Frame and Focus: getting poems in the picture

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Take a photo of your class quickly using an ipad camera.  The image will most likely have some problems: not everyone will be in the frame; not everyone will be in focus.  Take a second photo of the class and take the time for the ipad camera to find its focus and for you to ensure that all students are in the frame.  The resulting photograph will undoubtedly be better. You will be able to zoom in on the detail of a student’s facial expression to interpret their mood from their expression, or zoom out to interpret the mood of the class as a whole.

Now take this theory (which involves giving time to the subject matter and the skill) and apply it to unseen poetry analysis.

Focus: You need to know what the poem is about or what happens in it.  This is the subject matter of the poem – the bit that you need to lock onto and get an idea of.  Extract these details (make some notes) and have a think about them as you re-read the poem.   Sometimes taking them out of the poem and making a little list will enable you to make connections between them more easily than searching for them each time in the poem as you read through it.

Frame: Make sure you have the whole poem in your sights.  Your analysis should have breadth.  Ignoring parts of the poem because they don’t immediately make sense is an unwise decision.  It is more than likely these parts hold the key to unlocking some of the complexity of the poem and the poet’s message.  Think back to poems we have done in class: they often begin with the easier, concrete details and move into figurative language which deals with more abstract, complex ideas.

Zoom in: this is what you do when you look at the little details in a poem; turns of phrase; word choices; similes, metaphors, personification, repetition, sibilance, alliteration, assonance, ellipsis, end-stopped lines, caesura, enjambement, rhyme, rhythm (the list goes on).  You job is not to ‘spot the device’; your job is to take a closer look at the language and explain its intended effect.  We zoom in to find evidence to support our interpretation of a poem.  Once you have these quotations, use these questions to get to word-level analysis:

  • What does this suggest?
  • What does the speaker (or writer) think or feel about this?
  • what does the author want us to think or feel about this?
  • Are there any other instances in the poem that link to this idea?

Zoom out: this is what you do when you try to identify the ‘big ideas‘ in a poem.  These could be things like beauty, identity, loneliness, love, power, relationships (between whom?), one’s past, one’s sense of self, evil, honesty etc.  There are so many you couldn’t imagine them all.  Reading the poem,  you should get a feel for the ‘big idea/s’.  Re-read the poem and look for clues to support your theory.  The clues to these big abstract things are in the concrete details in the poem.  To zoom even further out, you need to get to this big question:

What is the author suggesting about [the big idea] and what this suggests about what it means to be human?  Yes, it’s a wide zoom out but you’re only going this far because you have all the evidence there in the detailed zoom in.

So the secret is to READ.  Relax and RE-READ.  This is where diffuse thinking is important.  Your first idea or theory (‘it’s all about cancer’) may not have enough evidence to be supported.  You need to be open to variations on a theme.  The poem may well be about adversity, relationships and facing the idea of death but these themes could feature in a poem about exams as much as one about illness.  You don’t have to come up with a concrete answer or harebrained theory.

Test your thinking by re-reading the text.

Take the time for the poem to come into focus. You won’t be able to do this kind of thorough thinking about each of the three poems you have to choose from in the exam, so make a decision in reading time and choose the one that seems clearest to you.  Use your WIG:WIDGY ratio to determine the one which you ‘get’ the most.

How does this look when you start thinking about a poem?  Read Gerald Manley Hopkins’s poem God’s Grandeur and then look at the notes I have made on the focus and frame sheet which helps me to remember the zoom in (little details) and the zoom out (big ideas) of the analytical thought process.

God’s Grandeur in the frame

Then, the question is how to write this top-class thinking up?

You will use a traditional text essay structure and write in a formal register.  No-one wants to hear an account of how you felt when you were reading the poem (none of this kind of unedifying drivel: “At first I thought this but then I thought that.” Save it for your diary, kiddo.)  Instead you will have an introduction, body paragraphs and a conclusion.  You will write in the present tense; despite the fact that you poet may be deceased, he or she lives on in the poem they have written.

INTRODUCTION:

Remember that this is the ‘sucker punch‘ of your essay.  It knocks out the examiner with its insight and clarity.  The examiner should be left a little breathless, if you will.  It’s show-what-you-know time before you step them through how you got there.  This is no time for treading-water-while-I-think writing which shows zero understanding of the poem in question (e.g.”There are lots of different themes in this poem and using many different poetic devices the poet presents a powerful message.” Garbage.)  This is also no time for withholding information like a whodunnit novel or for teasing the examiner with an elaborate dance of the seven veils.  This is sucker punch time: OOF!

An introduction should signpost:

  • the poem and poet
  • the focus of the poem
  • the poet’s message (your big idea about their big idea/s)
  • the speaker of the poem’s views and values (explaining the big idea might get you here)

BODY PARAGRAPHS:

Use your common sense here and take your cues from the poem and its subject matter.  Your body paragraphs can follow:

  • the poem’s ‘big ideas’
  • the stages (or stanzas) of the poem
  • the poem’s focus (subject matter) and how we are positioned to view it

A body paragraph should:

  • have a strong topic sentence which shows understanding of the poem/poet’s purpose and message (your big idea about their big idea)
  • present evidence (quotations) of the way the audience is positioned to view these things
  • draw our attention to the complexity of the poem: its use of technique or its presentation of an idea
  • make observations of the language and structure
  • link structure and language to the way an idea is being presented and how that links to the ideas presented in the poem as a whole
  • draw connections across the text: compare and contrast and connect
  • draw connections between the focus of the poem, the big ideas and the little details
  • provide a nuanced interpretation.  Avoid the oversimplification of the poem-in-a-nutshell approach:

e.g. ‘This poem is all about love.’  [Mic drop]

Instead, look closely at the ideas presented and show a refinement of understanding:

e.g. ‘This poem is a celebration of the precious nature of love between siblings and at the same time a warning of how the loss of a parent can compromise that bond.’

  • get the poetic devices terminology right (don’t misuse a term)
  • avoid praise and criticism (this is really about ascertaining what the poem/poet sets out to do, not how well they do it)
  • avoid personal journey language or vague expressions that tell the reader nothing of your understanding (“I really liked this – it makes the poem flow better and provides a deeper understanding”)

CONCLUSION:

You should come back to the poem’s message in light of the evidence you have presented.  You can look at the big picture here too – what the poem suggests about [the big idea] and what it means to be human.

 

 

 

Essays: not as easy as ABC, 123

Sure, Michael Jackson and his brothers were pretty confident when they sang ABC but they weren’t talking about writing text analysis essays.  Or were they?

A common misconception is that an English essay just needs to reflect the topic back in some way.  Like a ‘paint by numbers’ activity in the diagram above, this approach  involves identifying different elements in the topic and then writing a paragraph on each, slapping a generalised introduction and an even more generalised conclusion on either end.  Bingo!  You have a very run-of-the mill essay.  It may not present a coherent, insightful interpretation but it shows the student has read the topic and found evidence in the text which matches it.  This approach will merely illustrate the essay topic, much like the painting above is a mere illustration of the numbers diagram, rather than someone’s original, independent interpretation of a house in the snow.  An essay like this might only ever get a C+ or B grade at best.  The content won’t be wrong but the thinking won’t be very right.

This painting is a more nuanced interpretation of a house in the snow.  You know you want a more nuanced interpretation of the text you are studying so let us see how this might play out when we start to think about  Macbeth.

A possible essay topic might read:

”This dead butcher and his fiend like queen’.  To what extent do you think this is an accurate assessment of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth?’

A ‘paint-by-numbers’ approach would be to structure an essay question in this way:

Main contention: Yes, Macbeth is definitely a ‘butcher’ and Lady Macbeth is ‘fiend-like’.

P1 Macbeth kills Duncan = butcher

P2 Macbeth kills Banquo and Macduff’s family = butcher

P3 Lady Macbeth calls on evil spirits = fiend-like

Thinking=meh.

Notice how the main contention offers a very simplistic yes/no response to the question. The main contention should be a student’s ULTIMATE ANSWER. Notice how the paragraphs merely seek to illustrate the topic’s key elements.  The supporting arguments need to provide an interpretation of the text.

A more sophisticated essay plan responding to the same essay question might look like this:

Main contention:  Although Macbeth has a conscience when hesitates to kill Duncan and experiences guilt after murdering Duncan and Banquo, he is most definitely a butcher by the play’s end while Lady Macbeth presents as a woman capable of being fiend-like when she is Macbeth’s partner in crime however her demise is pitiful.  She dies mad and guilt-ridden and Malcolm’s assessment of her as having evil power at the play’s end does not ring true.

P1 Macbeth resists the idea of killing Duncan and is troubled by his actions, both in killing the King and later Banquo, which suggests his conscience prevents him from merely ‘butchering’ those who stand in his way.

P2. Macbeth does become a butcher by the play’s end because he becomes impervious to his conscience and doggedly pursues he course of action to the end which includes ordering the killing of Macduff’s family in a brutal, bloody manner.

P3.  Lady Macbeth demonstrates her fiend-like capacity when she calls on the evil sprits to make her capable of goading Macbeth to kill Duncan and when she is able to present as unperturbed by the crime to the court.  It is when we see her madness emerge later that we understand that her freedom from guilt was only temporary and she dies more wraith-like – powerless.

Notice how all the key elements of the topic have been interpreted for the benefit of this essay – this student is officially ‘doing more with the topic’ which is teacherspeak for THINKING.  This main contention is an ULTIMATE ANSWER.  It sets the terms for the essay – the interpretation.

The ‘to what extent’ part of the question is answered in the main contention by considering where or when in the text it might be true or untrue and qualifying their response.  In this example the main contention is basically this: it is true for Macbeth (though not at the play’s beginning) and it is not true for Lady Macbeth (though true at the play’s beginning).

The topic sentences all go part of the way to answering the topic.  Each stage demonstrates knowledge and understanding and goes beyond the deceptively simplistic essay topic.

This second essay plan shows that the student has weighed up all their ideas first before settling on their interpretation.

Remember that these are only the bones of the argument.  The student would have to flesh these out with quotations and analysis – explaining the significance of the language of the quotation in the light of their interpretation of the text.

See?  Not as easy as ABC, 123, do re mi…but much more meaty (if you will allow me a butcher’s expression).

 

 

Screw your courage…

…to the sticking place and you’ll not fail!

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You now need the courage of your convictions to respond to one of the following essay topics:

  1.  ‘Macbeth is a tragic hero in that there is more to pity than detest in him.’   Discuss.

  2. Women are the most powerful characters in the play and the catalyst to all of Macbeth’s crimes.’ To what extent do you agree?

  3. Fair is foul and foul is fair is an equivocation that helps us to understand the destruction of Macbeth.’  Discuss

 

Consider where you stand on the following controversial statements to get your brain warmed up and your arguments sharpened.  They should get you thinking about the extent to which you agree (crucial thinking steps to take before committing to a position and presenting your main contention and supporting arguments).

  1. Macbeth lacks the courage and strength of character to make a clear decision.
  2. Macbeth’s ambition is ill-founded.
  3. Lady Macbeth knows Macbeth better than she knows herself.
  4. Macbeth learns nothing in the course of the play.
  5. Macbeth is too easily led by others.
  6. Lady Macbeth has more of the ‘milk of human kindness’ than Macbeth.
  7. The audience is never in any doubt as to who is evil in this play.
  8. Lady Macbeth is more frightening than Macbeth and the ultimate ‘fair is foul’
  9. Lady Macbeth’s desire for control is her own fatal flaw.
  10. Women are responsible for the bad things that happen to men in this play.
  11. Fate appears to have the final say in the play.  Free will plays no part.
  12. Macbeth learns to act without thinking in order to act in his own interests.
  13. The play is about what it means to know oneself.

It weeps, it bleeds

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As you read Act 4, consider the role of the witches.  They open this scene and remind us all of the power they wield:

Double, double, toil and trouble; /Fire burn and cauldron bubble….

and

By the pricking of my thumbs,/ Something wicked this way comes…

That ‘something wicked’ is Macbeth.  Consider, too, the changes in Macbeth.  Now, as king, he demands: ‘Answer me’.  He is pleased by their equivocations (he interprets them as predictions in his favour) and acknowledges that they have guessed his fear when they warn him of Macduff.  As he watches the apparitions he is led to feel pleased: ‘Sweet bodements!/good!) but can’t help give voice to his nagging fear that his actions might all be for Banquo’s issue.  He asks a direct question and is shown the line of eight kings – he is in disbelief.  This is a moment of realisation.  It is to Lennox that he communicates his change in his attitude towards them: ‘Infected be the air whereon they ride, / And damn’d all those that trust them!’  The audience understand the irony and the action to come plays out the foreshadowing in this scene.

Throughout Act 4 there are many references to blood and bloodshed and it is clear that nature is rebelling agains the unnatural reign of Macbeth.  Malcolm’s admission:

‘I think our country sinks beneath the yoke; It weeps, it bleeds, and each new day a gash/Is added to her wounds’

This is a cry for the tyranny and violence to end. The climax of the action in this act is undoubtedly the onstage killing (remember that Duncan’s was off stage) of Macduff’s family.

Act 4 closes with the resolution that Macbeth must be stopped.  Macduff is overcome with grief but receives this advice from Malcolm: ‘Be this the whetstone of your sword: let grief/Convert to anger; blunt no the heart but enrage it.’  The audience is prepared for the play’s final act and the downfall of Macbeth.

Stoner: a first impression

Here is a sample blog post on the novel, ‘Stoner’ by John Williams.  I have taken a ‘Research’ approach to the text.

stoner1This book piqued my interest because there seemed to be a week in my life when three different people mentioned the book to me: “Have you read, ‘Stoner’?”  I had never heard of it, save for my partner’s mother sending it over for me from the UK and me dutifully filing it away in the bookshelf for another day.  I was commenting to a colleague about the role of the teacher and how we have to be philosophical about what we can achieve in our jobs or else despair (I think I was reflecting on student apathy) and he mentioned the book in this context.  I decided to dust it off.

I am now about two thirds of the way through and I am totally hooked.   Stoner, the main protagonist, is so awkward and likeable at once.  He grapples with the politics of relationships and has a kind of steady integrity which is appealing but also a passivity which is infuriating at times.  As a English lecturer in a university, he experiences failure across many facets of his life.  It’s not exactly uplifting, so far, but it is certainly interesting.  And it is what is left unsaid is the most interesting about this novel.

I’m at the point where Stoner is at odds with his colleague and now boss.  There is a heavy hint as to why  the ‘hunchback’ Hollis Lomax might be defending the ‘cripple’ Charles Walker but I’m not sure I get it.  ‘It’s not what you think,’ says Stoner to his friend.  But I’m not sure what I, the reader, think!  Is there a hint of an affair?  Why are both described with a phsyical deformity?  Is this supposed to reflect a misshapen morality?  If so, why?

I have only just begun a little background reading about the text.  Here’s the thing: it’s a late blooming classic. In 2013 Julian Barnes wrote in The Guardian:

Stoner first went into Vintage in 2003, after McGahern had recommended it to the publisher Robin Robertson. In the decade up to 2012, it sold 4,863 copies, and by the end of last year was trundling along in print-on-demand. This year, up to the end of November, it has sold 164,000 copies, with the vast majority – 144,000 of them – coming since June.”

This makes me wonder about the idea of a classic and what are the factors which determine a classic.  What caused the rush on it in recent years?  The fact that it is published as ‘Vintage Williams’ suggests that it has been widely accepted but is that just a clever marketing trick by publishers?

 

Lit Circles: sharing the love

Congratulations!  Hopefully you’ve already had a cheeky peek at your book and found it to your liking.

You will have four sessions so need to divide the book into four manageable chunks to read and be ready to discuss.  Each person should have a role, as outlined below and should do the appropriate preparatory work for it.  Sharing your ideas about the book and how you are interpreting the action as it unfolds will strengthen your analytical skills.

Immediately after your meeting you need to post a blog about the text: the ideas you had before the meeting and the ideas you have after the meeting.  Reflecting in this way will strengthen you reading skills no end.

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 LIT CIRCLE ROLES: choose one of these; you may swap them around with each circle meeting.

Discussion Director

  • Convenes the group; helps set up the next discussion section
  • Prepares a number of open-ended questions to start or maintain discussion
  • Presents the big ideas in the section to be discussed

Passage Master

  • Chooses a passage to read out loud or individually which is plays an interesting or key role in setting a mood or introducing puzzling or controversial or dramatic events or character revelations
  • Invites the group to comment on the passage and to make connections between this and the rest of the text; their own lives; society more generally

Researcher/Creative Connector

  • Research and present some background on any topic related to your book
  • the social/cultural/historical references in the text (where an unfamiliar book, film, event, person, poem or the like might be referenced),  uncover the connections to the text.
  • Connects the big issues in the text to our world or personal experiences
  • Links to music that reflects the book or time
  • provides information on the author, her/his life, other works, controversies, book banning etc.

Writing Pro Tips

  • What lessons about the craft of writing can you learn from this text?
  • Zoom out to make comments about the construction of the text as a whole
  • zoom in to the sentence and word level to identify the decisions made by the writer and consider what your group can learn about writing
  • what other authors you know of write in this style?

 

10C BOOKS OF CHOICE

Heller, Joseph Catch 22
At the heart of Catch-22 resides the incomparable, malingering bombardier, Yossarian, a hero endlessly inventive in his schemes to save his skin from the horrible chances of war.
Colonel Cathcart keeps raising the number of missions the men must fly to complete their service. Yet if Yossarian makes any attempts to excuse himself from the perilous missions that he’s committed to flying, he’s trapped by the Great Loyalty Oath Crusade, the bureaucratic rule from which the book takes its title: a man is considered insane if he willingly continues to fly dangerous combat missions, but if he makes the necessary formal request to be relieved of such missions, the very act of making the request proves that he’s sane and therefore, ineligible to be relieved

Horowitz, Anthony House of Silk

In freezing London, November 1890, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson receive a man unnerved by a scarred-face stalker with piercing eyes. A conspiracy reaches to the Boston criminal underworld. The whispered phrase ‘the House of Silk’ hints at a deadly foe.

Maloney, Shane Stiff
Murray Whelan thinks the everyday life of a political advisor is complicated enough: but now there are intimations of intrigue among the party powerful and his ex-wife is mounting a custody battle over his beloved son. So when you throw in a Turk snap-frozen in a local meat plant, drugs planted under the bed, fascist funeral rites, a killer car and blood-sucking parasites, things are suddenly spinning wildly out of control. That’s when red-hot Ayisha knocks on the door…

Malouf, David Ransom

The retelling of part of Homer’s Iliad, the famous Trojan war story in which Achilles revenges the death of his best friend Patroclus by slaying in battle, Hector the eldest son of King Priam of Troy

“Malouf, a prize-winning Australian novelist, does a superb job of recreating the mythic world of the heroes and gods of pre-historic Greece while at the same time humanizing the super-sized men and women of Troy and its besiegers”..

Remarque, Erich Maria All Quiet on the Western Front

In 1914 a room full of German schoolboys, fresh-faced and idealistic, are goaded by their chauvinistic schoolteacher to troop off to the “glorious war”. With the force and patriotism of youth they sign up. Their disenchantment begins during the brutal basic training and then, as they board the train to the front, they see the terrible injuries suffered on the front line – their first glimpse of the reality of war.

Salinger, J.D. Catcher in the Rye

Holden Caulfield has been synonymous with “cynical adolescent.” Holden narrates the story of a couple of days in his sixteen-year-old life, just after he’s been expelled from prep school, in a slang that sounds edgy even today and keeps this novel on banned book lists. His constant wry observations about what he encounters, from teachers to phonies capture the essence of the eternal teenage experience of alienation

Winton, Tim Breath

Breath, is an extraordinary evocation of an adolescence spent resisting complacency, testing one’s limits against nature, finding like-minded souls, and discovering just how far one breath will take you. It’s a story of extremes—extreme sports and extreme emotions. Two thrill-seeking and barely adolescent boys fall into the enigmatic thrall of veteran big-wave surfer Sando. They form an odd but elite trio. The grown man initiates the boys into a kind of Spartan ethos, a regimen of risk and challenge, where they test themselves in storm swells on remote and shark-infested reefs, pushing each other to the edges of endurance, courage, and sanity. But where is all this heading?