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April is for Poetry

In celebration of National Poetry Month, students are learning about and writing their own poetry and sharpening their memorization skills in preparation for the school’s annual poetry recitation competition, which will be held April 24 at 7 p.m. in the Bourne Reading Room. Hosted by the English Department, the competition provides an opportunity for students to recite a poem of their choice from memory to an enthusiastic and supportive audience that snaps (rather than claps) in appreciation of each performance.
Now in its eighth year, the poetry recitation competition is held as close as possible to the anniversary of William Shakespeare’s birthday and death day (April 23) and concludes with the presentation of a cake in the Bard’s honor. Students are awarded prizes for the best recitations of the night and are invited to represent their respective classes by reciting their poems at a subsequent all-school meeting.

Leading up to this celebration, the English Department faculty have been weaving poetry into the curriculum for students at all levels. Earlier this month, for example, students in Karoline Theobald’s English II and English II Honors courses were connecting poetry to artwork, such as de Chirico’s allegorical painting “The Disquieting Muses,” which is said to have inspired Sylvia Plath’s poem of the same name, Anne Sexton’s “The Starry Night,” which is recognized as an interpretation of Van Gogh’s iconic painting, and Wallace Stevens’ “The Man with the Blue Guitar,” which was paired with “The Old Guitarist” from Picasso’s Blue Period.

Theobald also tackled the themes of home and identity by introducing her students to two poems. In “Thoughts of Hanoi” by Vietnamese poet Nguyen Thi Vinh, the author appears to be thinking wistfully of his childhood home in the context of a country that, in his adulthood, is divided by war. He writes:

how is Hang Dao now?
How is Ngoc Son temple?
Do the trains still run
each day from Hanoi
to the neighboring towns?
To Bac-ninh, Cam-giang, Yen-bai,
the small villages, islands
of brown thatch in a lush green sea?”
In another poem, “Peaches” by Adrienne Su, the author, a Georgia native and the child of Chinese immigrants, seeks to answer the universal question of where we come from. Su writes:
“I thought everyone bought fruit by the crate,
stored it in the coolest part of the house,
then devoured it before any could rot.
I’m from the Peach State, and to those
who ask But where are you from originally,
I’d like to reply The homeland of the peach,
but I’m too nice, and they might not look it up.”

Meanwhile, juniors in Christopher Visentin’s English III classes were studying the work of American poets, including Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, and considering questions such as what makes a poem a poem, how we “squeeze meaning out of poetry,” and how we connect subject matter to meaning in poetry. Students in Visentin’s Creative Writing class and other English classes were writing their own poetry, which they were invited to share in class.

In Tim Poole’s Contemporary Poetry class, one of the spring term electives offered to seniors, students were asked to select poems to read and discuss in class. They wrote essays about a single contemporary poem they selected based on simple criteria: the poem must have been written between 1951 and now, and the author must be living (or deceased for no more than five years). Their selections included “Blues for Almost Forgotten Music” by Roxane Beth Johnson, a recipient of AWP Prize in Poetry and a Pushcart Prize; and “Honeysuckle,” by award-winning poet Karla K. Morton, who was appointed poet laureate of Texas in 2010.

Juniors in Rod Theobald's English III class recited poems they had memorized by Whitman, Robert Frost, Edgar Allen Poe, Richard Brautigan and others. Sam Schreiber '20 recited “300 Goats” by Naomi Shihab Nye, who spoke at The Gunnery in 2007 as part of the school’s Speaker Series. Sean Phillips '20 chose to recite “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley, which speaks of the “unconquerable soul,” while Lenaijah Ferguson '20 recited Nikki Giovanni’s “Black History Month,” and Jihoon An chose “The Snow Man” by Wallace Stevens with its imagery of “pine-trees crusted with snow.”

Theobald’s students also have been reading and discussing “The Great Gatsby” and poems by Frost, specifically “Mending Wall,” “Birches” and “The Wood-Pile.” In class this week, Theobald led a discussion of “The Wood-Pile,” noting that it presents the reader with a mystery: Who left the woodpile behind and what has happened to its owner?  “A lot of his poems do tell stories,” Theobald said of Frost to his students. “You could take this poem and use it as a backdrop and write a longer story.”

“This is classic Frost,” he continued. “Literally you can go through the poem. You can see it, you can touch it, you can smell it. But also as you go through the poem, you can peel back more and more layers of it.”

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Founded in 1850 by abolitionist, educator, and outdoorsman Frederick Gunn, The Gunnery is a coeducational college preparatory boarding and day school for students in grades 9 through 12/post-graduate. Dedicated teacher-mentor-coaches challenge students to reach their full potential in a home-like setting where character and citizenship are valued as much as intellect and achievement. Individualized attention and high expectations help young learners develop not only the skills and confidence they will need in college, but also the moral compass and love of learning that will serve them well in life. The school attracts ambitious, academically curious students who will both shine as unique individuals and thrive as contributing members of a deeply connected community. By the time they graduate, Gunnery students have become well rounded, grounded young adults with a sharpened sense of who they are and who they want to become.