Nov 01

Diary of a VAP week 11: grammar and poetry

I give reading quizzes in my classes, at least those classes that consist mostly of freshman and sophomores, or survey classes where part of the point is to read widely. Quizzes provide students with an incentive to do the reading, and they give me a sense of how manageable it is, and what parts of the text students struggle with. They are designed to be easy: I consider it a successful quiz if most people get 100%, but maybe a couple get 20% or less, with few or none in between; over the semester the class average is like 95%. A quiz tells me very quickly who read, and who didn’t. Based on midterm evaluations, past classes, and informal conversations, students seem to like the quizzes, which reward them for doing the reading and give them some sense of the important parts of the texts.

I always find it hard, though, to give a quiz on poetry. Some poems have details I feel comfortable expecting students to know: how does the duchess appear in Browning’s “My Last Duchess” (in a painting)? Who cuts Belinda’s hair in The Rape of the Lock? Why is the lime-tree bower a “prison” for Coleridge? Students who have read the poems should know these details, and I’ll often make the questions multiple choice.

But when we read several poems for a class, students understandably struggle to keep them straight — discussion helps, but I give the quizzes at the beginning of class, before they’ve had that benefit. If we read, say, “Childe Roland,” “Dover Beach,” “Goblin Market,” and “The Lady of Shallot” all at once, it’s not surprising if a student can’t remember which of those poems had the mirror in it, and which had the creepy horse skeleton.

So how to give a quiz during parts of the syllabus when we’re reading mostly poetry? One solution is to not — to wait for days when we’ve read a novel, or at least a narrative poem. But I’ve also tried another solution: providing a passage and asking an easy question about it. A question like, “what is the grammatical subject of this verb?”

Except, these turn out to be the hardest questions. Here are some examples I’ve given (the verbs in bold are the ones for which I ask students to give the subjects, here underlined):

Listen! You hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.
— Arnold, “Dover Beach”

So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round:
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.
— Coleridge, “Kubla Kahn” [I gave students the hint that this is passive voice, and that girdle means surround]

Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough
Gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.
— Tennyson, “Ulysses”

                                                  I repeat,
The Count your master’s known munificence
Is ample warrant that no just pretence
Of mine for dowry will be disallowed.
— Browning, “My Last Duchess”

These aren’t the easiest sentences — that’s kind of the point. But I’m consistently surprised that these questions have a lower success rate. Since it’s my job to teach, not just to lament that students can’t do something, we’ve been working on this skill. In the Arnold poem, lots of students said “waves.” So we worked on crossing a line through the prepositional phrase, which helps. And we talked about making sense: waves do not really “begin.” The Browning example seemed a problem of vocabulary: they didn’t know what “munificence” or “warrant” meant. So, we talked about parts of speech, and about using a dictionary.

One thing I’ve definitely learned the past couple semesters, is that teaching poetry requires teaching grammar (even more than teaching writing requires teaching grammar). Students are sometimes better at writing sentences with subjects and verbs than they are at reading them.

Do you teach poetry in your classes? Or do you teach grammar as part of reading? How do you do so?