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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One comment

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