On the Importance of Repetition in Poetry: Robert Hayden and Drake

PALS is pleased to welcome a guest post by Alex Bernstein a poet, teacher, and editor in New York City. Please find below Bernstein’s descriptions of how he made Robert Hayden’s poetry more accessible through Drake. 

Poetry is a great medium for teaching students close reading skills. Usually, when introducing poetry to students who have never enjoyed reading at all, I say that poems are meant to be difficult because they are designed expressly to reanimate and reactivate the language we already know. This disclaimer often leads to relief: if you use language, I say, in any way on a daily basis, you can actively read poetry. The poet and teacher, Matthew Zapruder, says in his collection of essays, Why Poetry (2017), “the true difficulty—and reward—of poetry is in reading what is actually on the page carefully” (18). For me, the “reward” of poetry in the classroom is seeing how attention and concentration to what’s “on the page” lead students to glimmers of actuality, the paradox and complexity and uncertainty, that lies behind the way we usually perceive the world. This often means that students must confront their own personal histories, come to understand themselves within a larger social context, and see their lives in the reflection of a deep engagement with words. However, everything begins on the page, and if I can get students through the doors of their own attention, then all the learning objectives for a particular unit seem to fall into place: critical thinking; close, active reading; and comprehension of rhetorical devices.

So, how to get students to pay attention? In the lesson that follows, I outline how to teach close reading skills to students who have no formal experience with poetry by emphasizing the importance of looking for patterns of repetition. I work partly with what I’ve called, The Method, a series of list making procedures which ask students to select and analyze key repetitions—sounds, words, and syntax—in Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays” and Drake’s “Nice for What.” When I first mentioned this lesson plan to some of my colleagues, they were excited, I think, by the possibility of pairing Hayden with Drake. Ultimately, I wanted a way of getting my students’ attention, and we were all still listening to Drake’s new album Scorpion (2018). I knew I wanted to discuss the importance of repetition in poetry and to tie in Drake somehow. I immediately thought of Hayden’s lines, “What did I know, what did I know / of love’s austere and lonely offices.” However, the class discussion of Hayden and Drake really developed what, at the outset, felt like a hunch into an insightful and meaningful learning experience for me and my students.

On the Importance of Repetition

I’m always thinking about repetition in relation to the poems I’m reading and teaching. Repetition forms the building blocks of rhythm and of the larger fabric of associations that make up a poem’s spirit and architecture. It’s a pattern-building, mnemonic process which is always going on and instinctively informs the movement from attention to pleasure which is the joy of both reading closely and thinking about daily habits beyond language. Making my students aware of how daily experiences touch in us certain patterns and rhythms is important to setting the tone for our conversation about Hayden and Drake. I begin the lesson by discussing with students how repetition informs our everyday lives—walking through the front door of our homes, waking up in order to get to work on time, the evening sunset. I ask them to free write—in list form—for 7-10 minutes about the kinds of objects, people, and activities they return to on a regular basis. As most of my students are aspiring nurses already working in hospitals, we spend a lot of the time discussing how caring for people in clinical settings often means returning to them: managing prescriptions, performing tests, adhering to feeding schedules, etc. The discussion also returns to picking up children from school, which, for parents who are also students, often means managing time effectively. The larger theme which emerges out of our discussion is that repetition builds a sense of security into our daily lives: the comfort of healthy patients, the welfare of a child’s safety. Although they might seem mundane, the commonplace acts of repetition we inhabit regularly have about them a metrical quality. They ensure the completion of tasks and build and relieve worthwhile tensions. They compel a kind of lyric attention, of memory and inspiration, and ask us to return to people and to things, giving us a larger sense of connectedness. This is what poems do, I tell my students. They ask us, quite literally and line by line, to return with our attention to words, to people, and to things.

Robert Hayden and “Those Winter Sundays”

I then hand out to students a one-sheet called, “Close Reading and Interpretive Claims,” or The Method: a step-by-step approach to breaking down texts, objects, and images. The lesson on Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays” and Drake’s “Nice for What” focuses only on step 1: locate and list exact repetitions. Twice we read Hayden’s poem aloud as a class and discuss our initial observations. For students who don’t have much experience reading poetry, a good entry into any poem is listening to its sounds. We make a list on the whiteboard of all the repeating sounds: blueblack, cracked, ached, weekday, banked, thanked, wake, breaking, call, chronic. We notice the hard, percussive K sounds are repeated 10 times. We then move on to listing exact repetitions of words and phrases:

Sunday (x2)

cold (x3)

What did I know (x2)

him/his/he’d (x4)

The act of making lists, I tell my students, is an act of discernment. By identifying these repetitions as a class, we are implicitly making interpretations about the poem together. For instance, the repetition of cold three times, we notice, immediately makes apparent its opposite, fire, which is only ever mapped out according to its equivalents: blaze and warm. At this point, we haven’t yet begun to speak about the relationship between the poet and his father. We are charting the language and learning how to read the poem according to its sounds and melody. One student points out that the hard, percussive K sounds are Hayden’s way of implicating the harsher elements of winter, a season that, when put up against the poem’s motif of fire, sets the tone of reconciliation. We conclude that, in the poem’s main repetition—“What did I know, what did I know…?”—Hayden discovers the harmony of sound that embodies the poem’s spirit of admiration towards his father.

Drake and “Nice for What”

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One reason Hayden’s “Those Winter Sunday’s” pairs well with Drake’s “Nice for What” is because both use repetition as a device for layering and harmonizing different textures of sound. Drake’s song meanders, whereas Hayden’s poem is formally tighter and more discrete. However, both Hayden and Drake use repetition to chart out melodies which suggest admiration and reconciliation toward their respective traditions. As a class, we read the lyrics and watch the music video for “Nice for What.” It’s easy to get lost in the verses’ maze of sound-play, so I focus the discussion on Drake’s chorus, which is a remix of Lauren Hill’s “Ex Factor”:

Care for me, care for me, I know you care for me

There for me, there for me, said you’d be there for me

Cry for me, cry for me, you said you’d die for me

Give to me, give to me, why won’t you live for me?

On the white board, we make a list of exact repetitions: for me (x10), care (x3), there (x3), cry (x2), give (x2). We also point out the different rhymes in the chorus: care and there; cry and die; give and live. One student notices the coiling effect the chorus has throughout the song, as if, she says, Lauren Hill is an omnipresent force looped in and out of Drake’s verses. I also want the music video to be as much a part of our discussion as the lyrics are. Another student points out how Drake’s decision to remain on the side-lines for most of the video empowers the 20 iconoclast women (such as Misty Copeland, Rashida Jones, and Issa Rae) who are the reoccurring centerpieces of the video. Many of the students know well Hill’s “Ex Factor” from her debut album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998), and they are quick to point out how the combination of powerful iconoclast women and the looping remix of Lauren Hill makes Drake more than just a “male cheerleader”; the thoughtfulness and savvy of the video actually feels sincere, one student says. Like Hayden, Drake’s remix of Hill’s “Ex Factor” is percussive and hymnic. However, one of my students points out, where Hayden is subtle, Drake announces his intentions like an anthem.

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It is a myth that, in order to understand poems, one must always know what is going on. If you have never closely read a poem, you are drawn first to the repetitions and textures of sound, then you begin to discover the narrative elements. Following those initial intuitions of sound and texture is actually how students begin to form personal relationships with poems, a kind of research that makes students into lifelong readers. The acts of breaking apart, of counting, and of listing patterns of repetition as a class gave my students a system and a practice for discovering the larger associative frameworks which were the hearts of the poems they were assigned, and when it came time to write their compare and contrast essays, they used the skills learned from our class discussions to develop the conversation in ways that felt very personal. In the lesson on Hayden and Drake, more than anything else, I wanted students to feel themselves thinking, to feel the pressures and tensions of making leaps and following language and sound associatively, and, in turn, to feel the joy of surprise and discovery in the act of reading literally. What students ended up with was rich, clever perspectives about how repetition informs creativity and how creativity informs their lives.

* Zapruder, Matthew. Why Poetry. New York, NY: Harper Collins, 2017.

Bio:

Alex Bernstein is a poet, teacher, and editor living in New York City. A recent graduate of Columbia University’s MFA program, he is an adjunct English professor and director of the writing center at Mildred Elley college. His prose and poems have been published or are forthcoming in The Adirondack Review, The New England Review, Bellevue Literary Review, The West 4th Street Review, and elsewhere.

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Mapping Don DeLillo’s White Noise

PALS is very happy to welcome Katie Fitzpatrick back to the blog. Her first post can be found here. Fitzpatrick currently works at the Coordinated Arts Program in the University of British Columbia. The following post describes a mapping classroom activity where students reacted to passages from Don DeLillo’s White Noise.


After reading
the first third of Don DeLillo’s novel White Noise, my students asked me if there would ever be a plot, if anything would ever happen. While reading Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, the class had worried about Offred’s fate in the Commander’s house. While reading Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, they had wondered about the dark mysteries underlying Hailsham’s idyllic appearance. Now, they were intrigued by the strange conversations in White Noise, but they couldn’t begin to guess where it was all headed. I explained that there would, eventually, be a plot (DeLillo observes that “all plots tend to move deathward” and a gun appears in the third act), but that I had chosen the book for a rather different reason.

White Noise is a novel that I like to teach in first-year literature courses because it addresses so many Big Ideas – from death and religion, to consumerism and the media – both explicitly and elliptically. It is clear from the get-go that DeLillo is trying to express something profound but it’s never immediately clear what. For this reason, the book provides ideal practice for first-year English students who are just learning how to trace a Big Idea across a text.

This year, I am teaching a 6-credit, full-year course (ASTU 100) in the University of British Columbia’s “Coordinated Arts Program.” The course (capped at 25) provides first-year students with 3 credits of university writing and 3 credits of introductory literary studies. At the point in the semester when I assigned DeLillo, my students were preparing to write a research essay that asked them to trace how an abstract concept is elaborated or challenged across a literary work (with the help of four scholarly sources). I told them that reading White Noise would help them to develop the skills necessary for that assignment; in reading DeLillo, I explained, I didn’t want them to follow a plot so much as an idea.

When reading Never Let Me Go and The Handmaid’s Tale, our class had focused both on very large issues (narrative style, plot, and character) and on very narrow close-readings of individual sentences and passages. Now, I explained, it was time to read between and across scenes – to note repeated themes or motifs, to consider how different passages echoed or contradicted one another. When I expressed that I wanted students to practice “tracing connections between passages” one asked (I’m paraphrasing): “Can we make a map like a conspiracy theorist with all the passages?” She used some hand gestures to paint the picture; she was imagining the chaotic walls of sticky notes and long-lens photos and red yarn and scrap paper often depicted in crime procedurals and conspiracy thrillers. This struck me as perfect. “Yes,” I said, “Let me think about it.”

The next week, I came to class prepared to run this activity. I selected and printed nine key passages from the first half of White Noise (we hadn’t finished reading it yet). Some were passages we had already discussed or close-read in class, others were new. I also brought nine magnets from home, so I could “pin” the passages to the magnetic whiteboard, which would serve as our “conspiracy map.” Next, I set out a number of supplies on tables near the whiteboard. I placed extra copies of each key passage around the tables, so students wouldn’t have to wait in line to read a passage on the whiteboard. I also put out whiteboard markers, pens, and sticky notes. I had purchased a multi-colored pack of sticky notes, and I assigned the colors to five key themes that I saw echoed in several of the passages: death, religion, consumerism, the crowd, and the simulacrum. Lastly, I displayed the instructions for the activity on a slide, projected at the opposite side of the room.

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When class began, I instructed students to move around the tables and the whiteboard, eventually reading all nine passages. I encouraged them to note their responses and observations in several ways: 1. If they noticed a particular theme in a passage (say, consumerism) they could simply post a sticky note of that color on or near that passage 2. They were encouraged to also write an annotation on the sticky note (in pen). These annotations could explain how/where they saw the theme in the passage, note other observations, pose questions, or answer questions previously posed by others. 3. If they noticed a theme or idea expressed across two passages, they were encouraged to use whiteboard markers to draw a connecting line/arrow and to describe the connections they saw.

Students spent about 30-35 minutes on the activity, and remained focused and engaged the entire time. At first, they were very quiet; they silently read passages and tentatively added sticky notes and comments. As the activity continued, they became more animated and confident, commenting on the increasingly chaotic appearance of the board and on their peers’ observations. When the board was completed, I allowed them to take notes or photos (in a reference to the novel’s “Most Photographed Barn,” they dubbed it the “Most Photographed Board”), and then reconvened class for a wrap-up discussion.

During the discussion, I asked students to share any connections they had found especially surprising or interesting. I also asked them how this activity had changed their understanding of the character of Murray (three of the nine key passages I selected were his speeches). Our “conspiracy map” had helped students to perceive some continuity in Murray’s seemingly random observations, particularly when counter-posed to quotes from the novel’s protagonist, Jack Gladney. Overall, they could now see that Jack tended to take a pessimistic attitude toward crowds and consumerism, while Murray tended to take an optimistic view. I asked them to consider whether DeLillo (or, if you prefer, the text) was giving more credence to one outlook or the other, if one was more obviously satirical or exaggerated. Lastly, I gave students a short homework activity: they had to write a paragraph about two of the passages and one idea connecting them, considering whether the two passages treated that idea in similar or different ways.

Because I teach two sections of the same course back-to-back, I was able to run this activity twice in a row. It was interesting to note how the “conspiracy maps” in the two classes differed. The color-coded sticky notes allowed me to quickly perceive the main themes each class had identified. For example, one class had marked a scene where Babette (Jack Gladney’s wife) appears on television with yellow sticky-notes (religion) and pink ones (the simulacrum), while several students in the other class had marked the same passage with blue sticky-notes (death). I also observed that one class tended to identify surprising new themes with a single word (“UFOS,” “disease,” “academia”), while the other class used the whiteboard markers to offer more elaborate responses to my pre-identified themes (“both Murray and Jack seem to be constantly thinking about death but Murray seems to have confidently accepted it because he can articulate it so well”).

Teaching the activity twice also allowed me to make changes from one group to the next. At first, I assumed the activity would take all of my 50 minute class. When students finished after 35 minutes, then, we were all a little unprepared for the wrap-up discussion, and it started off slow. By the time the second group arrived,  however, I was more prepared. I told that group I would later be asking them to share a connection they found especially interesting or surprising; thanks to that simple warning, they were ready for the discussion, which got going faster. Meanwhile, I had developed our conversation about Murray spontaneously with the first group, but posed questions about him more deliberately with the second. If you replicate this activity in your own class, I recommend planning out your wrap-up discussion more than I did (and I’d be curious to hear what you come up with!).

Overall, however, I would describe the activity as highly successful. It was fun, creative, and thought-provoking. It also got students interacting with the text, one another, and the classroom in new ways, thus echoing some of the “active learning” strategies I learned from Cathy Kim and Linda McGuire while teaching at Muhlenberg College last year. Moreover, because the idea was generated by a student, it demonstrated my willingness to adapt the course in response to their input. Most importantly, students practiced tracing connections between and across passages – both during the activity itself and in the related homework assignment. This is a skill that proved very useful when it came time to design and execute their final essays (which they are drafting as of is this writing). While not every student is writing on White Noise, those that are have developed their own twists on topics covered in the “conspiracy map,”  analyzing masculinity & consumerism, for example, or academic & popular ways of knowing.

Lastly, the “conspiracy map” helped students to see White Noise as a novel less concerned with the unfolding of a plot and more concerned with the working through of ideas. Eventually, Jack Gladney becomes embroiled in the plottiest plot – attempting to kill his wife’s lover – but by the time students reached that section, they saw it as embedded within a larger, more intricate network of ideas. As a result, we were all able to read Jack’s discussion with the disbelieving nuns as the novel’s true climax – the moment when the concepts we were tracing (religion, death, the simulacrum) achieved their most complex inter-articulation. Ultimately, the activity helped us all to perceive what “happens,” or fails to, in White Noise.

Bio:

Katie Fitzpatrick teaches in the Coordinated Arts Program at the University of British Columbia. Next year, she will be joining UBC’s “Arts Studies in Research & Writing” program as a Lecturer. Dr. Fitzpatrick also works as an Editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books, and her writing has appeared in both public and scholarly venues, including The Nation, Aeon Magazine, The Chronicle Review, Twentieth-Century Literature, and Post45.