Class In Verse

NEIGHBORS

Poet Terence Winch Shows A Group Of High School Students What Poems Can Mean - And The Pleasure They Can Provide

November 01, 2009|By Janene Holzberg | Janene Holzberg,Special to The Baltimore Sun

This is for all JV football players: Your game today has been canceled. JV cheerleading practice has also been canceled.

"That was actually a short poem - you could type that up and call it 'Football Announcement,' " said Terence Winch as he listened to a voice come over the loudspeaker during his talk on poetry at Centennial High School on Wednesday.

Winch - a writer and poet who is also well-known to fans from his days as the button accordionist of Irish folk band Celtic Thunder - wasn't joking.

The poet-in-residence at the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society had told one of Kelli McDonough's ninth-grade English classes that a poem can be about something as mundane as emptying the garbage.

He played a recording in which he recites an ode to the "garbage gods" who demand sacrifices from everyone, pointing out that "any family whose bag is missing on garbage day always disappears."

As the youngest of five children of Irish immigrants, he frequently was elected to take the garbage down a scary set of stairs to the basement of their New York apartment building, he said.

"I just thought it was a weird ritual and might make a good poem," said Winch, who now lives in Silver Spring.

The end result was a reading involving family members who take turns scraping the remains of "glistening fat, bones red with meat, and stumps of asparagus" into a garbage bag.

Winch, 63, described his writing style as avant garde, and the body of his work is not an example of the rhyming verse some believe defines a poem.

His visit to Centennial was the fourth stop on a tour of all 13 county high schools, an annual event that HoCoPoLitSo has sponsored with different writers for more than 30 years.

"I was so impressed with the idea that this program allows students to meet an actual poet, since most of the ones they study are dead," said Virginia Pausch, a retired 34-year high school English teacher who volunteers as the organization's liaison with the county public school system.

"It takes a lot of work to put this program together, but it's all worth it," she said. McDonough, a third-year teacher who joined Centennial's staff last year, agreed.

"The students have been questioning me about the meaning of Mr. Winch's poems, and I tell them the only person who knows for certain is the writer," said McDonough.

"Most of us never get the opportunity to ask an author about his work, so this was their chance to get clear answers instead of foggy interpretations," she said.

That anticipated clarity wasn't initially dispensed by the author, though.

Instead, he gave wry replies to many of the questions posed by students, catching them off-guard with his dry humor and sending quizzical looks creeping across their faces.

The meek Catholic brother who is the object of students' contempt in a poem entitled "Authority" should have engaged in corporal punishment, he told the class, adding that "loving and caring" aren't words that describe a good teacher.

After a well-timed pause to allow the teens to mull that over, he said he was kidding and that balance is needed to maintain control in the classroom.

"But that particular teacher invited victimhood. We were street rats from the Bronx, and the other brothers would beat ... us, unjustifiably," Winch said on a serious note.

"That guy was immediately singled out by us because he had no offense - and no defense, for that matter," he recalled, adding he was glad Catholic schools no longer employ that type of physical discipline.

"But when you write a poem, you should never sugarcoat the truth or skirt reality," he advised.

He also discussed the pleasure and entertainment poetry can provide, acknowledging that they are too often ignored by the public.

"The only reason we [poets] do this stuff is for pleasure, not pain," he said.

"Readers of poetry are often intimidated by its difficulty," he said. "Just don't get caught up in needing to know every detail, because somewhere inside your brain, you are absorbing the meaning."

Zeleana Morris, coordinator of the county's secondary language arts program, said Winch searched for different ways to connect with his young audience.

"He was able to convey the point that poets are real people with a passion for writing," said Morris, who sat in on his presentation.

"Instead of being formal and just presenting information to us, Mr. Winch used sarcasm and humor to really get his points across," said Bradley Benson, a student who had inquired about the meaning of a poem.

Winch didn't focus solely on his own writing; he also played recordings of other poets' work, some with a musical background that demonstrates how music and poetry intersect.

One humorous poem by Billy Collins, a former poet laureate of the U.S, is called "The Lanyard" and describes a boy's offering of a woven plastic chain made in summer camp to repay his mother for giving him "a breathing body and a beating heart" - an even exchange in the arena of parent-child relationships, Winch said.

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