Thinking through Hell: Guided by my Students

If hell was a museum, my students could be its docents. They just finished reading Dante’s Inferno, and as they read, they had to draw a chart of hell that illustrated the sin, the punishment, and any major characters Dante meets in each circle.

When I assign any kind of project that requires drawing, I set the standards low. After all, on my best days, I can draw stick figures that barely resemble the human form. I’m learning that I’m in the minority, since most of my students have more artistic ability in their pinky finger than I do in my whole body. Needless to say, the finished products were better than I could have hoped for.


Not pictured: a pop-up book of hell. Easily one of my favorites.

They’ll do a similar project as we read through Purgatory over the next couple weeks. Pictures to come.

Frankenstein in High and Low Culture

I just read Frankenstein with my ninth grade students, and it was a big hit. Little did I realize, that 2018 is the 200th birthday of Mary Shelley’s novel. It was originally published in 1818, though most versions today are based on Shelley’s later revisions in 1831.

The Morgan Library Museum has an exhibition right now, It’s Alive!, that displays Frankenstein through the centuries–i.e., everything from its first publication, early illustrations, and (surprising to me) immediate stage adaptations.

If you want a good overview of the exhibition, check out Paul A. Cantor’s review. Here’s a snippet from the article–a section that speaks directly to one of my pet peeves about the artificial distinction between low and high art:

It’s Alive manages to be at once enjoyable and educational, as any good exhibition should be. Going through it is like rummaging through the attic of a weird uncle who is part art collector, part mad scientist, and part movie buff. In its total effect, It’s Alive can teach us an important lesson about the unexpectedly complex ways that culture operates. Most people tend to divide culture neatly into the high and the low. There are serious works of art that alone should be studied and can be appreciated only by an elite, well-educated audience. Then there are the works of popular culture, created for the ignorant masses and unworthy of being taken seriously. This understanding reflects an elitist contempt for commercial culture. High culture should exist in splendid isolation, cut off from the corrupting effects of low culture and market forces. In this view, there is only one direction to cultural development: DOWN. If high and low culture interact, it can only be a case of a serious work of art being vulgarized as it is popularized.

Poetry with High School Students

Part way through the 2017-2018 school year, I stumbled into a new routine with my 10th-12th grade literature students. Every Friday, we designated the whole class period to reading and discussing a single poem.

I can’t say when exactly this idea occurred to me, but I’ve always enjoyed breaking up the usual class routines with poetry. At my previous school, I occasionally hosted “Poetry Geek-out Sessions.” I would bring in a poem, read it with the class, and then I’d let my enthusiasm for poetry do the rest. It was a simple lesson in close reading. It also didn’t hurt that the students enjoyed watching their teacher lose his mind over a handful of words on a page.

Now that I’m back in the classroom this year, I’ve made my poetry geek-out sessions more scheduled and more conducive to a student-led discussion format. Don’t get me wrong. I still bring in poetry that, as Emily Dickinson says, “makes me feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off.” So the students are hardly deprived of my tendency to make a fool of myself. But in this context, I’m more self-conscious about making sure students are doing the work of close reading.

At the beginning of each class, I give students two rules to follow every time we read and discuss poetry:

  1. Say what you see.
  2. Find the narrative.

Prior to our discussion, we read the poem out-loud at least three times using different readers. The goal is to hear how the same poem can elicit different cadences which in turn produce different understandings. Whereas some students will pause at the end of each line, others will read with the syntax. The effect is palpable. Where one reading left students puzzled about the meaning of one stanza or line, another will clarify it beyond all doubt.

During the discussion, we’ll talk about things like meter, rhyme, enjambments, and figurative language as we encounter them. For example, we had a “light bulb moment” reading The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock last year when we realized that Eliot had cleverly used meter to echo Hamlet’s famous “To be or not to be” speech at the beginning of the poem.

  • Hamlet: “To be or not to be that is the question.”
  • Prufrock: “To lead you to an overwhelming question…”
    • Both lines are five and a half feet long and follow an iambic rhythm. They also begin and end with the same words (To…question). Given Prufrock’s themes of growing old, of action vs. inaction, and of the trouble with appearances vs. reality, it’s safe to assume Eliot was thinking of Hamlet the whole time.

My primary goal during Poetry Friday, however, is to help students grasp the content of a poem. This is not a class dedicated solely to learning about the complexities of poetic form. (Which I love, by the way, and some day, I’d love to teach a class that dives into the complexities of meter, rhyme, etc.). My focus on Fridays is to help students experience first-hand how poetry can change the way they see and experience the world. I think this is important because most students have an adverse reaction to poetry–e.g., “It’s too weird.” “Why don’t they just say what they mean in a simpler way?” “Poetry is great for some people, but it’s just not my thing.”

If my experience teaching poetry has taught me anything, it’s that the instinctive reaction to dislike, to disregard, or to politely reject poetry is symptomatic of never having connected with a poem in a meaningful way. And I can’t blame students. Reading poetry is a participatory activity. Unlike the majority of their other reading requirements and habits, students cannot passively receive the information of a poem, much less quickly skim a poem for a “basic understanding.” Poetry is demanding. You must slow down, concentrate, and patiently allow the words and images percolate in your imagination. Then you must listen for the way the words and images resonate with each other and with their various social, etymological, and historical contexts. It’s hard work. But my goodness it is worth it every time.

To use Gerard Manley Hopkins’ phrase, poetry helps us see the world “charged with the grandeur of God.” The sound of lake water will transport you to Innisfree. The color black will elicit visions of nobility and divine grace. And hope will forever be a thing with feathers.

The other day I was once more reminded of why reading poetry with students is worth it. We were reading W. H. Auden’s poem, “As I walked out one evening.” In the middle of a lively discussion, I noticed that one of my students, (I’ll call him Joe) was silently squirming in his seat.

Quick background on Joe: he’s a 10th grade boy who loves his truck, his knives, and all your usual outdoor hobbies–hunting, camping, etc. Joe does not care for school. He’s not a bad kid, but it’s clear that his mind is always elsewhere.

So, when I saw Joe looking uncomfortable during our discussion, I had to know what was going on. For all I knew, maybe he really needed to use the restroom. I asked what he thought of the poem and of the discussion. He sat up straight, grimaced at the poem, and then fell back into his seat. He said that he did not expect the poem to end the way it does. It begins with idealistic lovers, and then transitions into a meditation on the destructive nature of time, the deterioration of relationships, and culminates in a haunting line: “You shall love your crooked neighbor with your crooked heart.”

It still wasn’t clear to me why Joe would look so unsettled. Finally, after a short pause, he said, “Usually when I read poetry I just think of it as pretty words on a page. It doesn’t affect me. But this one makes me feel something.”

I struggled to contain my excitement. Thankfully, I had enough self-control not to push him to say more than he was willing to say. Instead, we continued to talk about how and why the poem could produce such an effect in us. The class ended without any profound words on the power of poetry, and by the grace of God I avoided impersonating Mr. Keating. The poem made him feel something, and that was enough.

While I may not know everything that was going on in Joe’s heart and mind, I can say that he’s been a little more attentive in class since then. Poetry has changed his world a little. And that’s enough.

UPDATE: 9/10/2018

Credit where credit is due: I get many of my ideas for poems and discussion questions from the Saint Constantine School Podcast, Poetry Corner. Like my set up for Poetry Fridays, Timothy Bartel’s episodes follow a simple structure. He provides some biography for the poet and poem, reads the poem, and then does a close reading. Bartel is also a poet in his own right.