Poetic Reflections Upon a Visit to the National Zoo
The Academy of American Poets (founded in 1934) has been celebrating National Poetry Month in April since 1996. The Academy encourages K-12 students and teachers to read, enjoy, discuss, and write poetry. My English class (8B) joined the celebration by reading and studying poems by established authors such as Billy Collins, John Keats, Walt Whitman, Robert Frost, and Langston Hughes. Following Collins’s advice, we wanted “to water-ski / across the surface of a poem / waving at the author’s name on the shore . . .” and not “tie the poem to a chair with a rope / and torture a confession out of it.”
In fact, we even decided to write our own poems. Wordsworth was correct when he said that “all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings . . . recollected in tranquility,” so we decided to visit a place where we might experience such powerful emotions. And the National Zoological Park in Washington, DC, offered the potential for a variety of experiences. We were in agreement that often the best poems spring from actual events in our lives.
So on April 21, 2015, we headed for the National Zoo. In groups, the class observed the animals and the interaction of the visitors; the students took notes and photographs, and let their senses respond to the moment. They heard the cry of birds and smelled the scent of animals. They visited the lions, the reptiles, and the flamingos, the most popular animals. They also read the information signs for facts and for the Latin names of the animals. Their assignment was to take notes and write a prose report of their visit, including the animal of their choice. Later, “in tranquility,” they were to compose their poems.
The poems that the students wrote were based on personal encounters with animals such as crocodiles, chameleons, otters, pandas, and wolves. And, more importantly, they dealt with larger issues of captivity, boredom, beauty, and instinct. One poem presented a simian lesson: “These two orangutans taught me that love / Can be found trapped behind glass walls.” Another recounted how the student’s “soul belongs to an otter / The one with the prettiest eyes.” One student saw a
paradox: “In the glass box, where it should be / A crowd around it, / All wanting to see / The invisible in the tree. / Where, where, where? / The chameleon isn’t there.” Students also applied poetic techniques or approaches: An extended metaphor compared pink flowers to flamingos; a concrete poem added an allusion in the lines, “And with long legs I once classic ballet danced. / I felt like in Fantasia when the flamingos to Saint-Saëns pranced”; a Latin name ennobled the meerkat: Suricata suricatta; rich imagery made poems vivid: “howling,” “munching,” “a squawk,” “warm and smelly,” “gawked.”
Two weeks after the visit, students shared their poems in class, explaining what they had in mind and taking questions from classmates. The students received mutual admiration and applause for their work. As their teacher, I was also very impressed by quality of the poems. As a focused collection, the poems offer a panoramic view of the zoo visit.
This poetry project stems from earlier work I have done with students at the German School. The details of one project were published in English Journal (2000). For the current collection and earlier projects, I have also contributed poems to the collections (e.g., “Visiting Chitwan: Reflections after seeing the baby rhinoceros at the National Zoological Park, Washington, DC,” 2000; “They’re Gone,” 2015).
Dreher, Peter (2000). “Electronic Poetry: Student-Constructed Hypermedia,” English Journal (November), 68-73. http://search.proquest.com/openview/2d0901471a396f97fc5c428b224b0ac0/1?pq-origsite=gscholar
DSW English Teacher