Tuesday, November 17, 2009

`Pomegranates, Traveller'

From a textbook imaginatively titled Elements of Literature the teacher read a bowdlerized rendering of Persephone’s story, “The Origin of the Seasons,” and pronounced the heroine’s name PURSE-a-phone until a girl tactfully corrected her. The students were to plot the story on a schematic diagram supplied by the teacher -- Exposition, Rising Action, Climax, Falling Action. The prurience of the nomenclature was not lost on all of them. The teacher defined climax as “when you know who shot the sheriff” and my student, a seventh-grader, started singing the song sotto voce.

All of this was in preparation for the kids writing their own creation myths, following the teacher’s scheme. My student and his partner had chosen to explain the origin of rain, and their discussion focused on body fluids. I performed a gentle course correction and they switched from Norse mythology to Greek, expressing rudimentary interest in Persephone’s double nature -- goddess of spring and queen of the underworld. They had only the faintest notion of what a pomegranate is. I didn’t tell them I had Basil Bunting’s Complete Poems in my bag, including these lines from “Birthday Greeting,” written in 1965:

“Pomegranates, traveler;
butter, if you need it,
in a bundle of cress.”

What an opportunity, in a class called Language Arts, the school is squandering. An inspired teacher might trace Persephone through English poetry, starting with Chaucer and moving on to Arthur Golding’s unmatched translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Think of Perdita in The Winter’s Tale:

“O Proserpina,
For the flowers now, that frighted thou let's fall
From Dis's waggon! daffodils,
That come before the swallow dares, and take
The winds of March with beauty; violets dim,
But sweeter than the lids of Juno's eyes
Or Cytherea's breath; pale primroses,
That die unmarried, ere they can behold
Bright Phoebus [pronounced FOE-bus by the teacher] in his strength—a malady
Most incident to maids; bold oxlips and
The crown imperial; lilies of all kinds,
The flower-de-luce being one!”

A seasoned reader could easily assemble a substantial anthology of such poems, with opportunities for rich classroom digressions into Greek, Roman and English literature, mythology, geography, botany and history. Instead, the kids are writing their own myths and illustrating them with cartoons.

Monday morning, as I drove to school in the rain, I listened to the classical music station. The guitarist William Carter performed a lovely “Ciaconna” by an anonymous composer. The announcer returned and made a pitch for donations, and only one sentence he uttered – a slogan, really -- stuck in my head: “Music as intriguing as a good book!”

1 comment:

William A. Sigler said...

Nice coda there: without Persephone's hard-earned compassion, there would be no music.

Hers is a myth that seems tailor made for reality television: a mother raped by a “Satanic” husband, an abducted child as on a milk carton, tearful reunions thanks to intervention by the Dr. Phil-like god-in-charge Zeus -- complete with an advertisement for the strange power of POM juice.

Not sure how they'd handle the Eleusinian mysteries though.