In my blog posts dated August 3rd and 7th, I wrote about two classroom activities for teaching the idea of “what makes a source reliable?” Often times I would follow those two lessons with an analysis of Robert Frost’s poem Out, out – :

The buzz saw snarled and rattled in the yard
And made dust and dropped stove-length sticks of wood,
Sweet-scented stuff when the breeze drew across it.
And from there those that lifted eyes could count
Five mountain ranges one behind the other
Under the sunset far into Vermont.
And the saw snarled and rattled, snarled and rattled,
As it ran light, or had to bear a load.
And nothing happened: day was all but done.
Call it a day, I wish they might have said
To please the boy by giving him the half hour
That a boy counts so much when saved from work.
His sister stood beside him in her apron
To tell them "Supper." At the word, the saw,
As if it meant to prove saws know what supper meant,
Leaped out at the boy's hand, or seemed to leap -
He must have given the hand. However it was,
Neither refused the meeting. But the hand!
Half in appeal, but half as if to keep
The life from spilling. Then the boy saw all -
Since he was old enough to know, big boy
Doing a man's work, though a child at heart -
He saw all was spoiled. "Don't let him cut my hand off -
The doctor, when he comes. Don't let him, sister!"
So. The hand was gone already.
The doctor put him in the dark of ether.
He lay and puffed his lips out with his breath.
And then - the watcher at his pulse took a fright.
No one believed. They listened to his heart.
Little - less - nothing! - and that ended it.
No more to build on there. And they, since they
Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.


Of course, you might wonder why I share this particular poem with the students after our examination of what makes a source reliable. According to Frost’s biographers, the event that prompted Frost to write this poem was reported in the following news item in The Littleton Courier, a New Hampshire newspaper, on March 31, 1910:

Raymond Tracy Fitzgerald, one of the twin sons of Michael G. And Margaret Fitzgerald of Bethlehem, died at his home Thursday afternoon, March 24, as a result of an accident by which one of his hands was badly hurt in a sawing machine. The young man was assisting in sawing up some wood in his own dooryard with a sawing machine and accidentally hit the loose pulley, causing the saw to descend upon his hand, cutting and lacerating it badly. Raymond was taken into the house and a physician was immediately summoned, but he died very suddenly from the effects of the shock, which produced heart failure.

Here is how I usually present the poem and article:

1) First I read just a portion of the poem, until about the 9th line or the word “Supper” in the 14th line. Then I stop and ask the students about the elements of poetry to that point (onomatopoeia, imagery, alliteration, etc.) and what they think they think is going to happen.

2) After a short discussion, I finish the poem. The students are always quite startled by how the poem ends. Again, we discuss the elements of poetry, and Frost’s meaning and implications in the poem – especially through the seemingly insensitive final line, “And they, since they / Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.”

3) Next, I ask them what they think the title means. Usually they have no idea. I provide quite a bit of wait time for the students to ponder, and sometimes some of them do offer ideas, but generally they are unsure about the title, Out, out –

4) Before I divulge the meaning of the title, I share the newspaper article about the death of Raymond Fitzgerald. At that point, I ask about the elements of reporting a journalist should include in writing about such an incident and/or any news-worthy item. I tie this to the previous lesson of reliability, and we compare/contrast what facts, opinions, details and images a reporter would include versus a poet.

Some possible questions:

• Many details in the poem could not properly be included in a newspaper story because they are inferences and opinions rather than facts. What are examples of these details? Why does the poem omit certain details that the newspaper account includes?

• What lines, phrases, and words in the poem hit at the catastrophe to come?

• The accident is shocking, but it is not so plainly detailed as to be gruesome. How does Frost handle/avoid horrific details?

• Do the last two lines of the poem mean that the family does not care about the boy? How else can one account for their seeming callousness?

5) After a comparison of the elements of a poem versus a newspaper account, I usually have the students write a poem tied to a current newspaper account of their choice and/or I would have them write a news account of a poem. Later I would have them present their works, and we would again compare/contrast the elements of reliable reporting versus the features of creative writing.

6) Finally, I would re-ask about the title of the poem. After any discussion of the ideas offered, I would share Shakespeare’s lines from “MacBeth” (Act V, Scene 5):

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing.

7) Following some discussion of Shakespeare’s lines, I would then share the lyrics to Candle in the Wind, Elton John’s ode to Marilyn Monroe – and the altered lyrics to the same song in his tribute to Lady Diana. Both of these versions of the song can be tied to the study of the news accounts of both women – how factual and/or sensational are the reports of their lives and their accidental deaths? What facts did Elton John include and/or embellish in his songs? How “reliable” and/or “creative” must a reporter, lyricist, or poet be?
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Published on August 10, 2012 17:05 • 967 views • Tags: poetry, robert-frost, teaching

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