English IV Classes Dive into Poetry

During the brief period between Thanksgiving and Winter Break, seniors in The Gunnery’s English IV classes completed a poetry unit, which resulted from a unique collaboration among five members of the English Department faculty.
This was the first time the faculty worked together on a poetry unit in the Winter Term, and rather than follow a prescribed curriculum, each teacher interpreted the subject matter differently and took their own unique approach, explained Richard Martin, English Department Chair.

For example, Martin said he introduced a collection of poetry ranging from the 16th to the 20th century, from William Shakespeare (“Winter” and “Spring”) to William Wordsworth (“The World Is Too Much With Us” and “Composed Upon Westminster Bridge”) to Bob Dylan (“Tangled Up in Blue” and “The Times They Are A’ Changin’”).

Martin selected Andrew Marvell's “To His Coy Mistress,” first published in 1691, and Barbara Crooker’s “Patty’s Charcoal Drive-In,” published in 1992, because the narrator in each is someone potentially relatable and close in age to the students. While the former is consumed by his rhetorical argument for seizing the moment as he addresses the lady he loves, the latter shares her experience as a 16-year-old working as a carhop the summer before she leaves for college:

“I take out the silver trays and hook them to the windows,
inhale the mingled smells of seared meat patties,
salty ketchup, rich sweet malteds.
The lure of grease drifts through the thick night air.”

In her English IV class, Karoline Theobald offered “a patchwork quilt of poetry,” based on the theme, “American Voices.” She drew on the voices of e.e. cummings, Robert Lowell, Adrienne Rich, Allen Ginsberg, Wallace Stevens, and added even a bit of Dylan and Bruce Springsteen to the mix. Theobald said all of the poems she selected appealed to her personally, especially “Three Gratitudes,” in which Carrie Newcomer writes about her practice of choosing three things she is grateful for and saying them aloud every night before she goes to sleep.

“It’s a small practice and humble,
And yet, I find I sleep better
Holding what lightens and softens my life
Ever so briefly at the end of the day.”
Newcomer begins her list with “sunlight, and blueberries, good dogs and wool socks” and it quickly becomes apparent that her gratitude knows no bounds. “She can never stop when she starts listing those three things,” said Theobald, who in turn asked her students to write their own gratitude poems.

“We’d like students to build their vocabulary to communicate about poetry and also enjoy writing poetry,” said Dr. Nick Benson, who selected poems for his class that were connected to specific lessons on reading, analyzing or describing poetry.

Benson also asked his students to bring to class poems that excited them, and to present a short reading or guide to the poem. His students can comment on each other’s work and post their own poems through Google Classroom. “The objective that I have is to get them to share as much of their own writing as possible,” he said.

In reading Christopher Marlowe’s “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love” and Sir Walter Raleigh’s “The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd,” which is Raleigh’s response to Marlowe in the voice of the nymph shepherdess, Benson said his students were able to discover “eternal subject matter in old diction.”

Melissa Schomers’ English IV students also focused on poem pairings, beginning with “Hap” by Thomas Hardy and “Anthem for Doomed Youth” by Wilfred Owen. In “Hap,” the narrator is suffering in the real world and wants to blame “some vengeful god” or deity, Schomers said.

“Then would I bear it, clench myself, and die,
Steeled by the sense of ire unmerited;
Half-eased in that a Powerfuller than I
Had willed and meted me the tears I shed.”

“He wants there to be a reason behind the suffering. It makes it easier for him to deal with if some higher power is doing this rather than luck or chance,” she said.

“Anthem for a Doomed Youth,” is about a boy “who is going off to die in a senseless war where they are literally fighting over nothing. It leaves you wishing there was a reason or purpose,” Schomers said, explaining that together these poems raise the questions: “What is purpose? And are we achieving it?”

Schomers’ students also compared “If” by Rudyard Kipling with “An ‘If’ for Girls (With apologies to Mr. Rudyard Kipling)” by Elizabeth Lincoln Otis. Where Kipling describes “what makes a man” by listing qualities such as strength, honesty and courage, in Lincoln Otis’s “If,” women are judged based on appearances – how they dress and whether they are graceful.

The two poems reveal one author speaking directly to another, but in William Blake’s “The Chimney Sweeper” the poet is responding to himself by telling the same story - of a young boy sold into labor as a chimney sweeper by his father - from two perspectives: the voices of innocence and experience, Schomers said.
The overarching theme of her poetry unit was “how poetry means” rather than “what poetry means,” she said.

“Students often get hung up on transcendent meaning. They think poetry has to be this high form or high art and it doesn’t have to be,” she said, explaining that her students looked closely at word choices, the meaning of words, rhymes, imagery, structure and the melodic tone created by vowels and consonants, all of which create meaning in poetry. As an example, she cited the “stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle” and the shrill “wailing shells” in “Anthem for a Doomed Youth.”

“You hear the sound in the pronunciation of the word,” Schomers said. “This is how you get music in poetry.”

Tim Poole’s English IV students looked at poems translated from Spanish, Russian and French into English and discussed “what meaning is and where language fails it.”

Translation can affect and even change the meaning of a poem. “If you change the meaning, a word, the rhyme, is it still the same poem or is it a new poem?” Poole asked. “If you translate meaning, not words, aren’t you missing something in the words?”

As an example, Poole noted that “Tropical Afternoon” by Rubén Dario looks structurally different when translated from Spanish into English, changing from four-line stanzas to three-line stanzas. The rhyme schemes in the translation are also lost.

“A poem can have another life at another time in another language,” said Benson, whose passions include writing and translation. “Translation is like a reinterpretation. It’s another way of reading an original work. There are unlimited numbers of variations on the original.”

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Founded in 1850 by abolitionist, educator, and outdoorsman Frederick Gunn, The Gunnery is a coeducational college preparatory boarding and day school for students in grades 9 through 12/post-graduate. Dedicated teacher-mentor-coaches challenge students to reach their full potential in a home-like setting where character and citizenship are valued as much as intellect and achievement. Individualized attention and high expectations help young learners develop not only the skills and confidence they will need in college, but also the moral compass and love of learning that will serve them well in life. The school attracts ambitious, academically curious students who will both shine as unique individuals and thrive as contributing members of a deeply connected community. By the time they graduate, Gunnery students have become well rounded, grounded young adults with a sharpened sense of who they are and who they want to become.