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Written by Countée Cullen (1903-1946)
Once riding in old Baltimore,
Heart-filled, head-filled with glee;
I saw a Baltimorean
Keep looking straight at me.
Now I was eight and very small,
And he was no whit bigger,
And so I smiled, but he poked out
His tongue, and called me, "Nigger."
I saw the whole of Baltimore
From May until December;
Of all the things that happened there
That's all that I remember.
This poem evokes many emotions in my students. But each one agrees that it is a testament to how powerful words can be and it leads itself to many interesting avenues of discussion.
This is an interesting topic because the poets' poem can have different meanings for different people. Literary and poetic scholars have dedicated their lives to the interpretation of the meaning of poems, however there still remains the beauty for every person who reads a poem to feel it in their own way. ( In my opinion that is what poetry is really about)... I think my choice might be unconventional, however in my heart I know it has the potential to teach 'youth' a lesson.
'Because I Could Not Stop for Death' by Emily Dickinson
"Birches" by Robert Frost:
When I see birches bend to left and right
Across the lines of straighter darker trees,
I like to think some boy’s been swinging them.
But swinging doesn’t bend them down to stay
As ice storms do. Often you must have seen them
Loaded with ice a sunny winter morning
After a rain. They click upon themselves
As the breeze rises, and turn many-colored
As the stir cracks and crazes their enamel.
Soon the sun’s warmth makes them shed crystal shells
Shattering and avalanching on the snow crust—
Such heaps of broken glass to sweep away
You’d think the inner dome of heaven had fallen.
They are dragged to the withered bracken by the load,
And they seem not to break; though once they are bowed
So low for long, they never right themselves:
You may see their trunks arching in the woods
Years afterwards, trailing their leaves on the ground
Like girls on hands and knees that throw their hair
Before them over their heads to dry in the sun.
But I was going to say when Truth broke in
With all her matter of fact about the ice storm,
I should prefer to have some boy bend them
As he went out and in to fetch the cows—
Some boy too far from town to learn baseball,
Whose only play was what he found himself,
Summer or winter, and could play alone.
One by one he subdued his father’s trees
By riding them down over and over again
Until he took the stiffness out of them,
And not one but hung limp, not one was left
For him to conquer. He learned all there was
To learn about not launching out too soon
And so not carrying the tree away
Clear to the ground. He always kept his poise
To the top branches, climbing carefully
With the same pains you use to fill a cup
Up to the brim, and even above the brim.
Then he flung outward, feet first, with a swish,
Kicking his way down through the air to the ground.
So was I once myself a swinger of birches.
And so I dream of going back to be.
It’s when I’m weary of considerations,
And life is too much like a pathless wood
Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs
Broken across it, and one eye is weeping
From a twig’s having lashed across it open.
I’d like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.
May no fate willfully misunderstand me
And half grant what I wish and snatch me away
Not to return. Earth’s the right place for love:
I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.
I’d like to go by climbing a birch tree,
And climb black branches up a snow-white trunk
Toward heaven, till the tree could bear no more,
But dipped its top and set me down again.
That would be good both going and coming back.
One could do worse than be a swinger of birches.
A. E. Housman's "When I Was One-and-Twenty" reflects upon the rashness of youth. Only after having lived through his mistakes does the youth learn the lessons told to him previously:
When I was one and twenty
I heard a wise many say,
'Give crown and pounds and guineas
But not your heart away;
Give pearls away and rubies
But keep your fancy free."
But I was one-and-twenty,
No use to talk to me.
When I was one-and-twenty
I heard him say again,
"The heart our of the bosom
Was never given in vain;
'Tis paid with sighs a plenty
And sold for endless rue."
And I am two-and-twenty,
And, oh, 'tis true, 'tis true.
Another famous poem by this same poet is "To an Athlete Dying Young," a poem praising an athlete who has died. His glory will not fade because he tried to retain his athletic status even though older. (Some lingering professional athletes would do well to heed this advice and quit while they are admired.)
The time you won your town the race
We chaired you through the market place,
Man and boy stood cheering by,
And home we brought you shoulder high.
To-day, the road all runners come,
Shoulder-high we bring you home,
And set you at your threshold down,
Townsman of a stiller town.
Smart lad, to slip betimes away
From fields where glory does not stay
And early though the laurel grows
It withers quicker than the rose.
Eyes the shady night has shut
Cannot see the record cut,
And silence sounds no worse than cheers
After earth has stopped the ears;
Now you will not swell the rout
Of lads that wore their honour out,
Runner whom renown outran
And the name died before the man.
So set, before its echoes fade,
The fleet foot on the sill of shade,
And hold to the low lintel up
The still-defended challenge cup.
And round that early-laurelled head
Will flock to gaze the strengthless dead,
And find unwithered on his curls,
A garland briefer than a girl's.
As cited in S.E. Hinton's "The Outsiders," Robert Frost's "Nothing Gold Can Stay" is a great poem about life, youth, and its valuable lessons.
Nature's first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold,
Her early leaf's a flower,
but only so an hour.
(Then) leaf subsides to leaf,
so Eden sank to grief.
So dawn goes down to day,
Nothing gold can stay.
The poem is a lesson in the temporal nature of youth and vitality. It bears some similarities to the aforementioned poem used in Dead Poet's Society -- "Gather ye rosebuds while ye may..." in that both contain essentially the same message, simply worded in different ways. Take advantage of the time you have, for nothing lasts forever.
"To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time" by Robert Herrick is a poem about youth that develops a strong theme (lesson). The voice in the poem speaks to the young, telling them to "Gather ye rosebuds while ye may," a metaphor for enjoying life while one is young. The poem develops the idea that time passes very quickly and that being young is the best stage of life; once youth is gone, life is never as good and grows worse as one ages:
That age is best which is the first,
When youth and blood are warmer;
But being spent, the worse, and worst
Times still succeed the former.
The poem might be summed up in the words of Carpe Diem, which means "Seize the day." Make the most of being young because you won't be young forever. Take action while you can because you will have the rest of your life to put things off:
Then be not coy, but use your time,
And, while ye may, go marry;
For, having lost but once your prime,
You may forever tarry.
In other words, just as the title says, "make much of time."
Many authors have taken pen to the subject of youth. In retrospect it is easy to see mistakes in one's youth and comment about the mature perception. Advice is often awarded to the young, but not always accepted as the right path. One usually learns from personal mistake.
Anthem for Doomed Youth by Wilfred Owen
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries for them; no prayers nor bells,
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs, -
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of good-byes.
The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.
Wishes on eyelashes; childhood customs
We carry on even though we're old enough to know better.
But we don't, so we pick up the pennies.
Talk to the magpies. Cross our hearts and hope to die,
Stick a needle in my eye.
Skipping rhymes that die with our demographic.
Now they've got better things to.
by Millie Walsh
"The Lake" by Edgar Allen Poe is a fitting tradition of the youth in poetry.
In spring of youth it was my lot
To haunt of the wide world a spot
The which I could not love the less--
So lovely was the loneliness
Of a wild lake, with black rock bound,
And the tall pines that towered around.
But when the Night had thrown her pall
Upon the spot, as upon all,
And the mystic wind went by
Murmuring in melody--
Then--ah, then, I would awake
To the terror of the lone lake.
Yet that terror was not fright,
But a tremulous delight--
A feeling not the jewelled mine
Could teach or bribe me to define--
Nor Love--although the Love were thine.
Death was in that poisonous wave,
And in its gulf a fitting grave
For him who thence could solace bring
To his lone imagining--
Whose solitary soul could make
An Eden of that dim lake.
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