Spring 2003 Magazine
Poetry Feature. Who is Sylvia? What is she?
(Shakespeare: ‘Two Gentlemen of Verona,’
Song: Act 4, Sc.(ii): lls.37 – 52. Folio ed. London 1997.)
Aim of the article
The article looks at one teacher’s plan for meeting the poet Sylvia Plath with a class through experiencing a chosen set of poems. The intention of this speculative approach is to yield an initial sketch, an outline, as her poetry presents her, and to see how such a sketch might be subsequently quickened in the classroom by the addition of the other poems chosen for study. Based on syllabus principles, working with an initial poem is outlined in some detail and pointers are offered for further exploration.The questioning tone is to reflect the critical stance underpinning the course. In the classroom, as one teacher/critic1 suggests, Plath [possibly] receives a very gender-based reading. The same critic also suggests that “what must be done is to get to the text, in each case, and read for nuance of meaning – humour, anger, poignance, intellectual tour de force” rather than ground the work in specific life-related and/or other details. It suggests that the poet be treated as unknown, a stranger (who is s/he?), until we gradually become more and more acquainted with her (‘read her’) through the writing edifice of her poetry.
Two statements from the syllabus act as guide to the poetry in the classroom.1 Students should be able to … read poetry conscious of its specific mode of using language as an artistic medium. (DES Syllabus 4.5.1).2 Students at higher level will be required to study a representative selection from the work of eight poets: a representative selection would seek to reflect the range of a poet’s themes and interests and exhibit his/her characteristic style and viewpoint.
Where to start?
Some ideas on the general presentation of poetry in class are outlined with appropriate commentary in Draft Guidelines for Teachers of English (hard copy pp.62 – 67 and similar section CDROM); and Plath, in particular ‘Child’, in TESS February 2002 (pps 11–13). Rather than initially focusing on presentation to the class, it may be more worthwhile to consider a wider context framed by the following type of questions –
(a) what is my overall vision for the students in their encounter with Plath? and
(b) in what order will I present the representative selection to realise that vision?
In relation to (b) above, work done during In-service treated each (every?) poem as an unseen and in this spirit of an open encounter with literature, the choice of the initial poem will almost certainly be dictated by our familiarity with the range of abilities that characterises our class grouping. Based on this knowledge, the criterion for choosing one poem over the other to start with at this stage may be something as simple as accessibility. Sometimes experience shows us that ‘the specific mode of using language as an artistic medium’ can stand between the student and the poem. We can think of the various reactions to individual poems or to poetry generally: or of the stilled silences in a group otherwise at ease with the language of fiction, print and other media. How can this – is alienation too strong a word? – be reduced? As Seamus Heaney reminds us: ‘poetry had its origin in the mouth and its resting place in the ear.’ The challenge then is to consider how can we bring the poetry of Plath easily to rest in an ear ripe for its reception. In other words how do we make it accessible?
The following questions might be used as a jumping off point to look at notions of accessibility i.e.
- Is it possible to approach the core of the poem in such a way that the students are aware of its general territory before they actually enter it?
- Will this first encounter give students an outline sketch of the poet that can be developed in detail later with more of her poems?
- Will it initiate a sensitising to the poet’s concerns and language patterns?- Will it create an insight into the worth-whileness of this pursuit?
- Will it evoke an empathy with the poet?
- Will it encourage them to persist in their efforts to develop an appropriate authority in their talk and writing about the poet Plath? etc.
The Syllabus introduction clearly prompts the need to recognise the students’ existing experience and language skills: the challenge is to make them ‘more adept and thoughtful users’ and ‘more critically aware of [language’s] power and significance in their lives’ (DES Syllabus 1.1 p2). Exploring existing experience and language capacity can facilitate enjoyment of, and thinking, talking and writing about new experiences with language.
Teachers and Students converse
A fifth year students talks about the business of composition:
‘When we were talking about doing our essay in the classroom, I said to myself, this is a sinch [sic]. But when I got home no matter how hard I tried, or how many times I started, ideas wouldn’t come’.
This (or similar) comment might provide the spark for teasing out and touching on such issues as inspiration (or the lack of it); frustration (or satisfaction) with the process; disappointment (or elation); a sense of failure at being unable to complete the task etc. After such a brief discussion, they might be asked to create a set of images to describe their feelings etc. and share them as thought fit. This pre-text exercise is to value existing experience; establish a connection between the world of the student and the creative encounter with the world of the poem to come, and prepare the way for a critical conversation as they receive the new text …
then …… Plath joins the conversation.
We don’t need to delve too deeply into Plath’s experience to find a moment where the students can empathise with her feelings – and be surprised by her. Taking Heaney as a guide (as outlined earlier), the students keep their textbooks closed and listen carefully as Black Rook in Rainy Weather is read to them as a poem so that afterwards they will be able to comment on such as –
(a) Where the poet was most ‘down’ etc.
(b) What might have rescued her?
(c) The strong elements of her language.This is an exercise in purposeful listening and students are made aware of these expectations in advance.
After the reading, guided discussion might reveal the following patterns of language:
– Arranging & re-arranging
- I now walk
- Patch together
- Up – Honour
- Miracle – Love
- mute sky – angel
- celestial – Miracles
- hallowing – Miracles
- largesse – Angel
III Fire and Light
- Sight on fire
- Minor light
– accident – luck
- fall as they fall
- without ceremony
-it could happen
What kind of statements could be made about the poet on the basis of these language patterns? The following might represent the tentative nature of a first attempt to achieve a working sketch of the poet. These are open for revision as the experience is extended by the addition of each new poem.1. The poet is determined and fastidious in her work but can be unhappy about end result. (I)
2. Looking for miracles might show that she feels doubtful about her own talent: she feels incapable of writing without supernatural intervention of some kind. (II)
3. That she feels intensely, almost physically – and it hurts. (III)
4. That overall there is a sense of doubt, uncertainty, vulnerability etc. (IV)
Bearing these comments in mind as possible entry points to other texts, the following questions might present themselves for reflection before adding the experience of another poem to develop awareness of the poet and her poetry:
- Which poem should be next? How do you decide?
- What kind of question can be asked of the students to prepare them to encounter it? Why?
- How will it be presented? How will they initially ‘see’ it? (see Draft Guidelines).
- Will they be asked to look at the two poems together and for what purpose?
- At this stage, is there any additional information that they might find helpful for their readings? What? etc …
As already indicated, this article is intended to be speculative in nature. It is based on a reading of the syllabus that asserts the value of keeping the potential of the students’ ability to interact with the poem as meaning makers in their own right firmly to the fore. It puts forward one possibility on that basis.
Reference1 Wagner-Martin, Linda, Sylvia Plath (1932-1963), http//college.hmco.com/english, downloaded 11/04/02.
You are welcome to share with the magazine your experience of working with your students with Plath, or any other poet or poem.
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