Survey of American Literature: Eng 253

In this unit, students will read the poetry of Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, two highly original writers who are considered quintessentially "American".  Links to two Annenberg Foundation videos are included, which help students understand the historical and literary context of these poets.  In addition to the primary texts, there are links to ten lesson plans from the National Endowment for the Arts; a definition of prosody and glossary of poetic terms; a historical analysis of Whitman's "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd", and Allen Ginsberg's "A Supermarket in California," addressed to Whitman across the decades.  

We recommend students approach a poem in seven easy steps:

  1. First, read it through twice: once silently, once aloud.  If it is a short poem, try to memorize it, and recite aloud with your eyes closed.  Notice the images that appear in your imagination as you read aloud.  No doubt you will form an initial opinion of the poem, but try not to make judgments at this point; just accept the poem for what it is.  Pretend it is a person whom someone you like and admire has introduced to you - it’s better to get to know someone than rely entirely on first impressions.

  1. Identify the speaker and the spoken-to.  Is the poet the narrator of the poem, and if not, whose point of view is being expressed?  And who is the recipient?  Is the poem a narrative - a story - or something else, such as an elegy (a poem of mourning), a love letter (like many sonnets), an exhortation (a poem to inspire or persuade)?  

  1. Next, notice the specific words that ‘jump out at you’.  Jot them down.  Why do you notice these words?  Are they especially vivid?  Are they repeated?  Are they startling?  Unexpected? What do these words mean, on the initial level, and what might they connote, on a deeper level? Do they sound like other words?

  1. Reading aloud again, try to determine the rhythm of the poem.  Does it sound like natural speech?  Like music?  Like a speech, or a letter home to mom?  What is the meter?  What is the rhyme scheme?  Whitman wrote in free verse - there was no deliberate meter or rhyming.  Milton wrote in blank verse - unrhymed iambic pentameter.  

  1. Look at the poem on the page. Look at line length and the shape the poem makes.  Look at the punctuation and the line breaks.  Decide whether this has an effect on you as a reader.

  1. Look closely and the title and any specific names the poet includes.  Think about the cultural references of the name.  (Example: In Wheatley’s “On Imagination,”  she refers to Helicon, the mythic dwelling place of the muses.)   What is the title?  The theme intended by the poet can often be derived from the title.  (Example:  “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” is an elegy for President Lincoln.  Think about why the poet refers to lilacs, a harbinger of spring.)

  1. Finally - and this step comes last - reflect on your own response to the poem.  Do you like it? Admire it without liking it?  Do you agree with the poet’s essential message?  Do you find the poem beautiful, frustrating, moving, opaque, annoying, dense, funny, or something else?

Click here: Dickinson poems

Click here: Annenberg Learner video on Dickinson

Click here: "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed"

Click here: Historical and literary context of Whitman's "Lilacs"

Click here: Ten lesson plans for teaching Dickinson and other poetry

Click here: Link to "A Supermarket in California", a poem by Allen Ginsberg penned to Walt Whitman

Click here: Link to "Song of Myself"

Click here: Annenberg Learner video on Whitman

click here: What is prosody?

click here: Glossary of poetic terms

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