David Berman

Do you remember the way the girls
would call out “love you!”
conveniently leaving out the “I”
as if they didn’t want to commit
to their own declarations.

I agree that the “I” is a pretty heavy concept.
—  David Berman, "Self Portrait at 28"
Do you remember the way the girls
would call out “love you!”
conveniently leaving out the “I”
as if they didn’t want to commit
to their own declarations.

I agree that the “I” is a pretty heavy concept
and hope you won’t get uncomfortable
if I should go into some deeper stuff here.

—  David Berman, excerpt from “Self-Portrait At 28”
24 Must-Share Poems for Middle and High School

by Samantha Cleaver

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.

5. Having a Coke with You by Frank O’Hara
Teach this poem for how O’Hara uses references, or for the humor.

6. That Sure is my Little Dog by Eleanor Lehman engages with popular culture and an irreverent tone.

7. Mother to Son by Langston Hughes
A politically charged poem that still rings true today, Hughes’ poetry, but particularly Mother to Son, is timeless.

8. Another Reason why I Don’t Keep a Gun in the House by Billy Collins
Any student who’s ever felt annoyed or had to put up with daily frustrations will relate to this poem.

9. Pass On by Michael Lee creates snapshots of memory, creating lines and ideas for every student to grab and hold on to.

10. The Rose that Grew from Concrete by Tupac creates a clear connection between the rhythm and deeper meaning of poetry and rap.

11. Beethoven by Shane Koyczan
This poem is a biography in verse that connects Beethoven’s story to the universal.

12. A Dream Within a Dream by Edgar Allen Poe
Poe is an expert at rhyme scheme—and this poem is clear evidence.

13. Oranges by Gary Soto
Soto’s poem about trying to impress a girl shows what small moments reveal about ourselves, and how those moments embed themselves in our memories.

14. Still I Rise by Maya Angelou is a political, uplifting, call to action that students should read right when they’re starting to define the mark they can have on the world.

15. And the Ghosts by Graham Foust
An example of just what one line can do.

16. So You Want to Be a Writer by Charles Bukowski sheds light on the writing process, with a sense of humor and a tongue-in-cheek challenge.

17. This Is Just to Say by William Carlos Williams

This poem leaves lots of space for inference, which leads to great discussion.

18. Do not go gentle into that good night by Dylan Thomas is a solid poem for teaching poetry elements (repetition, rhyme scheme, you know the rest).

19. We Real Cool by Gwendolyn Brooks
This fun, quirky poem captures the mood of teenagers, and leaves a lot to talk about.

20. Daddy by Sylvia Plath
Plath rarely minces words and this is no exception—this poem is stuffed full of deeper meaning.

21. I died for Beauty-but was scarce by Emily Dickinson
Dickinson is so good at creating mood, this time about reflection.

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.

24. A Total Stranger One Black Day by E. E. Cummings
Use this poem to teach ways to approach point of view.

What are your favorite poems to teach?

Do you remember the way the girls
would call out “love you!”
conveniently leaving out the “I”
as if they didn’t want to commit
to their own declarations.

And I agree that the “I” is a pretty heavy concept

—  David Berman

She woke me up at dawn,
her suitcase like a little brown dog at her heels.

I sat up and looked out the window
at the snow falling in the stand of blackjack trees.

A bus ticket in her hand.

Then she brought something black up to her mouth,
a plum I thought, but it was an asthma inhaler.

I reached under the bed for my menthols
and she asked if I ever thought of cancer.

Yes, I said, but always as a tree way up ahead
in the distance where it doesn’t matter

And I suppose a dead soul must look back at that tree,
so far behind his wagon where it also doesn’t matter.

except as a memory of rest or water.

Though to believe any of that, I thought,
you have to accept the premise

that she woke me up at all.

—  David Berman, “Imagining Defeat”

The Silver Jews - Early Times, 1990-1

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. 

Download “Secret Knowledge of the Backroads”

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.

Interviews: Silver Jews | Features | Pitchfork

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.”