As is all too apparent, time got away from me this semester (luckily the undergraduate Romantics course at the University of Toronto is a two-semester course, so I will have plenty of opportunities to make up for my silence). I have a backlog of topics to address. Right now I’m thinking hardest–because I’ve just handed back the first set of papers and because we’ve just had a review session for the “term test” that will conclude this semester– about my undergraduates’ relation to poetry and the panicky feelings many, though not all, have when invited to understand a poem as something other than a piece of prose arranged eccentrically on the page.
One thing I have been doing since the start of the class is to insist that poetry is written to be heard and sounded. That teachers of Romantic poetry should do such insisting will not be controversial for any visitors to this blog, but the good news is that, maybe in Canadian universities at least, there is a chance that more of our students will come to us already accustomed to think of the poem as an occasion for recitation. Scott Griffin, the benefactor and founder of the Griffin Trust for Excellence in Poetry has just announced a generously funded contest called “Poetry In Voice/ Les voix de la poésie” . The contest is intended to encourage the memorization and recitation of poetry. “The students will carry these gifts inside them for life,” Mr. Griffin says, a statement chiming serendipitously with the last lines of Wordsworth’s “The Solitary Reaper”. (In a follow-up posting, I want to talk about the class session in which that poem figured–and in which it generated an intense amount of discussion). When my students expressed concern last week that they wouldn’t remember the poetry we’d studied long enough to succeed in the test (never mind “for life”), I told them that retention becomes easier if you have enlisted to that end other senses beyond the reading eye –if your ear has encountered the sounds and rhythms, and you’ve had the feeling of the poem’s words in your mouth.
But what I mainly wanted to post about is my belated realization that my students need a lot of direction about how to take notes when they read poetry–and boost their powers of retention by that means. For years my syllabi have included this notice: “Please read with a pencil or pen in your hand. Prepared students are, in fact, usually those who write in their books and write a lot.” (It takes a leap of imagination for teachers to remember that our younger selves believed that neatness counted. And of course anthologies especially– so like Bibles, books of books–can make readers’ marginalia seem desecrations. ) But only during the last couple weeks, as the test approaches and office hours gain popularity, have I realized that many students don’t know why their use of their pink and yellow highlighters wasn’t exactly what that instruction was promoting. They don’t know what it is one might be writing in the margins of poems. Because note-taking is (as the historian of the book Ann Blair has observed) “a hidden phase in the transmission of knowledge,” it was actually a challenge to give explicit guidance–to instruct them, variously, to e.g. take note of the words that repeat; mark the moments when the poem’s argument or mood shifts; look for the moments when the poem deviates from its previously set form; speculate about the word choices; scan the meter and mark the rhyme scheme. And my New Year’s resolution (the luxury of a two-semester long course is that one actually has opportunity to implement them) is to display some powerpoint slides made from photocopies of the pages in my own copies of our anthology to indicate what note-taking looks like, though I’ll feel a bit exposed by showing them. I’d of course love to hear about other teacher’s methods for making poems memorable (and–alas for this necessity!– examinable).