WILLA v9 - In the Classroom - A Polish Poet Inspires American Teens (and their teacher!)

Volume 9
Fall 2000

A Polish Poet Inspires American Teens (and their teacher!)

Carol Jago,
Santa Monica High School,
Santa Monica, CA

I have to confess that until she won the Noble Prize for Literature, I had never heard of the Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska. Reading the translated poems that punctuated newspaper and magazine articles about her, I wanted badly to share them with my students. There was a freshness to her lines that I knew high school students would enjoy. But simply reading the odd poem aloud to students rarely makes much of an impact. Teenagers listen glassy-eyed; I gush about how lines sing; they nod and dream of Saturday night. What I needed was a wake-up poem.

As soon as I saw the tiny poem "Some like Poetry" in the New Yorker magazine (December 10, 1996), I knew I had found the one. What Szymborska does is take the three words of her title and then discuss in three stanzas what each of the words means to her. Her definitions are idiosyncratic and delightful. My favorite stanza is the one defining "like" where she writes:

but one also likes chicken soup, one likes compliments and the color blue, one likes and old scarf, one likes to prove one's point, one likes to pet a dog.

I suddenly saw that I could use Szymborska's poem as a model and have students take a three-word sentence of their own and expand it into a poem. The task was utterly simple, yet invited a certain wackiness.

Scott and Arash immediately set to writing companion poems about music-one called "Some like East Coast," the other called "Most like West Coast." They had to do some lobbying with me to use four instead of three words, but I relented. When finished they had each developed powerful arguments in verse supporting the particular music that, in their opinion, was central to their lives. The class delighted in the paired reading.

Curiously, though it may reflect their age, many students' three word sentences began with the word "I." The number of variations and complications they gave a definition to of this term fascinated me. "I that means myself/That means nobody but myself/Not even my family who are many/That means me/The one, the only/Not the symbol for the element iron/Not the part of the body that helps me see/Half of we." Though I had not intended to send them into an introspective space to contemplate what it means to be an individual, the assignment drew them there.

The most interesting poems seemed to come from odd sentences like Lauren's "Ferrets are Illegal," or Giffin's "Bob Ate Pie."

A Palindrome
so common it passes spellcheck
common letters of the alphabet
Devouring an object such as Bob
past tense of eat
coincidentally another spelling of eat
a simpler version
of chewing, swallowing bolus, digesting Pie--
A piece of
a word commonly used to mean "easy"
I have never seen a pie that was easy
not a palindrome

If you are interested in reading more of Wislawa Szymborska's work, three volumes of her poetry are currently available in the U.S.: People on a Bridge (Forest Books), Selected Poems (Quarterly Review of Literature), View with a Grain of Sand (Harcourt Brace). I highly recommend them, and hope you will try your hand at a poem. Please let me see them if you do!

Reference Citation: Jago, Carol. (2000) "A Polish Poet Inspires American Teenagers (and their teacher!)." WILLA, Volume 9, p. 38.

by Radiya Rashid