Article for Teachers

Hidden Beauty, Willful Craziness

Teaching poems by Jayne Cortez and Lucille Clifton.
Image of an abandoned church in Gary, Indiana.


                          Under the Edge of February

                          Under the edge of February
                          in hawk of a throat
                          hidden by ravines of sweet oil
                          by temples of switch blades
                          beautiful in its sound of fertility
                          beautiful in its turban of funeral crepe
                          beautiful in its camouflage of grief
                          in its solitude of bruises
                          in its arson of alert
                          Who will enter its beautiful calligraphy of blood

                          Its beautiful mask of fish net
                          mask of hubcap mask of ice picks mask
                          of watermelon rinds mask of umbilical cords
                          changing into a mask of rubber bands
                          Who will enter this beautiful beautiful mask of
                          punctured bladders moving with a mask of chapsticks

                          Compound of Hearts   Compound of Hearts
                          Where is the lucky number for this shy love
                          this top heavy beauty bathed with charcoal water
                          self conscious against a mosaic of broken bottles
                          broken locks broken pipes broken
                          bloods of broken spirits broken through like
                          broken promises

                          Landlords   Junkies   Thieves
                          enthroning themselves in you
                          they burn up couches they burn down houses
                          and infuse themselves against memory
                          every thought
                          a pavement of old belts
                          every performance
                          a ceremonial pick up
                          how many more orphans   how many neglected shrines
                          how many more stolen feet   stolen guns
                          stolen watch bands of death
                          in you how many times


                          hidden by ravines of sweet oil
                          by temples of switch blades
                          beautiful in your sound of fertility
                          beautiful in your turban of funeral crepe
                          beautiful in your camouflage of grief
                          in your solitude of bruises in
                          your arson of alert

Whenever I’ve taught this poem by Jayne Cortez (usually with ten-to fourteen-year-olds), I’ve always been surprised by how willing the students are to tackle the poem’s complexities: its harsh descriptions of urban life, its anger, and its notion—serious and ironic—of what, in al this chaos, is beautiful. Cortez’s ideas about beauty often frame out conversations. Most students are not used to thinking about beauty as something that isn’t obvious, something that can be hidden. They’re not used to taking images or ideas that are ostensibly “ugly” and thinking of them as beautiful in another context.

To get students thinking in this direction, I ask them to think about what “beauty” means, what they mean when they call something “beautiful.” Their initial responses are often conventional: from natures—flowers, a meadow, sun, stars, moon; from the urban—gleaming skyscrapers, glittering night streets, well-dressed people strolling; from people—those nice clothes again, muscular men, slim women, implications of good times.

A natural response to what Cortez describes is to look away. But Cortez demands the opposite: she wants us to look and to look hard. So where in the poem, I’ll ask the students, given what they’ve described as beautiful, is the beauty? The poem is full of sadness and grief (“broken / bloods of broken spirits broken through like / broken promises”), violence (“they burn up couches they burn down houses”), garbage (“mask of hubcaps mask of ice picks mask / of watermelon rinds mask of umbilical cords”). It's a poem of anger. And yet, Cortez insistently speaks about the beauty. How? Why?

As the students think about the poem and my questions, I’ll begin to discuss other possible conceptions of beauty, where else we can see it and of the possibility of beauty growing out of what we might also think of as “ugliness.” For example, they've all seen rainbow oil sheen in puddles on the street. Many know about the spectacular effects air pollution has on sunsets. I'll talk about London's mysterious, evocative fog of previous decades and its ordinary origins in coal smoke. I’ll mention Monet’s paintings of the Seine, where the magnificent colorations he depicts are actually a reflection of the river’s pollution, as well as the excitement of the billowing smoke in his railroad station paintings. I’ll talk about spiders spinning their gorgeous webs as a way to trap and kill. I’ll even bring up ambergris, which I’ll describe as "whale vomit," and how it is used in making fine perfumes. We’ll come up with examples of destructive beauty: hurricanes, tornadoes, volcanoes. Great structures like pyramids and sphinxes built by slaves. We’ll talk about perspective, how some people find things beautiful and others can’t see them, how this happens with art, poetry, clothes, music, weather. Finally we’ll return to “Under the Edge of February.” “What's beautiful here?” I’ll ask again.

At this point, we’re able to read new things in the Cortez poem. We can talk about the action in the poem, the characters in it, the setting. I’ve taught this poem in different places, but when I teach it in New York City schools, the students will always relate it to their own neighborhoods. They think about their streets, the people they know, their own lives. We talk not just about what they see, but what they know about what they see. The students’ comments become both intensely observant and personal. They often remark on the fact that where they live is home: whatever the limitations, their neighborhoods are important to them. These are places where my students have friends, where they’ve played and been happy. They’ll talk about the life of where they live: the sounds and smells, people walking on the streets and hanging out in groups talking, the fact of people’s homes being here, that there are people eating, sleeping, dreaming.

My students also respond to the “negatives” of Cortez's poem, particularly the problems of outsiders misreading and misunderstanding the world they know. We’ll discuss the problems of public perception arising from skewed media depictions: that newspapers, television, and movies show one side of where they live (the crime and the violence, the poverty), and not the other side (schools, stores, churches, homes, the community). In other words, the not-so-obvious, the hidden in Cortez’s “beautiful.” When we’ve reached this point in the discussion, we’re also at the starting point for their writing: I ask the students to respond to Cortez’s poem by writing their own poems to, of, for, and about beauty, and where they find it.


                          Blue is cool
                          I found it in the sky
                          in the ocean, on pottery

                          Red is hot
                          I found it in the sun
                          the rainbow
                          on flowers, the outside of a building
                          on clothes

                          White is delicate
                          I found it in the clouds
                          in the classroom
                          in my house
                          on flowers
                          inside and outside buildings
                          on dogs
                                  —Regina Smith, seventh grade


                          Once I had a dream
                          I could see all the places of the world
                          In my mind I could see
                          Japan, Russia, Germany
                          All the people wanted to sleep
                          and sleep on
                          Their sleep
                          seemed very beautiful to them
                          All I could see everywhere
                          was people with eyes
                                  —Tara Thomas, eighth grade

                          It’s winter in the morning
                          It’s snowing
                          It’s snowing white big flakes
                          Cars are covered with snow
                          Too many accidents
                          People are falling down
                          Breaking legs
                          Cars lose control of their breaks
                          There is no service
                          Cars hitting people
                          People bleeding through everywhere
                          Snow is getting red
                          Because of the bleeding
                          Of the person who had the big accident
                          Too many people are dying
                          This weather’s got to change
                          This weather is cold below
                                  —Francisco Rodriguez, sixth grade


                          It was night
                          and it was 9:00
                          and I’m flying in the sky
                          and I can see the North Star
                          Some people are watching “The Jeffersons”
                          Some people are watching “Jeopardy”
                          There are people doing exercise
                          There is a person riding a bike in the street
                          I went to sit on a tree branch
                          It broke
                          I fell on a van
                          and hurt my back

                          and then I flew
                          I saw the Statue of Liberty
                          It is so beautiful
                          I saw the ocean
                          The world is so beautiful
                          I saw Broadway
                          The lights look wonderful
                          I can see people
                          The people are doing their show
                                  —Charisse Robinson, fifth grade


                          The feeling of beauty
                          It’s like
                                  falling in
                                  It is such a good feeling
                          You feel like getting
                                  In a
                          White clean
                          Your hair
                                  long and
                                  The water in the Dominican
                                  Crystal clean
                          The streets clean
                          No, no dirt, dust
                          but beauty like
                                  Romeo and Juliet
                                  Adam and Eve
                          Emotions of a
                          It feels so real
                          having Beauty
                          But dream love fantasy
                          is all it is in this
                          Dirty World
                                  —Jeanette Cortijo, eighth grade

                          It is black but the white
                          freckles of the stars stand out
                          I am blind but I can still
                          see the shining light of the
                          moon standing out in the
                          I am a person but
                          to the creatures that lurk
                          beyond I am prey
                          I look and listen
                          but there is nothing
                          nothing to see or hear
                          the sounds of
                          a furious river
                          the shadows of
                          a soundless bird
                          shows in the moon light
                          I think of what humans
                          doing to the silent and
                          peaceful land
                          the animals, not mean but
                          in a strange way
                          I was glad that we hadn’t
                          destroyed it all
                          Yet I had to go back
                          this was not my home
                          my home was in the smog of
                                  —Jason Ozner, sixth grade

                          What Is Beauty

                          A cold January night
                          What happens at night
                          All the killing
                          All the shots in the wall
                          All the drugs in the world
                          Is this beauty?
                          I’ll tell you
                          about Beauty
                          What is good
                          Beauty is real
                          That’s Beauty
                          What about living,
                          is that Beauty?
                          I know it is for me
                          All the beauty in the world
                          is what I am living for
                          I know that’s what I am
                          living for
                                  —Shantel Bumpurs, fifth grade


                          I was walking down
                          the street
                          I heard a noise and
                          I was looking
                          for it and I could
                          not see it
                          and thought it was
                          a cat
                          but when I saw
                          that it was
                          not a cat I saw
                          something big
                          it was bigger
                          than a cat and then
                          I thought it was a
                          dog but it
                          was not a dog
                          and when I saw it
                          was a poor man I
                          gave the person $20 
                          because I was not 
                          happy that 
                          he lived in the 
                          street so I 
                          was going to take 
                          him to a shelter 
                          and he was hidden 
                          because he was 
                          afraid and when 
                          I saw his face 
                          he did look like 
                          good people but 
                          he looked like 
                          a child and the 
                          child was hidden 
                          the man went to the 
                          shelter and he 
                          had a good life 
                          and house
                                  —Jose Martinez, fifth grade

If one way to read Jayne Cortez’s poem is to look for not-so-obvious beauty, Lucille Clifton’s poem “roots” is about the announcement of beauty, not necessarily as something we observe, but as something we assume: our beauty is in our character, it is active, about one’s self, and the identification of that self with a kind of spirituality that reflects hope and possibility about the way life ought to be. This is a poem I often teach after having taught “Under the Edge of February.” I like how they stand with and against each other: Cortez’s explosive barrage of images, her intense language, followed by Clifton’s language much more simple and direct, yet no less complex in its drive to think about the lives we lead.


                          call it our craziness even, 
                          call it anything.
                          it is the life thing in us 
                          that will not let us die. 
                          even in death’s hand
                          we fold the fingers up
                          and call them greens and
                          grow on them,
                          we hum them and make music.
                          call it our wildness then,
                          we are lost from the field
                          of flowers, we become
                          a field of flowers.
                          call it our craziness
                          our wildness
                          call it our roots,
                          it is the light in us
                          it is the light of us
                          it is the light, call it
                          whatever you have to,
                          call it anything.

My students are often initially quite puzzled by the poem—what is she talking about? What does she mean by “the light,” what does she mean about death, what is this thing of becoming the field? Although the Cortez poem is much longer and much more detailed, the immediacy of the details, coupled with forcefulness of the long lines and the repetition, helps the students to enter the world of the poem. But Lucille Clifton’s seeming simplicity confuses them.

To help them, I’ll ask the students to think about themselves: “What makes each one of you who you are? What makes you different, not just from the person sitting next to you, but different from the person you’ve been?” They find it easy to talk about this: physical growth, personality development. They know how much has changed in their lives. But I’ll then ask: “What do you think makes you the same person now that you were five years ago, ten years ago? What makes you the person you’ve always been?”

Sometimes this is hard. For many, these are odd questions because this kind of self-analysis is unfamiliar and difficult terrain for them. They’ll note certain kinds of things: “I’ve always liked pizza but I haven’t always liked basketball, before I just liked to run. I couldn’t read before, but I always liked when someone read me books. I used to like ‘Sesame Street’ but now I prefer horror films.” But students quickly see that none of these things, while perhaps significant, is essential to their lives. But the initial thinking about such significant things can help them, through deeper analytical thinking, to see other, more essential sides of themselves: they can figure out that basketball and running demonstrate a need or desire for movement, activity, play with others, friendships. Pizza translates into the need or desire for food pleasure, for enjoyment. Books, whether read by or to them, suggest a growing desire to learn, to imagine, to know about the world they live in. The very fact that the children are changing often leads them to conclude that change itself is a necessary constant. As we continue to talk about the important things in their lives and figure out why those things have meaning, the students are able to see much more clearly the whys behind what they know about themselves; they are able to see constants in their thoughts and emotions, in their creating and dreaming.

Sometimes the students and I will venture into the notion of the spirit and the spiritual. They’ll get the connection between the spirit (sometimes they’ll call it soul) and Clifton’s “light,” the “life thing in us / that will not let us die.” We’ll contrast this with her image of “death’s hand,” noting that—if Clifton is right—if we cannot die, then death is not something to be afraid of. The hand might extend itself, but we can fold its fingers up, and take control of death. The green that death becomes is about renewal, the humming about joy. For Clifton, the life thing that is in us, that is us, the craziness and wildness, is so powerful that even when we think we are lost, it’s only a matter of perspective. You are not lost from the field if you allow yourself to become part, because, as part of the field, you’ll know exactly where you are (I think of Wallace Stevens’s idea that to understand the snow and ice and the snowman, we must have a “mind of winter.”)

Finally, I’ll ask my students why the poem is called “roots.” Their answers vary but they are all related to a single idea—that roots nourish us, they keep us grounded, allow us to live. The craziness Clifton speaks of in the poem is not madness, but fearless excitement, willful ecstasy. Being rooted in the earth means that craziness and wildness need not be aimless and destructive because, as with the “we” and “our” of the poem, Clifton means they are part of history, family, and community.

Before my students begin to write, I’ll sometimes read them another Lucille Clifton poem, “new bones”:

                          new bones

                          we will wear
                          new bones again.
                          we will leave
                          these rainy days,
                          break out through
                          another mouth
                          into sun and honey time.
                          worlds buzz over us like bees,
                          we be splendid in new bones.
                          other people think they know
                          how long life is
                          how strong life is.
                          we know.

To begin a discussion, I'll talk about Clifton’s certainty that there are things others may think they know, but which we know we know. I’ll ask them to think about things in life that seem absolutely real and certain to them and to think how that certainty might give them “roots”—just as Clifton’s confidence comes so much from her own sense of that light inside. What would they call their roots? What is their light? What runs with them, sings with them and in them? I’ll ask them to think about their own ideas of what is possible for the world and for them. To describe their own lives, what words could they use?

                          I am born as I get
                          to see nature
                          flowers blooming I nature
                          is in my hand
                          as I see the
                          earth start
                          spin as I feel it in my
                          soul as I admire myself as it is
                          a picture of myself as
                          I am going to live or
                          die as
                          I feel the sun bursting
                          on me as I am myself
                          I start
                          grow as God is
                          talking to me don’t
                          fear if death
                          I am
                          with you
                          As I talk to
                          I feel in my blood as
                          I feel healthy not sick
                          as nature is
                          blowing away until I
                          listen to what
                          they are
                          saying as
                          beams feel
                          like they
                          are taking me to heaven
                          or hell as I get scared
                          I feel haunted but
                          I get a family. As
                          I feel in my mind
                          as I sing to myself
                          as I celebrate because
                          I had parents
                          as it never ends
                          as it shines
                          to heaven as
                          there is no such
                          thing of hell as they bring me
                          for as my soul stays gold as
                          God stays I am myself
                                  —Chris DeMeglio, sixth grade

                          who are you?
                          what are you?
                          the moon and
                          the stars
                          roots go with me
                          I breathe it
                          I see it
                          what are roots?
                                  —Aracelis Roman, fifth grade

                          Call me

                          Call me sweet
                          call me friendly
                          call me pretty
                          but do not call
                          me ugly

                          because you will
                          see me get ugly
                          very ugly and you will
                          not want to see me
                                  —Sophia Negron, fifth grade

                          I have sunshine each and every day
                                  but as I focus out my window
                                               sick from the cold weather
                          I can feel my solemn soul
                                  translating through my body
                                  a tear falls from my dark
                                               brown eyes
                          When I start to cry my fulfilling
                                  angels tell me to fulfill
                                               my happiness
                                  —Erica Hardaway, fifth grade

                          Bones to Our Roots

                          Bones by day roots by
                          night, you think you
                          know when it is night
                          you think you know not
                          to fight. But you don’t
                          know and I don’t know
                          when we will die, we
                          could die right now. 
                          One day when you 
                          and I die we will 
                          walk in a field of flowers 
                          and dream about day and 
                          night, think about when to 
                          fight. Maybe we will 
                          come back in a new 
                          form and we will still 
                          dream about day and 
                                  —Mikel Murray, fifth grade


                          Good-bye to you
                          I will be back
                          I promise I will
                          I will not be gone as long as the universe exists or as long as the air is here
                          my living soul will always be with you when I’m gone
                          I will come back through the light
                          say hello
                          touch your hand
                                  —Michael Schiralli, sixth grade

Mark Statman, "Hidden Beauty, Willful Craziness: Teaching Poetry by Jayne Cortez and Lucille Clifton" from Sing the Sun Up: Creative Writing Ideas from African American Literature.  Copyright © 1998 by Mark Statman.  Reprinted by permission of Teachers & Writers Collaborative.
Originally Published: August 15th, 2016

Mark Statman is the author of four poetry collections, most recently That Train Again (2015) and A Map of the Winds (2013). He is the translator of Black Tulips: The Selected Poems of José María Hinojosa (2012) and Never Made in America: Selected Poems of Martín Barea Mattos (2017), and cotranslator of Garcia Lorca’s  Poet...