Regardless of the course title, I try to read a poem aloud at the beginning of every class I teach. Some of my college freshmen love this, but most probably don’t. Like me at their age, they do not carry poetry around in their heads to help them make sense of what is happening around them. Yet.
By the third week of any given semester, I can note eyes rolling as I continue to insist on this ritual. But not all eyes are rolling, and in every class a handful of students jot down the name of the poet and poem before leaning in to engage with the words I send their way.
I like to insist that the carefully selected rhetorical devices within poetry have a place in our rhetoric as we compose, say, an argumentative essay in a college writing course. At the beginning of each semester, our first order of business is to re-imagine the word “argument.” We confront visions of dichotomous debate and replace them with a stance that would imply an intense search for clarity. And this stance often looks very much like that posture of the students, leaning in to receive and learn from the poetic phrasing offered at the beginning of each class.
But more importantly, well beyond the college writing classroom, I hope that through these poetry readings, I’m offering my students tools for their engagement with life—not only their outward articulation of feelings and observations, but also their inward understanding of who they are. Poetry offers clarity in the ongoing dialogue we have with ourselves.
I don’t often go into great depth or explanation about the opening poems, and I don’t usually allow them to lead into lengthy class discussions. A Garfield poster which hung in one of my high school classrooms comes to mind: Garfield is walking around with stacks of books tied to his head, arms, chest, legs, and feet. Above him, in that bubbly Garfield font, it reads, “I’m learning by osmosis.” I tend to believe that poetry is powerful enough that mere exposure to it has potency. I simply read the poem aloud to my students once, maybe twice, trusting that it will do the work and that a few students will think—no, they will realize, to borrow from Mary Oliver, “…that it was all the time words that you yourself, out of your own heart had been saying.”
There are a few poems, however, that I do allow to take up a larger portion of our class time, like Elizabeth Bishop’s “Filling Station.” First, I have the students read it alone. Then I have a few read it aloud. Then I share a recording of Bishop reading it. We talk about the poem’s rhythms, the arrangement of the words, and the speaker’s investigation of arrangements at the filling station. The students pull out alliteration and repetition of sounds, words, and images. We imagine the intentionality behind lines like, “…so that they softly say: / ESSO—SO—SO—SO…” We discuss how a new level of accuracy is reached through the decisions of detail within the poem than if the speaker had simply said, “Today I went to a dirty filling station.” The sharing of details opens a more thorough understanding of the situation. Facts are embedded in the pondering. Through a poetic imagining, we are brought closer to the truth of what is actually going on.
And then there’s that beautiful last line that we feel so kindly reaching out to us, “Somebody loves us all.”
When I play the recording of Bishop reading this poem for my classes, I am always tempted to skip her passing comments before and after. In the beginning she says, “This one will have to be changed, as you’ll see, somehow, I don’t know how, at the end, but I’ll read it the way it is now.” And then right after she reads the last line, “Somebody loves us all,” she says in passing, “I’m afraid that’s a wasted… (ha) no… (ha).” It’s not completely clear what she’s talking about, but you get enough of a sense to gather that she feels a bit silly about the end, particularly that last line. Perhaps as silly as someone might feel if, while arranging oil cans at an “all quite thoroughly dirty” filling station, she realizes she is taking the time to arrange the cans “so that they softly say: / ESSO—SO—SO—SO.”
Maybe Bishop didn’t like the way the last line or stanza sounded. Maybe it felt too clean. But I like it, and I need it to end just as it does. In the last two stanzas, there is a shift in focus. The speaker goes from describing the scene to wondering why it strikes her. What is she to make of it? “Why, oh why, the doily?” The answer to these questions, or at least the answer she manages to muster at the time, means everything. For me, her answer, to borrow a phrase from Christian Wiman, “brings a storm of peace.”
My familiarity with this poem has come from my determination to share it. I share it because of how it builds to that last stanza, that last line. And exposing it to others exposes it to me. Repeatedly. Carrying poetry around in my head helps me make sense of what is happening around me, and it is a welcome companion in my pursuits of clarity. So why, oh why, Bishop’s “Filling Station?”
“Oh, but it is dirty!”
When I realized my husband and I would need to separate and I would need to make a new home for my two daughters and myself, I knew I would have to find or create or claim or proclaim or reclaim beauty within dirty circumstances. I could not imagine this being possible. Beauty? In this mess? Nothing was clean or bright. All imaginings came covered in a “disturbing, over-all black translucency.” My thinking became crowded with questions like, “How does this work? How do I do this? Where do we live? On what do we sleep? And then what?” But I began searching for right choices, imagining options I could not see, and, day by day, I found answers to those questions. I found a safe apartment, and I got a good deal on two twin beds and one full. And my landlord, soft to my situation, offered me two weeks rent-free to prepare the place before moving in. I spent hours alone cleaning and planning and thinking, “What do I have to work with? What do I still need?”
Friends offered me sheets and towels. Neighbors offered me pots and pans. A parent from my daughters’ school brought me boxes and boxes of art supplies she’d found at a rummage sale, all practically new. My two brothers drove a moving van eight hours turned ten from Nashville, TN, to deliver some of my late grandmother’s furniture, which had been waiting in storage for someone to need. Also in the moving van were generous gifts from my mother. Soaps and chip clips for me, socks and fresh slippers for my girls. Why the soaps? Why the fresh slippers? Why, oh why, the chip clips?
When I finally brought the girls over to the apartment, it wasn’t ready. There was still a lot of work to do, but they could sense what I hoped it would become for them, for us. I was relieved by their excitement to join in and help with the planning and placement of things.
They both brought special items from the house they knew they wanted to have at the apartment: stuffed animals, certain books and toys, decorations for their room. Olivia included in her stash a straw cowboy hat which she wore as she toured the place for the first time. She let me know we needed hooks, “Lots of hooks, Mom. For hats and jackets and backpacks.” She was very right. Mae brought a banner she’d made me for Mother’s Day earlier in the year. It had the word “Love” written in red with a thick, fat paintbrush. The “o” of “Love” was replaced with a red print of her left hand.
Together we debated where the banner should go. My room? The girls’ room? The hallway? No. Above the fireplace mantel, the first thing you see when you walk in the door? Yes. So that it can softly say to anyone who enters, “Somebody loves us all.”