Waltzing Toward Literary Analysis

At the start of any introductory literature class I teach, I usually raise several questions that we’ll return to throughout the term, and that I hope will engage those students (usually a good 25 out of 50) who are in the room because there was a seat left, as well as those students, usually about 10 out of 50, who are possible English majors, or the others who are not Lit majors, but who have read an entire book sometime in the last few years: What is Literature? Why do we study literature? Who decides what IS American Literature? How does studying literature in a classroom differ from discussing literature with friends or in a book club? What is literary analysis and the varieties of literary analysis?

All of the questions lead to interesting discussions, except, usually, the last one. For that, I get dead silence.

During class two, we do what Kathleen Yancy calls a “pop up” exercise, slightly altered.  I have students read and annotate Theodore Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz” using blue or black ink. Then, after discussing their responses with a partner, I ask them to add to their annotations in another color. Then, after discussing the poem as a class, they add more notes in another color, summarizing how their responses to the poem changed, and discussing the varieties of responses, from personal to psychological, for example.

I then show them how I’ve annotated the poem, giving them another model of what they can do to read actively, and usually filling in some other varieties of literary analysis that may not have come up during class discussion.

Then I ask them to do the same thing to the opening chapter of whatever novel we are reading.

We return to the “close reading times three” exercise many times during the quarter. I love this exercise because it allows all students to engage in the literary work, from whatever level they are at, in a nonthreatening way.  And I’ve always started with ‘My Papa’s Waltz” because it so easily leads students to two divergent interpretations–the trompe l’oeil I try to draw on the board usually makes them laugh, too. We discuss why some students are drawn toward one interpretation at first, and while others see the other. We discuss biographical criticism, close reading (so many students see “romp” as a negative word these days, I’ve noticed), and new historicism.  We discuss point of view and setting and character.  It’s a quick tour of literary analysis, without emphasizing any of those terms (though they leave class with a handout overview of those terms, and we’ll discuss them throughout the quarter).

And then, I almost always get an email like this one after class discussion:

Dear Professor:
 I wanted to comment on this poem, but I didn’t feel comfortable doing so in class. My father was a verbally abusive drunk. But I loved him dearly. This poem hit real close to home. I saw it as the waltz of a drunken father with the son who loves him unconditionally, but it was the fun side of my dad that I saw in the poem.

This from a recently unemployed 50 something year old man who is both excited and nervous about being in the class.

I love teaching literature classes. Our classes are too big (I think I’m down to 43 students rather than 50 now, having scared off at least 7 with the reading list), but what a rush I get when such a large class of students seems actively engaged for the full 100 minutes, and students don’t start packing up early, even though it’s nearly 7:30pm and the rain outside is icy. And, when I get e-mails like the one above.

Because Most People Stop With the Z

200px-on_beyond_zebraAt a packed house Easter sermon this morning, our pastor read from Dr. Seuss’ classic but lesser known work, On Beyond Zebra. Now, this didn’t surprise me, since as I’ve noted briefly before, he twitters ideas from the sermons he is working on each week. 

But I hadn’t read this particular work before so I wasn’t sure what theological bent it could possibly have.

But now I agree with our twittering pastor: this really is the Best. Easter. Story. Ever. 

This is possibly an ideal story to introduce the varieties of intepretation. It’s about possibility and hope.  It’s about imagination. It’s about the need to think outside the box. And, oh, yes, for all those pastors with a popular culture bent, it’s about the Christ who has risen indeed. 

Said Conrad Cornelius o”Donald o’Dell,
My very young friend who is learning to spell:
“The A is for Ape. And the B is for Bear.
The C is for camel. The H is for Hare.
The M is for Mouse. And the R is for Rat.
I know all the twenty-six letters like that.

“..through to Z is for Zebra.
I know the all well.”
Said Conrad Cornelius o’Donald o’Dell.
“So now I know everything anyone knows,
from beginning to end. From the start to the close.
Because Z is as far as the alphabet goes.”

Then he almost fell flat on his face on the floor
When I picked up the chalk and drew one letter more!
A letter he never had dreamed of before!
And I said, “You can stop, if you want, with the Z
Because most people stop with the Z
But not me!

“In the places I go there are things that I see
That I never could spell if I stopped with the Z.
I’m telling you this ’cause you’re one of my friends.
My alphabet starts where your alphabet ends!”