April 14, 2014
Today I am pleased to bring you the second entry in my National Poetry Month series, from my dear, dear friend Courtney Rath. Special thanks to Lisa Seger of Blue Heron Farm for letting me use these wonderful photos. –Nishta
For a long time I thought poetry was something to be worked at and worked on, something to be studied, perhaps appreciated, but only after careful explication. Poetry was not about my life.
Until it was.
The poem that changed things for me was Galway Kinnell’s “St. Francis and the Sow.” I remember reading the fourth line, “for everything flowers, from within, of self-blessing,” and stopping short. “Um, no. No.” But then the next two lines, in the moment of my reading them, made something real in the world that had never been possible for me before: “sometimes it is necessary/ to reteach a thing its loveliness.” Yes.
This poem finds its way back to me in moments when I need it most. For example, during National Poetry Month last year, I was trying out some yoga classes at a local studio. Though I’ve developed many ways to compensate for it, I am really quite shy, and newness (finding my way around new spaces, figuring out the procedures at new places, talking to new people) is often anxiety-producing for me. Before class, I was nervously wandering in the hallway reading the notices on a bulletin board when I discovered an envelope full of folded paper. It was the paper I noticed first, lovely and marbleized, folded and secured with a paper strap in a contrasting color. Inside each little paper package was a poem, offered to yogis to celebrate National Poetry Month. When I unfolded my selection, I rediscovered St. Francis.
St. Francis and the Sow
stands for all things,
even for those things that don’t flower,
for everything flowers, from within, of self-blessing;
though sometimes it is necessary
to reteach a thing its loveliness,
to put a hand on its brow
of the flower
and retell it in words and in touch
it is lovely
until it flowers again from within, of self-blessing;
as Saint Francis
put his hand on the creased forehead
of the sow, and told her in words and in touch
blessings of earth on the sow, and the sow
began remembering all down her thick length,
from the earthen snout all the way
through the fodder and slops to the spiritual curl of the tail,
from the hard spininess spiked out from the spine
down through the great broken heart
to the sheer blue milken dreaminess spurting and shuddering
from the fourteen teats into the fourteen mouths sucking and blowing beneath them:
the long, perfect loveliness of sow.
I have offered this poem as a gift, too, my version of paying it forward. Last fall, I taught my first class to teachers-to-be; once again, the newness of it—along with the fact that teaching teachers is what I’ve come to graduate school to prepare for and here I was doing it for the first time—was terrifying. My students were terrified, too, overwhelmed by the workload of courses and student teaching, the prospect of changing the lives of their students, and the project of discovering themselves as teachers. I offered St. Francis to them in our last night of class. To me, teaching is about helping students to see possibilities for themselves, to help them be the best version of themselves, to retell them, in words and in touch, that they are lovely.
Most days I think poems are the best teachers.
Courtney L. Rath is a former high school English teacher and current Ph.D. candidate in Education at the University of Oregon. She is currently engaged in a dissertation project that works to disrupt typical (and typically unhelpful) narratives about teaching and replace them with multifaceted stories that paint a realistic, complex picture for pre-service teachers. When she’s not grappling with articles on theoretical physics and posthumanism, Courtney spends her time cooking, knitting, and dancing. She lives with her husband John and their dachshund Tillie in Eugene.
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