Tuesday, March 27, 2007

"You make me feel sick, like I have the flu"

Like many a teacher of Brit Lit I, whenever I get to The Faerie Queene I give my students, instead of the usual reading response, the task of writing a single Spenserian stanza.

The reactions when I announce this assignment are mixed: some students just incandesce the moment I start explaining the task. These kids aren't necessarily creative writers and often their poems aren't any better than anyone else's, but something in the assignment sparks their interest--maybe just the prospect of a homework assignment that they consider creative for a change. (At BU I had one student go totally nuts and write a series of TEN Spenserians, all fantastical and allegorical--and although they were damn awkward syntactically, she had the form down cold.)

Others groan, loudly, and give me looks of such bitter hatred that you'd think I'd just told them to come back on Thursday having read all of the remaining five books of The Faerie Queene and written a 10-page paper.

But I keep giving them this assignment and I keep being surprised by what I get. There are always a couple of amazing poems; a couple that make me want to kill myself via a singularly lethal, self-inflicted paper cut--and a whole bunch that are merely dutiful. But in almost all cases this assignment brings out a completely different side of my students: some write deeply and disturbingly personal poems; some are unexpectedly cheeky; virtually all reveal what tin ears they actually have for poetry (their use of meter is, pretty uniformly, abysmal). And beyond the pedagogical utility of the task, I think that this may be why I keep assigning it: just to see what they'll give me.

Here's a summary of what they gave me this time:
One (but only one!) of the standard meta-poems about how much the student hates writing poetry, Spenser, and indeed majoring in English.

Several poems about True Love (found, lost, etc.)

Several poems about God (including one about the poet's having found her own knight of holiness, who revealed himself as "a part of God's omniscient plan")

One entire poem about Black Francis, of the Pixies

"You make me feel sick, like I have the flu"*

"They will go wild and get drunk on vermouth"**

And one totally nutty (but therefore, I think, truly Spenserian) stanza that involved a girl buying an elaborate gold purse; seeing her lover walk by drinking soda pop and leading a goat on a leash; and deciding then and there to escape from his "folds."

*No, this poem was not addressed to me.

**I assume "vermouth" was chosen in order to rhyme with "truth," two lines earlier, but I couldn't resist writing in the margin, "it would take a whole lot of vermouth to get drunk on!"


Dr. Crazy said...

Woohoo! Those crazy kids still love Black Francis!!!! This warms Crazy's Pixies-loving heart :)

And it sure would take a whole lot of vermouth to get drunk on. Maybe instead of "truth" in the earlier line the student might have ended on "frisky" or "win" or "blotch." :)

life_of_a_fool said...

I like giving assignments like this too (not exactly this, as I don't teach literature, Brit or not).

This comment, though, is brilliant: "a couple that make me want to kill myself via a singularly lethal, self-inflicted paper cut." Ha! I know this feeling well. . .

Sisyphus said...

Cool! I've made my students write a sonnet in my intro to lit. class, both as a homework assignment and the whole class collectively. You get such utter, wonderful crap --- but there's nothing like trying to write a poem to really get the idea of meter and just how tough it is to rhyme in a form --- finally they pound their fist on the table trying to find the iambs to fill the line, and they at least get an appreciation for a) how hard it is to write poetry and b) how weird and geeky poets are to love doing this (I compare it to doing crossword puzzles for fun).

Anyway, much rambling by me. Love the results list and just one question: did he actually rhyme anything with Pixies?

kfluff said...

I think I'm going to try to write a haiku about Black Francis today. Maybe you could turn it into a meme, Flavia, and have everyone do a poem to him in their favorite poetic form?

As to Sisyphus' question, I'd probably rhyme "Pixies" with "tricksy." It's approximate, but appropos.

heu mihi said...

That's a great idea. I want to teach Spenser now just so I can use this assignment.

And I see that I'm not alone in having my day absolutely made by the fact that the Pixies haven't receded into utter oblivion.

Pamphilia said...

Yay for the Pixies. I briefly considered playing "Come on Pilgrim" while teaching Romeo and Juliet today, but thought better of it.

Anonymous said...

I love the last one! The gold purse could be chastity or virtue or some such; soda pop is clearly the temptations of the world (unless of course it's Catholic error, which is always my "when in doubt" answer when it comes to Spenserian symbolism), and the goat is lechery. Goats are always lechery. :)

This is a great assignment--I'm still a grad student, but now I want to try something like it, should I ever write a dissertation and get a job...

Anonymous said...

Yay for creative assignments! I love doing this sort of assignment for many of the reasons that Flavia mentioned. Also, assignments such of these are generally somewhat "plagiarism proof" in my experience.
I feel compelled to share a creative assignment I did with my students in their intro to literary studies course. Students did their midterm exam on, among other things, Hwang's play M. Butterfly and for a few points of extra credit, I had them create bumper stickers that encapsulated the main ideas of the play in a creative fashion. For some reason, my students REALLY love this assignment and they always come up with very funny stickers. My favorite from today reads "How Am I Treating Oriental Women? Call 1-800-Like-Objects" If you've read the play, you gotta smile.

Flavia said...

Anon: oh, man. I'm totally stealing that assignment from you--maybe for my Milton class in the fall.

And I'm glad to spread the good news about The Youth of Today and the Pixies (and this kid is most definitely traditional-college age). But alas: I regret to say that he did not attempt to rhyme anything with "Pixies." In fact, the poem was pretty much just about the guy's names (his birthname, Whateverthefuck Thompson; Black Francis, and Frank Black), and how he's the same awesome rocker no matter what name he goes by.

gwoertendyke said...

yes on creativity--last spring semester i had students make a collage rather than write a paper (so they wrote 1 rather than 2)--it was the best decision i ever made. they loved it, really engaged, were wildly hysterical and smart, and were so grateful not to write another dry, academic paper.

and i love your sense of humor, thanks!

Greenwit said...

I'm a bit late on this post, but I just want to ask: what is up with the "I hate poetry and having to think about it" poem I get from at least one student every time I ask my students to write an imitation of Chaucer, or a sonnet, or some such. How did you end up in my Major British Writers from Beowulf to Milton class if you hate poetry so much? And how much easier is it to write a fake General Prologue entry for a contemporary kind of person than to write me 3 pages on estates satire in the 14th century? And, if you do hate the assignment, how bad is your sense of audience that you decide to devote the entire thing to explaining how terrible the assignment is? I've gotten "College is stupid because I have to write this poem" poems, too. The entire process completely corrupted for them by poetry-writing! I suppose I could turn such things into lessons on the kinds of liberties of speech poetic discourse makes possible... but it always backfires on me when I try to turn petulance into pedagogy.