15 September 2009

Teaching Whitman...Like Clipping Grass with Fingernails?

If there’s such a thing as a Rorsach test for English majors, it has to be the poems of Walt Whitman. Every year I face the choice of either trying to create a framework by which students “get” his rambling, free-verse poems, or I skip him. This year in English 11 Honors, I chose the latter, but when rain canceled my exciting “Romantic” walk outdoors, I had to fall back on Whitman.

I decided to focus on metaphor—a real strength of the Romantics. In the first 30 minutes I had introduced the kids to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “giant transparent eyeball.” I had 50 minutes to cover “Leaves of Grass.”

Walt Whitman is one of the messiest writers in American letters: a Romantic’s Romantic, he broke all the rules of writing. He never rhymed. Rather than publishing new works, he simply re-published Leaves of Grass every time he had a new batch of poems to add to it. For the unprepared, his writing is tedious, confusing, totally baffling.

For the English major, the love of Whitman begins with the sound of the ideas spoken aloud. His love of language is ebullient, outrageous. A perfectly good line of poetry is interrupted by onomatopoeia like Ye-Honk or Yawp. Personally, I can’t read it without getting glassy-eyed--that's glassy-eyed in the case of "wow, my mind is really percolating."

I decided to try to rip a chapter from "Dead Poets Society" and see if I could "gut" the Whitman lesson. I figured, if I acted like this was the most incredible poetry ever written, maybe the kids would fall for it. I set up a table to compare the metaphors, then we got into excerpts from "Leaves of Grass."

By the end of the first poem, I thought there was hope. "For every atom belonging to me, as good belongs to you," Whitman wrote. I made the connection with Transcendentalism. A slam dunk, I thought. I looked up. I saw glassy eyes, but they weren't inspired, they were confused.

To me, Whitman was firing on all cylinders. Who else could turn an everyday hay barn into a playful commentary on death?

The big doors of the country barn stand open and ready;
The dried grass of the harvest-time loads the slow-drawn wagon;
The clear light plays on the brown gray and green intertinged;
The armfuls are pack’d to the sagging mow.
I am there—I help—I came stretch’d atop of the load;
I felt its soft jolts—one leg reclined on the other;
And roll head over heels, and tangle my hair full of wisps.

I point out Dickenson, and I try to contrast Whitman's optimistic view of death with her dark brookings. I feel like I'm firing on all cylinders.

I look out. Students' heads are down. They just aren't getting it. Sigh--or rather YAWP!!! No, that doesn't work either.

Tomorrow is Thoreau. This has been a tough crowd. I need some inspiration--maybe a walk in the woods will help.

1 comment:

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