Thursday, May 3, 2007

How to Live

It's getting toward the end of the year in sophomore English, and it's a natural time for stocktaking. Since the students are knee-deep in working on their quality projects, I am also making an effort to give them some class activities that are more or less self-contained, so that they don't have a lot of other homework to do as they are finishing their projects. As I was thinking yesterday about what I would like to have them work on in class, I began leafing through a folder of poems that I have run across recently, and found this poem by Charles Harper Webb, from his book Amplified Dog:

How to Live

"I don't know how to live."
–Sharon Olds

Eat lots of steak and salmon and Thai curry and mu shu
pork and fresh green beans and baked potatoes
and fresh strawberries with vanilla ice cream.
Kick-box three days a week. Stay strong and lean.
Go fly-fishing every chance you get, with friends

who'll teach you secrets of the stream. Play guitar
in a rock band. Read Dostoyevsky, Whitman, Kafka,
Shakespeare, Twain. Collect Uncle Scrooge comics.
See Peckinpah's
Straw Dogs, and everything Monty Python made.
Love freely. Treat ex-partners as kindly

as you can. Wish them as well as you're able.
Snorkel with moray eels and yellow tangs. Watch
spinner dolphins earn their name as your panga slam-
bams over glittering seas. Try not to lie; it sours
the soul. But being a patsy sours it too. If you cause

a car wreck, and aren't hurt, but someone is, apologize
silently. Learn from your mistake. Walk gratefully
away. Let your insurance handle it. Never drive drunk.
Don't be a drunk, or any kind of "aholic." It's bad
English, and bad news. Don't berate yourself. If you lose

a game or prize you've earned, remember the winners
history forgets. Remember them if you do win. Enjoy
success. Have kids if you want and can afford them,
but don't make them your reason-to-be. Spare them that
misery. Take them to the beach. Mail order sea

monkeys once in your life. Give someone the full-on
ass-kicking he (or she) has earned. Keep a box turtle
in good heath for twenty years. If you get sick, don't thrive
on suffering. There's nothing noble about pain. Die
if you need to, the best way you can. (You define best.)

Go to church if it helps you. Grow tomatoes to put store-
bought in perspective. Listen to Elvis and Bach. Unless
you're tone deaf, own Perlman's "Meditation from Thais."
Don't look for hidden meanings in a cardinal's song.
Don't think TV characters talk to you; that's crazy.

Don't be too sane. Work hard. Loaf easily. Have good
friends, and be good to them. Be immoderate
in moderation. Spend little time anesthetized. Dive
the Great Barrier Reef. Don't touch the coral. Watch
for sea snakes. Smile for the camera. Don't say "Cheese."

We had begun the semester with discussion a quotation from Christopher Clausen:

All great literature addresses, directly or indirectly, two questions: "What kind of world is this?" and "How should we live in it?"

So I thought that reading Webb's poem would give us the chance to consider one person's perspective on how to answer the second question, and provide the students with an opportunity to reflect on what they have learned during this semester, as well as what they might have to say in answer to the question posed in the title of the poem. After we read the poem, I asked students to share their observations and questions, to consider what we learn about the speaker from what he has to say, and then, finally, to pick one sentence they felt some agreement with. We did a brief renge exercise where I asked each student to say his/her line out loud three times during the three minute allotment of time, speaking not in sequence, but as their spirits moved them, and as time permitted when no one else was speaking.

Then I asked them to turn the paper over and write five lines of their own that would constitute what they would consider to be good advice, something they would stand on based on their experience so far. Then I broke the class up into four groups and asked each group to construct a stanza, modelled more or less on Webb's design. One of the features that students had noticed was that in all but the last stanza he breaks sentences across stanzas, so that added another challenge: three of the four groups had to have a leftover phrase at the end to start the next group's stanza, and they had to communicate with one another about how that was going to work. They had to turn in their stanzas to me at the end of the period. I did the same exercise this morning with my 8:30 sophomore group, and then put the assembled double-class poem together. Here, for your edification and delight, and the benefit of posterity, is the collected wit and wisdom of the sophomore class:

How to Live

Eat because you want to, not because you have
to. Don't be mad; you might hurt yourself.
Never doubt the awesomeness of dragons.
Don't be afraid to laugh at yourself, but be careful

about laughing at others. Don't go with the flow
too much. Do things that make you happy.
Go to the beach. Go nuts, but have control.
Take the time to talk with teachers. No fear,

just do it. Have fun but don't be stupid.
Embarrassment will go away when replaced
with laughter. There's no such thing as "I can't,"
only "I can" and "I will." Have a group of friends

who will listen. Don't spend too much money
in one day. Get a job. Drink deeply from good books.
Don't eat Texas Hash. Smile and be friendly.
Thank your parents for what they do for you.

Forgive others, but most importantly forgive
yourself. Tell people who think they're better
than you to "Shut the hell up!" Go to Egypt
and ride camels. Get drunk and stoned

at least once. Live life on the edge. No act
li' dat; no talk li 'dat. Play music loudly. Eat salad
once a day. Don't swim when there are jellyfish
warnings. Steal a car. Laugh: laughter

is the greatest medicine; it gives you abs.
Touch something dangerous, but not life-
threatening. Go fishing. Write a poem. Don't pee
on man-o'-war stings above the waist.

Ride the biggest roller coaster you can find.
Splurge every once in a while. Buy a diamond
back-scratcher. Meet one new person each week.
Dream the impossible; it might come true.

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