When It Comes to Plath, It's Going to Be Pretty Intense...
I'm so glad that @andycarreiro suggested I tackle a poem by Plath through visual annotation. I decided to go with "Morning Song" and felt pretty pleased with the result. I'm not sure I was able to find the kinds of access points that I did with the Longfellow poem earlier, but annotating the poem in this way did yield some nice results.
Being a Victorianist, Plath is not exactly in my wheelhouse, but it just goes to show that when you allow your thoughts to be rendered and transcribed in a way that's comfortable you at least end up asking some pretty decent questions of the text. I like the notion that the environs of a hospital ward are akin to those of a museum in the way we respond to them. I also think that Plath introduces certain turns of phrase that are decidedly double-edged (Margaret Atwood and Emily Dickinson would both approve in this regard, I think).
Enjoy the visual brainstorming and see where you might have interpreted, responded to, or interacted differently with the poem. Plath is a complex, intense, allusive, and exceptionally challenging poet, so be forewarned!
You choose the poem, and I annotate!
This is the first in a series of posts I'm planning in which fans of the site send me a poem that they'd like to see visually annotated. This first one is Longfellow's "The Cross of Snow," a suggestion made by @CarrieSnowRice, and strangely enough a poem I was unfamiliar with. The reason that's a bit strange is that one of my favourite books in the Graphic Poetry series is of Longfellow's wonderful poem, Paul Revere, illustrated by the incomparable, Mike Rooth.
Despite being unfamiliar with the poem, the brainstorming yielded some very cool results. I think the beauty of the poem has to do with a single letter and that's the liquid "l" sounds that are strong throughout the first part of the poem. They just soften everything, it seems. Compare this to the rise of the "s" sounds later in the poem, where you almost can feel the scars that Longfellow endured in attempting to save his wife from the accidental fire that consumed her (her dress came into contact with an ember and she caught on fire, dying later from her injuries). The sonnet form is crucial as well: it's Miltonic, but the sestet doesn't seem to resolve what is raised in the octave, except if Longfellow is seeing his suffering as akin to Christ's. Then he must realize, of course, that bearing the scars and enduring the loss, and keeping vigil over his wife's memory are all that he has.
Next up, I think we're going to lighten the mood with some Sylvia Plath. Look for "Morning Song" in an upcoming post!
The Graphic Canon is a Godsend for Teachers
Edited by Russ Kick, the three volumes of The Graphic Canon contain a wealth of wonderful curriculum support materials for teachers. Although there may be colleagues of yours who balk at your desire to use visual narrative in the classroom, they'd be hard-pressed to object to the stunning series of graphic poems, stories, and novel excerpts that constitute these three volumes. Your fellow department members only want to teach "The Canon?" That's fine. With The Graphic Canon they can do just that!
I could talk at great length about this series of books, and no doubt in future postings I'll be looking at how to use them in the classroom, but for now your best resource on the series is their WordPress site.
I can tell you that each volume in the series covers a distinct period of time and the literature that goes with it. The first volume's selections range from the Epic of Gilgamesh to Shakespeare to Dangerous Liaisons. Volume 2 takes readers from Coleridge's "Kubla Khan" to the works of the Bronte Sisters and finally to Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray. Finally, the third text goes from Conrad's Heart of Darkness to Hemmingway to Infinite Jest.
From my perspective, the series is of most use to high school educators who either want to...
Of course, there is nothing preventing the teacher from constructing an entire unit around these selections. With younger students, however, you might not have enough selections that are geared towards a junior or middle school audience, so that a series like Graphic Poetry from Rubicon/Scholastic would be a better option. Scott Robins @Scout101 also mentioned in a Tweet the Visions in Poetry series from @KidsCanPress.
Students read, examine, and create graphic poems, and consider both the implications of using the visual in connection with poetry, and whether an artist or poet/artist can visually represent the intricacies of literal and figurative language. The hope is that students will recognize the beauty of graphic poetry and thereby develop a greater fondness for and appreciation of poetry proper.
Self Awareness, Metacognition, Critical Thinking, Navigation Skills, Making Connections
By the end of the activity, students should see that there is something to be gained and something to be lost in marrying a poem with its graphic illustration. What is gained is a visual context that the reader can use to help him or her understand what is actually happening in a poem. What is also gained is the recognition of what art can and cannot do with pictures in order to mimic or represent the figurative. What is lost, perhaps, is precisely what is lost when the curtain rises for the presentation of play and we see the gradual unfolding of the directorial decisions that will define how the performance in front of us will interpret the stage directions and dialogue of the playwright.
Critical Thinking Questions
Self-Awareness and Metacognition Questions
Navigation Skills and Making Connections Questions
How Can Visual Narrative Foster Inquiry in This Activity
Reading graphic poetry can help students to make sense of some of the complexities of the poems they examine, even if those complexities are what is literally “happening” in a given work. In my experience, though, a student is far more likely to want to bring their critical thinking and inquiry skills to bear on a poem that they believe they understand than one they don’t. As students move through the process of reading, analyzing, and creating graphic poetry, it is essential that teachers encourage students to develop an ongoing dialogue with the work they are studying.
When it comes to comics and the broader tradition of visual narrative, it is incumbent upon educators to teach students about the genre and its history. If we talk to students about how poetry developed from an oral tradition, or about the resurgence of the drama during themiddle ages, we must also talk to them about how sequential art has evolved over time. We must treat the genre with the same degree of seriousness with which treat other genres, because not doing so would be to suggest that there is something nobler or far more worthy of our consideration in poetry or in drama than in visual narrative.
That, however, is rubbish.
Great works of literature are great because they merit such distinction--not because they happen to be of one particular genre and not another. We don't look down our nose at War and Peace because it's a novel and not poetry. We don't think less of King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail" because it's "only a letter."
Visual narrative is a genre worthy of study, both for ourselves and for our students. Comics in Education (www.comicsineducation.com) is dedicated to proving that.
There are so many great videos out there just waiting for you to share them with your students. The trick, sometimes, is finding them. While I enjoy sifting through countless videos on YouTube that are student reenactments of great works of literature, I would prefer to know what's out there in advance. What follows in the coming blog posts is a collection of great YouTube videos that are either animated or focus on visual narrative in some way. They can really help you make successful curriculum connections with your students and help foster engagement. We'll start with the one below by Lynn Tomlinson.
So begins Emily Dickinson's "I heard a Fly buzz -- when I died --," a chilling poem that focuses on one of her favourite themes: Death. Even more chilling, perhaps, is this 1989 adaptation of the poem by Lynn Tomlinson. Here, the incessant buzzing and shifting, animated canvas seem spot on with Dickinson's own sensibilities.
When I teach this poem to my IB English students, I find Tomlinson's video to be eminently helpful. Above and beyond generating great discussions about the mood that it establishes, the video also shows students that the poem really works best when it's subject to a very matter-of-fact reading. So much of Dickinson's poetry is like this in fact. I really love the way the poem is delivered, especially when the fly appears on the scene. It takes students no time at all to realize that the windows failing are the speaker's eyes, and then they soon discover that nearly every time Dickinson makes reference to windows, our ocular faculties are in play. Soon after, they make the connection between "Eye" and "I" that pervades so much of Dickinson's writing.
Some educators would argue that the video serves to interpret the poem for students--that they have less of an opportunity to think or to imagine by virtue of watching it. This, however, is a red herring, because young learners profit far more from listening to a solid reading of the poem first and seeing it in some sort of context. We don't go to a performance of Hamlet and come away complaining that the director ruined Shakespeare's text by interpreting it (unless, I suppose, the interpretation is dreadful). We don't fret about the sanctity of a screenplay for a film when we go and see the film at the theatre.
As educators, we need to get away from handing out the poem to students, asking Sally to read it (because Sally likes reading out loud) and then asking the class what the poem means. That stopped being cool last century.
Note that this post and others in the "Visual Narrative and YouTube" series will become permanent fixtures of the website under the "Classroom" and "Curriculum Connections" tabs.
We want students in a junior or middle school classroom to begin to develop an understanding of what they read, how language works to make meaning, and how they can figure such things out. Graphic novels can therefore pose an additional level of challenge, because the visual and its impact on meaning must be worked out at the same time that the language is being examined. Even something as simple as this prototype I designed for the Graphic Poetry series is instructive (don't worry...I didn't illustrate any of the titles, and the series has won two awards). A student might be comfortable reading a short story and analyzing its setting—the time, place, and prevailing circumstances of the story—but how do they analyze the setting of the poem presented here as a visual narrative? They would have to talk about the colour of the half-page panel at the top, and how it seems to suggest that the events of the poem will take place in the early evening or at twilight. They would also need to talk about how the title of the poem, juxtaposed with the tree, implies that the reader is looking at the poison tree in the opening panel. And what is to be made of the fact that the tree is entirely black and blends in with the gutter between each of the panels and the page borders as well? Is the author/illustrator making a comment about how quickly and dangerously poison can spread? What are we to make of the close up of the male figure in the bottom left-hand panel and the eerie red background colour? He looks angry and the black words on the red background reinforce that, but his fixed gaze almost seems to peer right through the gutter and at the “friend” who is shot in a medium-long to long shot, presumably looking back at him, albeit tentatively. All of this is happening and we’ve only reached the end of the poem’s first line, at which point—if we were simply looking at the text of the poem—we wouldn’t normally have begun debating its meaning. It is crucial, then, when teaching graphica that we don’t just acquaint students with the terminology they might use to talk about how a shot is composed, but look carefully with them at the various features of the verbal and visual canvas before them.
If you're looking for some of this terminology by the way, you can find it under Terms and Terminology on the Introduction tab.
Dr. Glen Downey is an award-winning children's author, educator, and academic from Oakville, Ontario. He works as a children's writer for Rubicon Publishing, a reviewer for PW Comics World, an editor for the Sequart Organization, and serves as the Chair of English and Drama at The York School in Toronto.
If you've found this site useful and would like to donate to Comics in Education, we'd really appreciate the support!