FAVORITE POEM — Ringtone
June 1, 2020
By Margaret Rozga, Wisconsin Poet Laureate
I panicked,” Jay Bullock said about his reaction to being asked to name a favorite poem. As an English teacher for 22 years, the last 12 of them at Bay View High School, he has “dozens and dozens” of favorites. “I have favorite poems to read, favorite poems to teach in general, favorite poems to pair with each other or with prose texts my students read, favorite poems to recite at my students when they insist memorizing poetry
is too hard—you get the idea.”
Indeed after 28 years of teaching introductory literature classes at what is now the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Waukesha campus, I do get the idea of how some poems emerge as best-suited for certain occasions and purposes. Some poems begin as the poet’s response to an emotional or otherwise significant personal or public occasion. When those poems succeed, they help readers identify their own emotions and sense of what the occasion signifies for them. Such a poem is the one Jay settled on as a personal and teaching favorite, Bruce Bond’s “Ringtone.”
The poem, “clearly about the aftermath of the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting,” hit him hard. He said because he is a teacher, “School shootings live constantly at the back of my mind. The Columbine shooting happened when I was teaching at a school very much like Columbine High School. Coupled with how young and impressionable I was that early in my career, it left a lasting mark.”
In his current position, he said he doesn’t fear being in a school shooting as much as he fears that they will keep happening forever. “As the bodies of children pile up in places like Newtown, CT and Parkland, FL, I ache over what those teachers and parents must feel,” he lamented.
In the wake of the Parkland shooting, he wrote a powerful essay for the Bay View Compass to express his compassionate view. He believes schools should “be among the safest, most loving places” that students know.
As an English teacher, he appreciates the many ways Bond’s poem provides for rich discussion with his students. Though at Bay View High School, students have not experienced a school shooting, the poem immediately places the reader in such a situation: “As they loaded the dead onto the gurneys / to wheel them from the university halls.” Students can relate. They are aware of the prevalence of guns in our country. Some know of and some may have experienced gun violence outside of school. Others may have lost friends, or acquaintances, or family members to death by other causes.
The poem’s metaphoric approach and structure also prompt discussion even in the prose writing classes, that Jay particularly enjoys. “We talk quite a bit about how literature is itself always a kind of argument,” he said.
This particular poem sees the ringing of the phones in the pockets of the students in terms of chirping birds:
“the startled chirping
in those pockets, the invisible bells
and tiny metal music of the phones”
The bird imagery continues to the last lines where the poem shows the emergency medical responders who are faced with conveying the sorrowful news when answering phones with song-based ringtones.
“Who could have answered there
in proxy for the dead, received the panic
with grace, however artless? A live bird
gone still at the meeting of the strangers.”
Jay encourages his students to unpack the poem’s unifying metaphor. He said his favorite part of teaching the poem is when students consider the phrase “a live bird gone still,” and the way its imagery describes both the answering of the phone and the deaths of the students.” He wants students to learn that when they write, “an artfully deployed metaphor in their own prose arguments, can be as powerful as these metaphors in poetry.” And learn they do.
I know I did. I learned about Bruce Bond, a poet I had not previously read before and learned an approach to teaching his poem “Ringtone.” I also learned of the depth of preparation and commitment to students Jay Bullock brings to his classes at Bay View High School. His work and that of his dedicated colleagues makes me Bay View proud.
The full text of Bruce Bond’s “Ringtone” can be accessed: bit.ly/2WxHfbM
Read Jay’s Hall Monitor column about the Parkland shooting: bit.ly/360VuZR.