Friday, November 7, 2014

science series V

We've been exploring some science poetry by authors you might call "classic"-- Robert Frost, Eve Merriam, Valerie Worth.  Today let's top and bottom our world with work from two more classics, Christina Rossetti and Walt Whitman.  Both these Victorian contemporaries are considered poets for adults, but we never let that stop us from finding poems that are accessible to children, do we?

You can see my post about "Clouds" by Rossetti here--it is the perfect introduction to metaphor for the very youngest students. Sinking from sky to sea, we land in...

The World Below the Brine || Walt Whitman

The world below the brine,

Forests at the bottom of the sea, the branches and leaves,

Sea-lettuce, vast lichens, strange flowers and seeds, the thick tangle, openings, and pink turf,

Different colors, pale gray and green, purple, white, and gold, the play of light through the water,

Dumb swimmers there among the rocks, coral, gluten, grass, rushes, and the aliment of the swimmers,

Sluggish existences grazing there suspended, or slowly crawling close to the bottom,

The sperm-whale at the surface blowing air and spray, or disporting with his flukes,

The leaden-eyed shark, the walrus, the turtle, the hairy sea-leopard, and the sting-ray,

Passions there, wars, pursuits, tribes, sight in those ocean-depths, breathing that thick-breathing air, as so many do,

The change thence to the sight here, and to the subtle air breathed by beings like us who walk this sphere,

The change onward from ours to that of beings who walk other spheres.
  This is a poem whose structure and richness would overwhelm most kids in a kindergarten full of English language learners, unless we were delving deeply into ocean studies, which doesn't happen in our curriculum.  But for students about 2nd grade and up--what a feast!

 I might begin with everyone mixing water and LOTS of salt to make brine, and discussing whether we would be able to survive in that much salt.  This sensory experience becomes important as the poem moves toward its demanding--maybe even intimidating--ending.

 This poem alternates beautifully among lines full of "ordinary" words likely well-known to students (lines 2, 4 and 8), lines that introduce words and syntax likely to be unfamiliar (lines 3, 6 and 7), and then some lines, like 5 and the last three, that use extrordinarily complex language and syntax to ask the reader what turns out to be a fairly simple question: how are we like sea creatures?

Because this poem is rather heavy-going in terms of vocabulary and incorporates a list element, it lends itself to choral reading, with single voices and small groups speaking (acting? in Kindergarten we ALWAYS act out our poems!) the piled-on names of the denizens of the world below the brine.  In the end, this is one of those poems where you might not need to UNDERSTAND every phrase or idea to feel the wonder of the whole--but isn't it the mystery and wonder of the whole that makes scientists want to delve deeply into the detailed How?

Delve yourselves deep into the world of Poetry Friday over at Random Noodling with Diane today.


  1. Acting out, and, if you have the kids paint their imaginings, a whole new undersea world of creation would result!

  2. Why not share rich, rewarding writing with young students?

    "Passions there, wars, pursuits, tribes, sight in those ocean-depths, breathing that thick-breathing air, as so many do," -- very relatable!

  3. I agree with Tara -- why save the riches for older kids/adults?!?

  4. Tabatha and Mary Lee--

    Did I sound like I would deny 5-year-olds richness and rewards? Heavens, no! But look at the line Tabatha chose, including words like passions,pursuits,
    tribes. Look at the syntax, the layered clauses. Now picture being a 5-year-old who has never been read to at home, who may be hearing lots of English for the first time. Next, imagine the teacher's effort to convey the meanings of those words, the effect of the layers of syntax. It would be literally a translation exercise, and I meant to say that outside the context of a deep sea curriculum study for those kids, the resulting reward might not be worth the time it would take to get it, when you could select a more accessible, equally rich and rewarding poem. I'll go look up an example....

    Thanks for stopping by!

  5. This is a guess, Heidi, but I'm thinking you may be the first to ever illuminate a Walt Whitman poem for elementary students, especially the just beginning grades. Feeling a salty breeze exhileration with your ideers.
    Appreciations for the poem sharing & all the suggestions.


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