Friday, 28 February 2014

'Sexy Poetry' or 'ways in' to Marvell's To His Coy Mistress

I originally wrote this post by request of @ASTSupportAli - thanks, it was lovely to be asked - he wanted it short and pithy, and I produced this.  Ah well, excuse my prolixity, but I hope you find some of these ideas useful!

I love teaching poetry, but I can’t say I enjoyed learning about it as a pupil.  I remember sitting quietly and non-plussed while my English teacher discussed poems with the class, whilst my silence was a symptom of my bemusement. So don’t be overly surprised if your pupils feel the same, and therein lies the joy and the challenge of teaching poetry. They can assume it is, “Effort, man” so you must make them know that they CAN do it. 

If you have a middle to low ability group, it is not unusual for the class to be more boy heavy, who are often more confident at Maths than they are at English. So if they can confidently solve an equation through use of deductive thinking, they can apply that thought process to poetry. Tell them this. Whilst teaching an all girls class in Year 10 and 11, I found the girls were openly insecure about poetry, desperate not to get it ‘wrong’. The beauty of poetry is that there are several ways to skin this linguistic cat. You can teach the same poem over and over, but each class will read it differently with you. (Remember ‘Reader Response theories English scholars? Here it is, in action).

To give this post some focus, for poetry is a sea of wonderment, I am going to focus on one of my favourite poems to teach, Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress”.

Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, lady, were no crime.
We would sit down and think which way
To walk, and pass our long love's day;
Thou by the Indian Ganges' side
Shouldst rubies find; I by the tide
Of Humber would complain. I would
Love you ten years before the Flood;
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews.
My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires, and more slow.
An hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes, and on thy forehead gaze;
Two hundred to adore each breast,
But thirty thousand to the rest;
An age at least to every part,
And the last age should show your heart.
For, lady, you deserve this state,
Nor would I love at lower rate.

        But at my back I always hear
Time's winged chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
Thy beauty shall no more be found,
Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound
My echoing song; then worms shall try
That long preserv'd virginity,
And your quaint honour turn to dust,
And into ashes all my lust.
The grave's a fine and private place,
But none I think do there embrace.

        Now therefore, while the youthful hue
Sits on thy skin like morning dew,
And while thy willing soul transpires
At every pore with instant fires,
Now let us sport us while we may;
And now, like am'rous birds of prey,
Rather at once our time devour,
Than languish in his slow-chapp'd power.
Let us roll all our strength, and all
Our sweetness, up into one ball;
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Thorough the iron gates of life.
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.

 I could go on for hours about this – so will just focus on ‘ways in’ to the poem that pique their interest and remove the sense of apprehension pupils can often feel about reading and analysing poems.  These ideas, I hope, are easily adaptable to all kinds of poetry.




·        Prior to teaching this I had ‘made’ my girls class watch “Dead Poet’s Society”, this was more by accident than design.  Keating’s introduction of his class to the true power of poetry – y’know, to seduce girls; as well as the Metaphysical Poet’s philosophy of ‘carpe diem’ to the heavily institutionalised boys in his class.  Not forgetting its unintended consequences, enabled the class to grasp the ‘seize the day’ concept well enough to find it in the poem without too much prompting.

·        A colleague’s ‘way in’ to this was by looking at chat-up lines, which were good, funny, downright lame, then she used a Word Cloud before looking at the poem as a whole. She did this for a lesson observation which I believe was ‘Good’ – I know, I know – shouldn’t be graded etc, but there you are.

·        As a short-cut the new Apple commercial lifts dialogue straight from “Dead Poet’s Society” – the part about, "sucking the marrow out of life" – you could show them the commercial, give pairs or groups phrases from the voice over, get them to mind map possible interpretations of the words.

·        We have the *clenches teeth* text speak version of carpe diem with YOLO – do they have example from own lives where the have followed the YOLO mantra?

·        The concept of a ‘Bucket List’ could also be useful here as a pre-reading activity. You could get pupils to generate their own, justifying choices which can make for a good group or individual Speaking and Listening activity. Take it a step further and question why we are only prompted to do such things if death is looming large – shouldn’t you live every day like it’s your last? How can we? Why don’t we? What stops us ‘seizing the day’ in the first place?

·        You could also place the poem’s title in John Sayer’s question grid and ask them to formulate a range of questions about the title, and after some analysis of the poem, return to them at the end of the lesson to find out which Qs have been answered, which have not and use the left over ones to inform you planning of subsequent lessons. This could work equally well if quotations selected by you were placed in the grid, given to pairs or small groups, and a series of questions are generated about the quotations, some of which the class maybe able to answer, some not yet.

·        Place the poem in ‘Wordle’ (this is SO stolen from @deadshelley) and make a beautiful Word Cloud, hand the word cloud out and without even mentioning the words ‘poem’ or ‘poetry’ – ask the pupils questions like: What might the original text be? What could it be about? When might this have been written? Gender of writer? What might the narrator be thinking about? Why do you think so? Or get them to group the words from the word cloud into categories of their choosing – and hey presto, the class are finding the semantic fields present in the poem – then use interrogative questioning to get them to justify choices.  You can also get the pupils to write poetry (or another form of creative writing) based on the words in the word cloud. After that, reveal the poem to them.

·        Get the old felt pens or colouring pencils out – get them to colour code the poem e.g. ‘vegetable love’ may be coloured in green – either you set criteria or they do – and again, choices must be justified. Then get them too look for patterns created by their choice of colours – what do they notice? This can bring out the themes in the text without too much effort on your part.

·        I often call poetry *cliché klaxon* a painting with words- so get yourself on Google images and find a painting, a photograph or a graffiti art that is a ‘best fit’ for the poem, or the stanzas of the poem,  ask pupils to interpret the image. You could give them some words or phrases from the poem and ask them to find connections between the words and the image.  Create a collage of images based on imagery from the poem, again get pupils to make links between them, construct a narrative, rank order them or give them Marvell’s structure of: thesis, antithesis and conclusion and get them to arrange images accordingly. You could then ‘gallery critique’ (Ron Berger) each other’s efforts then ask them what they need to keep, change, improve and why? The lovely @kerrypulleyn has an excellent post on use of images with Pre -1914 poetry on her blog.

·        Now, when it came to reading the poem with the girls, I didn’t actually read it at all to start, we just looked at its shape on the page. Here I was a tad on the risqué side and made a statement before reading it out:

 “The poem is written by a man, and it is in the shape of a column.  I put it to you that this is no coincidence.”

           Cue some gasps, some giggles, some, “Miss, are you well?”, some resigned groans and indecipherable mutterings.  Once that finished, I read them the poem. Here I think, just like Dead Poets’ Keating, the teacher should read this poem to them first of all, not just read, perform. You just can’t help but love reading this out!

When I had finished, I returned to my original statement and asked them whether I was right or wrong - as ever - opinions need to be justified and expanded upon.  It is easy enough to do this as a whole class, or in pairs or groups (not that I’ve ever been brilliant at teaching using group work). Always get them to justify decisions, choices, ideas to you – be it verbally, in books or mini-whiteboards.  This grows their confidence when writing about poetry for a controlled assessment.
Afterwards, our time on “To His Coy Mistress” was nicknamed ‘Sexy Poetry’ lessons  - with the level of suggestive imagery in the poem, and double-entendres a plenty –  "My vegetable love should grow" *gasp* - that was almost inevitable.
Now I have a confession, for a good few lessons, we were rather old fashioned and ‘chalked and talked’ the poem, using questioning – mine and theirs, to analyse and annotate the poem with the pupils.  That said, their knowledge of it was thorough, they preferred it to the subsequent poem, Gillian Clarke’s “My Box” and the majority of the class wrote essays that were B grade or above.  One of my girls wrote a comparison of "To His Coy Mistress" and "My Box" that was the best I have ever read in my 12 years of teaching; in fact, I think it went beyond the A* grade descriptors. She now has a conditional offer of a place at Cambridge. The end result clearly justified the means.