What are some good inquiry questions for the poem "the schoolyard of forever" by Charles Bukowski?

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Lori Steinbach | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Charles Bukowski was part of the American "Beat Poet" movement of the 1960s, though he did not particularly align himself with them. He was always a bit of a maverick in all things (and an extreme maverick in some things), and the course of his life was quite a roller coaster because of that and his rather tumultuous upbringing.

The most singular thing about his poetry, it seems to me, is that it is autobiographical and often written about his most painful life experiences--of which there were many. In "the schoolyard of forever" he documents his experience as an elementary school student who was bullied, something that really happened to him. 

From that experience, he reflects upon the rest of his life and how he at times was bullied but also did the bullying at other times and places in his life. 

So, perhaps a good point of inquiry to begin with is the autobiographical aspect of this poem. How much of it is true and how much is philosophical reflection on a world which is full of what he calls 

the bullies, the dragons, the freaks.

This poem sets up an extended metaphor of life as a schoolyard which always contains both the bullies and the bullied--the attackers and the victims, if you will. Think about this metaphor and whether it is true for all people or just for these two groups of victims and aggressors. Is a schoolyard and bullying an apt metaphor for life?

Another good line of questioning concerns the changes he writes about concerning being bullied and being a bully. Follow the thread of the poem and trace the changes he and others like him make as they transform from victims to aggressors and back to victims again.

This poem is replete with metaphors, such as this one:

we grew like odd plants
gathering nourishment
blossoming.

Another is the consistent image of being pushed up against a fence with no means of escape. Explore those comparisons both in and out of an educational setting.

Consider what Bukowski is saying in this poem about the formal educational system and what he is implying about the "informal" lessons he and those like him learned while in school.

Clearly the poet claims to have learned something from the experiences he documents in this poem. What are those lessons and what is his attitude about them? This requires a close study of things like tone and diction to compare the beginning of the poem to the end. (Hint: at the end of the poem, presumably the place where we would expect to see some growth and change, we still find words like "trapped" and "embedded" and "stuck.")

Is the poem's form suited to the theme? In other words, does the way the poem looks, sounds, and reads match the message of the piece?

What is Bukowski's view of adults in this poem? Notice that he calls his professors bullies and notes that cars passed by when he and the others were pressed against the fence but did nothing to help them.

his fists coming against us
as we were trapped against the steel fence
as we heard the sounds of automobiles passing but not stopping
as the world went about doing what it did

How is this view of the adults in his world connected to Bukowski's life story? (I've attached an excellent eNotes site below to help you with some of those biographical details if you do not already know them.)

This is an interesting poem to study both in connection to the author's life, something that is not always so evident in poetry, and to the metaphor of bullying in the schoolyard which he applies to all of life.

Sources:

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