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.

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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.

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“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.

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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.

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“The Times They Are A Changin”: Teaching Bob Dylan, the Nobel Laureate Winner

PALS Note: We are pleased to welcome back Darcy Mullen for her second guest post. Please check out her first post here. This time Mullen is writing about teaching Bob Dylan after his win of the Nobel Prize in Literature. How do you teach Dylan as literature? And how do you and your students react? 

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Nobel Prize in Literature

I don’t know why, but one of the most effective first-year writing classes I’ve ever taught is one that is structured around readings from recent Nobel Laureates in Literature. I have a hunch as to why it works, but I’ll table that for another time. Anyway, in the class we read some research on the politics of the prize, acceptance speeches from the authors, and some of the authors’ works.

I’ve had students do a variety of writing around these materials. We’ve done regular close-reading essays, and research papers, but we’ve also done some pretty awesome stuff. Think alternate endings, building sets of cards for apples to apples, remixes (or “covers”), found poems, short films, maps, graphic novels, a mural, scavenger hunts, video games, and even a computer application (!)… the list goes on. But that’s the basics of the class.

Teaching the class in the fall semester is particularly exciting because I choose to deliberately build in a “To Be Announced” section for the unknown winner of that year. We wait together, and were rewarded this year with the exciting Kazuo Ishiguro! The tagline from the Nobel committee awarded it to him for “who, in novels of great emotional force, has uncovered the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world”. This was a thrill for me because most of my students had heard of him, or even read a book or two of his.

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image via Rolling Stone

But 2016 was a very different year. That was the year Bob Dylan won. To quote the Nobel Prize website, “The Nobel Prize in Literature 2016 was awarded to Bob Dylan ‘for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition’.

My feelings were and still are complicated. I know many of us have strong opinions on Bob Dylan’s win, from the strongly positive to the, well, opposite. First and foremost, my worries went to money. Funding for the humanities is already bleeding. I had visions of boardrooms where major donors say things like:

Well, even the Nobel Prize in Literature went to a hippy rock star. The Humanities are clearly crumbling. Tell University X that we’ll give them enough for a department that includes music, literature, art and all the other stuff. The world is clearly moving in that direction.

End scene with chomp chomp chomping on imaginary cigar. In 2016, when my students and I starting learning, together, about Bob Dylan I tried to bite my tongue about my fears of conserving the humanities. But I didn’t do a very good job of it. It didn’t matter.

Dylan in the Classroom

Many hadn’t ever really listened to Bob Dylan. The ones that did, generally, had happy childhood memories of driving around with a parent with a Bob Dylan tape playing. This tale of nostalgia seems quite widespread. They were surprised by how much his music permeated American film and tv culture.

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In one reflective essay, a student wrote that learning about Bob Dylan taught them a lot about love. I couldn’t really hate that something in my course taught them about love.

When I taught this course this past fall, I spent a lot of prep time really thinking about the phrase “new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” I needed to figure out how Bob Dylan fit into American poetry, and what I would say to the imaginary boardroom about why Bob Dylan would justify funding for literature in the humanities (my own personal problem to imagine).

In addition to teaching the poetic expressions in his music, I had us focus at least half our Bob Dylan-time on his poetry, specifically from Tarantula. Most of the students seemed into the music part (as the assignment was to make me a digital “mix-tape” with a curator’s statement). Poetry—not so much.

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Internet Archive Book Images

Most of the students chose not to do the required reading on the first day of the poetry part of the unit. So, I picked one of the poems (“Unresponsible Black Nite Crash” p. 75) and voluntold a student to read it out loud to us. Then I asked for a volunteer to purposefully read it, out loud, as badly as they could imagine. Then another with the same instructions. Again, and again.

This was not an exercise to shame students into doing the reading for next time. This was because many had noted in their curators’ statements that they couldn’t stand his vocals—some of the worst sounds they ever heard! This was an exercise in the connection between meaning and aesthetics in what we hear.

After half a dozen or so deliberately “bad” readings, they got into it, and started with oral performances that were over the top, screechy, Shatner-esq, mocking the beat stereotype, robotic imitations, poor timing, mispronunciation, and other, well, terrible readings!

Here we hit ten or fifteen readings, and the emotional temperature of the room changed. This same poem, about how the majority of Americans will never have the American Dream, about censorship of the press, about fear fear fear, about operating as a young person under a government that doesn’t fit… Hearing it over and over, in so many voices that were trying to be deliberately funny, or off in some way, became terrifying.

A reader put down the photocopy and said, I think we get it. Someone else said, no, we can go further. Students continued reading, changing the rule. It was like watching a murder of crows take shape. One after another they fell in. They went on to read it louder, sounding choked, sad, alienated or outside of language.

They were coming together and reading angry. THE UNITED STATES IS NOT SOUNDPROOF. They were chewing on the parts that spoke to their lives. BRING IN THE TRUTH. The poem wasn’t a piece of paper, it was an artifact. THE BULLY COMES IN-KICKS THE NEWSBOY. The author wasn’t a poet or musician, he was a fly on the wall.

In discussion afterwards, they made the connection to how this was how they felt about the American Dream. BEND OVER BACKWARDS OR SHUT YOUR MOUTHS FOREVER. That this is why #BlackLivesMatter has to exist. EVERYONE HAS BALLOONS IN THEIR EYES. Why marches and protests were happening all around the country and even on their campus.

THE UNITED STATES IS NOT SOUNDPROOF. They explained that this is why Bob Dylan is relevant today. TRIPPING OVER THE SKULLS. I watched what it fired up in them. I had to agree with what they were feeling.

He is a part of the American Protest tradition. He’s not my favorite or, in my opinion, the most significant. But his music is big. And his poetry activated A Thing that day. I have to imagine that the imaginary board room plaguing my nightmares would have felt The Thing, too.

Protest Literature or Poetic Expressions or …

Many, like Kirby Ferguson in his Ted Talk, “Embrace The Remix,” have pointed out quite clearly that Bob Dylan didn’t do anything new. I don’t think I can embrace the awarding of the prize to Bob Dylan “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition” (emphasis added).

Half of the internets’ literature department were positively tickled that he won, that the prize was pushing our idea of genre boundaries, that this meant doors were opening in how we read, teach, and approach writing. Dylan is rhetorical! This is another way into the oral tradition and Beowulf! The other half saw everything listed before, but as a negative. That the boundaries didn’t deserve to be transgressed. Song lyrics are not literature! And that the prize was going to a white male musician—as if we had run out of white male authors to acknowledge, so now we were onto music!

I fall into the reasoning into at least half of each camp. But neither of them really matter to me, because I am still fixated on what this award will mean to funding for the humanities. I don’t think the prize is going to result in higher donations or endowments for the humanities (Time, prove me wrong!). I don’t think it’s going to change the prize, or change the landscape of contemporary literature. There are amazing people that have been teaching lit/rock for longer than I’ve been driving. It’s not undiscovered country.

Bob Dylan has, like it or not, been canonized by arguably the most prestigious global, literary prize. I can see how now might be a time to include his poetry amongst some of the other American protest-poets. That should happen, only, after we cover Langston Hughes, Sojourner Truth, Maya Angelou, Jericho Brown, Nathaniel Mackey, and about a hundred other poets.

I’ll inevitably teach this class again, but not this Fall (and for reasons I hope to blog about at a later date!). I am still not convinced of the importance, and ultimate efficacy of teaching Dylan as part of the American canon. I’m still not really sure about the role of these “poetic expressions” within the aesthetics and ethics of American traditions, either.

This poem did give students a learning opportunity that hadn’t come from the three previous Nobel Laureates we read. It gave them a different rhetoric for their frustrations. That counts for a lot.

I don’t think I’ll ever really enjoy Dylan’s work, and I’ll probably never think it was a smart (financial) choice for the prize. But it teaches well. I can appreciate that about it, and also rather be teaching Amiri Bakara. In other words, Dylan can totally get the job done for a lot of learning outcomes. But he isn’t the only (or best) way to get there.

Contributor Bio

nullDarcy Mullen is a Postdoctoral Marion L. Brittain Fellow, teaching about food and media literacy at Georgia Institute of Technology. Publications include articles exploring the use of “local” as a tool for mapping food movements, the politics of place in tourism, the Anthropocene, and pedagogy studies. She is currently teaching community engaged courses linking poetics and food systems in urban agriculture. She is currently working on a book project, The Food and Drink of Atlanta. For more about her, visit her website, www.storiesofsoil.com, where she blogs about dirt and its role in everyday life.