Doing an assignment on poetry with my students

12th November, 2013 - Posted by Christine Perrin - No Comments

Today I tried something new. This week my intro to poetry students are working on an assignment. It is a paper that three parts: a 250 word reflection on a problem in their lives, a 1200 argument answering or addressing that problem with a poem(s), another 250 word reflection on what the wisdom of the poem has taught them. I used Susan Stewart’s magnificent poem “Yellow Stars and Ice” for the assignment. IT is a poem about distances between two beloveds. You can use this assignment in your classroom or just enjoy a truly stunning poem that uses metaphor to name, understand and perhaps heal a suffering relationship.

“Yellow Stars and Ice”
by Susan Stewart

I am as far as the deepest sky between clouds
and you are as far as the deepest root and wound,
and I am as far as a train at evening,
as far as a whistle you can’t hear or remember.
You are as far as an unimagined animal
who, frightened by everything, never appears.
I am as far as cicadas and locusts
and you are as far as the cleanest arrow
that has sewn the wind to the light on
the birch trees. I am as far as the sleep of rivers
that stains the deepest sky between clouds,
you are as far as invention, and I am as far as memory.

You are as far as a red-marbled stream
where children cut their feet on the stones
and cry out. And I am as far as their happy
mothers, bleaching new linen on the grass
and singing, “You are as far as another life,
as far as another life are you.”
And I am as far as an infinite alphabet
made from yellow stars and ice,
and you are as far as the nails of the dead man,
as far as a sailor can see at midnight
when he’s drunk and the moon is an empty cup,
and I am as far as invention and you are as far as memory.

I am as far as the corners of a room where no one
has ever spoken, as far as the four lost corners
of the earth. And you are as far as the voices
of the dumb, as the broken limbs of saints
and soldiers, as the scarlet wing of the suicidal
blackbird, I am farther and farther away from you.
And you are as far as a horse without a rider
can run in six years, two months and five days.
I am as far as that rider, who rubs his eyes with
his blistered hands, who watches a ghost don his
jacket and boots and now stands naked in the road.
As far as the space between word and word,
as the heavy sleep of the perfectly loved
and the sirens of wars no one living can remember,
as far as this room, where no words have been spoken,
you are as far as invention, and I am as far as memory.


Part 1  250 word reflection on the problem

I am struggling with the distance of one of many beloved persons in my life.  This is someone that I see regularly and with whom I have a close relationship.  And yet I feel so far from this person, l feel a sense of hopelessness in bridging the distance between us.  I have spent the last short while asking God to open my eyes to the reasons and the meanings of this distance and to help me understand the other person whom I perceive as lacking an understanding, ability or desire or intelligence for intimacy.  I don’t know which it is, or if it is all three at once.  When I think of this situation I feel angry as well as sad and alienated.  In the process of feeling this way I have been reminded of a poem by the contemporary poet Susan Stewart called “Yellow Stars and Ice” it is the title poem of her book by the same name.  Often reading the whole book in sequence is very helpful for understand the context of the particular utterance of the individual poem, but reading this poem again I am aware of the ways in which it is both instructing and understanding me.  It’s wisdom is limited, it does not offer a solution, but already I hear an argument and a consolation in its lines.  (223)


Part II 1200 word answer using the wisdom of a poem as a thesis statement


At least fifty percent of our lives, in terms of time and satisfaction, are made up of our human relationships.  More than fifty percent of our time in relationships is composed of laboring toward understanding that we lack and healing for the purpose of fuller communion that we also tend to lack.  When we embark on a relationship the beginning tends to be sweet, smooth, satisfying, and even electrifying.  This is not true only of romantic relationships but of all sorts of friendship that we are excited about (erotic love being one of several categories of friendship).  Later, once our own limitations and the limitations of the other are fleshed out by time and experience, comes the harder part where we grapple toward understanding and fellowship.  Susan Stewart’s poem “Yellow Stars and Ice” makes an oblique argument about one aspect of this process, in the practice of the poem she demonstrates need for a disciplined and imaginative entrance into the experience of the other—this happens chiefly through metaphor.  The speaker articulates the gap between two people and labors toward understanding in this naming process. (thesis)

The poem is divided into three long stanzas and this is not accidental, each of the three stanzas ends with the same commentary on the distance between the speaker and the beloved—“you are as far as invention, and I am as far as memory” (12).  On the face of it this seems cryptic and undecipherable , however the Romantic and the Medieval approach  to definitions of great intellect are instructive.  IN her book “The Book of Memory” Mary Carruthers summarizes the difference this way:  “Thee difference is that whereas now geniuses are said to have creative imagination which they express in intricate reasoning and original discovery, in earlier times they were said to have richly retentive memories, which they expressed in intricate reasoning and original discovery” (Carruthers 4).  If we take this as at least partly instructive in reference to this poem then we understand the speaker to be saying the distance between herself and her beloved is the distance between the Medieval approach to intellect and Romantic approach; as you see from the quote, these are quite different, oppositional.  Great literatures and periods came out of both, they both included imagination and memory but they used them and held them differently.  Also significant to this line, is its alternating throughout the poem as the last line of each stanza.  The second stanza says the same thing in reverse “I am as far as invention and you are as far as memory (24),” the third reverses it yet again “you are as far as invention, and I am as far as memory” (40).  This argues that the salient fact of their distance is their distance, not that one has a medieval approach and one a romantic.  It also suggests the speaker is not attempting to blame, to say your mindset and paradigm are just so different that we are unable to find accord.

Given this statement of regrettable and even sympathetic distance, is there any reason or pattern to the kinds of metaphors that the speaker uses to describe herself vis a vis her dis-companionate companion?  The first stanza describes the two as far as the sky and the roots, as far as the train at evening and the whistle you can’t hear, as far as the frightened animal who won’t come out, and the buzzing cicadas who won’t ever stop, as far the arrow in the birch tree and the ‘sleep of rivers that stains the deepest sky between clouds’ (1-11).  This last comparison cycles us back to the beginning which references the clouds and roots.  How might a river stain the deepest sky between clouds?  Perhaps the clouds are reflected in it and recast as water-clouds, reimagined.  This image (also a metaphor because it represents one of the people in the poem and that person’s position in relation to the other person) is interesting because it brings  the two opposed persons into the same space, while it does not reconcile them.  All of the previous images demonstrate total binary opposition.  Hence, while she has demonstrated the vast spaces between herself and the beloved, she has also brought them imaginatively into the same space through her exploration of imagery.  IT might be phrased this way “you are as far from me as the sky is from the river or the roots of the earth underneath the river, but even rivers and skies mingle if only in the process of one reflecting the other.”  What follows sequentially is the statement discussed earlier about invention and memory—a separation that includes history, centuries, a theory of what the human is and how she/he becomes most fully herself.

The second batch of metaphors in the second stanza grows dangerous and more distant, the reader wonders if it is a consequence of the prolonged pain of separation.  The beloved is a stream bloodied by children’s cut feet, the speaker is the picture of an idyllic pastoral of a mother (or classical figure like Nausicca) bleaching linens that she has washed on the grass and making a pretty song of the distance.  Noteworthy it is that this stanza instead creating a pattern of I/you, I /you, mixes the addressed and the addresse:  you/I, I/you, I/ you, a syntax perhaps of confusion, of difficulty in knowing where to cast the blame but of powerful feeling.  The speaker is so far away and cold as infinite space:  “yellow stars and ice”.  The beloved is so undesirably close as the fingernails of a dead man.  The horror of this comparison seems to cause the speaker to recast that metaphor instantly suggesting another one out this fecund mind—instead the beloved is a drunken sailor who can only see short distance.  At the end of this stanza the speaker is invention and the beloved is memory, which represents a reversal but just as far from each other.

The final stanza brings us into a closer space—a room which is like the earth  and now they are unleashed in their distances, not opposed but extending the distance.  There are lost corners of the earth, there are broken limbs of saints, there are mute individuals who can’t speak.  The word suicidal enters the language of the poem.  Perhaps the most painful metaphor is that of the horse who has run without a rider for six years, two months and five days—a metaphor that suggests disorder, things not as they should be, a saddled horse that lacks its partner.   It also suggests that someone is keeping track of a length of time not just an unquantifiable distance.  The speaker is the rider, blistered, alone and naked in the road without her horse.  The closing metaphors cluster thickly without description but include a lack of words, an inability perhaps to speak about this great pain and separation, an inability to find words except for metaphor to describe what it feels like to be this far from the beloved.  The refrain which reverses each stanza comes back again, as refrains do, as arguments and chasms between people do—“you are as far as invention, and I am as far as memory” (40).  The speaker feels the cyclical nature of this détente.

Walker Percy says that our metaphors discover an aspect of the thing which had gone unformulated before.  He argues in his essay “Message in a Bottle” that we can only think about ourselves by comparison or resemblance, not directly:  “we know one thing through the mirror of another.”  Here is a beautiful example of that idea.  The speaker is partly showing her intelligence about how we know and how we convey meaning, but there is a powerful emotion behind her choice to convey her sad alienation from the beloved through forty lines of piled on metaphor.  She can’t say any other way how far apart she stands from the beloved, what a loss this is, how meaningless but seemingly insurmountable the void between them is.  She needs history, nature, the image of other human beings.  In the space of invention and of memory she has created an imaginative house to enter in order to dwell with the beloved for a time.  When we are alienated from a beloved we can’t be near them, the poem creates a nearness through the imagination, it constructs a reality it hopes to heal, though it isn’t sure it can.  Such is the beauty of poetry’s wisdom—here metaphor names a gap in order to close it, even if only on the page.


Part 3 reflection on the problem using the wisdom of the poem

This poem instructs me.  It encourages me to be honest about my own contribution to the space between me and one of my beloveds.  It encourages me to express the emotional reality of this space and not to pretend it does not exist.  It encourages me to communicate, to imagine what it might be like for the other.  It encourages me not to quickly gloss over the distance in order to feel better about it.  It constructs a space to dwell in a reality with the hopes of healing that reality.  If there was no hope it could not have been written, it is an attempt to reach out, to name, to say ‘this is how it is for me, this is how I am understanding you, this is the significance of what we are in the midst of’.  I will try to follow the magnificent example of the poem in my own struggle to understand and name the gap between me and one of my beloveds.




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