Pairing Walt Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing” with Richard Blanco’s “One Today”

Richard_Blanco.jpgTwo years ago, Middlesex Community College (MxCC) hosted a reading by Richard Blanco. Before attending this event, I did not know much about Blanco or his work, other than vaguely remembering his participation in the 2013 Presidential Inauguration. Named by President Obama as the fifth inaugural poet in American history, Blanco is “the youngest, first Latino, immigrant, and gay person to serve in such a role.” His reading at MxCC was both incredibly thoughtful and thought-provoking, especially during the moments in which he explored his experience with different parts of American culture. During this event, I quickly realized how much I wanted to teach Blanco’s poetry in my upcoming English 102: Literature and Composition course.

After reading “One Today,” the poem that Blanco read at the 2013 Inauguration, I knew it would fit perfectly in my poetry unit for English 102. I designed this unit for students who have not spent a significant amount of time reading poetry in the past; therefore, I assign poems with similar themes for each class period. This way, the theme becomes our class’s starting point to discuss and identify the various poetic devices used in each poem. I decided to pair Blanco’s “One Today” with Walt Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing” when designing the following lesson plan, one that builds on this past activity, to help students further practice critically analyzing poetry while introducing them to the basics of New Historicism.

“I Hear America Singing”

I start this activity with “I Hear America Singing” because I have found its content to be very accessible to students, regardless of their previous experiences with poetry. Since reading poetry out loud can help students to hear certain poetic devices at work, I have the class read this poem out loud—as a group. This idea of using chorale reading was first introduced to me through the Teach This Poem series from Poets.org, at which Blanco serves as a contributor.

Walt_Whitman,_steel_engraving,_July_1854

After the chorale reading, I ask students to spend a few minutes writing down their reflections on reciting the poem together as a group. I ask them to explain how the activity has changed their understanding of the poem’s content. I also ask them to take note of:

  • Which words are repeated in the poem
  • The people who are named in the poem
  • The activities that are described in the poem
  • Their take on the last three lines of the poem

Students are quick to point out that they noticed the repetition of the word “singing.” This observation leads to a discussion of how the idea of singing makes the workers seem happy or as if they have a sense of pride in completing their work. We also discuss how the phrases “the varied carols I hear” (Whitman line 1) and “each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else” (11) show the idea of difference, or uniqueness, while the repetition of the word “singing” shows a commonality in these different workers. Students often take note that the professions named are all ones in which people work with their hands. We then discuss the implications of why Whitman may have chosen to highlight these jobs and how the idea of work is celebrated in the poem.

2013_Inauguration_Richard_Blanco

“One Today”

Since the genesis of  “One Today” is so closely tied to a specific event in American history, I begin this part of the in-class activity by having my students watch Blanco read his poem at the 2013 Presidential Inauguration. While watching this clip from PBS via YouTube, I ask students to write down their observations of the actual event, how Blanco presents himself, and how he reads the poem.

Then, I have students annotate their copies of “One Today.” During this process, I ask for students to take note of:

  • Any words that are repeated throughout the poem
  • Images in the poem that stand out to them
  • Any words or phrases that evoke specific senses
  • The use of -ing words
  • Allusions to Blanco’s personal history
  • Allusions to events from American history

My goal during our discussion of “One Today” is for students to understand how Blanco constructs a depiction of America that celebrates the unique qualities of its citizens while still emphasizing the importance of unity. To do this, we spend a lot of time thinking through what language in the poem shows unity and what language shows difference. For example, I often start with the second stanza of “One Today,” which begins with “My face, your face, millions of faces in morning’s mirrors, / each one yawning to life, crescendoing into our day:” (Blanco 7-8). Through the use of “my face” and “your face,” Blanco acknowledges the different people living in America, yet by the second line we are “crescendoing into our day.” This shift in pronouns is a small detail, one that students new to analyzing poetry may not catch. Throughout the discussion, I make sure that students see how important these choices, no matter how seemingly tiny, are and that these choices are what help Blanco to craft his portrayal of America in “One Today.”

Analyzing the Concept of America in Both Poems

After discussing both poems, I provide my students with a brief introduction to New Historicism. Since theory is not a focus of English 102, I do not spend too much time covering the intricacies of New Historicism; instead, I share with students this overview from The Purdue OWL. I focus my mini-lesson on the questions posed at the bottom of the web page, which are designed to guide students through considering the ways in which the cultural events that occurred during a time period in which an author is writing may influence a text’s content.

To further explore this connection, I have students spend a few minutes researching, either on a computer if we are in the lab or on their phones, what was happening during the time periods surrounding 1867 and 2013, the years in which “I Hear America Singing” and “One Today” were published, respectively. Obviously, students are much more familiar with major events that happened during the beginning of this decade. Refreshing themselves on what life was like in the years leading up to 2013 helps students to have a better foundation for analyzing the ways in which Blanco portrays America in “One Today,” and if this portrayal reflects a realistic portrait of America, even with (or in spite of) the positive tone that the genre of an occasional poem requires.

pexels-photo-269646-USA

Conversely, students often possess a wide range of background knowledge on the 1860s, with some history buffs having a clear sense of the time period and other students knowing almost nothing about it. Some students are very surprised to learn that The Civil War occurred during this decade, especially when considering the fact that “I Hear America Singing” does not mention slavery. This observation leads student to question Whitman’s portrayal of America as a united country and to explore why Whitman may have made the decision to emphasize this united front in “I Hear America Singing.”

This lesson plan is designed to not only help students analyze “One Today” and “I Hear America Singing,” but to also prepare them for the next poems that I teach in this unit, Langston Hughes’s “I, Too” and Claude McKay’s “America.” These poems will help students to further develop their critical reading skills while continuing to analyze the concept of America in poetry.

Advertisements

Teaching José Orduña: Ekphrasis and the North American Essay

 

Rarely does a visiting writer sit down for the Friday morning craft talk and introduce a concept that I go on to use every day – every day – after. But this is exactly what happened when José Orduña, essayist, professor of English at the University of Nevada, Screenshot 2018-04-09 08.26.52and author of The Weight of Shadows visited us at the University of Missouri last September.

The concept Orduña shared was this: one must have an occasion to write.

He showed us a photograph of the U.S.-Mexico wall and pointed out that while certain prominent political voices are calling to “build the wall,” the wall already exists. Indicating the wall in the photograph, Orduña said: “this is my occasion to write.” As I understand it, the wall provides the impetus for Orduña’s research, and likely also guides his aesthetics.

“The occasion to write” is a useful concept for writers and students of writing. It is also useful for readers. The concept thus helps me link two different course goals in my Introduction to the Nonfiction Essay: one major goal is to expose students to contemporary trends in nonfiction. Another major goal is to coax students into writing beyond themselves. I recently created an ekphrastic writing assignment to combine these, relying on art, history, and conversation to multiply students’ own occasions to write.

Ekphrasis: Ancient to Contemporary

  1. What’s ekphrasis?

Ekphrasis, from the Greek, combines ek and phrásis (literally “out” and “speak”) into a verb for “proclaiming” or “calling an inanimate object by name.” At its simplest, any work of art that is “about” or enmeshed in another work of art (usually of another medium) can be understood as participating in the ekphrastic tradition.

I insist—in this post, as in life—that we be as expansive as possible in our thinking about what constitutes art. Example: ekphrastic writing may dialogue with a rock opera, a painting, a violin concerto, a capoeira performance, a piece of jewelry, a digital mashup… The real key is that ekphrastic writing is crucially more than description. It is also distinct from art history or criticism. Ekphrasis engages another artwork to enter into creative communion with it; ekphrastic writing is writing that thinks alongside art.

  1. Why teach ekphrasis in Introduction to the Nonfiction Essay?

Ekphrastic approaches are flourishing in the contemporary essay. Off the top of my head, here is an incomplete list of 21st century books of ekphrastic nonfiction:

Visual artworks are central to the project:

  • Terry Tempest Williams, Leap (2000)
  • Michael White, Travels in Vermeer (2015)
  • Jericho Parms, Lost Wax (2016)
  • Mark Doty, Still Life with Oysters and Lemon (2001)

Dialogues with visual artworks less centrally, but significantly and recurrently:

  • Claudia Rankine, Citizen (2014)
  • Maggie Nelson, Bluets (2009)
  • José Orduña, The Weight of Shadows (2016)

Dialogues with nonvisual artworks (namely music):

  • Joni Tevis, The World is on Fire (2015)
  • Mary Cappello, Life Breaks In (2016)
  • Elena Passarello, Let Me Clear My Throat (2012)
  • Geoff Dyer, But Beautiful (1991—okay, not the 21st century, but a favorite)

On to the practical application portion of this post.

The Lesson Sequence, Part One: Reading Orduña

In celebration of Orduña’s contribution to my thinking vocabulary, I assigned “A Civilized Man,” the fifth essay in his 2016 book, The Weight of Shadows.

“A Civilized Man” takes place in a waiting room in the Neal Smith Federal Building in Des Moines, Iowa. Orduña observes a young couple whose attorney might be coaching them for the inhumanity of a Stokes interview, the interview that scrutinizes a couple’s request for immigration relief based on their marriage (thus coldly judging the legitimacy, moral standing, and substance of legal partnership itself). Because they “look like posed figures in a Renaissance painting,” Orduña studies the scene as he would a canvas. Ultimately, Orduña draws from the Venetian painter Andrea Mantegna’s “Adoration of the Magi,” linking contemporary power dynamics to historic consciousness of 1500s Europe. We learn not only about U.S. immigration policy, but also about strange resonances with the Medici Bank, its financing of the Catholic Church, the resulting erosion of absolute monarchy, the rise of trade- and transaction-based power—discovering uneasy echoes with the Department of Homeland Security at every step.

In class, our analysis focused on disentangling one core question: what is the role of the artwork in this essay’s whole assemblage of meanings and effects?

To piece together an answer to this question, I had students track exactly what percent of the text describes “Adoration of the Magi,” what percent of the text teaches context about “Adoration of the Magi,” and what percent of the text explicitly connects “Adoration of the Magi” to the waiting room or to the “present-dayness” of the essay.

Students created a retrospective structure of the essay, and discovered that the bulk of the essay is not about artwork at all. Yet of course the closer they looked, the more tacit connections they discovered. Is it an essay that “just touches” on a Renaissance painting here and there, or is that painting actually woven in between the lines on every page? The latter, of course.

The Lesson Sequence, Part Two: Research and Writing

Second, we took a field trip to the Museum of Art and Archaeology, where students did a good deal of freewriting. They had a few days to expand this initial work and complete a five-hundred word ekphrastic essay responding to any artwork they encountered at the museum. Examples: I read two essays dialoguing with Rembrandt paintings, an essay about an ancient Indian carving of Ganesha, another one taking a work of American Impressionism as muse, and several essays rooted in sculptures and photographs from the museum’s curated exhibit of works by emerging young artists with disabilities.

In the next stage of research exploration, students turned to print and online sources to gather historic research. They found sources on their artists, on the medium (one student learned about the development of acrylic paints, for example; another researched the history of photography), and on the countries/social contexts in which their artworks were created (the student writing about Ganesha, for example, made a valiant effort to scrape the surface of Hindu literary/mythological tradition). Most students came away from this research less satisfied with their initial take on their chosen artwork (which is to say, more curious). Regardless, in a 500-word mini essay, students had to marshal new information and creatively convey the most intriguing things they learned.

Finally, part three of this research exercise required students to have a conversation. They identified a theme/topic in their ekphrastic writing assignment. And they had to think of a person with whom they’d be able to have a lively, 5-10-minute conversation about this theme/topic. Another 500-word mini-essay came out of this exercise.

Ultimately, students assembled their work into longform essays that—via ekphrasis, historic research, and the human voice—explored a range of convictions, questions, memories, and experiences. Students discovered that from the headwaters of their initial required research (mimicking Orduña’s methods of connecting art to life by freewriting in front of an artwork), their thinking had traveled unexpected distances.

Takehome Points

Takehome points from this exercise and discussions emphasized craft strategies and “how-tos” (how to write about art, how to connect art to something else you’re writing about, etc.).

But the literary studies component of this sequence is probably more significant. Students came away with new recognition of a notable trend in the contemporary essay: nonfiction writing about art is flourishing right now. Popular conceptions of nonfiction rarely see past the memoiristic “story of my life” intent on understanding one thing, the “I”—but with ekphrasis, my students experienced an occasion to write that exceeded their individuality. Ultimately, my hope is that they leave the semester seeing the essayist as part of a wider thinking community, someone in conversation with the world in which they’re embedded—and responsible to and for it.

IMG_2234
“Le Badaud” (meaning “the idler” or “the onlooker”). The sculpture is in Sarlat, France, birthplace of Montaigne’s dear friend, Étienne de la Boétie. I am persuaded this idling, onlooking badaud has centuries of essays on the mind as he gazes upon the passing people. The sculpture is by Gérard Auliac.