Friday, November 23, 2018

Poetry Friday: Odes at Thanksgiving

Every year I read Neruda odes with my eighth graders during Thanksgiving week, and encourage them to write their own. I've written posts about this several times in the past: here and here in 2010, here in 2011, here in 2012, here in 2013, here in 2014, here in 2015, here in 2016, and here last year.

This year was a little different, because we had a touch of rioting here in Haiti. (Here's an article from the Miami Herald to get you caught up on the situation.) We did have school on Monday, but only four seventh graders and four eighth graders were there. Tuesday we had a delayed start which turned into a day off, and Wednesday we were off again. Yesterday and today were regularly scheduled days off for the Thanksgiving holiday (not a local holiday but we're an American school). So I didn't get to share odes this year, except with the few who were there on Monday; we read "Ode to Scissors," one of my favorites. I'm planning on squeezing a bit more on this into next week's lessons, so we'll see how that goes.

In the meantime, I found a new-to-me ode to share with you for Poetry Friday today. 

Ode to Bird Watching
by Pablo Neruda
translated by Jodey Bateman

Let's look for birds!
The tall iron branches
in the forest,
the dense
fertility on the ground.


I bury
my shoes
in the mud,
jump over rivulets.
A thorn
bites me and a gust
of air like a crystal
splits up inside my chest.
are the birds?
Maybe it was
rustling in the foliage
or that fleeting pellet
of brown velvet
or that displaced
perfume? That
leaf that let loose cinnamon smell
- was that a bird? That dust
from an irritated magnolia
or that fruit
which fell with a thump -
was that a flight?
Oh, invisible little
birds of the devil
with their ringing
with their useless feathers.


I want to touch their gloves
of real hide
which they never forget in
the branches
and to converse with
sitting on my shoulders
although they may leave
me like certain statues
undeservedly whitewashed.


You can read the whole thing here.

What struck and amused me about this poem is that it isn't an ode to birds; Neruda seems a little vague on the birds themselves. We never get a single concrete bird detail in this poem, and this from a guy who is heavily into concrete details. The subject of the poem is, instead, the experience of bird watching, which appears to be largely frustrating. He's tracking sounds and even smells, asking "Was that a bird?" and anticipating getting pooped on. "Where are the birds?" he wants to know.

I can very much relate to this poem because my own bird knowledge is rudimentary at best (although I'm trying), and my efforts to take pictures of birds result mostly in lovely views of empty branches. And I can relate to it too because I find when I write an ode, or really just about anything at all, it's often as much about me as it is about the topic of my attention.

Neruda wrote about this tendency elsewhere in a poem called "Siempre Yo," or as Ben Belitt translates it, "Me Again."

Me Again
Pablo Neruda
translated by Ben Belitt

I who wanted to talk
of a century inside the web
that is always my poem-in-progress,
have found only myself wherever I looked
and missed the real happening.
With wary good faith
I opened myself to the wind: the lockers,
clothes-closets, graveyards,
the calendar months of the year,
and in every opening crevice
my face looked back at me.

The more bored I became
with my unacceptable person,
the more I returned to the theme of my person;
worst of all,
I kept painting myself to myself
in the midst of a happening.
What an idiot (I said to myself
a thousand times over) to perfect all that craft
of description and describe only myself,
as though I had nothing to show but my head,
nothing better to tell than the mistakes of a lifetime.

Tell me, good brothers,
I said at the Fishermen's Union,
do you love yourselves as I do?
The plain truth of it is:
we fishermen stick to our fishing,
while you fish for yourself (said
the fishermen): you fish over and over again
for yourself, then throw yourself back in the sea.

I've been thinking a lot lately about self-portraits and selfies, and about the idea that we writers are so often our own subject. We're stuck with ourselves, no matter how bored we get. We fish and fish and fish, and throw ourselves back in the sea, and then fish some more. Or we go bird watching and end up focusing on our own experience and missing the birds.

An eighth grader started an ode on Monday, and she passed it to me to look at. It was about her friends, the ones who were there with her at school that day; they were bonding and loving being such a small group. It was an ode to her friends, and an ode to herself with them, the tight little group they formed. I smiled and passed it back to her, telling her she was on exactly the right track.

Irene has this week's roundup.


Molly Hogan said...

I just shut my notebook in which I was writing about bird watching, but more specifically about how much I'd missed for so many years by not paying attention. So, back to me, right? In other words, your post and these wonderful Neruda poems resonated. Every time I read a Neruda poem, I think that I should read more of his work. That second ode is rich and wonderful -- I love these lines: "you fish over and over again/for yourself, then throw yourself back in the sea.". Thanks for a wonderful post. Stay safe!

Donna Smith said...

I guess it is a matter of "write what you know"...
Now I want to go back and dissect a few of my poems and see where I am!

Mary Lee said...

I like your thoughts on "Me Again" as much as I like Neruda's poem!

Irene Latham said...

Dear Ruth, I love your thoughts here about self and writing... all poems reveal us, methinks. And to me, the best ones are the ones that DO show the author in the subject -- because that's the point where the reader may find him/herself. In fact, I am always looking for layers in poems.. the facts, description, emotions, the poet, the reader, the world.... we are our own best subject, but it's only interesting to others if we can find a way to link it to birds or birdwatching or watermelons or friends or whatever! Keep going with your students. Your work is important, esp. in difficult times. xo

Margaret Simon said...

Ruth, I am so sorry about the riots and the fear they must be causing. Your post resonated with me as I try to write about nature from the outside. "We fish and fish and fish, and throw ourselves back in the sea, and then fish some more." This is so true. Thanks for this "permission" to put myself into the poem. Like Irene said, that's the way for the reader to come in.

JoAnn Early Macken said...

Oh, this is all so true! I love "their gloves / of real hide / which they never forget in / the branches" and how the whole poem confirms my own birdwatching experiences, although I'd give up if I experienced only the frustration and none of the joy. I love the idea of fishing for ourselves over and over again. Hooray for the eighth grader who got it right!

Linda B said...

I love Neruda's poem, really about his bird-watching (or finding I guess). As I read, I realized that it was about him and connected to the fact, like you, I have taken numerous pictures trying to capture a chickadee that's in the trees outside my home, only to find I captured more trees. I do love "They brag /of how much they do." It is true, like so many of the words from Neruda. I do love reading what you do with your students, a wonderful thing they will keep with them I imagine. Sorry to read of the riots. I saw your news on FB, too, hope things are settling down for all.

Carol said...

I admire people who watch birds successfully! That's a hobby that fascinated me, but one which I have never had any luck. I want to send this poem to Ralph Fletcher, if you follow him on Facebook, he has taken up birding/photography, and has is taking some absolutely beautiful pictures!

Tabatha said...

I hope you do get a chance to do more ode-sharing next week! I was charmed by your description of your student's ode to friendship.

author amok said...

I love the image of these vague, magical birds sitting on Neruda's shoulders and talking to him. Thank you for sharing these poems.

Kathryn Apel said...

I am like Mary Lee - and enjoyed your thoughts as much as the poem itself. (Though I did smile at that white-washing line, particularly. :) )

Linda Mitchell said...

Ruth, I'm sorry that riots have interrupted school. I hope you are OK and not too frightened, yourself? I imagine I would be.

I found myself rushing through the bird watching poem and the "selfie" poem I think because I was looking for what the title suggested I look for. I do love Neurda. But, I think that these poems made me a feel a little off the path. I really like your take on them and how they are good for students, good for us as writers to consider. Thank you, dear teacher....for being at school today.

Brenda at FriendlyFairyTales said...

Hi Ruth, I'm sorry to hear about the riots and disruptions. That is sad for the children, as stability is so crucial for them. I'm glad to share a little of your wisdom and Neruda odes.

Jone said...

I’m sorry to hear about the rioting. I hope peace returns. I love Neruda. Thank you for sharing him with us today.

Michelle Kogan said...

I'm hoping that things have calmed down in your area–the riots. What an interesting post you have given … I agree with Irene and the voices here that we end up putting ourselves into our writing–though strength comes out of connecting with others. I took to these poems as I'm very connected with looking for birds, thanks for all.