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Can't Pray Until You've Laughed: Caroline Keys Reflects On Stolen Plums And William Carlos Williams

Caroline Keys

"This last fall, I was teaching a poetry class in Arlee, a small Montana town on the Flathead Reservation, just after the first snow fell on the mountains," writes musician-poet-teacher, Caroline Keys. "A junior high student in my poetry class, one in a set of identical twin brothers, turned in a poetry exercise in which he was asked to replicate one of the most famous and enigmatic poems titled "This is Just to Say" by the Modernist poet, William Carlos Williams. The assignment asked him to rewrite Williams's mysteriously potent form with something from his own life.  The student's poem began like this:

This is just to say
yes we have switched classes
you thought I was the other twin
and you have finally figured it out...

“Sweet!” I thought. 

The kid simultaneously messed around with the school-imposed structure on his day and totally nailed the “sorry/not sorry” tone that I was hoping my students would synthesize after our Williams session that week.  Also, I love a good prank.     

Many cultures believe you cannot pray until you have laughed, and in the days after my good chuckle about the clever way my student had confessed to disrupting the established norm by shape-shifting and coming to class as someone else, I began to meditate on my choice to bring Williams's poem in my class in the first place.  It occurred to me that the content of “This Is Just to Say”-- the casually stolen plums and a subsequent nuanced and intimate apology might sound dissonant to some of my students on the Flathead Reservation.  I wondered how best to respond.  

I thought about my role as teacher, which is, in this case, to provide a safe space for student expression.  The following week I acknowledged to my classroom community that thus far we had read poetry prompts mostly by dead white guys.  And it was time to change that.  Together we began to read Leslie Marmon Silko and to research poets from the Flathead Rez.  We recommitted to the safe space that our poetry class provides and we continued to express our longing, our outrage, our sarcasm, our hope."

William Carlos Williams was a practicing medical doctor born in New Jersey in the early 20th century.  He was awarded The Pulitzer Prize posthumously in 1963 for his collection titled "Pictures from Brueghel and Other Poems." Here is the poem, "This Is Just To Say."

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold.

(Broadcast: "Reflections West," 5/4/16 and 11/9/16. Listen weekly on the radio, Wednesdays at 4:54 p.m.)

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