Teaching creative writing in a prison offers so many rewards along with many uncertainties. The reward is often hearing a story that reaches a depth or a power not often heard in a writing class. Or sometimes seeing something click with a student when you share a favorite poem that fits the theme for the week.
The uncertainty is wondering if the poems you pick will fall flat or if you will run out of approaches in helping the class understand it. I can't assume the students took a prerequisite class or assign them to go 'look it up.' Whatever we're going to understand we're going to understand right there right then.
So it's exciting watching students eyes light up as they take over the journey, hook after hook, of Plath's walk from an Edenic road surrounded by blackberries toward an unreachable sea, and notice the disintegration as the landscape shifts. So many have their interpretations of poems filtered by what they think they know, in this case the poet's depression, abuse and suicide - which are important subjects but should never obscure the fact that Plath was one hell of a poet. Seeing that realization in students that are not bound by what they think they already know is a powerful experience.
BY SYLVIA PLATH
Nobody in the lane, and nothing, nothing but blackberries,
Blackberries on either side, though on the right mainly,
A blackberry alley, going down in hooks, and a sea
Somewhere at the end of it, heaving. Blackberries
Big as the ball of my thumb, and dumb as eyes
Ebon in the hedges, fat
With blue-red juices. These they squander on my fingers.
I had not asked for such a blood sisterhood; they must love me.
They accommodate themselves to my milkbottle, flattening their sides.
Overhead go the choughs in black, cacophonous flocks--
Bits of burnt paper wheeling in a blown sky.
Theirs is the only voice, protesting, protesting.
I do not think the sea will appear at all.
The high, green meadows are glowing, as if lit from within.
I come to one bush of berries so ripe it is a bush of flies,
Hanging their bluegreen bellies and their wing panes in a Chinese screen.
The honey-feast of the berries has stunned them; they believe in heaven.
One more hook, and the berries and bushes end.
The only thing to come now is the sea.
From between two hills a sudden wind funnels at me,
Slapping its phantom laundry in my face.
These hills are too green and sweet to have tasted salt.
I follow the sheep path between them. A last hook brings me
To the hills’ northern face, and the face is orange rock
That looks out on nothing, nothing but a great space
Of white and pewter lights, and a din like silversmiths
Beating and beating at an intractable metal."