Articles

In June 2016, Humanities Texas held a teacher professional development institute in El Paso titled "Teaching the American Literary Tradition." Professor Brian Yothers, Frances Spatz Leighton Professor of English and associate chair of the department of English at The University of Texas at El Paso, presented the following lecture titled "Poetic Voices." In his remarks, Dr. Yothers discusses several strategies to engage students with poetry.


Poetic Voices

Poetry—to crib a line from Herman Melville's "The Coming Storm"—is something that, as teachers, we seek and we shun. I think we find ourselves drawn to it. I'm guessing that, for most of us, some part of the reason that we teach English has to do with the fact that we fell in love with a particular poem that made some kind of really important difference to us in our lives. On the other hand, poetry can be perhaps the most anxiety-inducing genre to teach and, for our students, the most anxiety-inducing genre to study, even as they often proclaim that they love it. There's this weird kind of love-fear dynamic that often appears with poetry. So, in an attempt to give us some strategies for how we might get through that, I'm going to talk a little bit about one set of strategies that I've used to engage students with poetry, and then I'm going to discuss how we might apply the ideas that we draw from this strategy to different poems.

Edgar Allan Poe and Phoebe Cary

If one of your students has a tattoo of a nineteenth-century American author, it's probably going to be Edgar Allan Poe, right? The odds are very good, and, if your students are anything like mine, you've probably had a few students who have informed you that they have tattoos of Edgar Allan Poe. Poe is someone who is familiar to our students, who is frequently taught, and who often is beloved by our students. Phoebe Cary is a poet who is not likely to show up in your textbooks, but her works are readily available, on the web in particular. She's a nineteenth-century writer who deserves more attention and who can help to illuminate and can be illuminated by figures like Poe, who are taught a lot, and figures like Longfellow, who used to be taught a lot and should be taught more now.

So, we've got a pair of poems: "Annabel Lee" [by Edgar Allan Poe] and "Samuel Brown" [by Phoebe Cary]. "Annabel Lee" is one of those poems everyone knows.

It was many and many a year ago,
In a kingdom by the sea,
That a maiden there lived whom you may know
By the name of Annabel Lee;
And this maiden she lived with no other thought
Than to love and be loved by me.

I was a child and she was a child,
In this kingdom by the sea,
But we loved with a love that was more than love—
I and my Annabel Lee—

If you've had a chance to read "Samuel Brown," you might notice some uncanny resemblances to "Annabel Lee," most notably in the rhythm. The conclusion of "Annabel Lee" is very characteristic of Poe. It's out of space, out of time: the sounding sea somewhere. Which sea? Who knows? Doesn't matter. There's beauty here anyways, so it's okay. Phoebe Cary, on the other hand, proceeds a little differently.

And the night's never dark, but I sit in the park
With my beautiful Samuel Brown.
And often by day, I walk down in Broadway,
With my darling, my darling, my life and my stay,
To our dwelling down in town,
To our house in the street down town.

The rhythm follows Poe's very closely. This is one of the great things about teaching the genre of parody, which is, of course, what this is: an imitation—often affectionate, sometimes not affectionate—of a previously published work with which an audience will be familiar. In these lines, we get the end of a story, not of a presumably tubercular romantic poet who is mourning the death of a beautiful woman—which is the most poetical topic according to Poe—but rather a young woman who knows exactly what she wants but has been denied it because a much richer young woman has coquetted and gotten her beloved, but she doesn't let marriage get in the way. If Poe's speaker is prepared to go into the sepulchre, [Cary's speaker is] prepared to set up an informal relationship with the beautiful Samuel Brown. That's how the poem proceeds. So we have a very interesting kind of contrast: Poe, at his most Poe-y, out of space, out of time, death of a beautiful woman [and] Phoebe Cary, taking us back to the material realities and urban life in the nineteenth century.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Phoebe Cary

I am an unabashed partisan of [Henry Wadsworth] Longfellow. I think that a horrible mistake was made about seventy-odd years ago when people decided that Longfellow was just not any good. Those people were wicked and foolish. (Actually, probably just deluded.) But Longfellow is—take my word for it—very, very good. Let's see something from his poem "The Day is Done."

Read from some humbler poet,
Whose songs gushed from his heart,
As showers from the clouds of summer,
Or tears from the eyelids start;
. . .
Then read from the treasured volume
The poem of thy choice,
And lend to the rhyme of the poet
The beauty of thy voice.

This is extraordinarily good advice. One thing that I find in the classroom is that it's a very good idea for me to read poetry aloud to my students, and not in a desultory way, but to think seriously about the sound, about the rhyme, about the meter, about the punctuation, and to model how to read poetry aloud well. Then, in what can be an initially terrifying move for them, I encourage them to go and do likewise, and, by encourage, I mean require. I usually add in memorization just to make it appropriately terrifying, but memorizing poetry gives them a chance to internalize poetry in a really useful way, and Longfellow gives us the prescription here. Now Phoebe Cary's parody:

Go to some honest butcher,
Whose beef is fresh and nice
As any they have in the city,
And get a liberal slice.

Then get me a tender sirloin
From off the bench or hook,
And lend to its sterling goodness
The science of the cook.

Sometimes it's good to have a poem; sometimes it's good to have a nice juicy steak.

Frederick Douglass

Parody is very characteristic of [Frederick] Douglass's method through both his prose and poetry. He calls in "What to the Slave is the 4th of July" for scorching irony, and we see a nice example of that in his use of parody here. We have a hymn called "Christian Union" that the people are singing in the first half of the nineteenth century.

My friends are so dear unto me
Our hearts all united in love;
Where Jesus is gone we shall be
In yonder blest mansion above

We have the Christian hope of the resurrection, and we have the idea of bonds of Christian love as being a central facet of this hymn. Douglass's response:

'Love not the world,' the preacher said,
And winked his eye, and shook his head;
He seized on Tom, and Dick, and Ned,
Cut short their meat, and clothes, and bread,
Yet still loved heavenly union.

Did you notice the irony there? It's not entirely subtle, but it's an example of where a parody can go in a different direction to make a powerful political statement.  Here we have an intense cry against injustice on Douglass's part that reminds us that parody works because of the knowledge of a community coming in but also may seek to change the community that reads it.

Parody and Poetry

What are the benefits of teaching poetic form and context through parody? There are three main things that we can take away. If this is my Puritan plain sermon, these are the three points, and we'll get to the application at the end.

First, form matters, especially sound and prosody. When you assign students parodies, one thing that they see is that an anapest is not just a cruel figment of their English teacher's imagination. An anapest is the same when Phoebe Cary uses it as it is when Edgar Allan Poe uses it, and it's not just made up but a very important [element].

Second, communities matter—historical communities where things like elections and trade and slavery and war happened and also interpretive communities, to use the phrase from Stanley Fish, the literary critic. Texts that draw people together also help to shape the way in which we read poems.

Finally, things matter. This can be very hard for students. One of the things that we have to guard against is symbol hunting, right? One of the first moves that students are tempted to make if they see an object in a poem is to figure out what that object really means.

Those are the three major points: form matters, communities matter, and things matter. And we learned something about that through parody, not least because a chicken is not an eagle, and a steak is not a poem, as in Phoebe Cary's parody of Longfellow.

Emily Dickinson

[Let's think] about [Emily] Dickinson and [William Carlos] Williams and how they fit with the three principles I've been talking about: form, communities, things. In Dickinson's poem "Indian Summer," we have these two stanzas:

Oh fraud that cannot cheat the Bee.
Almost thy plausibility
Induces my belief,

Till ranks of seeds their witness bear—
And softly through the altered air
Hurries a timid leaf.

In some way, these are stanzas about objects in the world. It's about the weather. It's about bees. It's about the leaves falling. It's also about a crisis of religious faith. If we read the Acts of the Apostles 26:28, we read, "Then Agrippa said unto Paul, almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian." Does that sound a little like "almost thy plausibility induces my belief?" And notice Hebrews 12:1-3: "Wherefore seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight. . ." Dickinson is interacting with a text that people of her time are going to be familiar with. She's using a common language.

The Red Wheelbarrow

What of "The Red Wheelbarrow," one of the most frustrating poems for students looking for symbols? They read "The Red Wheelbarrow" and they say, "Well, I'm supposed to find a way in which poetry symbolizes something. How am I going to figure out how a wheelbarrow is like my soul, and how am I going to figure out how white chickens are like the human condition?" A vexing question, right? This takes us to the issue of metonymy versus metaphor. Maybe instead of asking, "How is the wheelbarrow like my soul?" we should consider asking, "Whose wheelbarrow was it anyway?" Has anyone seen the New York Times article that dealt with the answer of that question?

[There is] a picture from the New York Times of the owner of the wheelbarrow as discovered by some recent research by a scholar named William Logan. He wrote this up in a huge article in [the literary journal] Parnassus. [The owner of the wheelbarrow was Thaddeus Marshall,] an African American man whom William Carlos Williams knew because William Carlos Williams was a doctor and Thaddeus Marshall was his patient. How do we start thinking about "The Red Wheelbarrow" a little differently when we think about the red wheelbarrow as an actual wheelbarrow that's red, and it's raining? William Carlos Williams, by the way, back in the 1930s, pointed out that this poem was about a wheelbarrow that he saw in the rain, and there were some chickens there. How does it change [the poem] if we think about the fact that this has to do with Williams's relationship with an African American man who is his patient and his friend? These sorts of things seem to matter a great deal.

The Coming Storm

It's perhaps not surprising that I've chosen [to end with] a poem by Herman Melville, author of the best thing ever written, ever, Moby Dick, and also probably the second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh best things ever, a writer with whom I'm utterly obsessed. The poem in question is from his Civil War collection, Battle Pieces, and it's entitled "The Coming Storm." We have The Coming Storm, a picture by S. R. Gifford, owned by E. B., included in the National Academy exhibition April 18, 1865. [It shows] a threatening overcast sky, nature looking big and threatening. It's called The Coming Storm, and it looks like—a coming storm. This painting is an object that can help illuminate poetry. It's always a very good idea, by the way, if there's a reference to the visual arts in poetry, to bring it in to the classroom. But, I'm going to ignore for the moment S. R. Gifford and E. B., whoever he is, and do a quick run through the poem as a close reading:

All feeling hearts must feel for him
Who felt this picture. Presage dim—

Dim inklings from the shadowy sphere

Fixed him and fascinated here.

A demon-cloud like the mountain one
Burst on a spirit as mild

As this urned lake, the home of shades.

But Shakspeare's pensive child

Never the lines had lightly scanned,
Steeped in fable, steeped in fate;

The Hamlet in his heart was 'ware,

Such hearts can antedate.

No utter surprise can come to him
Who reaches Shakspeare's core;

That which we seek and shun is there—

Man's final lore.

[I think this is] a lovely poem, and it's a poem that reflects on the nature and the power of the arts, which seems like a good thing to share with our students. Notice in the first stanza, we're introduced to someone named "him." He looks at the picture, and he can't look away because he's fascinated. Then we have, in the first three lines of the second stanza, a description of the picture. Then, starting with the final line—which is curiously enjambed with the first line of the next stanza—we start talking about Shakespeare's pensive child, who it seems is probably the "him" from earlier in the lines. We get to this general conclusion that—if you know Shakespeare, nothing will take you completely by surprise—that somehow, Shakespeare prepares you for life, for even that which we shun, that which we avoid, as well as that which we seek. So that's my paraphrase, lickety-split.

In terms of noticing things about form, when we count the syllables, we notice that, except for the final line, it's written in tetrameter: eight syllables, four feet in a line. We notice that it's by and large iambic, although the author feels free to deviate so as not to make it too monotonous, and we notice that there's a pretty regular rhyme scheme—couplets in the opening stanza, and then in the next three stanzas the second and the fourth lines rhyme. It's obviously a crafted poem, and it seems like a pretty nice poem about the arts and the importance of Shakespeare, maybe even a quote we might want to put up on the board when we're talking about Shakespeare.

Now, who on earth are S. R. Gifford and E. B., and why does it matter? Well, S. R. Gifford is the painter. He's also someone who, at the time of the painting, had served in the Union Army in the Civil War. The picture is from 1861. He did the painting in 1863, so we get a sense that this painting maybe had something to do with his experience in the Civil War. I could say more about that, but I think that E. B. is more interesting. Any guesses as to what the "B" in E. B. might be? So, E. B. is over on the right. We notice that he's dressed up kind of oddly for a nineteenth-century fellow. He has a pensive look on his face, almost as if he's wondering "what dreams may come." He's an actor who performs Hamlet. Any other actors who did anything interesting in 1865 whose last initial was B?

E. B. is Edwin Booth, the greatest Shakespearean actor of his generation. His brother is John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of Abraham Lincoln. Edwin Booth was a supporter of the Union. John Wilkes Booth killed Abraham Lincoln, a man who, after his assassination on Good Friday, is compared to Jesus Christ by many poets, including Herman Melville and Walt Whitman. Does this change the way that we read "The Coming Storm?" I think it does. Let's run through it again.

All feeling hearts must feel for him
Who felt this picture.

Of course, we feel for him. This is the man who loved the president, whose brother has killed the president. Of course, we feel for him. I've often had occasion to reflect recently that no one can be in a more painful situation than someone who has to mourn a loved one but has to condemn what they do. Edwin Booth is in that situation.

Presage dim—
Dim inklings from the shadowy sphere

Fixed him and fascinated here.

When he sees this painting, the arts are somehow giving him a kind of premonition, and the description of the painting—by the way the "demon-cloud" seems a nice echo of Poe, right?

But Shakspeare's pensive child
Never the lines had lightly scanned

Edwin Booth, a Shakespearean actor, who performed Hamlet over and over again, somehow, through performing Shakespeare, has internalized [the insights in Shakespeare's plays]. He has been changed by his encounter with art.

No utter surprise can come to him
Who reaches Shakspeare's core;

That which we seek and shun is there—

Man's final lore

[The final stanza suggests] that somehow that experience, that engagement with Shakespeare, that engagement with the arts, can change our relationship even to the unthinkable, even to the unimaginable. I want to suggest that this kind of approach to poetry—thinking seriously about objects like the painting, about form, about the way in which communities intersect in poems—can give us a very powerful way to share poetry with our students. I would even go so far as to suggest, with Melville, that we might share something of what Melville calls humanity's "final lore."


Brian Yothers specializes in early and nineteenth-century American literature. He is the author of Reading Abolition: The Critical Reception of Harriet Beecher Stowe and Frederick Douglass, Sacred Uncertainty: Religious Difference and the Shape of Melville's Career, Melville's Mirrors: Literary Criticism and America's Most Elusive Author, and The Romance of the Holy Land in American Travel Writing, 1790–1876.

Brian Yothers presents at Humanities Texas's 2017 summer institute, "Teaching the American Literary Tradition."
Yothers leads an afternoon seminar with teachers at the 2017 summer institute, "Teaching the American Literary Tradition."
Daguerreotype of Edgar Allan Poe, known as the "Annie" Daguerreotype, 1849. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.
Portrait of Phoebe Cary by Mathew B. Brady, ca. 1844–1860. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.
Portrait of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow by Julia Margaret Cameron, 1868.
Portrait of Frederick Douglass by George Francis Schreiber, 1870. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Excerpt from "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?" by Frederick Douglass

What, then, remains to be argued? Is it that slavery is not divine; that God did not establish it; that our doctors of divinity are mistaken? There is blasphemy in the thought. That which is inhuman, cannot be divine! Who can reason on such a proposition? They that can, may; I cannot. The time for such argument is passed.

At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed. O! had I the ability, and could I reach the nation's ear, I would, to-day, pour out a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke. For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.

Illustration of Emily Dickinson from the frontispiece of Letters of Emily Dickinson, 1894. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.
Passport photograph of William Carlos Williams, 1921. Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

"The Red Wheelbarrow" by William Carlos Williams

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens

The Coming Storm by S. R. Gifford, ca. 1863. Philadelphia Museum of Art, 125th Anniversary Acquisition. Gift of the McNeil Americana Collection, 2004.
Portrait of Herman Melville, ca. 1860. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.
Portrait of Union Army soldier Sanford Robinson Gifford (S. R. Gifford), 1861.
Portrait of Edwin Booth as Hamlet by Napoleon Sarony. University of South Carolina.