Teaching a collection of poems featuring Natasha Trethewey’s Native Guard as a test case, Part 3

Welcome back, poetry fans. In this third and final installment on teaching a collection of poetry using Natasha Trethewey’s Native Guard as our test case, we’ll be discussing how to teach a poem by breaking it down into different (and manageable!) parts. What I like about this approach is that you can choose as many or as few parts as you’d like for analysis and discussion, and you can switch out the parts you discuss based on the poem in question and your own comfort level with poetry.

The poem I’ve chosen to demonstrate this approach is “Elegy for the Native Guards,” one of my favorites from Native Guard. You can read the poem here and watch a very cool video of Trethewey reading the poem (at the poem’s setting, Fort Massachusetts on Ship Island, Mississippi, no less) here.

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I highly recommend playing this video for the class before you dive into the poem. It really helps students to access the landscape and the monuments Trethewey is describing, and students tend to be powerfully affected by hearing, and seeing, Trethewey read the poem aloud.

The Seven(ish) Levels

I terrified my non-poet colleagues one day by offhandedly remarking that there were “oh, I dunno, at least seven levels to a poem” that one might fruitfully analyze in the literature classroom. To keep them from running screaming from the building, I hastily added, “But you really don’t have to have specialized knowledge to do this! And all poems won’t have that many levels to analyze!” (I didn’t add, “Some will have even more!”)

There’s no need to think of these seven levels I discuss below as an exhaustive list: it isn’t. You can certainly get more technical. (For example: meter is not on this list because too many people I know find it intimidating to teach, but if you like it like I do, you can fit it into your discussion of the poem’s sounds. If you don’t wanna mess with it, you’ll still have plenty to discuss on a sonic level. Bonus: “Elegy for the Native Guards” is conveniently not written in meter!)

1. Title (and, if present, epigraph)

We covered this a bit last time when talking about the book title and the section epigraphs to Native Guard, and it applies to individual poems as well. The title is never a bad place to start when reading any poem, as it’s your first way in. If a poem has an epigraph, that’s your second point of entry. Students almost invariably skip both the title and the epigraph when reading poems aloud in class (and, as they often tell me, when reading on their own), so this point I’m making isn’t as obvious as it might seem. For example, in “Elegy for the Native Guards,” looking at the title allows us to review what an elegy is (thus bringing genre into our discussion, too—another level!) and to discuss not only the Louisiana Native Guards but also what is “native” and who is “guarding” what in the poem. We then relate this poem title back to the title of the book.

Then we move to the epigraph. Most students have never heard of Allen Tate, and it doesn’t matter if you haven’t read a word of Tate yourself. But a quick trip around the Internet will turn up Tate’s connection to the Fugitive Poets and his famous poem “Ode to the Confederate Dead,” which Trethewey is quoting—with much irony and sarcasm—here. You can easily show students the poem, or even an excerpt from the poem. They get pretty quickly how Trethewey is taking Tate on in this poem, and why.

2. Voice and address

Here we think about who might be speaking this poem, and to whom the poem might be addressed. The voice in “Elegy for the Native Guards” is first-person plural—the “we”-voice—and we discuss why that matters for this poem, which could have easily been written in an “I”-voice or a “you”-voice instead. Students think about communal knowledge and responsibility, and they like how Trethewey uses this “we” voice to implicate everyone (including all of us reading the poem) in the lack of monument to the Louisiana Native Guards. We discuss address when we read the line “What is monument to their legacy?” I ask students, “To whom do you think she’s asking this question?” There’s no easy answer to this (some answers students have come up with: white southerners, the Daughters of the Confederacy, history / posterity, the other Ship Island tourists, the readers, America, and God), but it’s a fascinating discussion.

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 3. Imagery, metaphor, and simile

All of these elements are visual, and worth tackling together. I begin with images because they’re the basic building blocks of any poem. If you ask students, “Remember that poem? What was it about?” they will usually answer in images. “It was the one about the fort on the island.” “It was the one with the Confederate monument in it.” Images can be simple (“gulls overhead,” “streamers”) or complicated (a fort “near forty feet high, / round, unfinished, half open to the sky, / the elements—wind, rain—God’s deliberate eye”). If the image is complex, we unpack it and try to make sure we can visualize every part of the image, not just its most accessible part. We also think about what is significant about the images visually, culturally, historically, emotionally, intellectually—whatever seems most appropriate for the poem in question. If the poem features metaphors or similes, we tackle those next. I typically put the poem up on a Powerpoint slide and highlight the main images and any metaphors or similes in order for students to locate them quickly, leaving more time for discussion.

4. Diction

At this point, we’ve covered the big stuff in the poem; it’s time to zero in. I do some crazy Powerpoint highlighting at all levels of this multi-level exercise, but none so resembling a patchwork quilt gone wrong as at this level.

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I put the poem on a Powerpoint slide, then cull out diction clusters and highlight them all in different colors. So, for example, I highlight all of the words of the poem that have to do with nature in yellow (“gulls,” “beach,” “sky”), all of the words that have to do with parts of things (“half,” “some,” “unfinished,” “split”) in pink, all of the words that have to do with sight in red, and so on. I’ve found that this works great for discussion, allowing students (once they have recovered from the shock of color-clashing on the slide) to quickly and easily see just how deliberately Trethewey is choosing her words here. They also notice how words thread through the poem; for example, the word “half” occurs in this poem three times—something easy to miss when reading, but impossible to ignore when the recurrences are all highlighted in shocking pink. Once they’ve noticed this, they invariably think and talk about what it means for only half of the Ship Island soldiers (the white Confederate soldiers who were imprisoned there) to be commemorated with a plaque, but not the other half (the African American Union regiment of Louisiana Native Guards).

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5. Sound

You can analyze this level with any poem, since all poems feature concentrations of sounds, whether they rhyme or not. However, I love to do this level with a rhyming poem like “Elegy for the Native Guards.” Students often don’t even notice rhymes in a poem on the first, second, or even third read-through. Highlighting the rhymes in this poem—again in different colors!—alerts them to the rhyme scheme that, due to the heavy enjambment and the occurrences of slant rhyme (i.e. “entrance” / “phalanx”), they may have missed. It also shows them when the rhyme scheme changes. Trethewey rhymes her first three stanzas abccba. In the last stanza, however, she switches to aaabbb. This is a big change, and we talk about why Trethewey might choose to mix it up like this. Students notice that the more closely packed rhyme pattern in the final stanza of the poem makes the poem feel more hard-hitting and intense at the poem’s conclusion.

I also take this opportunity to ask students if they see any connections between the rhyming words on a meaning level. (I fully believe in this idea—that the meanings of rhyming words can interact in a mysterious, exciting way that we would do well to pay attention to when reading poems—but don’t take my word for it; poet A.E. Stallings has an excellent manifesto on rhyme that may convert you, if you need convertin’.) And they always do, pointing out possible connections between “Confederacy” and “legacy” or “tells” and “sells.”

6. Sentence structure and syntax

Using highlighting once more, I point out choices Trethewey makes on the sentence and syntactical levels. For example—what does it mean that there are a lot of dashes and parenthetical asides in the poem? What is happening emotionally (and rhythmically) in the poem when Trethewey uses shorter sentences versus when she creates a long list? When she uses repetition of words and parallel syntax in the line “All the grave markers, all the crude headstones,” our ears and eyes understand that Trethewey wants us to pay close attention to something. What is meaningful in this line that we should be noticing and thinking about?

7. Line, stanza, and shape

Poems are such visual entities that it makes sense to think of how the poem looks on the page as one more level of its meaning. We discuss how the poem’s uniform, left-justified 6-line stanzas and lines of approximately 10 syllables each give the poem a weighty feel, a solemnity that befits its subject. I often ask students to look across to the next page, where the poem South,” written in indented couplets with much more white space on the page, gives a totally different feel. We talk about how line, stanza, and shape produce the slowness and gravity of “Elegy for the Native Guards” and, quite differently, produce the crispness and velocity of “South.” We then are well set up to discuss (as I have before on this blog) how the order of the poems in the book makes its own meaning. That’s particularly evident in these two poems, which are also the last two poems in the book.

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. . . and more!

Obviously, you can delve further into other levels of the poem, like literary or historical allusion, genre, repetition, and rhythm. Every poem is different. All poems won’t have flashy metaphors, for example, and not all poems will feature repetition, rhyme, or dashes. You can choose the three or four most striking elements of the poem and focus on those in class discussion. There’s no need to hit them all in a single class period, particularly since students (not to mention instructors) might get fatigued after three or four levels. This depends on your class, of course (I’ve had students stay with me for seven levels and start drifting at three).

Although it can be a lot of work up front (particularly if you do the insane Powerpoint highlighting I so enjoy), I find that spending a class period going through a single poem like this demystifies poetry for students (important, since Fear of Poetry is real) and gives them lots of practical tools for the papers they will write on Native Guard. They know now how to take a poem apart to see how it works, and they have confidence that they can do this again with other poems. When I teach a course where we read more than one poetry collection, I do this exercise early in the term, so that students have these tools to apply to poetry for the rest of the semester, no matter what they’re reading.

This is my last post on Native Guard—a book I truly hope you will consider teaching—but certainly not my last on teaching poetry. Thank you for reading!

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