August 15, 2008

Poetry Friday: Hissing Sums and Problems Everywhere

Yes! It's Poetry Friday. But I want to be *sure* you get your daily dose of bad writing before we get to the good. San Jose State has published the 26th winner of the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, and oh, the delicious horror of the poorly parsed sentence! Oh, the glorious abuse of the adjective! It's good fun indeed.

"Flash Cards" by Rita Frances Dove.

Ms. Dove was the Poet Laureate of the United States from 1993-1995, the Laureate of Virginia until 2006. She reads with an expressive, controlled voice, and you can hear her poetry (and see Flashcards animated) on YouTube. Yay, internet! Keeping poetry sharing alive since... well, since before Google.

Flash Cards
In math I was the whiz kid, keeper
of oranges and apples. What you don't understand,
, my father said; the faster
I answered, the faster they came.

I could see one bud on the teacher's geranium,
one clear bee sputtering at the wet pane.
The tulip trees always dragged after heavy rain
so I tucked my head as my boots slapped home.

My father put up his feet after work
and relaxed with a highball and The Life of Lincoln.
After supper we drilled and I climbed the dark

-- from Grace Notes, © 1989 W. W. Norton & Company, New York.

Read the remainder of this poem here.

Today's poem is a bittersweet reminder of summer days. When I was a kid, summer meant ...math. My father so wanted to produce a mathelete, and required me to recite my times tables to fifteen -- from memory -- and each day hearing his car come in the drive as he came home for lunch was a misery. I spent the morning pacing my room, chanting sums, and the afternoon dreading being sent back to relearn my thirteens. (Still can't readily remember those. Thirteen, twenty six, thirty-nine, fifty-three...)

This unfortunate combining of math with a fear of punishment and a terror of revealing how stupid I was resulted in barely passing math grades for my entire life. It wasn't until I finished college that I could lose myself in the fun of numbers for the first time, feeling relaxed and content doing long division down to the last zero, confident that at last, some things in life had definite right answers.

In my next life, I'm going to be Pythagoras. Who will you be?

Poetry Friday has come round once again to Big A, little a, who started it all.


Sara said...

Sometimes, I think I'm a slacker mom because I don't push my kids, and then I read this. (the poem and your own story.) Yikes. I'm glad you did discover the beauty and fun of math later.

Mary Lee said...

Good reminder, here on the brink of a new school year, about the fine line that divides (pun intended) encouragement and torture.

Jules at 7-Imp said...

Oh punkin! I'm so sorry you have such math trauma, but I'm glad you found enjoyment in it later.

For some reason, I used to---as a child---recite the multiples of 3 really fast in my head. Probably borderline compulsive or something. I can still say them super fast...but I was always very, very bad at math.

In my next life, I want to be an artist. Or musician. Or both.

That is a really powerful poem. Thanks for the introduction to Dove. And now I'm gonna go read some bad fiction.

Anonymous said...

I'm thinking in my next life, I'll have to end up Henry Ford; my father would have liked a mechanalete. I still go utterly blank when he starts explaining the engine noises he heard while driving over to my house...

Great post and poem. I also really enjoyed your interview with jama. Learning that real friendship involves giving on both sides is a lesson lots of us don't learn till we're "OA" (old adults). What a worthy subject for a YA novel.

Kelly said...

Love the poem, Tanita. I have math angst too: A junior high math teacher kind of destroyed my math chances, even though all my "scores" were equal in math and verbal. I should have been an architect!

Now that my daughter is junior high age, she'll be working with hip girl college students who are also math whizzes, so she doesn't miss the boat should she want to take it.

Sarah Stevenson said...

Gorgeous poem, and I LOVE the Bulwer-Lytton contest.

jama said...

Sorry to hear about the math trauma. Glad you weren't scarred for life. Parents do need to take heed -- sometimes good intentions can get skewed when not considering who the child really is.

tanita✿davis said...

sara: Never a slacker Mom! I think encouragement goes further than punishment, generally.

janet: Y'know, you're lucky your Dad thinks you can DO mechanical things. I took an auto body class to prove to mine that I could, and would you believe when I got to college, the class for girls was called "Powderpuff Auto Shop?" I was incensed!

Kelly: GOOD PLAN. Your daughter is very lucky. She'll be the rich architect to support you in your old age, hah hah.

Colleen said...

The sound of my father's car (pulling up across the street as we were broken home kids) meant we were going to the beach. As it happens he was incredibly good at math but summer meant sand and waves to my brother and I.

I've always known we were lucky; just not how much!

Little Willow said...

Yikes to the forced repetition. I love math, multiplication, and thirteen. I'm sorry you had to go through all of that, though.

Tanita, please say hello to him for me:

Anonymous said...

I don't know who I'll be, but it sure as hell won't be Pythagoras.

MmeT said...

My mother pretty much left me alone to do my thing with school. It worked out pretty well. My 9 year old hates math and I am taking a hands off approach, but I do worry that at some point you need to learn your times tables...don't you, maybe not. Great poem.mj
I would like to come back as an opera singer.

Karen Edmisten said...

Ooh, sorry about that math trauma. As a homeschooling mom, I'm always evaluating how I go about these things, but I'm definitely not the dreaded drill type. On the other hand, as Kelly said, I don't want them to miss a boat they may want to take later, so it's a constant balancing act. Great poem.

Anonymous said...

I like the poem and your story, but both make me sad. I work in a public library, and I was just saying to the boss the other day how it makes me sad to see the library full of kids being tutored all summer long, and to hear about all the kids in summer school. When I was growing up, I thought summer school was for kids who were struggling; in my library's community, it's more often the kids who excel. Thank god most of us eventually recover from adolescence!