A Prayer for September 11

It’s always difficult, both personally and pedagogically, to teach a lesson on a national day of mourning that is still so emotionally and politically immediate. You have to balance sensitivity with passion, educational relevance with memorial gravity. You take a hard look at what you know to find solace and understanding for yourself and then wonder if any of it can make a difference to others. And yet, to teach is to try. The seventh grade theme in English is “Adjusting to Place,” and what is September 11 but a place we all needed to adjust to?

So I chose, in my seventh grade classes, to discuss a poem by Teresa Cader, which was a response to George Herbert’s “Prayer,” written some 370 years prior. We began by reading Herbert’s poem and making general observations about its tone and structure: that it is religious, measured, that it had a kind of timeless quality, that it rhymed in a pattern. I talked about how architects will often design a building to provide a specific experience, and we brainstormed about how the middle school building that we were in had certain features that provided it with a unique feel.

Herbert’s poem is built like a cathedral. It has the classical structure of a sonnet, following established traditions of form and logic. Like a cathedral, it directs its audience upward in a prayer of praise to God. In fact, its thesis is the word “prayer,” the first word of the poem, followed by a series of appositive phrases cascading forth in theological and metaphorical riffs. Herbert exclaims, for example, that prayer is “the six daies world—transposing in an houre,” the glory and marvel of creation translated and compressed into a pilgrim’s ecstatic encounter with the numinous.

We read Cader’s poem, “September 11,” next. Students noticed immediately that it sounded more casual, more modern. It grouped lines in couplets, not rhymed quatrains, and had more quotidian descriptions that spilled over in frequent enjambments. Looking closer, they also noticed that words and phrases from Herbert’s poem were echoed throughout the poem, though now in a context so different that they were easily overlooked. Cader’s poem seemed to retain the spiritual intensity of Herbert’s but felt like it was a different building altogether — something more sparse and somber.

In fact, “September 11” picks up the last statement of Herbert’s poem— “[prayer is] something understood” —and responds to it directly: “Understanding something isn’t prayer, necessarily.” From there it uses, like Herbert’s poem, a series of a noun phrases to build a faceted description — but this time of a group of unsuspecting passengers boarding their plane at an airport. The rapturous “softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and blisse” of Herbert’s prayer becomes the “softness of cruising, bliss of landing, love waiting in the wings,…. Muted joy at unfastening seatbelts” with its conspicuous absence of peace. Cader, in essence, takes Herbert’s sonnet, tears it down to its timbers, and from it builds her own church, a memorial. She takes the mundane (“six days”) world we all took for granted before 9/11 and points out how it got “transposed in one hour,” elevated into transcendence, into a prayer. Not a prayer one petitions, exults — or understands even, necessarily — but one that has taken what was and has indelibly translated it into a new reality.

I read the poem again, aloud. Students followed silently, respectfully, one poem faintly visible behind the page of the other.

UPDATE:

Here is a copy of the handout I give on the Herbert and Cader poems:

I really can’t leave well enough alone, even when I got a nice comment from Theresa Cader herself (see the comments below), so I recently tried, when I had less time to devote to the original lesson plan, to present it as a keynote presentation:

Note: I didn’t record myself actually giving the presentation, so there’s no sound to the video. I’ve included below the script I followed, though:

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    There was a hermit crab inside and it pinched her ear.
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    Yesterday, while I was at work, my cousin stole my apple ipad and tested to see if it can survive a 30 foot drop, just so she can be
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    I was curious if you ever thought of changing the structure
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    Hi, i read your blog occasionally and i own a similar one and i was just curious if you get a lot
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    Do you have any suggestions on how to get listed in Yahoo
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    Hello there! This is kind of off topic but I need some guidance from an established blog. Is it difficult to set up your own blog? I’m not very techincal but I can figure things out pretty fast.
    I’m thinking about setting up my own but I’m not sure where to begin.

    Do you have any tips or suggestions? Thank you
    Hiya! Quick question that’s totally off topic. Do you know how to make your site mobile friendly? My site looks weird when viewing from my iphone 4. I’m
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    Hey just wanted to give you a brief heads up and let you know a few of the images aren’t loading correctly.
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    Howdy are using WordPress for your blog platform? I’m new to the blog world but I’m trying to get started and create my own.
    Do you need any html coding expertise to make your own blog?
    Any help would be greatly appreciated!
    Hi there this is somewhat of off topic but I was wanting to know if blogs use WYSIWYG editors or if you have to manually code with HTML.
    I’m starting a blog soon but have no coding expertise so I wanted to get guidance from someone with experience. Any help would be enormously appreciated!
    Hi! I just wanted to ask if you ever have any problems with hackers? My last blog (wordpress) was hacked and I ended up losing many months of hard work due to no data backup. Do you have any solutions to prevent hackers?
    Howdy! Do you use Twitter? I’d like to follow you if that would be ok.

    I’m definitely enjoying your blog and look forward to new posts.
    Hi there! Do you know if they make any plugins to safeguard against hackers? I’m
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  4. Hi there great website! Does running a blog like this require a large amount of work?
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    Today, I went to the beachfront with my kids. I found a sea shell and gave it to my 4 year old daughter and said “You can hear the ocean if you put this to your ear.” She placed the shell to her ear and screamed. There was a hermit crab inside and it pinched her ear. She never wants to go back! LoL I know this is completely off topic but I had to tell someone!
    Yesterday, while I was at work, my sister stole my iphone and tested to see if it can survive a 40 foot drop, just so she can be a youtube sensation. My apple ipad is now destroyed and she has 83 views. I know this is entirely off topic but I had to share it with someone!
    I was wondering if you ever thought of changing the structure of your blog? Its very well written; I love what youve got to say. But maybe you could a little more in the way of content so people could connect with it better. Youve got an awful lot of text for only having one or two pictures. Maybe you could space it out better?
    Hi there, i read your blog occasionally and i own a similar one and i was just wondering if you get a lot of spam responses? If so how do you protect against it, any plugin or anything you can advise? I get so much lately it’s driving me mad so any help
    is very much appreciated.
    This design is steller! You certainly know how to keep a
    reader entertained. Between your wit and your videos, I was almost moved to start my own blog (well, almost.
    ..HaHa!) Wonderful job. I really enjoyed what you had to say,
    and more than that, how you presented it. Too cool!

    I’m truly enjoying the design and layout of your blog. It’s a very
    easy on the eyes which makes it much more pleasant for
    me to come here and visit more often. Did you hire out a developer
    to create your theme? Exceptional work!
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    never seem to get there! Appreciate it
    Hello! This is kind of off topic but I need
    some advice from an established blog. Is it very hard to set up your own blog?
    I’m not very techincal but I can figure things out pretty fast. I’m
    thinking about setting up my own but I’m not sure where to start. Do you have any ideas or suggestions? Thanks
    Greetings! Quick question that’s entirely off topic. Do you know how to make your site mobile
    friendly? My blog looks weird when browsing from my iphone4.

    I’m trying to find a template or plugin that might be able to correct this issue. If you have any recommendations, please share. Appreciate it!
    I’m not that much of a online reader to be honest but your sites really nice, keep it up! I’ll go ahead and bookmark your site to come back down the road.
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    I love your blog.. very nice colors & theme. Did you make
    this website yourself or did you hire someone to do it for you?
    Plz respond as I’m looking to construct my own blog and would like to know where u got this from. thanks a lot
    Incredible! This blog looks just like my old one! It’s on a
    completely different subject but it has pretty much the same layout and design.
    Wonderful choice of colors!
    Heya just wanted to give you a brief heads up and let you
    know a few of the images aren’t loading correctly. I’m not sure why but I think its a linking issue.

    I’ve tried it in two different internet browsers and both show the same results.
    Howdy are using WordPress for your site platform? I’m new to
    the blog world but I’m trying to get started and create my own. Do you need any html coding knowledge to make your own blog? Any help would be really appreciated!
    Heya this is somewhat of off topic but I was wondering if blogs use WYSIWYG editors or if you have to manually code with HTML. I’m
    starting a blog soon but have no coding knowledge so I
    wanted to get advice from someone with experience. Any help
    would be enormously appreciated!
    Hi! I just wanted to ask if you ever have any trouble with hackers?

    My last blog (wordpress) was hacked and I ended up
    losing months of hard work due to no data backup. Do you have any
    methods to stop hackers?
    Hi there! Do you use Twitter? I’d like to follow you if that would be okay. I’m
    undoubtedly enjoying your blog and look forward to new updates.

    Hi there! Do you know if they make any plugins to protect against hackers?
    I’m kinda paranoid about losing everything I’ve worked hard on.
    Any suggestions?
    Hey! Do you know if they make any plugins to help with SEO?
    I’m trying to get my blog to rank for some targeted keywords but I’m not seeing very good gains.
    If you know of any please share. Thanks!
    I know this if off topic but I’m looking into starting my own weblog and was curious what all is needed to get setup? I’m assuming having a blog like yours
    would cost a pretty penny? I’m not very internet savvy so I’m not 100% positive.
    Any suggestions or advice would be greatly appreciated.

    Thank you
    Hmm is anyone else having problems with the images on this blog
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    I’m not sure exactly why but this weblog is loading incredibly slow for me. Is anyone else having this problem or is it a issue on my end? I’ll check back later and see if the problem still exists.

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  6. Hi, i read your blog from time to time and i own a similar one and i was just wondering if
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