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***This is the sixty-sixth in a never-ending series called BACKSTORY OF THE POEM where the Chris Rice Cooper Blog (CRC) focuses on one specific poem and how the poet wrote that specific poem. All BACKSTORY OF THE POEM links are at the end of this piece.
Title Photo: Patrick Bizzaro in November 2012. Copyright granted by Patrick Bizzaro for this CRC Blog Post only.
#66 Backstory of the Poem
“At School They Learn Their Nouns”
by Patrick Bizarro
Can you go through the step-by-step process of writing this poem from the moment the idea was first conceived in your brain until final form? This poem starts in experience, which gave rise to feelings that impelled the first draft. My wife Resa and I were at a parent-teacher conference at Ben Franklin Elementary School (Below Right) in Indiana, Pa to find out how our son Antonio was doing at school.
He was in third grade at the time, and we thought he was pretty smart, which meant to us as teachers that he probably had a pretty good teacher. It ends up we were right on both counts. She was excited to meet with us about Antonio’s school work. I remember that she had a pile of folders on her desk and walked over to get the one that had Antonio Bizzaro’s name on it. We were sitting in little school desks.
She had high praise for his work and showed us math tests and spelling tests. As English teachers ourselves, we were very interested in his developing language skills. Again, she had things to show us, samples of his sentences and interesting word choices. We were having a really good time.
Before we left, we asked what they would start to study next and how we could help her by reinforcing material at home. That’s when I think the language of the poem as it appears began.
As the attached journal entry shows, she said “the children are learning their nouns.” I offered, kind of out of the blue as a late-life parent (I was 56 when Antonio was born and Resa was 42), “How nice that they’re learning theirs as I’m forgetting mine.” It’s almost a cliché to say old people forget their nouns. But I had recently forgotten the names of a few people and got kidded about it, so it was on my mind.
Simultaneously, I’d been working as patiently as I can on a new book of poems that address the kinds of questions I think old people have about death and dying, including loss of cognitive powers. I don’t want it to be morose, and I think this poem is funny in some ways. The volume as it’s shaping up needs some light-heartedness, even irony.
My project is to connect the human condition to the condition of the deep universe, and I take special interest in finding out about new discoveries. You can see why metaphysical conceits are interesting to me, then. I respond to what I learn emotionally as well as intellectually.
For instance, when Pluto was banned from our solar system I took the kind of offense you might take if someone voted a family member out of a club. I know scientists have standards, and I think those standards must seem logical to them. Several thousand astrophysicists who made the decision to exclude Pluto could not be wrong, right?
Logic is interesting in its own right.
Let me make my point by sharing this quote from Charles Darwin on human reasoning, a quote that I like very much when I consider scientific reasoning: “Do we have the right to assume that the Creator works by intellectual powers like those of man?”
This quote tickles me because I taught classical rhetoric in a doctoral program at a small university in southwestern Pennsylvania for the last ten years of my teaching career (I retired three years ago, 2015), so I take an interest in the logic that leads to discoveries. I think Einstein’s “thought experiments” have a lot in common with poems, for instance.
My new book of these kinds of poems, just to drive home this point, is entitled Tightropes of Logic, from Richard Feynman’s famous observation in his The Meaning of It All that “Trying to understand the way nature works involves a terrible test of human reasoning ability. It involves subtle trickery, beautiful tightropes of logic on which one has to walk in order not to make a mistake in predicting what will happen.”
I think the “Pluto astrophysicists” made the decision that resulted in excluding Pluto from our solar system by employing those very tightropes. These kinds of reasonings are abundant in my currently unpublished book of poems. I am adding poems to it as new insights occur to me.
I am hopeful to find my proper (reading theorists call it “implied”) reader fairly soon, but I am in no hurry. I want to get it right before I commit to publishing those poems. So when Marie Howe was elected Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, she wrote, “… it is the poet’s increasing responsibility to educate ourselves about realities beyond the subjective self.” That statement from an established poet of such visibility and importance made me tink that maybe things are shifting and the realities of the deep universe have become the subjects of poems, as Wordsworth predicted they would in the final couple of paragraphs of his “Preface” to Lyrical Ballads.
I have recently read books that have addressed these realities by Kelly Cherry, Robert Morgan, Coleman Barks, Ernesto Cardenale, Richard Jackson and others over the past five or six years. So I did not feel alone in my interest but, instead, felt these really fine poets were building an audience for the kinds of poems I intended to write in my own little way.
So, okay. The first stanza of “At School They Learn Their Nouns” was basically given to me. In fact, you can see in the attached journal entry that I made shortly after that parent-teacher conference that the poem began to take shape right away. That’s because it was given to me, and it made me smile enough for me to want to record it in my journal.
The real problem was where the poem would go from there. I didn’t want it to be mechanical or “programmed,” and I hope it doesn’t read that way, but I did want to connect the nouns lost to my memory to the issues of “loss” in the deep universe. The next several drafts wrestled with that idea until I finally figured out that the universe has black holes that suck matter into it just the way something or other, a kind of cognitive black hole, has sucked nouns from my brain. I stumbled, then, into metaphysical conceit, which I argue elsewhere is increasingly vital to contemporary poetry. I find numerous examples of such conceits in the works I identify above.
Thereafter the issue became getting the lines right. I work really hard on line breaks, understanding that there has been much discussion about how they work but hardly any conclusions. In a review of a book of mine from a few years back a reviewer seemed critical of my lineation without offering anything helpful that I could take back with me to my little study (Below Left) to work on.
Sometimes I agree that we shouldn’t know too much about poetry if our goal is to write original poems. Does that even make sense? I forget the name of the person who said it to me.
So I revised at the level not just of words but of word-endings in order to get a rhythm that pleased me but also seemed to highlight what the poem seemed to want to say about aging.
In doing so I accomplished the personal goals of writing about the kinds of issues some people think about as they age and connecting the inner universe of my imaginings with the deep universe. I’m pleased with the result, though I wonder if the poem wanders a bit out of the solar system and into some other place. I am not above revising poems again and again, even after they’ve been published.
Where were you when you started to actually write the poem? And please describe the place in great detail. This is a complicated question. I was in third grade when Sister Claudia first told us that there were things called nouns and that we use them all the time. That was at Ascension School in North Tonawanda, NY, a suburb of Buffalo where I grew up. I took to nouns quite easily because I knew so many of them at the time that I didn’t feel pressured to learn any new ones. Knowing so many nouns made me feel really smart at the time. A few years later at Felton Grammar School in the same city Miss Harriet Smedley (I’m amazed I remember her first name!) required us to know definitions of parts of speech. This was eighth grade. So that definition from Miss Smedley is in the poem. I must have had even more nouns by then.
My point here about when the poem started is that prewriting may often go on for literally years. When I learned what nouns were I didn’t think that someday I’d write a poem about them. Or about forgetting them! Or, that I’d ever write a poem! And I couldn’t have written this poem if Sister Claudia hadn’t taught nouns to us at Ascension School and if Miss Smedley hadn’t required us to know the formal definition in eighth grade! It seems reasonable to me that these were starting points. I also would not have written this poem if I hadn’t decided years and years ago to keep a journal and then sometime later to mine my journal for materials suited to poems. I had a college English teacher (I want to note that his last name was Coffey so no one thinks I’ve lost my beans entirely) who was a big advocate of journaling, and I’ve tried to get my own students to see the value of keeping a journal (or now a blog) as a place to make records of events and thoughts. Sometimes they become purposeful.
So the attached journal entry shows the very beginnings of what became a written incorporation of the idea of nouns that was instigated at Ascension School and later with the definition of nouns I learned in eighth grade. This combined with the experience with Antonio’s third grade teacher enabled me to produce the poem. I cannot imagine it happening any other way or describing it fairly without mention of Sister Claudia and Miss Smedley. It seems important for me to note that the poem begins in feeling which gave rise to language and not the other way around, though I might also argue that Antonio’s teacher’s language gave rise to my feeling.
The second stanza took more concentrated effort, and I really didn’t have a nun or nerd English teacher to help me with it. If I started the actual thing we’re calling the poem when I was in third grade and if we consider it “finished” when it first appeared in print, the poem took about 60 years. More practically, I met my son’s teacher in 2013 and the poem was published in my chapbook Interruptions in 2015 by Finishing Line Press. The chapbook was a finalist or semi finalist. I forget… The book is beautifully done. But to answer the questions, the poem took anywhere from 2 years to 60 years to write, depending on how you count them.
The place where I write is in a study downstairs in our house (Left) in Indiana, Pa. I go to the same place every day and at just about the same time and with a cup of coffee. We are at the top of a hill and from my desk I can see nearly all the way to Pittsburgh. It’s beautiful. The room was built to accommodate my sister, Mary Ann, who I had hoped would come to live with us when we moved north from Greenville, NC where I had retired from East Carolina University in 2008. She was very ill and never visited us here.
The study has numerous ceiling-high book shelves filled with books of the trade most English teachers have but increasingly with books about astrophysics which help me figure out what I’m going to write about. Some people write from the heart, others from the groin, still other nerds from the head. I write from the intellect, such as it is. Wordsworth said feelings gave rise for him to language. In Richard Jackson’s Broken Horizon, Richard claims language gives rise to feeling for him. For me, feelings arise for me when I see correspondences between the inner and outer workings of our beings or between the world of our senses and the world beyond our reach as we come to know it. The new book is made up of many of these kinds of poems. I like it very much and even think it could be important to people my age. We all want to know what’s next, don’t we? What can the deep universe teach us about that?
I never thought I’d become a nerd, but here I am…
What month and year did you start writing this poem? I think this is answered confusingly in #2 because I can’t separate the question asked there from this question. But for simplicity’s sake, I believe it was spring 2013 (Left in 2014) when I wrote the journal entry and probably shortly thereafter when I returned to the entry to make stanza one of the poem. The rest probably took a year of tinkering. I won’t commit to saying I’m done with the poem yet. How does anyone know when a poem is done?
How many drafts of this poem did you write before going to the final? I will attach the journal entry and two subsequent drafts that I just happened to have saved to my hard drive. I know the more current draft will be at the end of this series of questions. Depending on what a person thinks constitutes a draft—and I think a draft might be anything from changing a word to making a whole new start on an idea—I have at least four drafts I can prove and probably dozens more I don’t have in my possession.
Were there any lines in any of your rough drafts of this poem that were not in the final version? And can you share them with us? I think this question is a difficult one. It’s tough to imagine how many lines occurred to me that I just didn’t write down. For me, that’s the difference between “rehearsing” and “revising.” I rehearse quietly in my brain but revise loudly, often heavy-handedly on the page. But that’s not what you want anyway. I’d say from what I have of this poem’s history that the big issue for me was discovering that it would be okay to use the black hole as a metaphor and that, maybe, that metaphor is not yet overdone (Coleman Barks has written a really wonderful poem about black holes which I highly recommend). But then getting it to read without sounding cumbersome or pretentious was the issue.
As a quick analysis, I need to point out (because it can’t be seen here) that the first of these was part of a one-stanza poem. The second of these was a second stanza in the “same” poem. So the decision seems to have been to compartmentalize the emphases with stanza one being the experience and stanza two a kind of analysis or consequence of the thinking done in stanza one. It’s also self-evident that I was concerned about line endings and have tried to follow the course of suspending the start of a line by breaking a line at a place that might leave numerous options open to readers if it’s true (and I think it is) that reading is a process of predicting what will come next in a text. I wanted to posit a connection between the inner self and the outer universe, which I think happens in the second version. The version of the poem that was published shows that I continued to worry over line breaks in the second stanza and tried to be more detailed than in the earlier versions.
What do you want readers of this poem to take from this poem? Well, determining a reader’s take-away from a poem is hardly an author’s prerogative, but I appreciate being asked. In the perfect world in which what I write is understood the way I intend it, I’d want the writer to see the irony of the teacher’s original comment about the children learning nouns and the old father forgetting his. I think I laugh at that line when I read it and all but the really nervous in audiences I’ve read this to seem to see the irony and chuckle forgivingly at that first stanza. The goal of the second stanza is more complicated because it’s linked in my mind to my effort to understand old age. Where DO they go, those people, places and things? Old people who can’t recall nouns they’ve used repeatedly in their lives have confessed to me that they are aware of that fact. Most of them are good-humored and, if they have a partner as good-natured as my wife, they get some help. I have begun keeping a record of proper nouns I remember that people around me have forgotten, especially people younger than I am. The list is about a page long! I went back to my last place of employment recently to give a poetry reading. Many, many of my former undergraduate students were there to listen and, I think, to wish me well. I recognized many of the faces but said at the start of my reading, “If you think I should remember your name but seem to have forgotten it, please hug me and whisper your name in my ear.” Several did. Well, they all hugged me, even the ones whose names I remembered. That was a good day!
I think there are other poems in this new and as yet unpublished collection that do a better job in some ways of reaching into the deep universe for metaphors. I think it’s taken me a few years to really understand this project, and I recall the poems of other writers I’ve loved who have wanted to finish with a project that might be comforting or at least insightful for their readers. I also think first and foremost, even if in a slightly altered context, of Anne Sexton’s The Awful Rowing Toward God. Under happier circumstances than Sexton’s, Maggie Anderson wrote Dear All, from Four Way Books, a collection I’ve recently discovered and enjoyed. I highly recommend it!
Which part of the poem was the most emotional for you to write and why? I am most moved, myself, by the end of stanza 1—“What fun that they should be/learning theirs as I am/forgetting mine.” This line drives two simultaneous events, one local, the other universal. For one, my son is able to learn nouns at a time when I am conscious of forgetting many of mine. For the other, I am feeling the mortal distance between Antonio and myself, the ascendance and decline. But it is also “fun” to think of his life moving forward.
Has this poem been published before? And if so where? The poem appears in my chapbook Interruptions, published by Finishing Line Press in 2015.
Anything you would like to add? I think this blog is an excellent source of materials creative writing teachers might want to use with their students. I remember how happy I was to learn about Alberta Turner’s work on processes of writing poems in Fifty Contemporary Poets: The Creative Process. I’ve used what I learned from Turner over and over in my teaching and even in my writing when I had decisions to make about how to revise or talk about revision. Thank you for including me in this conversation.
At School They Learn Their Nouns
My son’s teacher says,
“the children are learning their nouns.”
What fun that they should be
learning theirs as I am
Where do they go,
these words that name
people, places, and things?
I imagine them spiraling off
like star dust
into the universe,
to become solar systems
of their own,
in the galaxy of my life,
a black hole sucks them
out of my memory
leaving them alone,
nameless, and forgotten.
Patrick Bizzaro has published eleven books and chapbooks of poetry, most recently Poems of the Manassas Battlefield from Mount Olive College Press and Interruptions from Finishing Line Press. To Bizzaro’s credit are two critical studies of Fred Chappell’s poetry and fiction with LSU Press, a book on the pedagogy of academic creative writing with NCTE, four textbooks, and a couple hundred poems, reviews and review essays in literary magazines. He is a staff writer for Asheville Poetry Review and serves on the editorial board of New Writing as well as Impost.
He has won the Madeline Sadin Award from NYQ and Four Quarter's Poetry Prize as well as a Fulbright to visit South Africa during 2012. Bizzaro, first Director of the University Writing Program at East Carolina University (ECU) in Greenville, NC, is a UNC Board of Governor’s Distinguished Professor for Teaching and ECU Scholar-Teacher Award winner. He lives with Native American scholar Resa Crane and their very smart son, Antonio, in Indiana, PA, where he recently retired as a full professor from Indiana University of Pennsylvania's doctoral program in Composition and TESOL, after retiring in 2008 from ECU as Professor Emeritus of English. During his last year on the ECU faculty, he received the “Outstanding Professor” award from the ECU Department of Disability Support Services, the ninth award for teaching he has received during his career. His articles on Creative Writing Studies and composition have appeared regularly in College English and College Composition and Communication. His co-edited book on poet and pedagogue Wendy Bishop, Composing Ourselves as Writer-Teacher-Writers, was published spring 2011 by Hampton Press. He co-authored The Harcourt Brace Guide to Writing in the Disciplines with Robert Jones and Cynthia Selfe. He is at work on a new book of poetry and a literary study, The Rhetoric of the New Southern Writing.
BACKSTORY OF THE POEM LINKS
001 December 29, 2017
Margo Berdeshevksy’s “12-24”
002 January 08, 2018
Alexis Rhone Fancher’s “82 Miles From the Beach, We Order The Lobster At Clear Lake Café”
003 January 12, 2018
Barbara Crooker’s “Orange”
004 January 22, 2018
Sonia Saikaley’s “Modern Matsushima”
005 January 29, 2018
Ellen Foos’s “Side Yard”
006 February 03, 2018
Susan Sundwall’s “The Ringmaster”
007 February 09, 2018
Leslea Newman’s “That Night”
008 February 17, 2018
Alexis Rhone Fancher “June Fairchild Isn’t Dead”
009 February 24, 2018
Charles Clifford Brooks III “The Gift of the Year With Granny”
010 March 03, 2018
Scott Thomas Outlar’s “The Natural Reflection of Your Palms”
011 March 10, 2018
Anya Francesca Jenkins’s “After Diane Beatty’s Photograph “History Abandoned”
012 March 17, 2018
Angela Narciso Torres’s “What I Learned This Week”
013 March 24, 2018
Jan Steckel’s “Holiday On ICE”
014 March 31, 2018
Ibrahim Honjo’s “Colors”
015 April 14, 2018
Marilyn Kallett’s “Ode to Disappointment”
016 April 27, 2018
Beth Copeland’s “Reliquary”
017 May 12, 2018
Marlon L Fick’s “The Swallows of Barcelona”
018 May 25, 2018
Juliet Cook’s “ARTERIAL DISCOMBOBULATION”
019 June 09, 2018
Alexis Rhone Fancher’s “Stiletto Killer. . . A Surmise”
020 June 16, 2018
Charles Rammelkamp’s “At Last I Can Start Suffering”
021 July 05, 2018
Marla Shaw O’Neill’s “Wind Chimes”
022 July 13, 2018
Julia Gordon-Bramer’s “Studying Ariel”
023 July 20, 2018
Bill Yarrow’s “Jesus Zombie”
024 July 27, 2018
Telaina Eriksen’s “Brag 2016”
025 August 01, 2018
Seth Berg’s “It is only Yourself that Bends – so Wake up!”
026 August 07, 2018
David Herrle’s “Devil In the Details”
027 August 13, 2018
Gloria Mindock’s “Carmen Polo, Lady Necklaces, 2017”
028 August 21, 2018
Connie Post’s “Two Deaths”
029 August 30, 2018
Mary Harwell Sayler’s “Faces in a Crowd”
030 September 16, 2018
Larry Jaffe’s “The Risking Point”
031 September 24, 2018
Mark Lee Webb’s “After We Drove”
032 October 04, 2018
Melissa Studdard’s “Astral”
033 October 13, 2018
Robert Craven’s “I Have A Bass Guitar Called Vanessa”
034 October 17, 2018
David Sullivan’s “Paper Mache Peaches of Heaven”
035 October 23, 2018
Timothy Gager’s “Sobriety”
036 October 30, 2018
Gary Glauber’s “The Second Breakfast”
037 November 04, 2018
Heather Forbes-McKeon’s “Melania’s Deaf Tone Jacket”
038 November 11, 2018
Andrena Zawinski’s “Women of the Fields”
039 November 00, 2018
Gordon Hilger’s “Poe”
040 November 16, 2018
Rita Quillen’s “My Children Question Me About Poetry” and “Deathbed Dreams”
041 November 20, 2018
Jonathan Kevin Rice’s “Dog Sitting”
042 November 22, 2018
Haroldo Barbosa Filho’s “Mountain”
043 November 27, 2018
Megan Merchant’s “Grief Flowers”
044 November 30, 2018
Jonathan P Taylor’s “This poem is too neat”
045 December 03, 2018
Ian Haight’s “Sungmyo for our Dead Father-in-Law”
046 December 06, 2018
Nancy Dafoe’s “Poem in the Throat”
047 December 11, 2018
Jeffrey Pearson’s “Memorial Day”
048 December 14, 2018
Frank Paino’s “Laika”
049 December 15, 2018
Jennifer Martelli’s “Anniversary”
O50 December 19, 2018
Joseph Ross’s “For Gilberto Ramos, 15, Who Died in the Texas Desert, June 2014”
051 December 23, 2018
“The Persistence of Music”
by Anatoly Molotkov
052 December 27, 2018
by Michael Farry
053 December 28, 2018
by Renuka Raghavan
054 December 29, 2018
by Gene Barry
055 January 2, 2019
by Larissa Shmailo
056 January 7, 2019
by Len Kuntz
057 January 10, 2019
by Camille T Dungy
058 January 11, 2019
by Brian Burmeister
059 January 12, 2019
by Clint Margrave
060 January 14, 2019
by Pat Durmon
061 January 19, 2019
by Linda Imbler
062 January 22, 2019
“Views From the Driveway”
by Amy Barone
063 January 25, 2019
“The heron leaves her haunts in the marsh”
by Gail Wronsky
064 January 30, 2019
by Terry Lucas
065 February 02, 2019
“Summer 1970, The University of Virginia Opens to Women in the Fall”
by Alarie Tennille
066 February 05, 2019
“At School They Learn Nouns”
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