Sunday, April 28, 2013

You Never Know about a Poem

When I was in the ninth grade, Mrs. Billman announced we’d be reading poetry and passed out mimeographed sheets fresh off the press.  We held them to our noses, sniffing the sharp chemical odor, becoming momentarily light-headed.

She’d given us ee cummings’ “anyone lived in a pretty how town.”  It begins: 
                       
                        anyone lived in a pretty how town
                         (with up so floating many bells down)                    

Mixed-up punctuation.  Misaligned parts of speech.    I thought I’d finally damaged my brain, something we were warned about from breathing that damp purple ink.  Nothing made sense.  Surely the Correct Police would storm in and seize these pages.

But no one groaned. 

No one complained. 

No one whispered that cummings was an idiot. 

We were spellbound. 

For the next hour, she performed a teachable sleight-of-hand, asking questions with no apparent right or wrong answers.  She had us suggest possible punctuation changes.  She asked how a pronoun could be a name.  She asked why it mattered.  Hands flew into the air.   

We forgot that we hated poetry.

In Manchester Junior High School, in the far right front classroom in this picture, my world cracked open.  I understood the power of unexpected words in unexpected places in unexpected patterns.  Mrs. Billman explained that breaking grammar and syntax and punctuation rules required knowing them first.

I was skeptical. 

After class I asked her if cummings really knew how to use a comma.  She assured me that he did and that he’d made deliberate choices by avoiding rules.  “Writers know what they’re doing, Karen,” she said.  

I think she knew I would become a writer.  She wanted me to feel every last page-tugging option that awaited me.  She knew the tiniest comma or the shortest adjective could whisper in my heart, posing a beautiful possibility.

Only a ninth grader bent on learning how to craft a meaningful sentence would have asked that question instead of rushing to lunch with everyone else.

Maybe that’s why I love picture books where boundaries crumble.  Sentences float.  Phrases peek.  Words skate up and down the page.  It’s a matter of artistic and editorial choices.

And I learned the value of those choices from e e cummings.

And Mrs. Billman.    


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