It can be hard to know which poems will spur your middle and high schoolers into deep, meaningful discussion and which will leave them, ahem, yawning. So we asked experienced teachers to share their favorites—the punch-in-the-gut poems that always get a reaction, even from teens. Here’s what they had to say:
1. Snow by David Berman captures a narrative in miniature with a creative structure.
2. Deer Hit by Jon Loomis Students won’t soon forget this poem, both for the story and the sensory details.
3. Eating Poetry by Mark Strand Read this poem to discuss the meaning beyond the literal words on the page.
4. Fire and Ice by Robert Frost Frost doesn’t hold back with this poem, an ideal one for discussion and debate.
22. Annabel Lee by Edgar Allen Poe A ghost story wrapped up in a poem, another Poe classic.
23. Ode to a Large Tuna in the Market by Pablo Neruda The rest of the poem is as humorous as the title, and it’s fun to dissect and analyze how Neruda writes about everyday objects, like the Tuna on ice.
Early times, indeed. At this point in time, 1990 seems positively prehistoric, doesn’t it? This time capsule compilation, which collects the out-of-print “Dime Map of the Reef” and Arizona Record releases, takes us back to those long-gone days, when a trio of recent UVA grads (l-r: Stephen Malkmus, David Berman, Bob Nastanovich) hit “Record” on an aged boombox and recorded the first Silver Jews sides. The press release claims they’ve been remastered, but the 14 tracks here remain lo-fi enough to give even the hardiest of Guided By Voices fans pause. But after the fuzz, the hiss, the noise, those Gold Soundz emerge. There’s an almost primal intimacy audible on Early Times, as though we’re eavesdropping on some strange, post-adolescent ritual. The songs don’t seem written as much as conjured up out of boredom, excess energy and murmured hints of the poetic leanings both Berman and Malkmus would explore later. Though the Jews would become mainly a vehicle for Berman’s songwriting, it sounds like an equal partnership here, with Malkmus singing lead on several tunes and Nastanovich pounding out caveman (prehistoric, remember?) beats on … drums? Not sure these are actually drums. Buckets? Phone books? Whatever! Just listen to the woozy, dream-like instrumental, “Bar Scene From Star Wars,” that closes out the comp. These guys had a sound. Aside from being an essential early glimpse of Berman and Malkmus in their pre-fame forms, Early Times is a fun, absorbing ride all on its own, context be damned. Enough so that I’m convinced the trio should get back together with the boombox and make a sequel.
Silver Jews’ David Berman writes on his blog: “This is the drawing I made on work stationary in 1990 and taped on the wall near Steve Malkmus’s bedroom door in our Jersey City apartment while he was away in California recording his first album. When he got back he asked if I wouldn’t mind if he used the caption for his album title.”
William Petersen, Marg Helgenberger, Gary Dourdan, George Eads, Jorja Fox, Eric Szmanda, Robert David Hall, Wallace Langham, David Berman, Paul Guilfoyle, Louise Lombard, Laurence Fishburne, Lauren Lee Smith, Liz Vassey, Ted Danson, Elisabeth Shue, Elisabeth Harnois, and Jon Wellner
“All musicians should write poetry or at least read it if they want to improve their game. Except for people who believe lyrics don’t matter. This is the Brian Billick theory of songwriting: Defense (the music) not offense (lyrics) wins championships (Grammys). The best teams of course have both.”
I have been thinking about this line a lot, esp. since I saw it referenced by Dan Bejar in a Washington Post feature I liked quite a bit. Not exactly in the way he uses it here, but the idea that music is the defense and lyrics are the offense. If the defense is amazing, you’re going to stay in the game. You won’t be terrible. But it’s hard to really stand out. There’s a lot of music like this, “vibe” music that sounds nice and is enjoyable to put on but isn’t exactly rich with feeling. If you’re only lyrics, though, and the music isn’t there, you might actually come over as really terrible (in the football analogy, you get blown out like 55 to 24). But when you have both you’re a true powerhouse.
Bejar said of Berman:
On David Berman: “He’s a sports freak so he’s always using sports metaphors. He [once said in an interview], ‘Music is the defense, words are the offense.’ I found that kind of emboldening. You need the music to be good, but you need the words to be great. If the music’s not good, you’re f—ed. But if the words aren’t good, you’ll only ever just be good.”