“You should never explain a poem, but it always helps nevertheless.”
– William Carlos Williams
In this post, we will look at an assignment series for English 181: Writing about Poetry for General and Academic Audiences. Building from rhetorically analyzing a poetry reading to delivering their own recitation of a poem, students will practice invoking and addressing different audiences with specific needs. Handouts and syllabus material that will be seen by the student are set apart as block quotes.
The poet, Dana Gioia, proposes that “poetry now belongs to a subculture. No longer part of the mainstream of artistic and intellectual life, it has become the specialized occupation of a relatively small and isolated group.” Perhaps this is why some of us feel that poetry is an indecipherable art form that should be left to English teachers and poets. However, poetry is an ancient art form that has ties with our major cultural institutions and music. Rather than being restricted to a particular subculture, poetry is a medium that we can learn to read. In this course, we will study the techniques, forms, and styles that constitute a poem. Through a mixture of close readings, vocabulary practice, class discussions, and recitations in class, we will collaboratively develop the skills needed to both appreciate and present poetry to different audiences. This is a Writing Intensive Course each student will be responsible for biweekly posts on the class blog, a poetry journal, and a recitation project that culminates in an analysis paper.
The class will include commonly anthologized poems as primary texts, but will also include readings on rhetoric, such as Ede and Lunsford’s “Audience Addressed / Audience Invoked,” along with non-academic media designed to introduce poetry to a general audience. Specifically, we will look at podcasts and articles from The Poetry Foundation, focusing on the rhetorical choices the editors and hosts make when designing materials for a broader audience. When students develop their own video critique in the second step of the assignment series, they will draw on techniques used in the podcasts.
Podcasts: On scheduled Mondays, your normal reading will be replaced with a podcast. Links to the podcasts can be found posted on Blackboard. Listen to each one before class and come ready to discuss the material. When I say listen, I mean listen critically. Think about the arguments the editors are making. Do you agree or disagree (and it’s completely okay to disagree with the editors of Poetry Magazine)? Most importantly, pay attention to how they engage the poem.
Podcast 1: “Poetry Cannot Be Skimmed.” The Poetry Foundation. 01 Feb 2011.
Podcast 2: “Poetry Lectures: William Carlos Williams.” The Poetry Foundation. 1951.
Podcast 3: “Poetry off the Shelf: Much Casual Death.” The Poetry Foundation. 16 Sep 2011.
Podcast 4: Virgil, Anita “Haiku Chronicles: The Definition.” The Haiku Foundation. 25 Dec 2009.
Assignment Sequence Overview
The project will be introduced the first day of class, but nothing will be due until the second half of the semester:
- Week 6: Each student chooses a poem to work with through the term
- Week 8: Students give short presentations on two different readings of their poems
- Week: 12: Students create a video critique of one of the readings
- Week 15: Students recite poem in class and write a short paper explaining rhetorical decisions
To give each student a chance to have ownership of a poem. To emphasize in a communal and active way that each student has the capability to be a critic.
- Evaluate rhetorical choices made by readers of poetic texts
- Develop audience awareness that goes beyond traditional academic genres
- Invoke and address specific audiences when presenting or writing about poetic texts
- Practice expressing arguments that engage, and yet are distinct from, the arguments of poets and critics
- Each student would need to have a poem prepared to present
- Screen-capture and video editing software
- Bongos, a black turtleneck, and a beret are optional (but HIGHLY recommended)
Assignment 1: Choosing the poem
Students will first be introduced to the project on the first day through the syllabus and the class discussion around requirements.
In place of a final, we will meet at our scheduled time and recite poems. Pick any poem we have gone over in class, or one outside the reading (The Poetry Foundation is an excellent resource for browsing poems). Once you have your poem, in a series of activities, you will analyze it, memorize it, and then deliver it. Take your time in choosing the poem. You’ll be staying with it through the term and your final reflection will flow from a period of sustained study.
Once you’ve picked the poem (by week 6 at the latest) sign up on Blackboard for a conference with me to discuss the poem and get it approved.
Although we will be taking the intersection of literature and popular art seriously in our discussions (such as the formal techniques of rap and The Clash’s use of Ginsberg’s text), lyrics for popular music will not be approved. The reason for this assignment is to engage texts that may not be readily available through popular culture. With that said, I am delighted if you are recognizing similar effects in your favorite music.
For my example, I would choose Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo.”
Assignment 2: Present Poetry Readings
For the second part of the assignment, students will listen to two different recitations of their chosen poem (either on YouTube or PennSound). For this part, one of the readings can be a musical setting instead. They will be directed to think about the decisions made by the reciters and how these decisions convey different aspects of the text? We will then spend a class period showing each other the readings and presenting our responses to them as listeners.
For my examples, I would use Leonid Desyatnikov’s musical setting of “The Leaden Echo”
and Richard Burton’s reading of “The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo.”
Each of these interpretations of the poem go in very different directions concerning pacing and content. In a dark turn, the first example drops the hopeful reply of “The Golden Echo.”
Since I want this discussion to be informal, this assignment will be given verbally with a reminder on Blackboard instead of a formal handout. I will emphasize that the goal is to talk about the poems and become comfortable with having an opinion separate from the poet or the editors at Poetry Magazine. During this discussion, I’ll nudge students towards aspects of the readings that could be useful in completing the next assignment.
Assignment 3: Video Critique
You’ve been working with a poem for the past few weeks. Last class we shared different readings of our poems. For the next part of the project, you will choose one of the readings you presented and create a video critique for it, (adding 3-5 minutes to the overall time of the original reading). Think of it in terms of the close readings we do together in class, with the main difference being that you are preparing that reading for an outside audience. Using the screen-capturing software we worked with in class, record the poetry reading and your evaluation of it in one video. Once the video is complete, it will be posted on the class blog.
Depending on the length of the poem and how you want to engage it, there are two possible ways to complete this assignment:
- Record the poetry reading first, then include your response to it. (If your poem is short enough to stay in your listener’s mind, then this might be the path for you).
- Pause the poetry reading when you want to explain or critique a particular choice made by the reader. (If you have a longer poem or want to zero in on specific lines then try this way).
Audience: The target audience you should be invoking are general readers and listeners. Think about how Curtis Fox and Don Share talk to us as an audience. You know your audience is someone who has a preexisting interest in the poem since they have come across the blog, but they may not have the same educational experiences you have.
Learning Outcomes: By the end of this assignment, you will have evaluated the interpretation presented in a poetry reading. You will have practiced audience awareness through preparing that evaluation for general readers. You will have integrated written and visual rhetoric into a single presentation. Finally, you will have thought about the rhetorical decisions you would make in your own reading and how you might anchor them in the text.
- Watch the poetry reading again. This time take notes on your response as a reader. What stands out to you this time around? What do you respond most to? What are the specific decisions (pacing, tone, volume) made by the reader?
- Compare your notes to the text of the poem itself. How do the rhetorical decisions made in the reading relate to the poem? Do you agree with how the poem was interpreted? What might you do differently?
- Write your response to the poetry reading as a script. Make sure to mark the timestamps of the points in the original poetry reading when you want to interject.
- Even if you want to foster an off-the-cuff tone for your audience, you need to practice your script before recording.
- Record the original reading along with your response.
You are encouraged to revise anything from your previous presentation and include it in the video.
Each video should be posted on the class blog by Monday of Week 12.
For an example, here is my response to Richard Burton’s reading of “The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo.” You can see my sample video here.
Assignment 4: Recitation Project
In place of a final, we will meet at our scheduled time and recite poems. Take the poem that you’ve been working on for the past few weeks. You’ve read this more than all of us. You’ve looked at different ways the poem can be delivered and analyzed. Through all of this, you’ve developed a relationship with this poem different from the rest of us and now is your chance to show the fruits of your research by delivering the poem to the class. All of our recitations will be recorded and posted on the class blog.
Suggestions on delivery:
- Practice: None of us is Anthony Hecht, we need to practice.
- Scan your poem first, applying metrical marks as a guide for emphasis.
- Pay close attention to punctuation and the way the poet uses lines.
- Consider the tone and voice of the poem and how they help convey meaning.
- Look for patterns and where patterns break.
- PennSound has an amazing collection of poets reading their own work. You are welcome to consult this resource, but DON’T LET IT CONSTRAIN YOU. Your interpretation of the poem is valid and an important part of the continual dialogue with the text.
As part of your analysis of the poem, you will write a 3-4 page paper. In the first part of the paper (no more than a page), tell me how you plan to deliver the poem. What pace will you set? How will you handle the end of lines? What will your tone be? In the second part of the paper, defend your decision with evidence from the poem. Perhaps you want to emphasize the jerky nature of the poem’s rhythm or maybe a particular tonal shift. However you decide to deliver the poem, it is important that you ground that decision in the text itself.
Anything you’ve written in your script or presented before can be revised and included in the final analysis. But, do not just cut and paste previous work into this paper. You have an academic audience this time, so the rhetorical decisions you made in your video critique might not be effective in the paper.
Example Recitation and Analysis
In my own reading of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo,” I retain some of Burton’s quickening pace because I think that is an effective way to present the rhythm of the poem. Some of the lines in the text lend themselves to a dizzying pace that imitates sound bouncing off a well in their repetition of shared sounds. For example, the following lines naturally increase the speed through consonance and assonance linking short 1 or 2-syllable words:
Come then, your ways and airs and looks, locks, maiden gear, gallantry and gaiety and grace,
Winning ways, airs innocent, maiden manners, sweet looks, loose locks, long locks,
lovelocks, gaygear, going gallant, girlgrace—
However, by speeding from “despair” to “Spare!” Burton sacrifices the heavy weight left with the reader and the maiden at the well as they look down. In my own reading, I let the listener sit with the possibility that no “Golden Echo” will rise back to us out of the well.
The most important difference between my reading and Burton’s suggests different possible interpretations of the poem. Burton maintains the same voice throughout. “Despair” and “Spare!” sound like the same persona is speaking. Such a reading emphasizes the dramatic format of the poem as a chorus sung by multiple maidens in unison. Moreover, it emphasizes the link between despair and spare, and like his masterful rhythm, it embodies for the reader the idea that despair and hope are echoes of one another.
For my reading, I choose to instead emphasize the way “The Golden Echo” counters “The Leaden Echo” through presenting the two poems as two distinct voices, each with a different emotional make-up. Rather than having a different word violently stop the repetition of “despair,” part of the word, the accented part, in a way the stressed part, is taken up and reappropriated to express its opposing virtue, “Spare!” The counter poem is then gentle, never attacking the previous echo or saying its concerns are merely vain, but taking all those concerns and wrapping them in an eternal beauty.