Thursday, March 26, 2009

In Response to My Student's Prompt To Write a Poem Related to the Holocaust

My student came to me with a school assignment: write a poem in response to a Holocaust victim's poem, "The Butterfly," by Pavel Friedman. We discussed the particular juxtaposition of a yellow butterfly's beauty with the haunting images of life in the Jewish ghetto, and the symbol of hope amid the ruins of life. I asked him to imagine himself in a concentration camp: "So, as an inmate, what would you see every day as you worked, something that you could see in another way, a brighter way, out of both desperation and hope?"
He mentioned a barbed wire fence in front of flowers on the other side. I replied, "How about the barbed wire fence itself--how might a hopeful, yet hopeless person view such an ugly fence in a new light; what simile could describe the wire and the barbs as looking like something happier?" I drew a line with asterisk-like barbs across his paper. "What does it look like to you?" I asked.
He replied, "Flowers on a metal vine." And so his poem, and mine simultaneously, was born. He turned in his free verse to his teacher with pride; I'm posting mine here, hoping to elicit your comments.

by Susan L. Lipson

Metallic flowers on a silver vine
Stretch taut to keep us in their garden walls,
Where worms like us must dig, but never whine,
Must bury seeds of hope before they fall;
No birds alight upon these petal spikes,
Lest they get pierced like friends I’ve loved and lost,
Friends who were but “vermin,” “dogs,” or “kikes,”
Rebelling, not considering the cost.
To sniff these blooms brings blood, not pleasant scents,
Yet still the petal barbs tempt me to climb—
Just up and over!—leave behind this fence,
Escape to fragrant fields and summertime…
Confinement alters views, both tempts and taunts;
Like a relentless ghost, our minds it haunts.


  1. Susan
    Very skillful way of drawing your student into thinking (and writing) like a poet. And your poem, which emerged out of your work together, is an excellent example of how writing partners can help us break out of our own solitude.

  2. Writing partners, as you say, elicit connections between writers and readers--which is why I teach in a workshop style. I only wish teachers would do so, to clarify the purpose of writing as communication, rather than merely the fulfillment of a teacher's tastes or requirements in order to secure a high grade. Thanks for your comments!