Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Teaching Tip: a Stephen Owen Assignment

I've been mulling over those quotes from Stephen Owen's marvellous book Mi-Lou: Poetry and the Labyrinth of Desire, trying to figure out what sort of practical classroom assignment they might suggest. What do you think of this?

“Led Astray,” or “Tempted,” or “Calgon, Take Me Away!”:
An Assignment out of Stephen Owen

According to Stephen Owen, poetry “may indeed lead the citizenry astray” (3). For this essay, I want you to choose a poem that tempts you to stray outside the boundaries of your real life, your family, your community, your nation, your time: a poem that conjures up “secret changes” in your heart.

Your job, in the essay, is threefold.
First, you need to put into words exactly what boundaries and great divides of difference lie between you or the community you belong to and the speaker of the poem. These might be differences of place or time, of race or religion, of class or gender, of values or desires—whatever makes reading this poem an encounter with what Owen calls “the unexpected, the other” (5).
Second, you need to figure out exactly what in the poem tempts you across those great divides. Poetry tries to “entice you with words…to lure you into becoming other…to make you want what you cannot have” says Owen (7). What about these particular words is so enticing, so alluring? To answer this question, you will need to attend to two sides of the poem: what it says, and how it gets said.
For “what it says,” think about the person you get to act out when you say the poem out loud. What about his or her values, ideas, emotions, abilities, and character do you find, well, intriguing—so fun to try on (if only for a while)?
For “how it gets said,” think about the style and the music of the poem: its phrasing, pacing, and diction; its assonance, consonance, alliteration, and rhyme; the ways that its words “rebel against the drudgery to which the community commonly puts them” (Owen, 3).
As you talk about each of these, try to spell out the different pleasures the poem offers, and why they appeal to you. (If you’re not sure why, that’s fine—but if you’re honest enough, with yourself and with me, you can probably explain most of the reasons!)
Finally, in your conclusion, I want you to reflect on what “secret changes in the heart” this poem works in you, or tries to. What does liking it, for the reasons you give, teach you about yourself, about the life you live, or about the community you live in?
Choose your poem wisely—and remember Owen’s warning!
Having been elsewhere in art, we are somehow no longer
the same persons that we were.

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