D. C. Berry's "On Reading Poems to a Senior Class at South High"

Updated on November 24, 2018
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Poetry became my passion, after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962.

D. C. Berry

Source

Introduction and Text of "On Reading Poems to a Senior Class at South High"

D. C. Berry's "On Reading Poems to a Senior Class at South High" consists of seven free verse paragraphs (versagraphs) that use the metaphor of fish that folks will easily recognize. First the students are sitting like fish frozen in a store-bought package and then they transform, coming alive and swimming as fish eagerly dart about in an aquarium.

The speaker employs this useful metaphor of transforming fish to describe his enjoyable experience of reading poems to a senior class at a high school.

On Reading Poems to a Senior Class at South High

Before
I opened my mouth
I noticed them sitting there
as orderly as frozen fish
in a package.

Slowly water began to fill the room
though I did not notice it
till it reached
my ears

and then I heard the sounds
of fish in an aquarium
and I knew that though I had
tried to drown them
with my words
that they had only opened up
like gills for them
and let me in.

Together we swam around the room
like thirty tails whacking words
till the bell rang
puncturing
a hole in the door

where we all leaked out

They went to another class
I suppose and I home

where Queen Elizabeth
my cat met me
and licked my fins
till they were hands again

Reading of "On Reading Poems to a Senior Class at South High"

Commentary

Frozen fish are transformed into living, swimming fish as they listen to poetry.

First Versagraph: Low Expectations

Before
I opened my mouth
I noticed them sitting there
as orderly as frozen fish
in a package.

In the opening versagraph, the speaker claims that before he started speaking, he noticed that the students were sitting like "frozen fish / in a package." They were just sitting at their desks all in a row, all in order, apparently not expecting much from the speaker.

The speaker begins with low expectations, feeling that the students would have no interesting listening to a middle-aged poet. He felt that he had come her to read his poem, but they would fall on deaf ears, but he continues to give it a try.

Second Versagraph: From Frozen to Swimming

Slowly water began to fill the room
though I did not notice it
till it reached
my ears

Then the speaker's reading begins to bring the frozen fish to life. He expresses this new motion in the room by claiming that water was filling the space, but he did not notice it until it "reached / [his] ears."

The speaker had begun reading, but because he did not expect them to be interested in listening to his poetry, he felt that he was just droning on. But then he starts to notice that they were coming alive. The water of his words had thawed out the frozen fish, and he begins to hear them moving about.

Third Versagraph: Listening and Reacting

and then I heard the sounds
of fish in an aquarium
and I knew that though I had
tried to drown them
with my words
that they had only opened up
like gills for them
and let me in.

Then the speaker becomes fully aware that the students are not only listening to his poems, but they are also reacting to them. They are no longer "frozen fish"; they are "fish in an aquarium." At this point, he understands that the students are actually listening and are responding to his words.

The speaker had thought that the students probably felt as if they were being drowned by his words. But he is then pleasantly surprised to discover that they were not only listening but reacting to the words. The speaker then feels that they are all fish in an aquarium swimming around in his words enjoying them.

Fourth Versagraph: Enjoying a Good Swim

Together we swam around the room
like thirty tails whacking words
till the bell rang
puncturing
a hole in the door

They swim around the space and their responses were "like thirty tails whacking words." The students responded to his poems in a manner that told him they were not only understanding the poems but also enjoying them enough to call out appropriate responses.

They were totally engaged, and the speaker/poet was pleasantly surprised. They continued to enjoy the poetry until the end of class. Then the speaker likens the ringing of the bell to end class to some sharp tool, perhaps a drill, that punctures "a hole in the door."

Fifth Versagraph: Class Ends

where we all leaked out

The act of leaving the classroom becomes so momentous for the speaker that he places it in its own versagraph of one line. Continuing the swimming metaphor, the speaker has them all leaking out through the punctured hole.

Sixth Versagraph: Going Their Separate Ways

They went to another class
I suppose and I home

After "leaking" out of the classroom, the students had to go somewhere, and the speaker had to go somewhere. The speaker guesses that the students went to another class, and he reports that he goes home.

Seventh Versagraph: A Cat Named "Queen Elizabeth"

where Queen Elizabeth
my cat met me
and licked my fins
till they were hands again

The speaker retains his feeling of being a fish until after he returns home. The pleasant feeling of having communicated with a classroom full of seniors at a high school had given him a euphoria which lasted until he had entered his own home.

It was then only after his cat, "Queen Elizabeth"—quite an apt name for the cat of a poet—began to lick his hands, which were still "fins," that he snapped out of his fish metaphor and became human again with hands instead of fins.

Portrait of D. C. Berry by Dan Drew

Source

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