I don’t know what it is with me and poetry, but ever since our standards were revised to reflect more non-fiction and functional reading and everyone freaked out about literature and poetry in a Chicken Little sort of way, I’ve found myself working poetry into the curriculum more and more. Now, I’m sure that part of it comes from a rebellious (okay, a smart-assed) streak, but in all honesty I find that analyzing and discussing poetry is great for critical thinking.
Poetry has layers and levels and teaching across both a “general” and advanced-level English, I mix and match to the students in the class. My advanced class doesn’t need to see how “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” is about much more than woods, snow, and sleigh bells; similarly, my general students might have trouble with Yates’s “The Second Coming.” With both groups, I look at how they handle the poetry presented and then either ease up or or press down on the throttle. With my advanced sophomores, the high-water mark is Sylvia Plath’s poem, “Daddy.” I plan for it in the midst of a unit of short stories and essays that have a common theme of family and it comes right after an essay about a girl’s very complicated relationship with her alcoholic father.
It is a poem–along with “Lady Lazarus” and The Bell Jar–that epitomizes the experience that is Sylvia Plath, someone whom I’ve only warmed up to in recent years but of whom I’ve never been that much of a fan. It’s probably because of all of those black-wearing, cigarette-smoking, angst-ridden Plath disciples, who are the kind of fans who seem to ruin it Anyway, I try to put my personal feelings about the poet aside because “Daddy” fits with the rest of the reading and is ultimately more complex than the non-fiction and fiction we are reading in tandem.
I won’t try to analyze it or even summarize it here–that is a paper in itself–but understanding it at least on a basic level requires some background knowledge of Plath, her father, and her marriage to Ted Hughes. So I assign it as take-home reading and whereas the literature in the rest of the unit is studied in a very student-led manner, the way I choose to tackle “Daddy” is very teacher-centric. I may not have a monopoly on knowledge and certainly don’t know all there is to know about Plath or her poetry, but breaking down a poem stanza by stanza the way we do in my advanced English seems to foster some great discussion. I start with showing this video of Plath reciting the poem …
Yeah, the images are a bit pretentious and a little annoying, but getting to hear the author recite her own poem is always rewarding. I then break out what I jokingly refer to as a “dumb board”–a white board (which is really a piece of shower board in a wooden frame), a projector, and a dry erase marker–and students follow along, answering questions as we go line by line. I fill in what I know about the poem and the poet’s background and while we also do our usual look for literary devices, I try my best to get students to mix personal reactions with analysis. Which is what makes “Daddy” so great for this. It is written well above the level of an average high school sophomore, so I can present it as a challenge, and its anger and angst over a woman’s relationship with the two men who have affected and traumatized her so much definitely matches up with whatever adolescent angst they may be feeling. Ultimately, it feels like we are unravleing Plath (as she herself unravels) together, and depending on the group, I spend some or a decent amount of the time filling in gaps so that we don’t lose momentum in discussion. So it’s worthwhile, especially if you are looking to introduce things more complicated to a group that is up to that challenge.