by Kathleen Flenniken
When I walk into an elementary classroom to begin a poetry unit, there are about 20 things I want to tell my new students at once about what poetry can be and what it is to me, a logjam of ideas and ambitions and explanations. Instead, I ask what they already know about poetry. And then, whether this group is well-versed or not, I bring out the poem that never fails me.
(eds note: this poem should appear in three-lined stanzas but we’re having trouble with the formatting in this blog. Apologies to Sharon Bryan!)
SWEATER WEATHER:A LOVE SONG TO LANGUAGE
by Sharon Bryan
Never better, mad as a hatter,
right as rain, might and main,
hanky-panky, hot toddy,
hoity-toity, cold shoulder,
bowled over, rolling in clover,
low blow, no soap, hope
against hope, pay the piper
liar liar pants on fire,
high and dry, shoo-fly pie,
fiddle-faddle, fit as a fiddle,
sultan of swat, muskrat
ramble, fat and sassy,
flimflam, happy as a clam,
cat’s pajamas, bee’s knees,
peas in a pod, pleased as punch,
pretty as a picture, nothing much,
lift the latch, double Dutch,
early bird, feathered friend,
dumb cluck, buck up,
roly-poly, holy moly,
loose lips sink ships,
spitting image, nip in the air,
hale and hearty, part and parcel,
upsy-daisy, lazy days,
maybe baby, up to snuff,
spic and span, handyman,
cool as a cucumber, blue moon,
high as a kite, night and noon,
love me or leave me, seventh heaven,
up and about, over and out.
from Flying Blind, Sarabande, 1996. With permission of the author.
Some audiences begin laughing in the first stanza, others hold out until “liar liar pants on fire.” Sometimes kids get up out of their seats. Sometimes they giggle in amazement. Sometimes they spontaneously applaud. Sometimes they yell. But there is always, always a response.
This poem is a slam dunk. It’s impossible to read “Sweater Weather” aloud without the music taking over, the speeding up and slowing down (rubato, I remember from piano lessons many years ago), the suddenly evident lilt built into American English, the pleasurable mouth feel of words like “honky-tonk,” the intrinsic sassiness of “flimflam, happy as a clam,/ cat’s pajamas, bee’s knees,” the wonderfully spontaneous and made-up quality of nonsense transformed into meaning: “flimflam” and “willy-nilly” and “helter-skelter,” and Sharon Bryan’s pitch-perfect arrangement of these moving parts.
I don’t show my students the poem—they simply listen. “Which lines do you remember?” I ask after the class stops talking all at once, and I’m delighted how many of these expressions stick in their collective minds.
There’s a little history buried here too. Even in 2010 I usually have one or two students in the class who can correctly identify the “sultan of swat.” We talk about “bees knees” and the roaring twenties. What sort of mad is a “mad hatter?” Where did the expression “loose lips sink ships” come from? We practice a little etymology.
And then there’s the chance to talk about structure. “How is the poem built?” I ask. “What is it made of?” Made-up words. “Are they really made up?” No…. Expressions, sayings. “Yes!” It’s a list. “Yes! How can a list be a poem?” And finally, “Why is this a love song?”
What kind of tools does a poet use? Aha. Words. And a poet loves her words.
This conversation is spontaneous. It’s easy. There are six hands up, twelve. Everybody is an expert, everybody has an idea or an association or remembers a line.
I’m laying some important ground work here. First, ideas. That a poem can be as simple to construct as a list. That language contains its own music. That poetry can make you laugh and want to get up out of your chair. That words, even words plucked out of context, can bring pleasure. As simple as these points sound, there are plenty of poets who toss them around at night.
Second, I’m starting a conversation that I’ll be returning to again and again. I’m going to be bringing in poems every week, and every week we’re going to be talking about poems. I’ll be asking my students What do you think? Which are the lines you notice? What does this phrase make you think of? Do you like this poem? “Sweater Weather” gets us on the right conversational track.
If there’s one thing I want to teach my young students, it is that they can trust their instincts as readers and listeners. I think about a huge American public that recoils from poetry out of fear. Poetry for too many smacks of examinations and opportunities to feel stupid. If we start our students out early feeling confident when they meet a poem, if they can associate poetry and conversation about poetry with pleasure, if they can practice reading and forming opinions in a safe environment, week after week, then who knows? Maybe our young students will grow into poetry lovers. And “Sweater Weather?” Lighthearted as it is, it’s the first brick in a serious foundation.