Thursday, April 07, 2005

Lesson Plans: Divide and Ponder

P writes: "So, Pro-fessor"--she likes to call me that, like Katherine Hepburn needling Jimmy Stewart in The Philadelphia Story--"much as I love your mando-meditations, when do we get some teaching tips? Isn't that what this blog was for?"

Fair enough, P. Today's lesson: divide and ponder.

The best "first move" I ever picked up for reading poetry, which it took the combined efforts of Helen Vendler, Michael Colacurcio, and about 200 impatient undergraduates to drill into my head, is also probably the simplest:
1. Divide the poem into sections.
Poems, you see, tend to come in sections. Sometimes they're visible, marked by stanza divisions; sometimes the fault lines fall between sentences, rather than stanzas; sometimes they come between groups of stanzas or sentences, especially in longer poems. In any case, come they do, because most poems are a series of moods and ideas, in response to whatever sparks the speaker into speech.

Once you've found a way to divide the poem into sections, you can do two very easy, very familiar things:
2. Compare the sections, watching out for repetition and variation or contrast and change; and
3. Figure out the logic (emotional, associative, whatever it may be) that motivates each turn from section to section.
Neither of those is rocket science, brain surgery, or even sophisticated critical practice. Neither is particularly AP or college level stuff. In fact, you can use these moves on just about any poem, at just about any age, and come up with something sharp-eyed and interesting to say.

Consider, for example, this little poem, by Beatrice Schenk de Regniers, "Keep a Poem in Your Pocket." My son brought it home in 2nd grade, as the first of his "Poem of the Week" assignments.

Keep a poem in your pocket
And a picture in your head
And you’ll never feel lonely
At night when you’re in bed.

The little poem will sing to you
The little picture bring to you
A dozen dreams to dance to you
At night when you’re in bed.


Keep a picture in your pocket
And a poem in your head
And you’ll never feel lonely
At night when you’re in bed.
What are we to say about this? Aside from being a pretty good 2nd-grade gloss on the method of the Pisan Cantos (how's that, P? Sound like a professor?), it's not a terribly appealing or interesting poem at first, at least to me. A little twee and twittery; for children's poetry, I'll take Susan Cooper's "On the Day of the Dead, when the year too dies / Shall the youngest open the oldest hills," or anything from the Lord of the Rings, from "Sing Hey! for a bath at the close of day" to "Ah Elbereth! Gilthoniel! / A silver pen for Muriel," or however that one went. However, let's dip that little sucker in a quick bath of "The Method" and see what develops.

Sections: three stanzas, three sections, no kidding.

First section: a stanza of advice--"Keep a poem in your pocket / and a picture in your head"--and a reason, a rather striking one, really, for that advice: "And you'll never feel lonely / At night when you're in bed." We have two characters, then. There's me, the speaker, and there's some "you" who feels lonely in bed. That's a real threat, actually. My daughter keeps, at last count, 26 stuffed animals in her bed for precisely that reason, and would keep me there too at bedtime, if I let her. We all know what grown-ups keep around for similar reasons. (Is that a poem in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?) What does the second section look like?

"The little poem--" Wait a minute! In the last staza, it was just a poem, not a "little poem." "The little picture--" Ahem! Do I smell a pattern here? We now have something to talk about, namely the sudden use of diminutives. (Ah, sure, they sound even better in a thick, fake brogue, don't ya know.) They're like a stuffed poem and picture now, snuggly and companionable: a first cure, as imagined, for that loneliness.

And what, sir, are those little fellows doing? "The little poem will sing to you / The little picture bring to you / A dozen dreams to dance to you / At night when you're in bed." No advice now, clearly: the speech act has shifted from advice to predictive narration. The picture and poem aren't being kept by you anymore; now they're active, and the you so far is passive, the object of their actions. (I call that, following Vendler, a change in agency.)

As for that threat of existential loneliness, it's harder and harder to feel, now that there seem to be not one, not two, not three, but FIFTEEN characters cavorting in that bed: you, the poem, the picture, and a dozen dreams! And they're not just there--the verb "to be" drops out--they're singing and dancing and bringing things "to you" and "to you" and "to you." It's almost as if there are three yous there, too; there certainly are in the stanza itself.


What about the final stanza? The speech act goes back to advice; the verbs are back to an imperative / future pattern; in fact, everything is back the way it was in stanza one, except that the poem and picture have been switched. Now you're supposed to keep the picture in your pocket and the poem in your head. On my reading, this means that the poem ends up more important: it gets the crucial framing spots, first and last; and, of course, this is a poem we're talking about, after all. It probably wants to be the poem you keep in your head, don't you think? It's sure been stuck in mine, ever since I figured out you could polka around singing it to the tune of "Do Your Ears Hang Low," more or less. Your reading, like your mileage, may vary--but whatever that reading is, it had better notice at least everything I've pointed out here, and come up with some motivation for it.

Class dismissed, P. Go in Peace.


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