My Lazy High School English Teacher
I had a rather lazy high school English teacher. Mr. Thomas wasn’t much good with what one might think of as standard teaching of the subject of English. I’m not exactly sure what all I missed because of this man’s leaning toward doing as little as possible to get by, but I do know he was one of the first teachers who ever expressed interest in my writing. That was good for starters.
Another plus to my sitting in Mr. Thomas’s classroom was his love of poetry. His favorite pastime consisted of propping his feet up on his desk, leaning way back in his creaky wooden chair, and reading poetry aloud to the class.
It was in these moments that my untrained inner ear first began to recognize (although I could never have verbalized it then) the rhythms, tones, and cadence of words.
There were no screens on the windows in that classroom. In spring, wasps would drone in and be sufficient to keep the class awake and alert, but the poetry was not. These students were farm kids, and most of them – especially our young males – groaned aloud when Mr. Thomas pulled out his book of poetry and propped his feet up on the desk. I, on the other hand, was enraptured. Utterly swept away by the magic of words that serenaded me.
Mr. Thomas took us through Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Robert Frost, Robert Burns (Mr. Thomas could imitate a Scottish brogue as well as any stage actor), Walt Whitman, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, just name a few.
Amy Lowell’s Patterns – definitely one of my favorites. Ah. I could see her tripping down the garden paths:
In my stiff, brocaded gown.
With my powdered hair and jewelled fan…
What is Summer in a fine brocaded gown!
I should like to see it lying in a heap upon the ground.
All the pink and silver crumpled up on the ground.
Oh yes, I saw the pink and silver crumpled up on the ground. And I heard the rhythm of the fountain as Amy Lowell described it:
And the plashing of waterdrops
In the marble fountain
Comes down the garden-paths.
The dripping never stops.
Plashing? I thought water splashed. Now I learned there was a plashing of water. And I loved it!
Poe – The Clincher
But the clincher for me, with regard to learning the rhythm of words and how hard and soft consonants sounds could burst in strength and power, or transform to whisper softness, was Edgar Allen Poe’s poem, Bells.
I can still hear Mr. Thomas’s sonorous voice as he made each different bell come to life and reverberate off the blackboards and pierce right into the deepest part of me.
Tintinnabulation? Really? There is such a word as tintinnabulation? I was ecstatic. Who knew one could get so excited over a single word?
The poem starts with sleigh bells, then moves to wedding bells, graduates to alarum bells, and hits the crescendo with the iron bells. The iron bells Poe describes like this:
For every sound that floats
From the rust within their throats
Is a groan.
Rust within their throats? Whoa! I devoured and digested every word, every syllable, every tone.
The Need for a Stage
Perhaps Mr. Thomas was a wannabe actor, I’m not sure. His sense of drama seemed to cry out for a stage. I remember nothing else about his classes (I sat under his teaching for two years), just his reading aloud of poetry.
Had he simply assigned us to read the poems on our own, I don’t believe they would have had near the effect on me as listening to him read them aloud with such style.
I firmly believe that knowing, understanding, and appreciating tone, pace, cadence and rhythm is crucial to being a good writer/novelist.
Thank you Mr. Thomas for being a lazy teacher. I am deeply indebted!
Next Time — Part II
In my next Be A Novelist blog post, I will further explore the subject of rhythm in prose writing. Hope to see you there!
Photo credits: © James Blinn | Dreamstime.com
© Michael Corrigan | Dreamstime.com