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Writing Across the Curriculum


Holloway Hall

Nancy Mithcell
English Department

The author of FAILURE volunteered to read her poem first, and I could tell from her shy smile that she was proud of it, although she read the following so softly I had to lean to hear her clearly.  Failure. My life is a mess/I’ll never be a success/I’ve let everyone down/I have to get out of town. The rest of the class nodded in admiration or whispered awesome. They looked at me. I looked down at the poem, where the underlined, capitalized and bolded title screamed accusingly.

Had I not spent the past two classes with these Creative Writing students going over handouts with numerous examples of how imagery, specifically metaphor and simile work to make intangible abstractions tangible, concrete?  Had I not thoughtfully, cleverly included metaphors ranging in tone from Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18, to lyrics from the band Mojave: Love is a truck and an open road, /somewhere to start and somewhere to go? Did I not, in an effort to demonstrate simile-and, in a shameless effort to win them over-risk making a complete fool of myself by rapping like Slick Rick the Ruler I'm cooler than a ice brick/Got soul like those afro picks, with the black fist/And leave a crowd drippin like John the Baptist, from Black Thought’s Mellow Man?  The students had smiled appreciatively (or was indulgently?) and answered my are there any questions with enthusiastic, bobble-headed nods.   I was pretty dang sure I had nailed it; yes!  I relished next week’s workshop when students would bring in poems studded with metaphors and similes showing, not telling, making real, concrete, abstractions they had chosen from a class generated list.

Yet, I had failed; in this poem, and those in the stack under it, abstraction had lead to more abstractions which floated like tether-less helium balloons across the pages.  I looked up to the students awaiting my approval.

I felt like a warty witch wielding a sharp, glistening needle, hunching toward a beautiful bubble shimmering on the workshop table as I asked What exactly is awesome?   One brave soul ventured because it rhymes? to which the others agreed in muttered yeahs.  Does the poem have a simile or metaphor which could compare failure to something concrete? I pushed.   Abashed, they stared down at the poem in front of them.  How could I help them get it...make them see?

Turning to the red faced student who had read her poem, I gently asked if could tell us what, in her, or her speaker’s mind, failure looks like.  I waited through uncomfortable silence as she stared down at her poem, through her exasperated you knows, and, its kinda likes, until she threw her pen down, folded her arms, flopped back in her chair and blurted  Ok…maybe it’s just me but… ok:  failure looks like a forty-five year old bleached blond waitress working the night shift at Long Neck Grotto’s Pizza. 

Oh poetry!  Lovely alliterations, hard mutes of night, shift old, neck clanging like pizza pans against assonances, sorrow of the long o in Grottos, the final, regretful ah of Pizza.  Here was the start of a real poem with an utterly original simile! I clapped my hands in joy.

In a flush of understanding, another student excitedly shared a simile he just now came up with: Failure is like flunking out of school and having to live in your mother’s basement.  The other males in the class shivered empathetically at the image of   skulking back to the subterranean half life of their mother’s basement, a near womb. 

They got it!! Why?: because I finally got  that while  the examples I had given them might have demonstrated technique, they came from another’s experience; that I had to encourage them to honor their own lives as the source of original material.


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