Teachable Moments :Davis McCombs “Lexicon”

This is a post for a friend of mine from back in the day who teaches junior high English in Oklahoma–home of my poetic soul. When you say the words “best friend,” she is still the first person who comes to mind, probably because she was my best friend at a time when adolescence-survival demanded that I have one.  I haven’t seen her in many years, but she is still a “bestie.”

Thank goodness for the Internet as we are able to keep in touch. She and I have been sharing back and forth sometimes about the teaching of poetry. I am going to post from time to time some introductions to poets or certain poems which would be good fits for the junior high classroom.

Davis McCombs is an obvious choice.  I am drawn again and again to his poetry because of the sense of place he creates in his work and the history he is able to capture. He is, in my opinion, the best younger, newer, fresh poetic face of our time, (whatever “our time” is in poetic terms).

Through words, McCombs builds not just pictures, I would say he paints haunted photographs, and the lyrical prowess of his work can be addictive, meaning, I return to his work again and again for the music of it.

Here is a link to two McComb’s poems. http://muse.jhu.edu/login?auth=0&type=summary&url=/journals/southern_cultures/v015/15.1.mccombs.html

I am most interested for classroom study in the poem “Lexicon” for my teacher-friend, Jess. In this poem McCombs reincarnates the technical language of the tobacco industry, but of course, a close reading will reveal so much about McComb’s technicality as a poet as well.

First things first, read the poem aloud. For several consecutive days, read the poem aloud. On day four or five or six or seven….approach with your students the lexicon of tobacco introduced in the poem. Have students write down the words in the poem which are unfamiliar and most of these words, of course, will be the technical words of the tobacco plant and the tobacco industry. Show them pictures of budworms, aphids and thrips. Other lexicon words in the poem: white burley, lugs, cutters, Paris Green, topping, side-dressing, setters, stripping rooms, pegs, float plants, tierpoles, blue mold, high color, sucker dope (my favorite), Black Patch, high boys, flue-cured, horn worms, buyouts.

I can see this poet as a little boy sitting on the counter at the feed store with his grandfather surrounded by the swirl of these words which meant life to the farmers and the families. I can see myself doing the same thing only the place was southern Oklahoma and the crops were different.

The next doorway into the poem is the lexicon of the poem itself which thrives mostly on verb tense. By using present progressive tense, McCombs creates a fluid action within the poem. The farmers performed this exact action in the past, in the present and through the future.  Have your students read the first line in simple present tense…”the people talk…” Observe what is lost when the tense of the poem is changed.The exclusive use of participles to complete the present progressive tense also softens the poem and serves as a downy landing for the harsh vocabulary to impact the sound and lyric of the poem.

The final line of McComb’s poem turns the lexicon on its ear. This is what they are really saying, isn’t it?  The previous lines in the poem are the specific sounds and words, the lexicon…what the poet heard, hears. The final line contains all the meaning, doesn’t it? The final line connotes what the poet hears that perhaps the other men in overalls did not, do not hear. This is the “why” of the poem. Great poems always contain a “why.”

After your students have sufficiently exhausted their tolerance for the reading and discussing of this poem (I never tire of it)…have them attempt to write a lexicon-poem of their own. Go to the grocery store and listen to the shoppers. Go to church. Listen to your family as you all eat dinner together. What are the teachers talking about in their break room?  I wrote a lexicon-poem one time as an exercise in poetry workshop about poetry workshop. Each place, each experience carries its own jargon. Use those words to recreate the experience and the place.

Have fun!