Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Assignment: Contemporary LDS Poetry

My students of LDS literature will be sampling contemporary LDS poetry, reading from the recently published anthology, Fire in the Pasture: Twenty-first Century Mormon Poets, edited by Tyler Chadwick.

Now, poetry is a tough sell. It's one thing to experience poetry indirectly, such as via the lyrics of a song. But once you start reading poetry proper, there are problems, the first one being that most people hate poetry.

There, I said it. As a poet, it's hard for me to own that reality. But it is what it is. A small group of literati (typically elitist English major types) love to make and exchange poetry, while the rest of the world seems to get along fine without it.

Well, I'm going to do my best to enliven my students' experiences with LDS poetry. I think they will enjoy it. Here is the procedure for them:

1. Find and read several poems from the anthology
Each student will browse through and read several poems (3-5) from anywhere in the book. They will not cherry pick merely the shortest poems, of course, but look for a range of different types of poems to sample.

2. Read an assigned set of poems
Each student will more thoroughly read the poetry assigned to them (about 17 pages apiece).  These assignments will leave some rough edges, I'm sure, as one is likely only to read a partial set of one poet's set of poems, or it might be that a page range breaks up a poem. But I'm sure my students will manage.

3. Read poetry aloud
Drawing from the set of poems assigned to them individually, the student will read aloud a couple of these, trying to note if this gives better understanding of the poems ideas or a better feeling for its formal and aesthetic qualities

4. Analyze and annotate a poem
Again drawing from their set of assigned poems, the student will analyze one of these, annotating the poem as a way of helping them to identify themes as well as formal qualities  (language, description, imagery, rhythm, rhyme, visual layout, parallelism, repetition, length, voice/tone, dialogue, scene-setting, etc.)

5. Prepare a post
Students will write a post of 300-500 words that is a miniature, personal-analytical essay. Referring to their own experience of reading the poem and how this affected them, they will comment on any LDS themes and they will comment on some aspect of form. Hopefully, they will link these, thus making an essay in which form and content are described in making a personal impression upon the student reader. Their goal is to demonstrate their ability to analyze LDS poetry and to champion or celebrate successful poetical efforts.  To summarize, the blog post must include mention of

  • meaningful formal qualities of the poem
  • Mormon content (LDS belief or culture)
  • personal engagement (emotional impact upon the reader, thoughts prompted by the poem, or some other personal connection)
Include the name of the poem and the poet in the title of the post, and within the body of the post quote at least some lines from the poem. However, not too much of the poem should be quoted at once (probably no more than four or five lines at a time).

This post will be due on Friday, November 14, with comments due before class on Monday, November 17.

Sample post
In this sample post, note how all of the above criteria are met, including formal analysis and directly quoting the poem. This is just the length and approach I'd like my students to use.

Post title: Abrupt Mortality in Clinton Larson's "Seven-Tenths of a Second"

It surprises me that I would end up so fascinated by what is really a rather morbid poem about a car crash. In his "Seven-Tenths of a Second," Clinton Larson essentially narrates, in very slow motion, someone's death as they are crushed inside of a car.
the steering column
Bends vertical, and you, driven and impaled,
Fall inwardly, pulsing blood into your solemn
Lungs. Your head is mantled and assailed
With glass.
Each of the eight four-line stanzas in this poem includes powerful imagery like this, some of which is pretty gory: "...your legs reach straight, / Snap at the knees, leaping short, and shear you / At the groin; off the seat, your torso like a crate / Settles into the dashboard..."). Certainly these concrete details catch attention, and they somehow slow down the pace of the poem in the process. But it isn't just the sad idea of sudden death that disturbs you when reading this poem. Some of it has to do with the narrator speaking to the victim in the second person: "you, driven and impaled," etc. I didn't like identifying so closely with an accident victim. 

This poem made me remember how vulnerable my grown children are in driving on the road every day. My daughter-in-law, before she married my son and while he was on his mission in Africa, was in a serious automobile accident that happened when she fell asleep at the wheel on the freeway. In the hospital, as she was delirious, the nurse patiently picked shards of glass from Mindy's hair. That image Larson uses in that first quote, above, "Your head is mantled and assailed / With glass" reminded me of that experience. A mantle is something religious and purposeful, and shouldn't be associated with violence. It adds to the effect.

I think Larson's poem stops you short, just like the car crash he narrates, and reminds you with sudden force how quickly one's mortality can be over. Mormons are attuned to mortality, but we usually talk of it in slow and even gentle ways as part of a plan. This poem was no plan of salvation narrative. It was a slap in the face: you and those you love could die quickly, ending one's mortal sojourn. It made me swallow hard, and it made me decide to have another "don't drive distracted" chat with my children and spouse.

(397 words)

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