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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It’s Mailer Time: Switching Gears in Course Planning

Currently I’m teaching a general curriculum writing course loosely focused on the idea of the early American city. The course features Hamilton, Charles Brockden Brown’s Ormond, and the anthology, The Citizen Poets of Boston. This semester I’ve found teaching a struggle. All these texts are teachable. I think they work. Still, it is hard. Again, it isn’t the texts themselves, or the editions I used, or the students.

At the Core

Teaching in a core curriculum is difficult because there is much stacked against the courses. Students often see these courses as a roadblock to their “real” classes, a hoop that has to be jumped through, or something disconnected from the “college experience.” I do not fault students for thinking this way. It is a rational response to the messaging of colleges and universities, home departments, advisors, and other factors that contribute to marginalizing these classes. I’ve addressed this marginalization in class. I’ve owned it. I’ve designed classes that react and respond to this reality. Still, it is hard.

My courses have focused on early American literature because it is what I know. It is what I have taught. I don’t like to assign what I haven’t taught before. Teaching early American texts is hard, especially in a writing class were one is tasked to do so much already. Caitlin Kelly, in a recent PALS post, discussed how courses focused on early American literature necessitate a multi-pronged approach of teaching to meet the course goals/purpose, teaching content, and teaching what amounts to a history class in order for the course to make sense to students. I found this semester that these factors combine are a tough row to hoe. For me, the tipping point was the constant use of class time to define words and to walk through passages of the text because students found the reading difficult. I purposefully selected texts that were student friendly and provided extensive annotations. I looked for teachable moments. We discussed the difficulties of reading anything and how to push through. We also covered approaches to reading and annotation, along with the importance of using a dictionary. Again, we stressed reading is hard, it takes work, but it does get easier. I don’t think it worked.

Reading is Hard; Teaching is Hard
Inspiring students to buy into the readings is difficult. In a recent post, Shelli Homer addressed the problem of not reading. I’ve taken many of the same approaches advocated by Shelli. Still, navigating the carrot and stick approach is difficult.  The carrot makes the class seem easy, which can translate as the class is not important. The stick often translates as the class is too hard, and, of course, these general curriculum classes should not be hard. Or so they say. Additionally, I found that giving reading quizzes has become an exercise in point gathering; they don’t contribute to learning. I’ve found that students are freaking out about the quizzes. That isn’t learning. I don’t like giving them or grading them. Plus, they take up a great deal of time in class. I’ve relied on great advice; I’ve borrowed from The Pocket Instructor. Still, I’m beaten down by the extensive work required to make these classes work.

A Solution?
I’m tired. I’m beat. I don’t want to fight this struggle anymore. I’m ready to try some new things. I’m ready to teach some contemporary literature.

Umm… I don’t really read contemporary literature.

Most folks I know don’t teach a lot of early American literature in core classes. A lot of modern stuff is outside of my wheelhouse. Granted, folks teaching more modern stuff aren’t always teaching in their area, but they are teaching things they read. They’re teaching things they like. The thing is… I don’t read those things. I’ve rarely read contemporary literature. I’ve rarely read fiction. Perhaps you wonder why I went down this career path. Eh, same.

 

bed time reading
Sometimes I pretend I’m Henry Rollins and I go to sleep surrounded by my books.

I rarely find reading literature fun anymore. I used to read a lot non-fiction for fun. I find reading to be a chore. How do I relax and unwind? I play videogames. I’ve played so much Skyrim that it is embarrassing. When I do read I mostly read cookbooks. I like the short entries, I like the narrative element to some of them, and I like looking at the pictures. As of late, when I’m not reading cookbooks, I’m reading books on ancient Egypt. I’ve been reading a great book on animal mummies. I’ve also been dabbling in a wonderful edition of the Book of the Dead. Sadly (or fortunately), I can’t teach those things.

Expertise is a Hell of Drug
When I taught my Founders class last fall the most important thing I noticed was the feeling of wow, I know what I’m doing. I know what I’m talking about. Isn’t it amazing to teaching something in your research area? Isn’t it neat to teach a class with course goals and outcomes you designed? It was easy for me to generate lecture notes and answer student questions. I drew on all my course work, my comps, and my own research. I was teaching what I knew. I liked that feeling. I want that in my revamped classes, too. But I want a break from early American literature. I’m here to teach writing, but trying to get early American lit to work is taking away from the important writing instruction that I need to do.

Early American Women Writers… to Norman Mailer?
If you looked at my PhD comps list, my dissertation, my current research, and my recent classes, then you wouldn’t think I’d be a person to kick around building a course around Norman Mailer.

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I, a person that wrote a dissertation on Harriet Beecher Stowe, have actually taught the works or Mailer more times than I’ve taught works by Stowe. For me, teaching Mailer isn’t a quirk, an oddity, or whimsy. I know Mailer. I’ve read Mailer. My move towards Mailer reflects the precarious nature of the work many of us do in the classroom. Nearly all of the courses I’ve taught have been in the service of general education or core curricula. I’m tired. I’m burning out teaching in my area of research and expertise. Not that I teach my research, but I like teaching in my area because I do know it. Expertise is a hell of a drug when it comes to course prep and planning. Sure, I could teach Charlotte Temple, I know it works, but I’m tired of teaching Charlotte Temple. Blasphemy.

I’ve read Mailer. I’ve thought a lot about Mailer. And, most importantly, I’ve taught Mailer before. I want that feeling of expertise without the extra struggle of making early America work. I want something that is accessible for students. If a variety of systems conspire to make the work we do difficult, then I also want an author that will help students turn a critical eye towards that system, especially our contemporary systems. I want someone that frees me up to get back to the writing instruction.

You’re Wondering Why Mailer? Maybe…
I took a senior seminar on Mailer during my last year at Wilkes University. The course was taught by Mailer’s archivist and biographer, J. Michael Lennon. We read a lot of Mailer during the course. We also read a lot of literary criticism.  The highlight of the course was working on an edition of Mailer’s letters connected to his novel, An American Dream. Back in the day colleges didn’t use buzzwords like undergraduate research, but that is what it was. I loved it. In many ways the course set the standards for what I expected literary study and research to be like. Plus, I had the opportunity to take a course with someone that to this day remains a great mentor and source of encouragement. I’ve continued to read and think about Mailer. I often find myself wondering what Mailer would think about our current political moment. Maybe I’m primed for this move because Mailer’s been on my mind.

The Core of The Course
Granted, were talking about courses for the next few semesters, but this is what I’m envisioning at this point. The course will center itself around the 1960s. The departure point is inspired by Mailer’s An American Dream. The idea of the American Dream will be a key point of consideration throughout the course. We’ll fudge the course requirement for a unit on drama by including the first season of Mad Men. Granted, that isn’t starting with Mailer, but the inspiration is An American Dream. We’ll open with the beginning episodes of Mad Men. A few selected episodes will be sprinkled throughout the semester. Our first major reading will be An American Dream. In the beginning of the course we’ll consider topics like the idea of the American Dream, masculinity, gender, and related topics.

After setting our initial groundwork, we’ll move into An American Dream. Mailer’s novel will dovetail nicely with our opening unit on Mad Men. I imagine students will appreciate having seen a version of the time period and then reading about it. After talking with students this semester, I’m getting the sense that immediacy is something they value. There is something comfortable there for them. It isn’t just about vague ideas of relatability; there is something more that we often dismiss. I find the idea of pairing An American Dream with Mad Men appealing because it ties together neatly. There will be a synergy there, but more importantly it will set up well for our first few writing assignments.

an american dream
Artsy

Mailer’s An American Dream first appeared serially in Esquire. It will be worthwhile for students to consider the cultural context of the novel appearing in a magazine that was an important part of American culture during the period. Mad Men and An American Dream go together in terms of themes, but considering An American Dream in the context of Esquire will allow us also to consider the surrounding text, specifically the advertisements. Mad Men, after all, is a show about the heyday of advertising firms. I own several issues of Esquire with the chapters from Mailer’s serialized version of An American Dream. My plan is to provide students with images of the advertisements found within these issues. These advertisements will provide the central component of our first writing assignment: the traditional advertisement analysis, but with a Mad Men and Mailer twist.

At this point, I’m considering including other Mailer writings in the course. We’ll take a look at few of the essays from The Presidential Papers, which will tie in with the Mad Men episodes touching on the election of 1960. I’m considering closing the course with Mailer’s Why Are We in Vietnam?. Since this is a writing class we’ll also read The Spooky Art, Mailer’s book on writing.

Yes, that is a lot of Mailer, but this is a starting framework for courses that are coming in the future. I need to flesh it out. I need to add additional voices to the conversation, especially voices that challenge the dominant threads of the conversation that the course sets up. That will come with time and thinking more about the course. Still, I’m excited about this new direction.

More importantly—I’m relieved to draw on my own expertise.