It was just a week ago that I finally gave the first round of papers back to my 11:15 section (I’m alternating between the two classes so I don’t have to give back 48 papers on the same day), and now I have the second round from my 8:00 class (yes; 8 am. Three times a week. arrgh…). It’s not quite as bad as the summer session, when I got a round of papers from my class every week and compelled myself to give them back in no more than two days, but it still feels like, “Didn’t I just do this?”
The first six weeks of the semester have gone by in a flash. Yes, I have two classes now; the 8:00 class is holding up remarkably well in terms of attendance so far, but the 11:15 group is a little more daring and energetic, and somehow much better at following instructions, on average. Their work has been about what I’d expect from freshmen in their first semester of college (some of them are very fresh), and we’re having most of the usual conversations: writing to your audience, rather than at or about them; choosing points that your readers will find persuasive, rather than just the things that matter most to you; controlling the desire to rant; the need for careful proofreading (along with the always shocking admonishment not to trust their spell-check); the difference between striving for perfect grammar and doing enough to be taken seriously. We’ve been working on the definition paper recently, which is always difficult for freshmen; language isn’t usually something people think about very much, and the meaning of particular words is something we take very much for granted, until we reach a point in higher education or citizenship where definitions attain paramount importance. When you first try to think about how we use language in context, it’s a little like trying to stare at the end of your own nose. (At least, that’s how I explain it to my students.) During the summer session, one of my students actually wrote in a blog about this paper, “Turn one word into 1500? I’m not a magician.”
Now we’re moving on into the personal narrative, which I like to introduce by talking about the powerful evocative qualities of language, that is, poetry. I’m still beating the kinks out of this lesson (it always starts with such blank stares from the students, who are all having high-school flashbacks about meter and metaphors and rhyme schemes), but I think I’ve got it on the right track now. I usually start it with “The Raven” because I figured most of them would have seen it before, but today I’m wondering if that’s a mistake; it may be what’s bringing on the high school flashbacks. It might be better to open it up with the next example, a Dorothy Parker poem:
I like to have a martini,
Two at the very most.
After three I’m under the table,
After four I’m under my host.
It catches them off-guard (they’re not used to poetry being funny, at least not in English class), and it’s easier to talk about because all the tricks are right up front. There’s a play on words (“under the table; under my host”), a sense of eschalating chaos, and because it ends after the fourth martini, the implication is, that’s the end of the line. And, as one of my students pointed out this morning, you really hope it’s the end, ’cause what would she do after five martinis?
With “The Raven,” I also like to talk about some of the surface tricks rather than trying to get into deep exegesis (for one thing, I don’t really know what Poe was talking about myself; for another, I’m not teaching a literature class). The verse has a strong and steady rhythm that’s easy to hear when it’s read aloud, and Poe does some wonderful things with alliteration and choosing his sounds carefully. Next we talk about “Where the Sidewalk Ends,” and then W. H. Auden’s untitled poem (“Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone…”). With this one, we do talk about what it means and what’s happened (after all, it’s easy to tell), and about the power of verbal images, as opposed to explicit statements. You’ll notice there hasn’t been a word in here about trochaic feet or rhyme schemes, partly because of my own philosophy that meter is to poetry as chemistry is to cooking: you need a clear understanding in order to do it well, but you don’t need it to appreciate the effects. The point of the lesson is to skim the surface and give the students a sense of the range of possibilities open to them in more artistic writing and the creative use of language.
If I have time, I also talk a little about Sylvia Plath, The Iliad, and Beowulf, mostly to disabuse my students of the notion that poetry is nice and pretty. The Auden poem shows them pretty clearly that creative writing can convey powerful emotion and hit hard; I also like to show them that it can be gritty and violent and dark. We don’t really get into depth on anything, but as I said, that’s not the point; the point is to widen their view of what’s possible, what they can do, here and elsewhere. Maybe I’ll get lucky and one of them will write their narrative in verse (hey, it’s possible; one of my summer students did).