Zonkey Romanticism

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This essay considers the benefits of incorporating creative writing assignments into literary studies curricula, taking the Romantic literature classroom as its key example.

Zonkey Romanticism

Rachel Feder
University of Denver


1.        I take my title from a moment this fall when a new colleague welcomed me to the University of Denver Department of English, explaining that I might think of the department’s unofficial mascot as the zonkey, or zebra-donkey hybrid, representing the admixture of critical and creative inquiry. This statement resonates with my own approach to teaching literature, not to mention my penchant for obscure animal metaphors. Without putting too much theoretical or zoological pressure on the descriptive term, in this essay I’ll share one aspect of my approach to zonkey Romanticism, focusing on the inclusion of creative writing assignments in the Romantic literature classroom.

2.        The use of creative writing as a teaching tool is, for me, inseparably interlaced with a twinned focus on the Romantic and the contemporary. When I’m explaining my myriad projects to new interlocutors, I often describe myself as an “unromantic Romanticist.” By this I mean that I’m interested in the Romantic as a moment of crisis but I’m uninterested in what I think of as Romantic exceptionalism. This is to say that I find it unproductive to think of Romantic literature as representing a sort of singular moment at which experiment is made possible—a moment that is sometimes thought to reoccur, somehow, during High Modernism. Rather, I am interested in excavating literary and poetic experiment as a historical and transhistorical project or series of projects that cross the boundaries we use to delimit period, coterie, and discourse field.

3.        Within the classroom context, this intellectual manifesto translates into a cultural studies approach in which I ask students to read Romantic texts as themselves and then to read their own literary and cultural moment as Romanticists. So, “Early Romantic Literature and the Invention of Poetic Experiment” begins with an in-depth, historicist analysis of Lyrical Ballads and concludes with whatever new, exciting poetry has come out that very month (most recently, Sarah Blake’s lyric biography of Kanye West, which the press sent on to us in advance of the publication date). “Later Romantic Literature: Monsters and Rock Stars” approaches texts such as The Vampyre and Don Juan with an emphasis on the interrelated themes of celebrity and monstrosity, and concludes with a collaboratively student-designed unit on monstrosity in contemporary celebrity culture. Throughout these courses, one technique remains consistent: the inclusion of creative writing assignments that ask students to invert their perspective on the Romantic text and to usher that text into their contemporary moment. And, while I wouldn’t take it upon myself to suggest that everyone allow their students to assign the pilot episode of Keeping Up with the Kardashians in a course focused on Keats, Byron, and the Shelleys, it is my conviction and my experience that a creative writing assignment can infuse any Romantics course with critical concern for the contemporary while supporting common student learning outcomes. It is in the service of this conviction that I offer four theses on teaching zonkey Romanticism.

1. CREATIVE WRITING IS HYBRID

4.        In the context of zonkey Romanticism, “creative writing” refers to hybrid critical/creative projects involving a series of self-reflexive loops and turns that ask students to read and reread Romantic texts and contexts, their own writing, and, ultimately, their own cultural moment. This sort of hybrid writing assignment is, of course, not unique to my classes. I first encountered hybrid critical/creative assignments as an undergraduate student at Colorado College, where one of my favorite professors, Regula Meyer Evitt, would often ask students to, for example, create their own circle of hell and then use a close-reading of their own writing to generate an in-depth analysis of the logic that governs Dante’s Inferno. Thinking through the benefits of using creative writing in response to texts in the college literature classroom, Peter Wilson has described a “creative-critical spectrum suggested by the following descriptors: creative writing not in response to text, creative writing in response to text, critical-creative re-writing, critical writing in response to text, critical writing not in response to text” (440). Zonkey that I am, I understand the interplay between critical and creative inquiry in less linear terms, all the while subscribing to Wilson’s suggestion that all writing is, to some extent, creative, and that playing with this variable can have profound pedagogical payoffs.

5.        For example, last spring, I asked students at Rutgers to follow an assignment in which they close-read one stanza from Don Juan by writing an imitation of the very stanza they had close-read. Students then wrote a 500-word critical coda in which they explained and justified their choices. In effect, I asked students to respond to everything they had discovered in their close reading through creative writing.

6.        One student, Elizabeth Giardina, chose to close read and then imitate Stanza 43 of Canto VI:

She was not violently lively, but
Stole on your spirit like a May day breaking.
Her eyes were not too sparkling, yet half-shut,
They put beholders in a tender taking.
She looked (this simile’s quite new) just cut
From marble, like Pygmalion’s statue waking,
The mortal and the marble still at strife,
And timidly expanding into life.
Explicating her responses to this stanza, Elizabeth described her progression from the close reading to the hybrid assignment as follows:
[For the close reading,] I focused especially on the equivocal language, such as litotes like “She was not violently lovely, but . . .” Byron employs to discuss Dudù’s beauty. He mentions in the stanza that her beauty was like a “May day breaking,” further emphasizing her liminal status between opposites—between night and day, perhaps. For my imitation of this stanza in relation to modern culture, I chose to focus on another woman, but one who is known for her politics rather than her beauty. Hillary Clinton is often in the public eye for the beauty blunders she apparently commits. One that came to mind most easily for me was the constant critique of her “cankles,” so I decided they would be my main focus in my stanza. I sought to employ the same equivocal attitude toward her that Byron does toward Dudù, but to have a different intent in mind.
Elizabeth’s resulting imitation sets forth its own poetic satire:
They are not excessively fat, but
Jiggle when she turns around a corner;
Cankles a fine shade of pistachio nut,
Stuffed inside too tight heels and make me mourn her
Comfort. ‘Twixt green and tan, her leg hairs uncut:
She’s Athena amidst tea and foreigners.
Though much of her speech was understood moot,
For she dared wear a dress instead of a pantsuit.
Reflecting on her creative process, Elizabeth explained, “[w]hile I was writing the stanza I was aware that I would need to close read it afterward, and so I was especially aware of how I used my language, rhythm, and line breaks in order to illustrate my point.” Indeed, Elizabeth’s close reading of her own creative work involved digging in to the details of her imitation as well as the details of the original stanza. For example, Elizabeth comments on her interpretation of Byron’s underhanded diction (“An ankle is not beautiful if it is somewhere between green and tan; it would look repulsive and unhealthy. But ‘pistachio’ tiptoes around the issue with a pretty word and the idea of a tasty snack”) and reimagines Byron’s allusions for the contemporary context (“the reference to Athena rather than Pygmalion’s statue emphasizes intellectual capability rather than sheer physical appeal”). Written in tandem with more conventional forms of literary analysis and academic writing, Elizabeth’s ode to Hillary’s cankles presents a moment of performance in which the student inhabits the formal space of the Romantic poem and the cultural-critical space of the Romantic poet.

2. CREATIVE WRITING IS LIBERATING

7.        When I assign hybrid critical/creative papers in my classes, I hasten to remind students that this isn’t a creative writing class and that they won’t be graded based on talent. Even with and perhaps in part due to these disclaimers, the resulting creative work is often excellent. Reflecting on this trend, Wilson points out that, when these types of assignments are used in class, “[c]reative writing is seen . . . as a means to better critical reading, but . . . the relation is reciprocal and critically informed reading can be the context for genuinely talented creative work” (441). I agree that strong creative reading promotes strong creative writing, and would add to this assertion my sense that students find the creative writing assignments to be liberating and/or disarming, an experience that promotes a greater sense of strength and ease as they work through assignments. Writing in a new genre in which they are not expected to have developed “good” habits, students seem eager to take chances and to perform experiments.

8.        I base these general claims in part on the investment and enthusiasm I’ve witnessed during student paper presentations and in part based on student responses to creative papers in anonymous course evaluations. In the latter context, students often describe hybrid assignments as “fun” and “enjoyable,” ask for more, or tell me they “loved” the assignment. This sense that hybrid critical/creative assignments are somehow a treat or gift built into the curriculum reflects, I think, the extent to which a creative approach to analyzing literature allows students to relax and enjoy learning. These assignments ask students to create something new for which they have no model, rather than to strive toward the platonic ideal of the perfect English paper. The resulting engaged, non-anxious approach to the creative assignment helps generate clear, insightful student writing, not only for the hybrid assignment itself, but also for later, more conventional assignments. In course evaluations, students report that creative writing helps them tap into their creativity; I’ve noticed that students engage this creativity while completing more conventional writing assignments (e.g. comparative papers and thesis-driven analyses), as well.

9.        Additionally, by asking students to take on the role of the Romantic author, this category of assignment invites students to peel back the cloak of canonicity and to claim Romantic perspectives for themselves. Compared to their thesis-driven counterparts, creative assignments are often irreverent, as in one student’s “No Time for the Ancient Mariner,” in which Coleridge’s ancient mariner, transported to the present day, can’t get anyone on the street to stop and listen to his story, or in various reinterpretations of “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison” in which students use Coleridge’s projected frustration at an absent nostalgia to account for the FOMO they experience whilst navigating between studying and socializing. I humbly submit that it’s OK and maybe even preferable for students to be irreverent (educated, insightful, and interested, of course, but also, sometimes, irreverent) when it comes to Coleridge et al., and often use creative assignments to dismantle the imposing hierarchy of canonicity. Writing about the ways in which creative writing exercises can promote “investment” and “authority” among composition students, Drew and Yost have argued that “these exercises can become central to the work of the composition classroom by helping to undermine the Author/student writer dichotomy” (30). Beyond upsetting this dichotomy, creative responses to Romanticism can help students connect Romantic literature to their lives and, in turn, find ways to connect to the Romantic.

3. CREATIVE WRITING INVERTS THE ROMANTIC AND THE CONTEMPORARY

10.        Creative writing assignments ask students to invert their perspective, taking on Romantic concerns, forms, and experiments and applying them to their own contemporary experience. This process develops in two dimensions. In some cases, Romantic thinking allows students to reconsider contemporary issues; in other cases, the opportunity to write like a Romantic encourages students to infuse their everyday world with new—that is, old—ideas.

11.        One assignment that encourages students to reconsider contemporary issues through a Romantic lens is a monster narrative written in the nineteenth-century tradition but focused on a contemporary issue, topic, or context. In “Later Romantic Literature: Monsters and Rock Stars,” this assignment generated a number of monster narratives dealing with issues of body image and the beauty industry. For example, one story, written by Shayla Lawz, presented a monstrous and ultimately tragic depiction of two young girls mimicking their mother’s fixation on her physical appearance:

Each afternoon as their momma went to run errands, the two girls kept themselves busy by playing dress up. One by one, they would throw the giant polka dot scarves around their necks, and slip their tiny feet into the size nine high heels. Ivylese liked to screech swiftly across the mahogany living room floor as Olivia covered her ears at the sound. She did this until, while playing around one day, she sliced her finger on the sharp metal heel and became frightened at what else they were capable of.
Other student monster narratives addressed plastic surgery, vanity, eating disorders, and self-representation on social media. After studying texts such as Frankenstein and Mathilda that use monstrosity to embody, among so many other things, anxieties about social change, social roles, and women’s place in society, course participants used the nineteenth-century tradition of the monster narrative to express some of their own thoughts about and understandings of societal problems and pressures. If, as Jeffrey Jerome Cohen has argued, we can “understand . . . cultures through the monsters they bear[,]” then perhaps using the logics of the Romantic monster narrative to think through our own culture can help us become better readers of literature and culture, broadly construed (4). I should note here that I’ve recently updated this assignment in response to different pedagogical goals. This fall, in a first-year seminar on “Monster Narratives, 1797–2014,” sixteen first-year college students at the University of Denver will choose a contemporary social, environmental, and/or political issue, research and write an annotated bibliography on their topic, and then construct and analyze their own monster narratives in response to the issue they have chosen and researched. It is my hope that this assignment will encourage students to respond critically and creatively to their world, using the Romantic (and, in this case, the Victorian) as a tool to help them critique and understand the contemporary.

12.        As I mentioned above, hybrid critical/creative exercises can also encourage students to infuse their everyday experience with an understanding of and interest in the (neo-)Romantic. For example, in a course on Early Romantic Literature taught at Rutgers, I asked students to imitate a poet of their choosing, and then to submit a critical coda walking me through their imitation. Some students reported that their choice to imitate a Romantic nature poem led them to notice, engage, or appreciate the natural world in a new or different way.

13.        One such student, Sam Brusco, ventured out into the New Jersey woods to write an imitation of Wordsworth, which I excerpt here:

It was a still and stagnant winter morn;
a day when Nature seemed to lie asleep,
no single creature stirred, scarce wind was heard,
a day that had an oath of silence sworn.
No prior obligations then had I,
at rest from travels endless and sublime.
I walked among a way yet untrodden,
now that I found myself with endless time.
The path I chose, untouched by human will
without a measured course to mark the way;
since Nature organized no maps for me,
the path was chosen by what course I made.
Sam’s employment of iambic pentameter as well as his deployment of allusions to poems read in class demonstrate the extent to which the student has taken in and synthesized a sense of what it means to find oneself in a Wordsworth poem. However, beyond these formal and topical references, Sam’s critical coda focuses on his interpretation of Wordsworth as a poet-philosopher:

14.        What was particularly interesting for my own “experience with nature” that I had hoped would create my own philosophical conclusions was my decision to take a walk in the woods in wintertime . . . some would interpret the landscape as dead, “A scene devoid of life, though it may seem.” However, the observer reasons that because nature exerts so much energy in providing a thriving landscape for the remainder of the year, it ought to have a time to rest, as well, because all other living things are allowed to rest. The landscape then becomes something entirely different: a scene of serenity and tranquility rather than of stagnation and lifelessness.

15.        If we find ourselves debating how, whether, and why to use the contemporary to make the Romantic “relatable” for students, then Sam’s and other students’ thoughtful poetic encounters with the natural environment in hybrid critical/creative response to Romanticism demonstrate the extent to which the Romantic is, of course, already relevant—already related—to the issues and concerns that dominate our world and the worlds of our students.

4. CREATIVE WRITING OFFERS AN ANALYTICAL ALTERNATIVE TO ARGUMENT

16.        Explaining his use of creative responses to literature in the high school classroom, Christian Knoeller argues, “[i]n place of a simple opposition between response and formal analysis, imaginative response maps a continuum between the two and demonstrates how they can serve essentially complementary roles when interpreting literary works” (44). In the college classroom, the hybrid critical/creative assignment functions as a moment of rupture bridging, not only reader response and student analysis, but also argumentative analysis and something beyond argument. In my classes, I find it useful to remain mindful of the extent to which an exclusive focus on strength of argument can sometimes limit a student’s exploration of the text(s) at hand. While I consider teaching academic argument to be one of the most important parts of my job as an English professor, I also maintain that students’ interactions with literary history before, beside, or beyond the project of constructing an argument about that history is crucial to learning and should not be undervalued. Assignments that ask students to do something other than make an argument offer the chance to share and to receive feedback regarding the many ways in which students interact with texts. These assignments, in turn, ask students to linger in the space of the text itself and to extend the encounter that is reading. It is my contention that such opportunities to interpret for interpretation’s own sake help students become more conscientious readers, and, in turn, more persuasive when it comes to academic argument.

17.        Hybrid critical/creative assignments accomplish these goals differently than, say, non-thesis driven close readings insofar as they ask students to think with and through the Romantic, moving beyond the text and into the questions and issues it raises, all the while resisting or delaying the impulse to compress the text’s effects and affects into a digestible thesis. At the 2014 NASSR conference, my mentor, Marjorie Levinson, responded to a question about pedagogy with a simple and perfectly true statement of purpose: “You just want them to feel how good it is to think.” Hybrid critical/creative assignments provide students with a formal opportunity to think, not necessarily in the service of argument, but rather via the experience of generating and understanding creative practice. No wonder students often report that hybrid assignments allow them to access or understand authorship in complex and vibrant ways that skirt those teaching conventions (e.g. the insistence on a “speaker,” whatever that might mean in the Romantic context) that reinforce the author taboo without edging into problematic, biographical reading. In the literary studies classroom, hybrid critical/creative assignments complement praxis with practice. This practice promotes experimental reading, writing, and interpretation.

18.        Building on this interplay, one goal I have in mind as I continue to develop the pedagogy of zonkey Romanticism is to explore and think through the ways in which creative writing might inform students’ understanding of theory as well as their theoretical understanding of Romantic texts. Reflecting on a hybrid critical/creative assignment, van Oostrum, Steadman-Jones, and Carson remark that “this task . . . brought alive a range of theoretical issues concerning the difficulty of representation” and posit that “[w]hen students read about these issues in books of literary theory, they often remain cold, abstract, and remote. But when they arise from the process of producing creative writing, they seem much more alive” (565). While an analysis of how creative writing might be used to illustrate and vivify theoretical approaches in the Romantic literature classroom is beyond the scope of this essay, I conclude with this open question as a way to gesture toward how the pedagogical approach presented here might further be developed and applied as a method for asking students to express their understanding, their questions, and their ideas in an open, generative format.

19.        Ultimately, I hope that my comments have illustrated some of the ways in which creative writing and hybrid critical/creative assignments can encourage students of Romantic literature to bridge the historical text and the contemporary moment of reading, not just in the service of intervention, but for the sake of capacious and radical interaction, interaction that produces new texts, new ideas, new perspectives, and, indeed, new ways of thinking.

Works Cited

Byron, George Gordon. Lord Byron: The Major Works. Edited by Jerome J. McGann, Oxford UP, 1986.

Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. “Monster Culture (Seven Theses).” Monster Theory: Reading Culture. Edited by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, U of Minnesota P, 1996.

Drew, Chris and David Yost. “Composing Creativity: Further Crossing Composition/Creative Writing Boundaries.” The Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association, vol. 42, no. 1, 2009, pp. 25–42. 2 October 2014.

Knoeller, Christian. “Imaginative Response: Teaching Literature Through Creative Writing.” The English Journal, vol. 92, no. 5, 2003, pp. 42–48. 2 October 2014.

van Oostrum, Duco, Richard Steadman-Jones and Zoe Carson. “Taking the Imaginative Leap: Creative Writing and Inquiry-Based Learning.” Pedagogy, vol. 7, no. 3, 2007, pp. 556–66. 2 October 2014.

Wilson, Peter. “Creative writing and critical response in the university literature class.” Innovations in Education and Teaching International, vol 48, no. 4, 2011, pp. 439–46. 2 October 2014.

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