Monday, May 23, 2005

Teaching Tips: Keats tips, anyone?

A fun pair of comments to my last couple of posts from Kerry: one about Gerald Stern, about whom I'll post something in a bit (either here or at A Big Jewish Blog); the other about Keats, to wit:
As for that Keats poem, I am sure that there is something wrong with me that I don't just love Keats - I really know I am kind of supposed to - but that last one ["This Living Hand"] is the poem of his that does get inside me and move around. I think of it as some kind of perfect version of modern poetry...? and wonder what he could have done had he been allowed to live.
I know just what you mean about Keats, Kerry. In fact, I think I was about 30 before I really loved any Keats poem, and well into my 30s before I taught one effectively. I'm not sure why, other than my lingering adolescent resistance to the lushness of his diction--or maybe just to the expectation that I should love him!

The only two Keats poems I've ever felt comfortable and confident teaching are "This Living Hand," which I pitch as a vampire poem (to my students' dismay, sometimes), and "To Autumn," which I like to teach in the context of other seasonal poems, looking at the various ways various poets treat each season in turn. (I like to pair it with "That time of year thou mayst in me behold," which trots out more typical topoi for autumn.) I focus on time in "To Autumn": the way Keats holds the usual equation of autumn-as-season-before-death at bay by suspending his syntax with participles and making autumn sound like summer (in stanza 1), by suspending a variety of actions and deploying spondees (in stanza 2); and so on. Lots of repetition and variation to talk about, too, stanza to stanza.

Help me, somebody! Any tips on teaching Keats, from anyone who really loves him?

1 comment:

Su said...

Is the class an undergraduate course? If so...

I learned to appreciate "If By Dull Rhymes Our English Must Be Chain'd" after attempting sonnets myself. I found it difficult (and still do) to master the "turn" and create a rhyme scheme that was not only consistent to the meter, but unintrusive (if that makes sense). I found myself making up strange rhymes to suit the form. When I returned to this particular Keats poem, I came to it through an experiential appreciation for the frustrated ars poetica stemming from the constraint of formality.

If your class is a workshop (and even if it's not), perhaps a little trial in the sonnet form is something your students would relate to when exposed to this particular piece. Eventually, one finds that negotiation becomes a part of the tradition (and eventually the variations found) in Keats's sonnets. It's something most students can relate to, I think.

Just a thought that came to mind when reading your post...