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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Reading the Monster and its Moment

We kicked off our Halloween content last week with Elaina Frulla’s post about teaching Invasion of the Body Snatchers. This week we are pleased to have a comprehensive text on teaching the idea of monsters from Adam Golub. Golub is professor and director of the M.A. program in American Studies at California State University, Fullerton and the  co-editor with Heather Richardson Hayton of Monsters in the Classroom: Essays on Teaching What Scares Us (McFarland, 2017).  In the following post, Golub provides an overview of how he teaches his students to approach the monster in his American Monsters course. 

Introduction

I teach monsters.

I tell people this and sometimes they think I’m talking about my students. Not at all, I assure them.

Golub_978-1-4766-6327-2 I teach about monsters. I teach about zombies and werewolves and witches and vampires and Bigfoot and King Kong and all kinds of imaginary creatures. I teach students how to study and learn from monsters, how to analyze and contextualize monsters. I teach students that monsters change over time, that they adapt to our shifting fears and anxieties, that studying monsters can tell us something about what we desire and what we fear and what we can’t bear to imagine. I teach students that studying monsters can, in fact, reveal something about ourselves—about the ways we’ve chosen to organize, categorize, surveil, repress, and, at times, try to escape who we are. Monsters are us, I tell my students. When we study them, we study ourselves.

I teach a course called “American Monsters” in an American Studies department. The course has an interdisciplinary and historical focus. My overarching goal is to help students understand how monsters embody difference and help construct our ideas about what is “normal.” Moving from the colonial era to the present, we analyze monsters from literature, art, film, folklore, music, television, and comics. We strive to locate these monsters in context, to understand how they connect to the historical era in which they appeared and inspired fear. Every monster has its moment, I remind my students. Our goal is to figure out why this monster, at this time, in this place, and to what end?

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In teaching students how to “read” the monster, I am effectively teaching them a framework for analyzing culture: they must necessarily engage in a close reading of the monster, then contextualize the monster within its broader milieu, and then determine its cultural significance—its cultural work. They must break down the monster into its component parts, situate it in history, and try to figure out what it is doing, to us and for us. I present this framework as a series of questions I encourage students to get into the habit of asking whenever they encounter a new monster, or a familiar monster in a new context.

Deconstructing the Monster

Close reading begins with the monster’s appearance. What does it look like? I tell students to pay attention to size (how big? how small? how proportionate are its body parts?), skin (is it scaly or slimy or translucent or what?), and composition (is it a hybrid, a recombination of things that are typically separate in nature, like a werewolf, or Medusa, or a Sharknado?). In addition, I ask students to consider the monster’s gait, posture, and speed. How does it move? What about its voice, or the sounds it makes? Does it groan, is it eloquent, is it silent, or something else?

Then, we consider the monster’s actions as depicted in the story that is being told. We look at the origin of the monster, its creation or first appearance. We look at the monster’s victims and how it harms them. We look at the hero or heroes who defeat the monster. We also think about the monster’s geography: where it dwells, where it roams. How are these places transformed by the presence of the monster?

Paying attention to the monster’s body, actions, and geography can help us understand how these various elements work together to construct ideas about monstrosity. This, in turn, leads us to analyze the construction of normal. If the monster’s skin is scaly, or hairy, or pale, then what does that tell us about what we consider “normal” skin to be? If a zombie’s lumbering walk is believed to be scary, what does that tell us about our assumptions about mobility? If the film version of Frankenstein groans and talks with simple words, what does that reveal about our ideas about literacy? If King Kong lives on a remote, “uncivilized” island, what does that tell us about how we view nature and savagery? If the monster in a slasher film kills teenagers who are behaving badly, then what does that say about our perception of adolescents?

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These acts of description and analysis—of breaking down the monster and the monstrous into component parts—become the basis for our next move: reading the monster in context.

Reconstructing the Moment

Context, I remind my students, is the big picture. It is the “real” world around the imaginary monster. It is the set of broader cultural currents that give shape to a particular era and help us make sense of the monster. Context helps us understand why and how the monster’s appearance, behavior, and geography all resonate with its moment. What is it about this monster that might have felt familiar to audiences in a given time period? What about it might have shocked? In Monsters in America, Scott Poole makes the point that monsters are “meaning machines that embody the historical structures and trajectory of the American nation” (21). To this end, my students and I work together to figure out what the monster can show us about history.

Frankenstein's_monster_(Boris_Karloff)For example, we analyze the 1931 film Frankenstein—about a created being with an “abnormal” brain that ends up being chased by angry villagers—against the backdrop of eugenics, lynching, and debates about religion and science in the progressive era. When analyzing the first zombie film, White Zombie (1932), which is set in Haiti and features a zombie master who has a workforce of enslaved undead, we talk about the history of slavery and colonialism. When we read Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend (1954), a story about the last man on earth contending with neighbors who have become vampires, we look at the Cold War, segregation, and suburbia. When discussing Charlene Harris’s novel Dead Until Dark (2001) and the HBO Show True Blood, which explore themes of “coming out of the coffin” and “vampire rights,” we talk about LGBTQ social movements and debates about marriage equality in the early 21st century. When reading Max Brooks’s World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War (2006), we locate it in the context of globalization, immigration, loss of faith in institutions, and fears about viral infection.

Context helps us understand how the themes of a monster narrative reverberate with larger issues, fears, and anxieties in the culture. Our close reading of the monster helps us build a bridge to related discourses about the “monstrous” and the “normal” when it comes to science, religion, race, gender, sexuality, immigration, and the body, for instance. And to push it one step further, I always ask students to think about how these discourses are shaped by power relations: to what extent are monsters speaking truth to power by bringing attention to those who have been marginalized, silenced, and victimized by these discourses? Inserting the monster into its moment challenges us to understand both how the monster was shaped by history and how the monster in turn may have influenced the cultural conversation. Monsters, I tell my students, are products of their time, but they are also productive. Monsters are mirrors and makers of culture.

Making Sense of the Monstrous

This brings us to the third interpretive move we practice when reading monsters: trying to determine their cultural work. The concept of “cultural work” suggests that cultural texts are not neutral, they do not exist in a vacuum. Culture, rather, is a dramatic act. Whether it is a monster or a t-shirt, a novel or a statue, a joke or a song or a game or a gesture, culture makes meaning. The products of culture perform important work on the stage of history. They can reinforce dominant ideas or challenge and undermine them. They can serve as the building blocks of our personal, social, and national identity. They can influence how we see, treat, and expect certain things (or don’t expect things) from others and from ourselves. Collectively, culture can work to construct, regulate, and also subvert “normal.” To be sure, the monster is performing cultural work. It’s doing something besides just scaring or entertaining us, and our job is to try to figure out what that work might be. And we make our best educated guess as to the work of the monster by tethering close reading to context.

When I teach students how to read monsters, I am teaching them how to analyze culture—how to interpret expressive forms, their ideological work, and their resonance with audiences across time. Monsters are figments of our imagination, they are texts authored by our fears and desires. As such, they can be read into a historical context and understood as agents in the construction and maintenance of belief systems. To deconstruct monsters is to deconstruct discourse and representation. Figure out what the monster means, and the work it does to sustain, discipline, and disrupt ideas about what is normal and how we should behave, and you’ve learned something about how culture works, I tell my students. You’ve also, I daresay, learned something about yourselves.

Works Cited

W. Scott Poole, Monsters in America: Our Historical Obsession with the Hideous and the Haunted (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2011).

Contributor Bio

Adam Golub is professor and director of the M.A. program in American Studies at California State University, Fullerton, where he teaches courses on literature, popular culture, music, theory and methods, and monsters. He is co-editor, with Heather Richardson Hayton, of Monsters in the Classroom: Essays on Teaching What Scares Us (McFarland, 2017). His writing has appeared in American Quarterly, Hybrid Pedagogy, The Journal of Transnational American Studies, The Society of Americanists Review, Quarterly Horse, and elsewhere. He also writes fiction and is developing a new course on creative work in American Studies. He received his Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Texas at Austin, M.A.T. in English from Boston College, and B.A. in English from Vassar College. His academic and creative work can be found at everydayfictions.com and he is on Twitter @adamgolub.