Richard Taylor

Richard TaylorRichard Taylor teaches English at Kentucky State University in Frankfort. He is the author of five collections of poetry, two novels, and several non-fiction books. He and his wife own and operate Poor Richard's Books in Frankfort. Growing up in Louisville, he earned a Ph.D. in English from the University of Kentucky and a J.D. degree from Brandeis School of Law at the University of Louisville. He formerly worked in the Poetry-in-the-Schools Program for the Kentucky Arts Council, and was a teacher and dean of the Governor's Scholars Program. He has just finished a book-length manuscript on Abraham Lincoln's connection to Kentucky which will be published in the spring of 2009 as a special issue of Back Home in Kentucky. In 2002 the University Press of Kentucky published his novel Sue Mundy, A Novel of the Civil War, a fictionalized treatment of the life and times of Marcellus Jerome Clarke, the most notorious Confederate guerrilla in Kentucky during the Civil War. He is currently working on a collection of "rough sonnets" on Abraham Lincoln called Rail Splitter. He served as Kentucky's Poet Laureate from 1999-2000.

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TEACHER RESOURCES

These selections by Richard Taylor highlight the diversity of his work, which ranges from fixed forms to free verse and includes vivid and impassioned historical reflections, nature studies, and funny sketches of contemporary life with a special emphasis on the paradoxes inherent in writing. The poems included here could offer at least a week of classroom activities, but could also be worked into the curriculum piece by piece. The suggestions below are organized by type of poem. Some ideas are given for using the poems in groups, but in each case the questions or activities may be used or adapted for use with individual poems.

• Young Lincoln in a
  Moment of Revelation
• Lincoln’s Photographer,
  Alexander Gardner
• Frederick Douglass
• Triumph
• Mary in Mourning
• Dreaming the Buffalo Back
• The Abolitionist Cassius Clay
  Steps Briefly out of His Memoirs
  During a Severe Drought
• The Lava Beds at Pompeii
• Severn Creek
• In Praise of Sycamores
• Along the Bluegrass Parkway in
  Early Spring
• Sizing My Ecological Footprint
• One Fine Day at
  September’s End
• On Whapping My Index finder
  with a Roofing Hammer
• Impedagogy
• First Monday on Sabbatical
• Cattle Song
• Writing Slump

A. HISTORICAL POEMS AND LINCOLN SONNET SEQUENCE

“Young Lincoln in a Moment of Revelation”
“Lincoln’s Photographer, Alexander Gardner”
“Frederick Douglass”
“Triumph”
“Mary in Mourning”


These five poems may be the most accessible for students, and they offer marvelous connections for an American Literature course or for use in conjunction with American Studies or American History classes. Taylor refers to them as “rough sonnets” because they loosely approximate the formal features of the sonnet. Ideally, these sonnets could be inserted into a unit on the post-Civil War rise of realism, preceded by study of the sonnet as used by traditional 19th century poets such as Longfellow and by study of Whitman’s Civil War poetry and elegies for Lincoln. This would give students a context for the writing and a familiarity with the poetic form.

WAYS IN:

It would be perfect to start this unit with a PowerPoint presentation of images of Lincoln and quotes from his famous writings, including photographs by Alexander Gardner. As the pictures are viewed, the teacher could ask students what they already know about Lincoln, listing and categorizing their responses on the whiteboard (blackboard). The teacher could use the student contributions and photographic images to focus their reading on representation—the idea that a poem is an act of representation just as a portrait or photograph is. A poem is more akin to the portrait with its careful focus and preparation, and less like the presumably less-calculated snapshot.


“Young Lincoln in a Moment of Revelation”

GOING DEEPER: QUESTIONS FOR ANALYSIS

Words to Consider:
furrows
gist
updraft
loam
malice


  1. What are the “turkey feet” and “sweet bundles of gist” in line 4? Paraphrase this sentence (the second sentence of the poem). “Turkey feet” here represent what the letters on the page look like to the illiterate, country boy learning to read. “Sweet bundles of gist” means the joy of finding meanings made by the letters when they are combined or bound together in words.

  2. How do the poem’s first lines represent the young Lincoln? What is he like? He is working hard, “pressing” forward despite his illiteracy. He is a farm boy, with dirt-creased hands, who sees his act of reading like plowing a field, turning from one row of letters to the next, as one would move from row to row.

  3. A list is given of Lincoln’s readings. What writer is suggested by “a bard?” How does the image from Robinson Crusoe, “Crusoe tracking across a deserted shore,” fit in with the rest of the poem? Shakespeare is the bard. Crusoe’s footprints in the sand resemble the turkey tracks in the first line.

  4. The final section of the poem claims that Lincoln’s readings were “plantings” that took root in his own “loam” or soil, and that this transformed a “wilderness of gray bark into orchards.” What would the loam represent in this figure of speech? What would it mean to transform a wilderness into an orchard? What does an orchard have to offer that wilderness does not? The loam represents Lincoln’s own mind. In transforming a wilderness into an orchard, he makes the land more “fruitful,” makes it produce something humans can use for their benefit.

  5. That title focuses the reader on a moment of revelation. What is the moment of revelation that the poem depicts? It is the moment when Lincoln begins to read, to get meaning from letters and words on a page.

  6. The poem ends with a set of quotations. Where do you think the quotes come from? Why/how do these quotations make a good ending for the poem? The quotations, as students will almost certainly realize, come from Lincoln’s famous speeches. While students do not need to know the specific sources, the first is from his First Inaugural Address; the second, from his very famous “House Divided” speech delivered on accepting the Republican nomination to run for U.S. Senator in 1858; the next from the Gettysburg Address; and the final quote, from his Second Inaugural Address. It is more important they understand that the poem suggests that Lincoln’s great writings are the fruition of his early reading, that they show the culmination of this work toward literacy.

  7. Find an example of parallel structure in the poem. Lines 9-11—“From Weems’s Washington, from King James, from Crusoe tracking across a deserted shore, from a bard whose plantings root in his loam.” Note also the work with the m and w sounds in this line (consonance).

  8. What sound play can you find in the first line of the poem? Assonance of the short i and repetition of “in” sound.

Literary Features:
Sonnet Form
Parallel Structure
Use of Colon

Sonnet
The sonnet typically has 14 lines of rhymed iambic pentameter. A traditional Italian sonnet has a two part structure, in which the first eight lines (octet) present a scene/problem and then, after a “turn,” the last six lines (sestet) offer a reflection on that scene or problem. The Italian sonnet has an abba rhyme scheme in the octave (abbaabba) and a combination of c, d and e in its sestet, which can vary. For instance, the sestet might be cddcdd or cdeced.

Taylor’s poems have 14 lines as traditional sonnets do with roughly five beats to a line, but they are not heavily iambic and have no fixed rhyme scheme. This first sonnet has the two-part structure of a traditional Italian sonnet. After giving students the basic parameters of the sonnet form or reviewing those features, the questions below may be asked.

  1. How does this poem fit the pattern of the Italian sonnet?
  2. If this poem has a two-part structure, what does the first part do? The second part?

Colon
The poem could also be used to illustrate and teach the use of the colon, the punctuation equivalent to the equals sign.

  1. If the colon at the end of line 12 equates what came before with what comes after, what are the “fruits” of the orchard in line 12? The quotations. The poem indicates that Lincoln’s speeches developed in the “loam” of his mind as a result of the “plantings” from the reading that the poem depicts.


“Lincoln’s Photographer, Alexander Gardner”

This poem mentions Ambrose Bierce and would be a great choice to teach in connection with Ambrose Bierce’s “Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” a Civil War short story famous for its photographic qualities. Both poem and story raise the issue of truth in representation, contrasting realism—Bierce’s candid “picture painted by the sun without instruction in art” with the potential falsification of romanticized or dramatized representation in either literary or visual art (including photography).

Words to Consider:
Antietam—an extremely bloody battle and key Civil War victory for the North, considered to lead the way to Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation
resilience
heft

GOING DEEPER: QUESTIONS FOR ANALYSIS

  1. What does it mean if a portrait is “unforgiving”? How does that relate to the quote from the heavily ironic Ambrose Bierce? An “unforgiving portrait” is one that does not gloss over or “forgive” our unattractive features. The quote from Bierce indicates that photography, unlike art, shows the reality of a situation or person, as opposed to a carefully posed portrait, such as that of the dead soldier at Antietam.

  2. Explain what Gardner did at the Battle of Antietam, according to the poem. Why does the poem use the word “guilty” in describing this? He posed a dead soldier for a picture, deliberately manipulating the emotions of the viewer. He pretended to be representing “reality.”

  3. What does it mean for a shoulder to be “defined by a shadow’s heft”? The darkness of the shadow behind the shoulder, the depth or thickness of the shadow, outlines the shoulder and makes it visible--darkness as a kind of illumination.

  4. How do lines 8-10 represent Lincoln? He is weary, but resilient; his shoulders are sloping, caving in, but he is still a bit fierce (the glinting eye).

  5. The poem speaks of Gardner’s work after the “complete merger into darkness” of his photographic subject, Lincoln. What does this “merger into darkness” represent? Lincoln’s death.

  6. What associations does the poem build for light and dark? What is associated with light? With darkness? Is it significant that the poem ends with a “blur”? Light is associated with truth and life, as would be expected, especially with the description of Lincoln’s “merger into darkness” (his death). The blur may suggest the moment just between life and death, the moment of the “dropping.”

  7. Overall, what is Taylor suggesting about the final photos of Lincoln? About photography in general? Answers will vary. Clearly, Taylor is suggesting that the final photos of Lincoln capture the “true” man, and that those of the conspirators capture a truth, as well. But overall, the poem creates a sophisticated view of photography and art in which things are not simply black and white; after all, the darkness illuminates the shoulder, and the final image is a blur. Taylor suggests that Gardner’s most candid photographs end up being art in a way that the posed shot of the soldier does not.

Literary Features:
Dash
Hyphen

This poem provides an excellent occasion for teaching punctuation in context, in particular for examining the distinction between the dash and the hyphen. Students often confuse these two simply because of appearance, and the poem offers a clear example of how different they are.

  1. In lines 8-10, there are two dashes. Why are they there? What are they doing? The dashes are working like parentheses here to set off an interruption of sorts—the three phrases after the dash all clarify what exactly Taylor means by “Lincoln’s most un-self-conscious self” (serving in an appositive function, though it is not necessary for students to know this). Of course, dashes are used here, rather than parentheses, because the information they provide is crucial, not parenthetical.

  2. In line 13, we see a typical use of the hyphen. How is it being used? How is it different from the dash? It is shorter than the dash, and it is being used here as it typically is, to link compound words or numbers. Perhaps it will help students to remember that the hyphen is both a shorter and less significant mark than the dash.

“Frederick Douglass”

Words to Consider:
replica
eminence
locomotion
caulker

GOING DEEPER: QUESTIONS FORANALYSIS

  1. What is emphasized in the first lines of the poem by use of the words “replica” and “parallel”? Lincoln regards Douglass as an equal.

  2. Explain what Taylor calls Douglass’s “homey metaphors.” Douglass compares the union fighting without black soldiers to a person attempting to fight with only one hand. He refers to the Union as a “man drowning” and represents African American soldiers as coming to the rescue.

  3. In Line 13, why does Taylor use the epithet, “caulker of ships”? How does this image of Douglass repairing a ship fit the poem’s portrayal of Douglass and the relationship with Lincoln? Consider how this might relate also to the common phrase (and dead metaphor) “the ship of state.” Giving Douglass this title fits the poem’s emphasis on the pair as self-made men, rising by hard work (vividly represented by the word “locomotion”). Representing Douglass as “repairing” the ship of state extends suggestions in Douglass’s metaphors that African Americans can help save the Union.

Literary Features:
Alliteration

Find an example of alliteration, the repetition of an initial consonant sound in the poem.

Line 6 has an excellent example of alliteration with “h.”

The poem could also be used to illustrate the use of metonymy with “caulker of ships.”


“Triumph”

Words to Consider:
barging
rubbled
fretted
savored

GOING DEEPER: QUESTIONS FOR ANALYSIS

  1. What do the first two lines suggest about how Lincoln entered Richmond after the war? They depict a peaceful, almost regal entry.

  2. Why are the streets “rubbled”? They are full of debris caused by war damage.

  3. What are the parallels emphasized between Lincoln and Jefferson Davis in lines 5-12? They are both Kentuckians, both Presidents, both scholars, both leaders of armies and both human.

  4. What drives the curiosity about “this stranger” that motivates Lincoln in lines 5 to 10? Their similarities—see repetition of "same” in line 12. Despite and because of the rivalry between himself and Davis, Lincoln wants to imaginatively comprehend Davis’s perspective, the perspective of the defeat that contrasts his own “Triumph.”

  5. The poem repeats the word “see” four times and speaks of “seeing the world as that man saw it.” Is this possible? Why do we want to? What would be gained from this? Answers will vary, but should suggest that doing so gives us perspective, perhaps on ourselves and our limitations.

  6. Imagine the poem with the final words cut off, ending with “Thank God I’ve lived to see this.” How does the final sentence change the poem? It adds irony, emphasizes that triumph is a matter of perspective.

Literary Features:
Effective use of the sentence fragment

After a poem full of elegant sentences, Taylor chooses to end the poem with two sentence fragments. Why? Students should recognize that this shift into fragments gives the final phrases emotional emphasis and a sense of finality. They may also point out that avoiding extra words here was probably helpful in keeping to the sonnet form, but this should not be seen as the primary function.


“Mary in Mourning”

Words to Consider:
séance
martial
Antietam —
an extremely bloody battle and key Civil War victory for the North, considered to lead the way to Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation

GOING DEEPER: QUESTIONS FOR ANALYSIS

  1. What is the metaphorical or figurative “edge” that the poem refers to in line 3? The edge of sanity—this represents sanity as a level plane and insanity as falling off of that plane.

  2. What are the “realms” in line 7? The realms of life and death.

  3. List three words from the ending of the poem that suggest Mary Lincoln was caught or trapped in mental illness. “Bordered,” “band,” “encircled.”

  4. The poem begins and ends with a reference to Lincoln’s world. How is that world compared to Mary’s world? His world is the external world of war, Antietam. Her world seems to be limited to the domestic, family and home, as indicated by the bed, writing paper and her jewels.

Literary Features:
Embedded Metaphor
—a metaphor which assumes rather than specifies the basic terms of comparison

1. Line 3 contains an embedded metaphor, as examined above. Consider the second line of the poem. There is a comparison of unlike things here, but one of the things is not mentioned explicitly. What is the mind being compared to in the line? The mind is NOT being compared to a throne but to a king, the king of the body. That comparison is not made explicit.

Iambic Pentameter
Teach students the way iambic pentameter works. While this is a big topic with many complexities, they can get by with only understanding trochee, spondee, iamb, and possibly anapest and dactyl. They can understand iambic pentameter, basically, as a predominance of stresses or “beats” on even-numbered syllables in a line of ten syllables.

1. Which lines are the best examples of iambic pentameter? Lines 1, 2, and 9. It may be interesting to note that in line 9 the word “from” will take on a stress, simply due to its location after an unstressed syllable.

SUGGESTED GROUP WORK FOR SONNET SEQUENCE:

The five sonnets could be used well for group work, rather than studied one at a time. Each group could be assigned one of the sonnets or allowed to pick their sonnet, on a first-come, first-served basis. Groups would then follow the following instructions and present their assigned sonnets to the class.

Handout RT-1 MS Word
Handout RT-1 PDF

Group Instructions:
You’ll need a piece of paper, copies of the poem and questions for each member, an overhead transparency and overhead marker (provided by teacher). You should select two group scribes, one for recording your answers on paper and one for putting them on the overhead transparency. Those who do not serve as scribes should volunteer to present the poem or read it aloud. If you will be reading the poem aloud, please practice. Ask if you have questions about pronunciation or meanings.

  1. Read your poem.

  2. Look up and prepare to explain the “Words for Consideration.” If the words are familiar, consider how they may be used in a special way.

  3. Answer the questions about your poem.

  4. Identify the main figures of speech and sound effects in your poem.

  5. Overall, the sonnets can be seen as a montage, or portrait of Lincoln made up of views from differing perspectives. Each sonnet contributes a distinctive image of Lincoln as a man and/or historical figure, illuminating his central values and experiences. Explain what your sonnet adds to the overall view. What is its focus on Lincoln and his life?

  6. Write your answers on paper to turn in with all group members’ names and contributions.

  7. Write your answers on an overhead transparency to present to class.

  8. Present to class.
  1. One group member should read the poem to the class.
  2. Presenters should read questions and then read their answers, as displayed on the overhead transparency.

POSSIBLE RUBRIC FOR GROUP WORK:

Answers on Paper___/3
Overhead Transparency___/3
Presentation___/3


“Dreaming the Buffalo Back”

Because Taylor’s themes all come together in this poem, it would make a good choice for a culmination of the study of his work.

WAYS IN:

Brainstorming:
Ask students to contribute what they know about buffalo—habitat, history and physical characteristics. Ask students if they think buffalo ever lived here in Kentucky.

Words to Consider:
shallows
wallow
hunker
swill
spatterwirk
pasturage
parentheses/parenthetical


Literary Features:
Sound Effect
Assonance
Consonance
Alliteration Free Verse

GOING DEEPER: QUESTIONS FOR ANALYSIS

  1. The first stanza sets the tone for the poem. Explain how the final image of the marks left by the buffalo contributes to this mood and introduces the theme of the poem. The marks are represented as “tiny moons,” adding to the mythic atmosphere. The ancient hooves nicking the asphalt suggest the conflict between the primal natural world of the buffalo and the artificial, modern, asphalt road.

  2. The patios and staked tomatoes in stanza two seem at odds with the dreamlike atmosphere and tone of the poem. Why does Taylor include these particular items as what the buffalo encounter on their journey? They represent the human presence and the typical modern suburban contact with nature, only in limited, tamed or controlled forms.

  3. List the three place names in the poem. Why were these particular names included? The poem says that these places carry the names to represent the buffalo that have been lost. What does this suggest? The three names are “Stamping Ground,” “Sulphur Lick” and “Great Crossing.” All these places were named for the ways of the buffalo that once inhabited them and offer evidence that Kentucky was once really buffalo habitat. The names of the buffalo are “lost” as they are essentially eradicated from Kentucky and the American landscape.

  4. In stanza three, the buffalo are spoken of as “pilgrims.” Along with an earlier suggestion of the purposeful journey east, this could even suggest the three wise men or magi of the Christian Nativity. What would the herd of buffalo be seeking, other than salt? The buffalo could be seeking “salvation” in terms of a place for continued existence.

  5. Who are the predators who, according to stanza five, do not exist in the dream? Humans.

  6. The final stanza claims that the buffalo reclaim the landscape “encompassed between the parentheses of their upturned horns.” What does this suggest? Why did the poet choose parentheses to represent the horns? What is “parenthetical” about their existence? The landscape between their horns would be very limited or small. The parenthetical nature of their world emphasizes the marginal quality of their existence—they are no longer part of the mainstream, certainly not to the extent of having places named for them.

  7. In the final stanza, the speaker asserts that the buffalo cannot “even dream the space where we might be.” How does this claim work with the title of the poem? This gives the poem an ironic closing, emphasizing that the buffalo cannot conceive of our world. Ironically, the poet can only conceive of buffalo in our world in a dream without a “space” for humans, i.e., where humans have disappeared.

  8. In the final stanza, the poet uses unusual diction or word choice. Speculate about why he uses “pasturage” in place of the ordinary “pasture” and about what the Germanic coinage “spatterwirk” suggests. Pasturage indicates that they are not looking for a single pasture, but for grounds or lands of their own. Using “spatterwirk” to describe the sprinkling of stars contributes to the “otherworldly” setting of this dream world, the only place the buffalo can exist in the modern Kentucky landscape.

Literary Features:
Find a line with particularly interesting sound play. Explain the sounds effects and how they affect the reading of the poem.

In stanza one, the assonance in “droves,” “hooves,” “swollen,” “shallows” and “moons” creates an almost crooning sound, particularly in conjunction with the repetition of “w” and “v.” In stanza two, the repetition of “w” and “l” sounds reinforces this effect. Note the contrast with the almost staccato “t” sounds from the world of “patios” and “staked tomatoes.”

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

Poem Writing:
Have students study Kentucky maps and list five place names that they find interesting. Ask them to individually “brainstorm” on paper what words and/or memories each word brings to mind. Then have them write a free verse poem in which they incorporate at least three of the place names and three words from their brainstorming to explore their own dreams, either a literal dream or a significant personal goal. This assignment could incorporate research into Kentucky place names, particularly as a way to enrich the second draft of the poems.


“The Abolitionist Cassius Clay Steps Briefly
Out of His Memoirs During a Severe Drought”

WAYS IN:

Flashbacks:
Read the title and ask students to write briefly everything they know about Cassius Clay, or if they do not know anything, about the word “abolitionist” and about abolitionists, especially in Kentucky. Have them share from their writing. Ask them what a book of memoirs does and what it would mean for someone to “step out” of a book of memoirs.

Words to Consider:
sequestered
parched
exile
Plutarch—
Classical author of a famous book of “lives” or biography with great emphasis on morality.
Harriet Beecher Stowe—American Abolitionist and author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

GOING DEEPER: QUESTIONS FOR ANALYSIS

  1. What are the two sides of Clay contrasted in the first stanza? The strong historically significant aspect of Clay’s life is contrasted with the “wavery shadow” of an old man’s personal life.

  2. Why did the poet select the words “rumor” and “smudge” to discuss the weather in the first stanza? These wordsbring in the questions of reputation and character that the poem will consider.

  3. According to the poem, how does Clay fight his loneliness? His interactions with nature and animals.

  4. Explain the ending of the poem—what seems to be happening? What is your reaction to this scene? Responses will vary—but students should realize that Clay lets bats in at night and watches them fly around his bedroom. For some student this will be an alarming scene; others may be tempted to try it themselves.

  5. Taylor lists several of Clay’s interactions with nature, from having “dogs / and pigeons and barnfowls” gathered around him to the final image of the bats. Why do you suppose they are arranged in this order? Taylor starts with the most commonplace and moves to the most shocking to prepare the reader for the startling and eccentric final image.

  6. The images of Clay do not represent a period of very dry weather. Find the phrase that makes the connection between Clay and the drought, and speculate about what figurative drought he experienced. “Parched spirit”—this indicates his loneliness and severe need for renewed connection to other living beings.

Literary Features: Metaphor

  1. The poem uses a metaphor of imprisonment to represents Clay’s personal isolation. What words create this metaphor? “Exile,” “sequestered,” “fortress,” as an “exile” sequestered in a fortress.

  2. What does this imprisonment reflect? Personal isolation.

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

As part of a history class, or after researching a historical figure who interests them, students could select one incident or unusual fact that catches their attention. They could seek to recreate an incident or moment that would give insight into the historical figure (and into human experience), as Taylor’s poem does. This assignment could be done through a poem or very short story—historical “flash fiction.” Students should use the title of the piece to give necessary historical context or background. The piece could be written as a dramatic monologue in the voice of the historical figure, focused on a single incident or moment from his/her life.


“The Lava Beds at Pompeii”

This poem would be a great addition to any study of the Classical world.

WAYS IN:

Flashbacks:
Have students think (silently) about what they know about Pompeii. Have them write down three words to represent what they know about it as well as any associated feelings. List the students’ words on the white or black board, and use them as a springboard for a brief review of the natural event for which Pompeii is famous (volcanic eruption).

Words to Consider:
manacled
millennia


GOING DEEPER: QUESTIONS FOR ANALYSIS

  1. In your own words, explain what Fiorelli did, according to the poem? He made plaster casts of the gaps around human skeletons in the lava pits and used them to create sculptures.

  2. Find examples of the use of the present participle in the second stanza. Why does the poet use this form of the verb, rather than the simple past? “Suffocating,” “clasping,” “clutching,” “hugging,” and “straining.” The simple past would not work as well to emphasize how the plaster casts recreate the living beings who died there, in the act of living.

  3. List any words in the poem associated with chronology or time periods. What is the effect of these words? “1863,” “August 24, 79 A.D.,” “Now, after two millennia.” They accentuate the passage of time and its vastness.

  4. Find words in the poem associated with emptiness. How does the emphasis on emptiness connect with the focus on time in the question above? “Vanished,” “hollows,” “extinction,” “gaping.” Things disappear over time, but in the case of Pompeii the sudden, violent deaths of the victims paradoxically preserved a memory of their lives far beyond others of their time. Fiorelli “reclaims” their individuality from the oblivion of the past.

  5. According to the poem, how can the victims speak or “plead” to be remembered? In their gestures and postures—through their physical images, rather than through words.

Literary/Language Features:
Unusual Plural Forms

The poem offers an opportunity to discuss the formation of plural from Latinate nouns such as millennium/millennia (alumnus/alumni, etc.) and the fact that the differing ways of making plural forms in English depends on the language from which the words originated.

RESPONSE AND MOVING BEYOND: MAKING IT YOUR OWN

Just for Fun!
Imagine you had lived at Pompeii. What activity would you most likely have been found or “caught” doing? How would you LEAST like to have been preserved for posterity? How/where would you have wanted to be found, engaged in what activity? In other words, if you could leave a sculpture of yourself for people 2,000 years from now to know you by, how would you NOT want to be represented? What pose or expression would be most typical of your life? What activity or situation would you select to represent you and your values/concerns? Free writing on this topic could be followed up by creating a poem that uses a single concrete image to represent students’ ideal selves.


B. NATURE POEMS

“Severn Creek”
“In Praise of Sycamores”
“Along the Bluegrass Parkway in Early Spring”


These three poems would work well for a single day’s instruction, a day focused on making and recognizing images and on creative writing.

WAYS IN:

For homework the previous night or weekend, have students go to a place they especially like in nature. Have them write a one page (minimum) description of that place, using specific images to show it to the reader. The goal is for them to try to convey what makes this place feel so special to them. Some students will always respond that they do not like any place in nature. For these cases, you may need to explain that places such as golf courses, yards and even porches may be used. They may describe one special time at that place or write more generally, though it may be helpful if they show the place in a particular season and time of day or particular seasons and times of day. At the beginning of class, have students share from their works.

Words to Consider:
Ask first for students to explain any words below that they know and use them in a sentence. Then, select among the leftovers for vocabulary work. For higher level courses, only a few of these words need to be reviewed.

tiers
glut
riffle
purr
breeches
smolder
tensile
tendril
ocher
angler
worsted
columnar
scoured
civility
luster
tactile
detonate
geyser
pallid
inclination

READING:
The poems could be read one by one, with discussion after each. However, it seems preferable to have students read all three as the teacher or volunteer reads them aloud. Then, divide the students, as seated, into three groups. Have each set of students answer questions about ONE of the poems. Take up written answers and use the questions to frame a discussion that culminates with a conversation of how the poems are related.


“Severn Creek”

Taylor’s friend Gray Zeitz runs Larkspur Press in Monterey, Kentucky. The poem refers to Mr. Zeitz and his business.

GOING DEEPER: QUESTIONS FOR ANALYSIS

  1. According the poem, what is the purpose of the “trek” or trip? To see wildflowers, specifically bluebells.

  2. After reading the poem, what can the reader assume about “Dutchman’s-breeches” and “Fire Pinks? They are the names of wildflowers.

  3. In the second stanza, Taylor writes, “Spring purrs its lime among the branchtips—not yet an exclamation.” Explain how this line works. Consider how “purrs” relates to exclamation. What does “lime” mean in this sentence? Paraphrase if necessary. Spring here is compared with a cat, softly spreading its bright green on the branch tips, as opposed to the more dominant green that will come later. “Purrs” is contrasted with “exclamation.”

  4. Near the end of the poem, the two friends pass some larkspurs, and the speaker’s friend declares the situation is the meeting of the board of directors of his business. What words in the final stanza relate to business? “Membership,” “policy,” “by-laws” and “corporate.”

  5. What policy does the board fancifully put into effect on this spring day? Resurrection (new life).

  6. Find a pun in this poem. The Fire Pinks (flowers) “smolder,” “hours shy of combustion.”

“In Praise of Sycamores”

Paul Sawyier is a renowned Kentucky artist, famous for his painting of landscapes.

GOING DEEPER: QUESTIONS FOR ANALYSIS

  1. In stanza two, Taylor writes of Sawyier committing “gentle arsons.” What does he mean? This word ties back to “blaze” and “burn” in the first stanza, describing the vivid, fiery colors in Sawyier’s paintings. In creating the paintings, the artist is figuratively setting fires.

  2. What is suggested by the word “elbowed” in the third stanza? The crowded way the trees fit in together.

  3. What animals do stanzas three and four associate with the shapes of the trees? Swans and deer.

  4. In stanza four, there is another pun or double meaning—explain. The bark of the tree is literally its whitish outer layer, but it is said to be also an “utterance” of winter’s ice.

  5. Paraphrase the first line of stanza five. The sycamore does not have a predictable shape.

  6. Explain the metaphor in the final lines of the poem. The poem describes the lines on the tree’s bark as elegant embroidery that both decorates and unifies the landscape in beauty.

“Along the Bluegrass Parkway in Early Spring”

GOING DEEPER: QUESTIONS FOR ANALYSIS

  1. Read aloud and listen to the sound play in the first two lines—explain the sound effects. There is consonance with the l’s and assonance with the repetition of the long i.

  2. In the final stanza, Taylor speaks of “fluxions” of light. Based on your knowledge of “flux” and “influx,” what do you suppose this means? Changing states, constant changes.

  3. What is the metaphor embedded in the third stanza when the poet says that the redbuds “detonate in geysers of light”? The light is spoken of as a “geyser,” but the redbuds themselves are being compared to bombs in the way they “explode” with color.

  4. What other things does the poet compare to the trees in the course of the poem? List them. Torches, fur, the “undersides of waves,” water, calves’ tongues, fireworks, fabrics and possibly children (“reared”).

  5. According to the poem, does it seem to be a good thing to be “reared” by native inclination? At the least, it seems to produce beauty; it makes a memorable landscape.

Literary Features:
These poems provide a great opportunity for studying images, figures of speech, and sound effects. Questions about each of these are provided above, but some review of the concepts may be needed, depending on the group of students.

Connections:
What shared qualities do you find among these poems, going beyond the fact that all are nature poems? Answers will vary, but may include the emphasis on plant life, especially trees; the relatively heavier use of figures of speech; the emphasis on color; the free verse form; the use of fire imagery; and even, of words that seem to be characteristic of the poet, such as “shaggy” and “tier” (or “tactile” and “detonate” which also appear in “First Monday on Sabbatical”).

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

A. Creative Writing. Students can use the study of these poems in combination with their own nature writing to create free verse poems based on images. The writing of the poems may be done in class or for homework. The illustrations would be better done at home.

  1. Have students highlight the images in their assigned poems.
Label each as to the corresponding sense, V for visual, H for hearing, TA for taste, TO for touch and S for smell.
  1. Lead a discussion of the images in each poem.

  2. Have students highlight and label the images in their descriptions of their favorite places.
(The teacher will need to assist with this. If there prove to be no images in a student’s writing, the teacher should ask the students to write at least three images of the place.)
  1. Have students use the images they highlighted to write a poem about their special place in nature as follows:
“Use your highlighted images to write poems about your special place in nature. Make sure that your poem has a specific setting in terms of time of day and season. Try to create a distinct emotional impression, happiness, grief, confusion, etc., but do NOT name that emotion or explain that feeling. The images will create the impression. You may use other material from the original description as desired. The poem should NOT rhyme or have fixed rhythms. Of course, if you wish to create images that did not appear in your original writing, that’s fine.

B. Illustrations. Have students create illustrations for either their own or Taylor’s nature poems, as for a picture book, integrating the poem itself and using visual effects that they either do manually or with computer graphics. (NOT Clip Art)

C. Display the illustrated poems!


C. HUMANS IN THE WORLD

“Sizing My Ecological Footprint”
“One Fine Day at September’s End”
“On Whapping My Index Finger with a Roofing Hammer”
“Impedagogy”

Students will enjoy the wonderful sense of humor in these poems, as the poet pokes fun at himself and the human world of work and household.

“Sizing My Ecological Footprint”

WAYS IN:

  1. In building a playful atmosphere, have student sketch their footprints on a sheet of paper. Have them free write, possibly inside the footprint or on the same page, about the concept of a footprint. Where do we see footprints? Why? Where is it impossible to see footprints? Where have we left our own footprints? How have human footprints been significant? (Students may think of crime scenes, on the moon, as keys to archaeological history, etc. But some may also have very personal examples.)

  2. Have students share from their writing.

  3. Introduce the concept of the “ecological footprint” and the poem.

Words to Consider:
bandoleers
tainted
gloat
treads
clunker


GOING DEEPER: QUESTIONS FOR ANALYSIS

  1. Paraphrase the first stanza. The speaker considers himself environmentally friendly before he uses a Web site to calculate the effects of his daily practices.

  2. List the speaker’s environmental efforts, listed in the second, third, and fourth stanzas. He recycles and keeps his thermostat set low in the winter.

  3. The poem has been built around a metaphor, that of the ecological footprint or human impact on nature. What does the poet mean in the sixth stanza where he says that his own ecological footprint has been “not so deep as wide”? He has not committed a single act that has particularly damaged nature, but his energy use and lifestyle have a broad cumulative effect.

  4. What happens with the metaphor of the ecological footprint in the final stanza? The poet contrasts his own artificial track—the Nike prints—with that of an animal whose hooves may literally have more impact on the soil or terrain, but are not damaging environmentally.

  5. The poem ends with a direct address of the reader or apostrophe in the word “yours.” How does this affect the poem? Is it essential? What is Taylor suggesting? It gives a little twist in the ending, and asks readers to consider if they, too have been guilty of ignorant “gloating.”

Literary Features:
Cliché

This poem can help students understand the effective use of cliché. They know that cliché is not desirable, but the poet himself deliberately uses clichés in this poem. Ask students to identify any clichéd language in the poem and explain how the poet used these clichés for effect.

The very concept of the “ecological footprint” has become a cliché. He also includes the overused “green” for being ecologically mindful, and a deeply clichéd phrase: “putting my best foot forward.” The poet uses the concept of the ecological footprint as a way to ask readers to reconsider their environmental impact. “Putting his best foot forward” is a funny way to play with the concept of this footprint, as he also does with the Nike treads. The final stanza uses real nature images, that of the hoof print, to expand the initial concept.

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

Students could be assigned to find three clichés that interest them. They could then select one to expand and examine in a poem modeled after Taylor’s.


“One Fine Day at September’s End”

WAYS IN:
As a starting point, ask students before reading to reflect on the poem’s title—what resonance does it have? What do we think of with a fine day at the end of September, as opposed to, say, the end of January or the end of April? What is the significance of it being the end of September? What emotional quality does this set for the poem? End of summer—end of vacation.

Words to Consider:
angling
umber
riffles
furrows
frittata


GOING DEEPER: QUESTIONS FOR ANALYSIS

  1. This is a poem about a brief encounter with a neighbor at Kroger and a typical work day. Explain how the day turns into a fishing expedition. The neighbor’s chance remark about it being a good day for fishing sets off the poet’s imagination, and he daydreams about the fishing scene all day.

  2. Find words in the first three stanzas that build the river scene, though they are ostensibly about something else. The man is said to be “angling” or turning his shopping cart. The speaker says he feels the “lure” or pull of the day out in nature. He must “wade through” his mail.

  3. In the second stanza, what is Taylor representing as having a “ragged hem”? It is the river itself, represented as a piece of cloth with irregular edges, a darker blue in the trees’ shadow.

  4. In the third stanza, the poet writes of memos he receives that they have “vagueness abundantly vaguer.” Why does he use two forms of the same word here? Emphasis!

  5. Count the “f” and “v” sounds--closely related--in the last six lines of the third stanza. Notice the sound effect created! What other two sounds predominate? What overall effect do these sounds create? There are eight “f” or “v” sounds. The other two sounds that predominate are “s" and “n.” Overall, the sounds create a lazy, flowing, soothing effect, like the river.

  6. In the last stanza, the poet speaks of water as weaving and unweaving itself. How does this continue an earlier metaphor? HINT: What are ordinarily woven? The embedded metaphor here is the river as cloth, with its currents as strands of material.

  7. In stanza three, the poet lists tedious messages he receives as e-mail. By the end of the poem the word “mail” has been transformed to refer to the river. In the final line, what is suggested by “that mail”? The poet compares the “stream” of trivial electronic communication with a deeper communication and connection between the river and the human mind.

Literary Features:
Classical Allusion

The poem’s ending surprisingly evokes Homer’s Odyssey, as noted in the questions above. What does this allusion add to the poem? It unexpectedly compares the water to Penelope, making the river the faithful wife of the wandering speaker, exiled to the office, while the river waits as his true home.


“On Whapping My Index Finger with a Roofing Hammer”

WAYS IN:

Have students finish these sentences: “Last time . . . .” “This time . . . .” and “Next time . . . .” Ask them to share their writings. Then ask them what it indicates to begin a poem with the phrase “This time . . . ”. Ask them how that relates to the central concept of the poem—spring. It indicates a recurrent event—like the return of spring.

Words to Consider:
William McKinley: U.S. President from 1889-1901, assassinated in office
scrawny
wincing
sober
yowling
skew
scarab


GOING DEEPER: QUESTIONS FOR ANALYSIS

  1. Where is the speaker when the poem begins? What is he doing? He is on top of a garage replacing an old roof.

  2. What does it mean that “spring is still a murmur”? Spring is just beginning.

  3. The second stanza speaks of a “sober” ridge. What would sober mean here? Probably that the ridge is still gray, no color.

  4. By the end of the poem, the speaker is yowling with pain. He compares the throbbing in his hurt finger with a blooming forsythia. Explain the connection. The pulse in his swollen finger is compared with the force of life in nature, the swelling of the murmur that will burst forth in flower, just as his own voice burst out under pressure.

Literary Features:
Onomatopoeia

The poet playfully uses onomatopoeia here. Find two examples: Whapping and yowling. Murmur is also onomatopoeic.

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

Students could develop their own pre-writing into a poem. To enrich the recurrent experience they described, they could combine it with a seasonal reflection, like Taylor’s.


“Impedagogy”

WAYS IN:

  1. Put the definition of key words, including “pedagogy,” the study or art of teaching, on the white or black board.

  2. Ask students to write about their daydreams. When, where, and why do they day dream? What do they daydream about?

  3. Discussion:
    OR—simply launch into the poem—this is a good one for jumping right in!

Words to Consider:
Friedrich Nietzsche: German philosopher and writer, 1844-1900
exposition
intricacies
cleavage
geriatric
auger


GOING DEEPER: QUESTIONS FOR ANALYSIS

  1. Who is the speaker of the poem? A teacher or professor.

  2. Paraphrase line 8. Near spring and fall break, listening weakens.

  3. What is the metaphor or comparison introduced in line 8? Radio reception and teaching.

  4. What are the teacher’s strategies in attempting to get his students’ attention? He asks them direct questions or looks at them with a piercing and threatening eye.

  5. What is the irony of the final line and in the title? Teaching methods are not effective, just as in the case of the Honda, unscientifically “fixed” through slamming rather than a more technical approach. Any analytical study of the art of teaching is failing him, thus, “impedagogy.”

Literary Features:
Ways of forming opposites: Have students list ways of “undoing” or negating words. Lead into a discussion of how and why these different forms are used. a/an/in/im/il/ir/un—depends on the letter the word begins with.


D. ON POETRY/LANGUAGE

“First Monday on Sabbatical”
“Cattle Song”
“Writing Slump”

In these poems, Taylor writes more as a “poet’s poet,” focused on the act of writing itself. Though this type of poetry is typically a hard sell with students, they will be charmed by the playful and unpretentious approach. Teaching the poems together is suggested, so “WAYS IN,” “Literary Features” and “FROM READING TO RESPONSE” are given for the three, rather than individually.

WAYS IN:

Poetry and the Ineffable

  1. Ask students to list three things they consider ineffable, or beyond description in language.

  2. Have students share their contributions, and list on the whiteboard. Students will most likely write “love,” “God,” “death,” “sorrow,” etc.

  3. Ask students if they have ever read poems, stories, or other writings about these things.

  4. Lead discussion of why poets continually struggle to write about these things if they are, indeed, ineffable.

  5. Have students read the three poems silently.

  6. Place students in pairs and have them look up the words they will need for the three poems.

  7. Assign each poem to five pairs of students. Those pairs will answer the questions for their poem and prepare to lead its discussion. (Assuming a class of 30, this means 10 students or a third of the class will analyze each poem in depth).

  8. Ask for volunteer readers.

  9. Read and discuss each poem.

“First Monday on Sabbatical”

Words to Consider:
Sabbatical
seepings
seething
vibrato
tactile


GOING DEEPER: QUESTIONS FOR ANALYSIS

  1. Consider the title. What is the significance of the “First Monday on Sabbatical”? How does this set up the poem? It is the first “work” day of the vacation period or time away from the ordinary work world. It is a time of unusual freedom.

  2. What does the poet observe about the rain in stanza one? Its sounds make a pattern that can’t be described in words.

  3. What does he say the rain does for humans? It offers freedom from the analytical or logical world of language. It defies human control.

  4. List four things the poem describes the rain as doing. Which of these is most surprising? Beading, detonating, seeping, soaking, pinging, plashing and seething. Students will probably find detonating and seething most surprising.

  5. What is the world with which the final stanza contrasts the human world of language and poetry, the world of “Monday” and rhythm and rhyme? What are the qualities of this world? It is the sensual, free and more random world of nature.

“Cattle Song”

Words to Consider:
pastorals
draught
cantos
skirmishes
Sappho—
Most famous Classical woman poet (Greek)

GOING DEEPER: QUESTIONS FOR ANALYSIS

  1. In the first line the cows are said to be “lettered.” Explain how this could be a pun. “Lettered” means educated or learned, but here it probably means branded with a letter.

  2. What are the cows said to be writing poems about? Clover, the thick shade of the oak and the rainwater in their watering trough.

  3. In the second stanza, the poet compares his new poems to what two things? A calf first standing on wobbly legs and the ruining of young grass in an early frost.

  4. When the speaker says “One moo will echo every other moo,” what does he mean? His poetry will be clichéd.

  5. In the final stanza, the poet speaks of trying to “herd” the cows; what is he really describing? He is talking about trying to make a poem about the cows. In a deeper sense, he seems to be writing about the impossibility of capturing nature in words.

“Writing Slump”

Words to Consider:
seceded
spatulas
diaspora
unwitting
collaboration
Valhalla—
Norse heaven
mimosa

GOING DEEPER: QUESTIONS FOR ANALYSIS

  1. What is the poem saying about clouds in the first stanza? Are there clouds in the sky? What are the clouds doing, according to the poet? There are no clouds. They have gone to create a country of their own.

  2. What do puddles look like if they “shrug off the light and hold the shadows hostage”? They do not shine. They are dark.

  3. What can you assume about a “chop shop” from the poem? It is a place where cars are dismantled for redistribution of the parts.

  4. In stanza one, the clouds are said to “secede.” In stanza two, the fox insists she’s only a fox. In stanza three, the puddles “shrug off the light,” and in the fifth stanza, the mimosa “holds its tongue.” What do these have in common? In all, Nature is refusing to be part of a poem.

  5. What is the slip of tongue by the speaker’s mother in the last stanza? Explain the joke and how it is an unwitting collaboration. She says “Bolivia” instead of “oblivion.” Her tongue is refusing to cooperate with her, too, so she shares the plight of the poet.

Literary Features:
Personification

Find the three examples of personification in “Writing Slump.” Explain what the effect of personification is here. There are more than three: clouds “seceding,” fox “insisting”, puddles “shrugging off and holding shadows hostage,” radials “being married”, hub caps “migrating to Valhalla”, and the mimosa “holding its tongue”. It adds to the humor and strengthens the theme of nature being “against” the poet.

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

“Cattle Song” Imitation

Have students collect, or collect yourself, headlines or news briefs from the Internet or newspaper concerning “News of the Weird.” Ask them to select an example that seems to relate particularly to their own lives in some way. When all students have settled on a choice, have them use it as the epigraph to a poem in which they imaginatively expand the scene or situation. Ask that they, like Taylor, use the poem as a way to explore their own concerns, but that they keep it tongue-in-cheek. Suggest that they try to incorporate puns or word play.


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