Syntax Study for Earth Day

Placing Maggie Smith’s “Good Bones” and Craig Santos Perez’s “Good Fossil Fuels” side by side can elicit a wide-ranging classroom conversation about the ways the climate crisis is downplayed.  Through describing points of convergence and divergence, students can ponder how the “recycled” aspects of Smith’s syntax and prosody appearing in Perez’s poem challenge their thinking about what constitutes a sustainable trajectory for human history.

Before discussing the poems with students, I suggest sharing some background information about how Perez’s “recycling” poems came about.  At the beginning of his essay, “Recycling Poetry in A Time of Climate Change,” Perez describes his inspiration: Wallace Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.”  As he thought about how the poem invites seeing the world from multiple perspectives, he was struck by how its word order and structure become predictable upon rereadings.  Familiarity with the poem’s syntax created his sense of expectation, a sense of knowing what is to come.  Substituting key images with imagery associated with climate change made him think of “recycling”: reusing the container of Stevens’ poems while changing its content.

“Good Bones” by Maggie Smith via

Craft Noticings:

  • confessional tone
  • use of a fixer upper metaphor
  • switch from 1st-person to 2nd-person point of view

Sometimes, the protective instinct can be double-edged: in our effort to protect our children by shielding them from the truth, we risk preparing them inadequately for navigating the world’s harsh realities.  Drawing an equivalence between a parent and a realtor emphasizes the degree to which these roles share the goal of enlarging an imaginative awareness of what could be.  Smith’s poem offers the measured possibility of something good, even in the face of so much evidence to the contrary.

Perez, in his poem titled “Good Fossil Fuels” from his poetry book, Habitat Threshold, repositions the vantage point from which we tend to direct our gaze.  Instead of looking forward with a sense of hope for an abstract future, we are invited to glance around us in the here and now, when much of our planet is “fracked, logged, / bombed into dust.”  As the poem details the effects of global warming brought about by dangerous carbon dioxide levels due to fossil fuels, it unfolds in the recognizable syntax of Smith’s poem.  Both poems expand in a series of repeated phrases, moving us beyond an intergenerational awareness of the legacy we create, moving us closer to a sales pitch.

“Good Fossil Fuels” by Craig Santos Perez via The Margins

Points of Convergence/Divergence:

  • While both poems describe shielding children from the truth, Perez’s poem acknowledges the harm perpetrated through climate change denial and a massive carbon footprint.
  • Both poets make use of anaphora to indicate the balance of good and bad creates a negation.
  • The myth of sustainable growth voiced in Perez’s poem is compounded by the effort to make others complicit, as seen in the use of the plural pronoun “We.”

Once your students have read both poems, you might ask them to consider when the idea of constant, sustainable growth arose.  Pondering the legacy of the Industrial Revolution can generate illuminating discussion about how Nature was converted into an exploitable resource now seen as eternally abundant, instead of something we strive to respect.  After discussing the difference between renewable resources and non-renewable resources, which are not sustainable, consider how the poem’s title introduces irony at the onset of the poem.  Through juxtaposing the poems’ very different invitations–the leap of faith we are invited to take in Smith’s poem and the sowed doubt we are invited to swallow in Perez’s–we can better understand those mindsets that obstruct our collective efforts to take care of our planet home.


How do you prepare your students for climate stewardship?  What poems are you reading for National Poetry Month?  Share your reflections in the comments below or find me on Twitter @dispatches_b222.

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