to the opening lines? The images are of a farm boy in the midst of the farm’s bounty. It offers peaceful images of nature as a provider—see, in particular the words “prospers,” “glows” and “fodder.”

  8. What does the scene with the corn suggest about Nature? It has a “sweet secret” that nourishes humans.

  9. The poem speaks, perhaps confusingly, of “the heart’s fine ignorance.” What could this mean? How might it parallel the opening of the poem? The “Absolute Knowledge” of the opening is evil, only leading to violence. The “fine ignorance” in the hearts of the young makes them open to life, as the boy is, and leaves them hope.

  10. Describe the poetic form of this poem in terms of stanzas and beats per line. (See A above for work with the beats.) The poem is written in three line stanzas or triplets, most with four beats per line.

  11. How does the quote given in the beginning relate to the poem? What does “story” have to do with the boy or the farm or the time of violence mentioned in the opening? The mania in the quote is connected with the blood shed of the present century. The story is seen as a kind of antidote to this cruelty and insistence on a “truth” of dubious value.

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

Handout JS-3 MS Word
Handout JS-3 PDF

Writing an Epigraph Poem

After studying “The Angel” and “Letter to RPW On His 100th Birthday,” students should have some grasp of how the epigraph works. The challenge, then, will be for them to find poems and passages that will inspire them. Since many students have read poems only in school, it would be very helpful to give them plenty of advance warning and ample class time to read poetry, as well as the homework assignment suggested below. Students may be allowed to use quotes from other literary sources. In the interests of exposing them to as much poetry as possible, quotes from poetry would be preferred.

It could be useful to bring in and read from books such as First Loves (2001), in which contemporary poets and writers pay tribute to the first poems that they really loved and that inspired them. Or, perhaps better, from the standpoint of demonstrating that even non-poets love poetry, read from Poems for Life (1995), a compilation of favorite poems selected by famous Americans such as Mario Cuomo, Liv Ullmann, Stephen Sondheim, Ally Sheedy, Yo-Yo Ma, and Peter Jennings (1995). Originally developed from a fifth-grade project, the collection introduces the poems with letters from the celebrities who submitted them that explain their love for the poems they selected.

Day 1: After reading and discussing the poems, have students bring in poems they like. Homework: To get started, you are to bring to class tomorrow two poems that you react strongly to. You may use any poems we have studied in class, but you are free to use other works as well. Don’t forget the Web sites you have been given for your search, poets.org, the Web site for the Academy of American Poets and americanlifeinpoetry.org. Both have archives where you can find many excellent poems.

Day 2: Ask students to draft a poem that builds on one of the poems that they brought as outlined in the assignment below. And the second poem? If they find their first effort is NOT working, they can try again with the other poem they brought.

Epigraph Poem Assignment
For the past week, you have been searching for poems that you especially like. Now, you are to use one of them as the inspiration or “jumping-off point” for a poem of your own. You will respond in your poem to a quote you find compelling, extending OR rejecting what it suggests. Do not worry about whether readers know the original work. If they do, great! Clearly, knowing “Tell me a Story” by Robert Penn Warren would enrich a reading of “Letter to RPW On His 100th Birthday.” But even those who do not know Penn Warren’s poem can get the point, just as knowledge of The Duino Elegies is not necessary to enjoy “The Angel.” Perhaps, after reading your poem, someone will be motivated to find the work you quoted, just as you may now keep an eye out for the works of Penn Warren or Rilke!

To start, choose a single line to use as an epigraph, to focus your own poem. Remember, you may either extend the ideas in the original, or qualify or even reject them. Think of yourself as writing a poetic “letter” to the writer of the original, and to try to use at least two quotes from the original in the body of your poem. The first draft should be free verse—without rhyme or set rhythms.

Day 3: Students should re-visit their poems, possibly in peer reviewing, but at least in reading through themselves and seeing what they might like to change. Then, they should try to give their words patterns through stanza breaks and line breaks (number of syllables or beats if this has been previously addressed in class). They should then turn the poems in for teacher review.


D. In Witness

“Anne Waters: May 1, 1882”
“Alpheus Waters: June 5, 1882”
“The Golden Circumstance: Sallie”
“Tongues of Light: Sallie”
“Robin Floyd Remembers His First Trip”


WAYS IN:

These five poems appear in Survant’s trilogy of historical poetry, still in progress, which uses related monologues to recreate history, dramatizing the experiences of both real and fictional Kentuckians. The first two poems are from Anne & Alpheus: 1842-1884 (1996). This volume tells the story of a 19th-century farm couple at three critical stages of a long marriage. The last three poems are from Rafting Rise, the second volume, in which Survant tells the stories of a backwoods Kentucky river community in the World War I era. Though traditional lyric poetry is far more familiar to most people, Survant takes part in a rich tradition with narrative poetry in this work. An earlier work in this vein that could be taught alongside these poems is Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology. The narrative works of Robert Frost would also work very well, especially “Home Burial” and “The Death of the Hired Man,” since, like Survant’s work, they pair male and female voices. In addition, these poems could be linked with the study of poetry by Kentucky’s own Frank X. Walker, who recreates the voice of York, a slave of William Clark. Walker tells the story of the Lewis and Clark Expedition from York’s perspective in Buffalo Dance: The Journey of York and When Winter Come: The Ascension of York.

To accentuate the dramatic quality of these poems, it is suggested that students work in groups, each group focused on analyzing one of the poems and its creation of a character and voice. Before starting the group work, briefly introduce the students to the characters and have them read the five poems silently. When they have finished, they may choose a poem for more intensive study (first come, first served). For each group, there should be no more than 5 students. Each student will have primary responsibility for at least one of the groups’ tasks, as explained in the directions below. The activities will take at least two class periods, depending on the length of the period.

“Anne Waters: May 1, 1882”--wife of Alpheus, near the end of her life
“Alpheus Waters: June 5, 1882”—husband of Anne, also near the time of his death
“The Golden Circumstance” --Sallie from Rafting Rise, wandering healer and seer
“Tongues of Light”--Sallie from Rafting Rise, wandering healer and seer
“Robin Floyd Remembers His First Trip”—young man, teen beginning work on river

**If students have read “Maya” above, they may be interested to know that it was originally published in Sallie’s voice in Rafting Rise.

READING:

The poems are to be read aloud during group presentations.

GOING DEEPER: QUESTIONS FOR ANALYSIS AND GROUP INSTRUCTIONS

Though many of the questions below are common for all groups, the group assignments are given separately to allow for some questions specific to the work in question.


Handout JS-4A MS Word
Handout JS-4A PDF

GROUP 1:

“Anne Waters: May 1882”

First assign the tasks for your group. You will need one person to write a paper copy of your answers, one to take primary responsibility for making the poster, one to present the poster to class, one to read the poem to class and one to explain the poetic features. On your answers to the questions below, please identify all group members and list their contributions.

  1. Look up any words that are confusing or unfamiliar to explain to class.

  2. Find a clear example of sound play (assonance, consonance, alliteration, etc.)

  3. Identify the poetic form and any structural patterns you find.
    FOCUS: parallel structure

  4. Metaphor—identify and explain any central or unusual figures of speech.

  5. What is the overall emotional quality of the poem? Is it a poem of grief, bitterness, etc.? Why do you say so?

  6. Describe the voice of this speaker, particularly in contrast with the other voices in this group of poems. How does Anne speak, compared to the younger woman, Sallie? How is her personality different? How is old age represented? How is gender addressed during this period? Who would you pick to play this character in a movie?

  7. Make a poster or “playbill” for your poem with three images from the poem, and a significant quote. Include the name of the poem and character. You may use an 8 ½” x 11” sheet or a larger poster board. Stick figures are fine if they are appealing and vivid—this is not an art project! Give your poster a title that represents the essence of your character.

  8. Present the poem and the features identified above to class with your poster.
      -- One group member should show and explain the poster, drawing on and
          including answers to questions 5 and 6.
      -- One group member should define any unfamiliar words and read the poem.
      -- One group member should point out the poetic features in questions 2-4.

  9. Turn in written answers for credit.

Handout JS-4B MS Word
Handout JS-4B PDF


GROUP 2:

“Alpheus Waters: June 5, 1882”

First assign the tasks for your group. You will need one person to write a paper copy of your answers, one to take primary responsibility for making the poster, one to present the poster to class, one to read the poem to class and one to explain the poetic features. On your answers to the questions below, please identify all group members and list their contributions.

  1. Look up any words that are confusing or unfamiliar to explain to class.

  2. Find a clear example of sound play (assonance, consonance, alliteration, etc.)

  3. Identify the poetic form and any structural patterns you find.
    FOCUS: Stanza breaks.

  4. Metaphor—identify and explain any central or unusual figures of speech.

  5. What is the overall emotional quality of the poem? Is it a poem of grief, bitterness, etc.? Why do you say so?

  6. Describe the voice of this speaker, particularly in contrast with the other voices in this group of poems. How does the poem characterize Alpheus, as compared to Anne? As compared to the younger Robin? Think of both similarities and differences. Who would you pick to play this character in a movie?

  7. Make a poster or “playbill” for your poem with three images from the poem, and a significant quote. Include the name of the poem and character. You may use an 8 ½” x 11” sheet or a larger poster board. Stick figures are fine if they are appealing and vivid—this is not an art project! Give your poster a title that represents the essence of your character.

  8. Present the poem and the features identified above to class with your poster.
      -- One group member should show and explain the poster, drawing on and
          including answers to questions 5 and 6.
      -- One group member should define any unfamiliar words and read the poem.
      -- One group member should point out the poetic features in questions2-4.

  9. Turn in written answers for credit.

Handout JS-4C MS Word
Handout JS-4C PDF


GROUP 3:

“The Golden Circumstance: Sallie”

First assign the tasks for your group. You will need one person to write a paper copy of your answers, one to take primary responsibility for making the poster, one to present the poster to class, one to read the poem to class and one to explain the poetic features. On your answers to the questions below, please identify all group members and list their contributions.

  1. Look up any words that are confusing or unfamiliar to explain to class.

  2. Find a clear example of sound play (assonance, consonance, alliteration, etc.)

  3. Identify the poetic form and any structural patterns you find.
    FOCUS: Use of trees and colors to connect the stanzas, in particular, to tie in the final line, “within my golden circumstance” as it relates to the rest of the poem. Explain also the effect of the rhyming couplet for the final two lines.

  4. Metaphor — identify and explain any central or unusual figures of speech.

  5. What is the overall emotional quality of the poem? Is it a poem of grief, bitterness, etc.? Why do you say so?

  6. Describe the voice of this speaker, particularly in contrast with the other voices in this group of poems. How does the poem characterize Sallie in relation to the older Anne Waters? In comparison to Alpheus or Robin? Who would you pick to play this character in a movie? Keep in mind that there are two Sallie poems, and focus your representation on the poem you were assigned, rather than the other one. Don’t worry about a little overlap with the other Sallie group--your work will still be distinctive.

  7. Make a poster or “playbill” for your poem with three images from the poem, and a significant quote. Include the name of the poem and character. You may use an 8 ½” x 11” sheet or a larger poster board. Stick figures are fine if they are appealing and vivid—this is not an art project! Give your poster a title that represents the essence of your character.

  8. Present the poem and the features identified above to class with your poster.
      -- One group member should show and explain the poster, drawing on and
          including answers to questions 5 and 6.
      -- One group member should define any unfamiliar words and read the poem.
      -- One group member should point out the poetic features in questions 2-4.

  9. Turn in written answers for credit.

Handout JS-4D MS Word
Handout JS-4D PDF


GROUP 4:

“Tongues of Light: Sallie”

First assign the tasks for your group. You will need one person to write a paper copy of your answers, one to take primary responsibility for making the poster, one to present the poster to class, one to read the poem to class and one to explain the poetic features. On your answers to the questions below, please identify all group members and list their contributions.

  1. Look up any words that are confusing or unfamiliar to explain to class.

  2. Find a clear example of sound play (assonance, consonance, alliteration, etc.)

  3. Identify the poetic form and any structural patterns you find.
    FOCUS: Number of beats per line and stanzas. How does the form of this poem relate to the form of “The Golden Circumstance”?

  4. Metaphor -- identify and explain any central or unusual figures of speech.
    FOCUS: Personification

  5. What is the overall emotional quality of the poem? Is it a poem of grief, bitterness, etc.? Why do you say so?

  6. Describe the voice of this speaker, particularly in contrast with the other voices in this group of poems. How does the poem characterize Sallie in relation to the older Anne Waters? In comparison to Alpheus or Robin? Who would you pick to play this character in a movie? Keep in mind that there are two Sallie poems, and focus your representation on the poem you were assigned, rather than the other one. Don’t worry about a little overlap with the other Sallie group--your work will still be distinctive.

  7. Make a poster or “playbill” for your poem with three images from the poem, and a significant quote. Include the name of the poem and character. You may use an 8 ½” x 11” sheet or a larger poster board. Stick figures are fine if they are appealing and vivid—this is not an art project! Give your poster a title that represents the essence of your character.

  8. Present the poem and the features identified above to class with your poster.
      -- One group member should show and explain the poster, drawing on and
          including answers to questions 5 and 6.
      -- One group member should define any unfamiliar words and read the poem.
      -- One group member should point out the poetic features in questions 2-4.

  9. Turn in written answers for credit.

Handout JS-4E MS Word
Handout JS-4E PDF


GROUP 5:

“Robin Floyd Remembers His First Trip”

First assign the tasks for your group. You will need one person to write a paper copy of your answers, one to take primary responsibility for making the poster, one to present the poster to class, one to read the poem to class and one to explain the poetic features. On your answers to the questions below, please identify all group members and list their contributions.

  1. Look up any words that are confusing or unfamiliar to explain to class.

  2. Find a clear example of sound play (assonance, consonance, alliteration, etc.)

  3. Identify the poetic form and any structural patterns you find.
    FOCUS: Enjambment and its effect on the voice of the character and the reading of the poem. (Teacher will assist.)

  4. (No need to work with metaphor--your section has no figures of speech)

  5. What is the overall emotional quality of the poem? Is it a poem of grief, bitterness, etc.? Why do you say so?

  6. Describe the voice of this speaker, particularly in contrast with the other voices in this group of poems. How does the poem characterize this particular speaker? How is he different from or like Alpheus Waters? How is his voice represented differently from those of the women? Who would you pick to play this character in a movie?

  7. Make a poster or “playbill” for your poem with three images from the poem, and a significant quote. Include the name of the poem and character. You may use an 8 ½” x 11” sheet or a larger poster board. Stick figures are fine if they are appealing and vivid—this is not an art project! Give your poster a title that represents the essence of your character.

  8. Present the poem and the features identified above to class with your poster.
      -- One group member should show and explain the poster, drawing on and
          including answers to questions 5 and 6.
      -- One group member should define any unfamiliar words and read the poem.
      -- One group member should point out the poetic features in questions 2-4.

  9. Turn in written answers for credit.

When students have finished their presentations, the teacher may use the questions below for an overall discussion of the qualities of narrative poetry to lead into the students’ writing activity. These are complex questions without clear-cut answers, though some possibilities are suggested below.

  1. After reading these examples, consider why a writer would tell a poem in story form. If a writer wants to create characters, why not do so in a short story? How are these characters different than characters in prose? Part of the truth is that some people just work in and prefer poetry. But, characterization in a poem also works differently. Characters in poems do not have to carry as much “baggage” or background as often is the case in prose. The poem allows for an intense focus on the character in a single moment. Perhaps an analogy from art will help—a poem seems more like a silhouette than an oil painting, offering a sharp, though limited profile.

  2. How does telling a story in poem format, such as Robin’s story above, change it? How would the same story be different if told in prose? A story told in poem form is more condensed and focused. It tends to highlight the emotional quality of the experience.

Handout JS-5 MS Word
Handout JS-5 PDF

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

As Carolyn Forché eloquently observes in an interview in The Language of Life, poems give us a way to bear witness not only to our own experience, but to the experiences of others. Think of someone you know who cannot or simply will not speak for him or herself, either a family member or personal acquaintance or an historical figure. In writing a poem in the voice of such a person, you have the opportunity to articulate what they may not have found a way to say, or, simply to record their voices for posterity. When you have selected a speaker for your poem, consider a story they might want to tell, of a specific incident or moment of importance to them. Attempt to tell this story in a poem of no more than 15 lines. This will be a challenge, but, keep pruning away. The story must appear in vivid “outline” as Robin’s story does in the account of his first trip. And try to speak using the words your character would use. However, don’t overdo it, and be careful trying to create a dialect; it can easily be overdone so that your character will turn into a caricature!

ALTERNATE WRITING PROJECT—ANALYTICAL PORTFOLIO PIECE

Students could easily extend the analysis begun in these lessons to write a sophisticated literary analysis. With their work for this lesson as a starting point and example, they could select one of the characters and do a more in-depth analysis of how that character is developed in the rest of the poems in the volume, either “Rafting Rise” or “Anne and Alpheus, 1842-1884.” The study could be enriched by research into the historical period and how it is represented. Of course, the thesis for such a work would be the individual product of the student analysis, but several students or even an entire class could do projects with entirely different focuses.


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