Your first major assignment this semester is, in many ways, a comparison/contrast analysis. The sources you will use for this assignment are the essays “How to Read Poetry Like a Professor,” by Thomas Foster, and “Learning to Love Poetry: Read to Me,” by Elizabeth Allen, both of which are attached to this assignment sheet. The differences between this analysis and one you might conduct for, say, a WRI101 course, however, are that 1) you will work in groups to write your analyses, and 2) this comparison/contrast analysis will move beyond simply arguing that one essay is better than the other (though it should of course still do this), and end with a discussion of the usefulness of both essays to what you see as the purpose of this Poetry Out Loud course, including your own anticipated experiences with learning about and writing poetry.
First, choose the people you want to work with. Your group should have a minimum of three, and a maximum of five people. It is up to you to figure out which of you takes charge of which part of the task of researching and writing this response, but the load should be shared equally, as all members of the group will receive the same grade for the final product.
The next step is obviously to read through the Foster and Allen essays and figure out what you want to say about them. In these discussions, keep in mind that your essays should take the following form, and use the following subheadings:
- BIO (in which you provide a brief, 2-3 sentence long biography of both Foster and Allen, perhaps beginning with Foster’s website at https://thomascfoster.com/home/bio/, and Allen’s information at https://bookriot.com/author/elizabeth-allen/)
- SUMMARY (in which you provide a brief summary of each essay, these summaries not to exceed one paragraph per essay)
- COMPARISON/CONTRAST ANALYSIS (the heart of your essay: here is where you break down Foster and Allen’s major points, noting how they compare and contrast for such points as clarity, usefulness, argument, etc.; what points you choose to compare and contrast are up to you)
- RESPONSE (in which you provide one or two paragraphs that talk about how you think these essays will, or maybe won’t, be useful in this course: what did you learn from them? how do you think this knowledge will help you read and write poetry? what questions do you still have after reading these essays? & etc.)
There is no need for an introduction or conclusion to this essay; your responses to the above four subheadings are all that is needed. Of course, you will still need to keep your assignments as professional and polished as possible, since grammar, syntax, and spelling count as part of your grade. And please remember to list the names of all group members at the top of the first page.
NUTS & BOLTS
- The finished assignment should be between two and three pages in length. It is acceptable to go over this limit (though not by too much, please), but under no circumstances should you go under.
- You do not need a Works Cited, but if you use direct quotes, you will still need to use properly formatted in-text citations as per MLA standards.
- Remember to follow the assignment and submission guidelines listed on page 6 of your syllabus, especially as reprinted below.
REMINDER: I will make all of my graded comments via Microsoft Word’s “Track Changes” function. As such, please send your work as either a .doc or .docx file (i.e. the standard Word files), although .rtf or .txt will work. Do not send your work as a .pdf or .pages or as a shared Google Doc or Microsoft OneDrive file (etc.), since I will be unable to use the Track Changes feature. All assignments received in an incompatible format will be returned ungraded and you will need to resubmit appropriately. Please attach the file containing your assignment to the email (do not cut and paste the assignment into the body of the email), and write the name of that assignment (i.e. “Group Written Response 1”) in the Subject area. I will confirm receipt, grade your assignment, and send you back the file with my comments and your grade.
All assignments must be submitted directly to my email address (firstname.lastname@example.org), and NOT to Blackboard.
Learning to Love Poetry: Read to Me
For years, I’ve identified myself as “not really a poetry person.” I have friends who love poetry. Friends who are, themselves, poets. People whose opinions on the written word I trust implicitly; they would recommend a novel or a memoir to me and I’d be instantly sold. But if they mentioned a book of poems…hard pass. I know I hadn’t given poetry a fair shot, but I did try. Somewhat. I sat down, attention fully on the page, trying desperately to understand the life-changing, soul-lifting nuance people saw in Pablo Neruda, E.E. Cummings, Rupi Kaur. I will admit to feeling…intellectually diminished when I’d try to really grasp poetry’s purpose. I felt like I was possibly just too dumb to understand. I had given in to the fact that I would remain “not really a poetry person” and was okay with that. Whatever…there are enough books in the world. What’s wrong with being able to cross a few off your list?
That is, until the moment I realized that is was all in how I consumed it. A few weeks back, my husband and daughter had decided to go to our cabin in upstate New York for the weekend. Ah, glorious! An entire weekend to myself! With all that free time stretched out in front of me, I fell into that trap where anything and everything seemed possible. As I was attending a book trivia night inspired by 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die at my local independent bookstore, a few people asked if I would be attending the poetry reading the next night. Now, normally that’s something I’d reject outright, but a friend mentioned that he was possibly going to be reading that night. And I had all that gorgeous free time. Mr. Obligation and Ms. Opportunity took hold of me and I said I’d be there.
The entire day, I dreaded attending the event. It was going to be an evening of my least favorite art form, while I had to plaster a smile across my face and clap along.
But I went.
And I’m so thankful that I did.
The event was to celebrate my hometown awarding its very first poet laureate. She and some of the runners up would be sharing with us their work. I hunkered down into my seat, sipping my clear plastic glass of Pinot Grigio, hoping the alcohol would quickly set in and make me feel more magnanimous about the whole evening.
As the new poet laureate cracked open her black leather portfolio and began to read, I was utterly transformed. Suddenly, poetry became a narrative art that I didn’t have to struggle to parse for subtext and symbolism. As it came out of her mouth, it was all right there for me to grab out of the air. I could identify and appreciate the artistic choices she and the other poets made as they conveyed a feeling, a moment, a thought. I could appreciate their use of language. I fully grasped their message and delighted in the imagery and…was very confused. Why was this suddenly making sense to me?
And then it hit me…it’s all about the method by which it was received. When I look at poetry on a page, I’m easily distracted. I don’t apply the right intonation to the words, don’t read them with the correct rhythm. But spoken, suddenly an entirely new world is open to me. I’m brought to tears by a single word choice. I feel empowered and enthralled as the poem ends and I absorb its full message. This happens regularly when I read prose, but I never thought I’d understand how other people felt the same way about poetry.
All of this to say, if you feel there is a particular form of literature that you just don’t get, try it a different way. Ask someone to read it to you. Think about picking it up in short bursts (this is something I learned is best for me when reading short stories). Consider flipping the ways in which you’d normally consume the text. It’s possible that it just might not be for you. But it’s also possible that an entirely new form of literature opens itself to you and changes your life.
How to Read Poetry Like a Professor
Read the words
Ezra Pound says the poem ought to work on the level of a person for whom a hawk is simply a hawk. That is excellent advice. Read that way, too, on a literal level first. Read what’s actually in front of you. And the next tip, which seems a little redundant but I don’t think it is, is read all the words. Not only do you need to read them, but you need to read them in the way that they are assembled. I don’t encounter this with beginning readers as much as I do readers with a little bit of experience, but there’s suddenly an urge to jump forward from the language on the page to hidden meanings or symbols that might be present. In doing so, I’ve had any number of students actually skip a key word. It really makes a difference if you skip over that word “not”. I don’t want anyone worrying about secondary meanings or symbolic suggestions until they’ve actually got a handle on what it is that it is saying on a literal level.
Read the sentences
There’s a great tendency in an art form that is written in lines to want to read lines. But lines, in a great many instances, don’t make sense and don’t contain complete meanings. If we stop at the end of every line as if we just read a full statement, and we all do at a certain early stage of reading, we’ll never get anything out of the poem because we will not have understood what it is that’s being said. Poems have this in conjunction with everything else that is written in English: their basic unit of meaning is the sentence, and we shouldn’t ignore that fact.
Obey all punctuation, including its absence
If there is no punctuation at the end of the line, we want to keep that pause as the eyes travel back, and we don’t want to drop our voice as if the sentence is over. Keep it going and flowing as much as possible. Now, if there’s a comma, we want to pause as if there’s a comma, but not as if there’s a period. And if there’s a period or a semicolon or a question mark, something that approximates a full stop, we want to do a full stop there and understand that we came to the end of some kind of unit of meaning. That’s how the poet understood it when she wrote it and we should do that as well.
What great poets have in mind, the thing that makes them hang around, is that they speak to our imagination
Read the poem aloud
If you’re in a house with another person, this is problematic. Maybe you can go to your room, maybe you can go out and sit in the car where nobody will hear you. But I think you’ll do best with your poem, especially until you get pretty good at that internal voice taking over, to read it aloud, hear it aloud. There are echoes within the poem that you won’t hear reading silently. There are places where suddenly you’ll wonder about the emphasis – is it here or is it here?– and you may be able to sort that out for yourself by reading it aloud. Generally, poems were written for the page. But they still have that oral quality, and we’d do well to honor that.
Read the poem again
My friends in the community have this mantra, they say it to themselves eight times a day: that all writing is rewriting. Every draft needs to get better. I heard rumors about the critic Harold Bloom, and maybe one or two other people in the history of the world, who write first drafts and they’re done. The rest of us don’t operate that way. In our situation, I say reading is rereading, and that’s especially true with poems. It’s really hard to go back and reread War and Peace right after you finish it, or Moby Dick, any of those chest-breaking tomes. But we can do it with a sonnet or any kind of shorter poem. For a lot of people, if you read it aloud the first time, you can do it silently the second time, because now you’ve got a handle on it.
Poetry doesn’t have to be obscure
One of the [hangups with poetry] is that it’s not only obscure, but it’s obscure on purpose. But when it is obscure to us, it’s often because we don’t get the cultural references. Traditional English poetry would’ve been written for a fairly small segment of the population who all kind of knew the same thing, so it’s not only in a semi-foreign language but it’s also a foreign set of references. I don’t recommend that people go out and start their poetic experience with John Milton or Andrew Marvell.
The most important thing to understand in verse is that it is, first and foremost, a sort of experiment in and with language. How can I talk about this thing, how can I say this in a way that is interesting and unique, that will convey my meaning but do more than just convey my meaning? I think of poetry as a laboratory. What great poets largely have in mind, the thing that makes them hang around, is that they speak to our imagination in some way. They don’t speak to everybody’s. This isn’t selling car wax or something. But they will find an audience and there will be people who go, “Oh, yeah, I get that. That rings a bell with me.” It will be one imagination speaking to another. So it’s not just about words: it’s about the way that imagination expresses itself, and the way another imagination receives that message.
 However, I reserve the right to lower the individual grades of group members who are reported as being uncooperative, absent, or unproductive.
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