What student wouldn’t be intrigued by being allowed “to wear nothing but hats / to school, take naked that test I won’t ever pass”? It’s a tempting, subversive double-violation of our high school dress code … and a major reason, I’m sure, why my English students often choose to analyze Jen Karetnick’s “Ode to Melatonin” (Spring 2017 Intima) at the Raleigh, NC, magnet school for medical science where I teach.
I use Intima as the source for this group assignment, allowing students to pick a poem and present their findings to the class. What works best is what always works best in studying literature—students only get so far in Karetnick’s poem before they stumble. That’s when I tell them to do the research: “melatonin” and “hypnogogic” and “Alpha, Theta, and Delta.” Of course, “in that sleep of death what dreams may come.” Then, holy moly, “incubus lover.” Thus, with a little bit of work, the poem’s layers are revealed, and the (somewhat/completely shocked) students, now unbidden, unbridled, reread the poem and develop far more meaningful commentary and connections.
When I shared my poem “Pascal, the Hard Way” (Spring 2019), I asked my students to read about Pascal’s Wager. Then they asked about the phrase “the hard way”—well, I said, google it. In the final stanza, one student said “croupier” sounded like the fancy name for the tailor who fits prom tuxedos. Not quite; do the research. Like most poems (and most things in life), mine is comprehensible on one level, but in English class we teach students to think more deeply–and the first requirement is knowing when to re-think, re-analyze, re-search.
The assignment, I hope, reinforces what we want our students–future medical professionals–indeed, all Americans–to value in their adult lives. Before drawing conclusions, before committing to action, think critically. Maybe you won’t get caught wearing only a hat for the test.
Barry Peters lives in Durham, NC, with his wife, the writer Maureen Sherbondy. His work has appeared, or is forthcoming, in The American Journal of Poetry, Best New Poets 2018, Connecticut River Review, The Healing Muse, Medical Literary Messenger, Miramar, The National Poetry Review, Negative Capability, Poetry East, Presence, Rattle, South Florida Poetry Journal, The Southampton Review, Sport Literate, Third Wednesday, and elsewhere. His poem “Pascal, The Hard Way” appears in the Spring 2019 Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine.
© 2019 Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine