Teaching Edgar Allan Poe’s Poetry and Writing Philosophy through Imitation and Response

PALS Note: We welcome our first guest post of the 2016-2017 academic year by Daniel Schweitzer. Schweitzer is a PhD candidate at the University of Buffalo and writes for us about parody assignments in the literature classroom. Using a Poe assignment, Schweitzer builds of the discussion from a past post by PALS contributor, Melissa Range. Read on for his full thoughts.

I was delighted to see, late this last March, Melissa Range’s insightful and instructive post on the benefits of incorporating creative writing, including imitation, into American Literature courses. There are a number of benefits to using imitation exercises as an approach to literary work, benefits Dr. Range covers so admirably in her earlier post. As she writes, imitation

helps you understand the poem you are imitating much, much better than if you had simply read the poem (even if you have read it closely, carefully, and multiple times). Placing yourself in the writer’s position allows you to think about each decision she has made in crafting her work. You may also notice things that are sometimes overlooked: Whitman’s syntactical parallelism, Brooks’s short sentences, Williams’s enjambment. And then you might begin to consider how the writer is using these formal elements to create meaning.

In this post, I want to focus on a small segment of what she describes elsewhere in her post—those students who end up “parodying or responding” to the original work—and describe one such exercise I used this last semester in a survey course of American literature to 1865 to foster engagement with Edgar Allan Poe.

Edgar_Allan_Poe_crop copy

Grading

To begin with a note on the general pedagogy underlying this approach: although I use other imitation assignments than those requesting parodies specifically, I have found it particularly useful to emphasize the potential for parody in writing imitations for a literature course. First, although anyone who has tried writing a successful parody realizes the complexity of the writing situation, it nevertheless occurs to most students as a “fun” element of the writing assignment. Many students, when giving anonymous feedback on the assignment, indicated that writing parody allowed them to more comfortably share their thoughts and engage with the material. Like Dr. Range, I make sure to reiterate that the bulk of the grade and feedback are based on the reflection portion of the assignment, rather than the creative work.  This sense of comfort in turn often allows students to engage more deeply with the original works than might have otherwise been possible. This proved especially valuable given the makeup of the classes: in the survey course last semester, the majority of students were from non-humanities fields and had expressed discomfort during conferences early in the year with the unfamiliar language and their own lack of exposure to the literature of the period.

In the case of an author as famous as Poe, parodic imitation can also help students approach the works in ways that move past preconceived ideas, often based on well-known (and frequently apocryphal) anecdotes. Even those students who had little background in American literature had nearly all heard of Poe, and many had strong opinions about his works and life that our preliminary in-class discussions suggested were as likely to be based in schoolyard legend as in his works or biography. By inviting students to not only think and talk about the works as artifacts.

The Assignment Sequence

Graham's_April_1846_Poe_Phil_Comp copyThe assignment itself consisted of two out-of-class writing assignments and a follow-up discussion. To emphasize to the students the debate Poe’s works have engendered and variety of positions people have taken, I paired three of Poe’s poems from the Norton Anthology of American Literature (“To Helen,” “The Raven,” and “Annabel Lee”) with his “Philosophy of Composition” (also in the Norton). The three poems, despite being relatively well-known already, were chosen to examine different facets of Poe’s writing in relation to his “Philosophy,” with “Annabel Lee” and “The Raven” aligning with his stated principles on appropriate subject matter (the “death of a beautiful woman” which he declared to be the “most poetical topic”) and style (in the use of refrain and repetition). “To Helen” was included to encourage students to question the extent to which Poe followed his own prescription. I also provided two supplemental readings: D.H. Lawrence’s chapter on Poe in Studies in Classic American Literature and the more recent, but still accessible, New Yorker article by Jill Lepore (“The Humbug,” 2009).

After completing the readings but before the class discussion of them, the students were given a two-part writing prompt to complete and submit online over the weekend. The first part of the prompt was creative:

You will compose both your own Poe-m (get it?) and your own “Philosophy of Composition” about that poem and submit them on the discussion board no later than Saturday, April 16.

In writing these, you should consider whether you believe Poe created his own poetry in the way and for the reasons he describes, whether it was simply a canny way of advertising a popular poem, or whether the truth lies somewhere beyond just those two (perhaps he was interested in advertising “The Raven” with his essay; does that make it a worse or less moving poem, even by his standards?).

Although the students were not required to write poems of the same length as Poe, the poems had to be at least twelve lines and three stanzas, in order to allow them the space to work in the refrain that Poe considered central to poetic effect. They were also asked to analyze and match, as closely as possible, the meter and rhyme scheme of Poe’s works and to indicate which poem they were imitating.

The analytic element was introduced in the second part of the prompt, which asked them to craft their own “Philosophy of Composition” detailing their creation of the poem. While they were not required to write a statement the length of Poe’s, they were asked to engage with the following questions in a few typed pages:

Do you agree with Poe about how to write a great poem? If so, what elements from his essay influenced your imitation? If you disagree with his method, feel free to poke some fun and imitate his style. That is, in either case, you should explain what ideas of poetry make yours a great poem – that is, having followed his instructions and philosophy, explain why following them either helps you write a great poem or led to you writing a parody of one of his poems.

Because the writings were meant to facilitate the later discussions, I deliberately kept the range of options open: some students, as I discuss later, chose to focus primarily on metrical effects and analysis; others engaged larger questions of aesthetic principles, of the formation of poetic taste, or of Poe’s possible reasons for writing as he did and why they chose differently.

The posted responses to the online forum for the class for one another to read, and I was able to use the points raised in their posts and responses to generate the discussion points for the next class meeting, which led us down some tremendously fruitful paths, including the relationship of the literary marketplace with governing aesthetic judgments, changing literary reputations and canonicity, gender and objectification, and any number of critical literary approaches.

Students’ Responses

In looking at the students’ responses, two things stand out. First, nearly every student wrote not just an imitation but included elements intended to be more lighthearted. Even those who by and large agreed with Poe’s stated philosophy of composition were able to use the imaginative space opened by these parodic or humorous changes in subject and theme to interrogate some of its claims. Some students were willing to subscribe to Poe’s compositional process but rejected some of his underlying aesthetic claims. One student named Adriana,* for example, accepted Poe’s idea that a shorter poem contributed to a “unity of impression,” but exemplified her disagreement about the appropriate subject of poetry by writing a wickedly funny and oddly suspenseful poem on the fear of missing an episode of Grey’s Anatomy. Part of her goal in doing so, she wrote in her own “Philosophy,” was to demonstrate that writing with the denouement of the poem in mind could still enable a unity of impression and sense of inevitability despite the lighter tone.

Other students found themselves questioning the applicability of Poe’s philosophy to even his own works: Mari G. wrote a tremendously touching ode to her mother in imitation of “To Helen.” Although not a parody – in any sense – her poem, which she wrote attempting to follow Poe’s precepts, led to a discussion of whether “To Helen” could be considered a great poem by Poe’s standards.

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Poe Statue via BostonPoe.Org

For others, this came in the form of deep analyses of the formal elements of Poe’s style that led to an appreciation of his technical abilities even as they disagreed with his philosophy. One such student, Heeba, remarked that her poem (a reflection on the difficulties of creative writing in the style of “The Raven”) almost inevitably became a parody of the original: as she writes, Poe’s formula obscures much of the mental work entailed in writing, and “it was difficult for the poem to remain serious or genuine” when the author was constantly interrupting herself to thumb through a rhyming dictionary.

Although Poe, whose “Philosophy of Composition” and the debates surrounding it makes for an unusually fortunate pairing, this type of approach is versatile enough to be applied to many different works. In other contexts, I have used similar parody and imitation exercises in contexts from National Writing Project presentations to working with high school students at a creative writing camp. It can be especially useful to bring in examples of other parodies of well-known works: few strategies I have found work quite so well at both demystifying Shakespeare’s English for high school students and teaching the sonnet form as writing an imitation, for instance. It can also work to highlighting themes in poetry: comparing William Carlos Williams’ “This Is Just To Say” with Kenneth Koch’s “Variations on a Theme by William Carlos Williams” and asking students to write their own versions not only fosters great discussions on the goals and effects of imagism but can highlight the nearly violent undercurrent of Williams’ work.

I would strongly encourage you to experiment with imitation and parody based exercises in your courses – the results are often illuminating and the student engagement it fosters is surprisingly deep.

*Student names and quotations have been used with permission.

Contributor Bio:

Daniel Schweitzer is a Ph.D. candidate at the University at Buffalo – SUNY. His dissertation, Making War: The Political Aesthetics of U.S. Poetry 1861-65, focuses on the role of poetry in crafting political subjects not only through overt appeal but the aesthetic limitation of identity formation. After six years teaching a variety of composition and literature courses, he will be pursuing his interest in situated and collaborative learning, working for the UB Curriculum Office to help implement a new capstone ePortfolio system.

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