Postmodern Poetry

May 14, 2012

As we gathered for the next session, I referred students to the board, where they saw a list of works from the postmodern period—post-World War II—that we had already read and discussed:

In reviewing the list, I suggested that we could begin thinking about postmodernism as a continuation of modernism, particularly the interrelated themes of remembering as a basis for moving on, for making decisions about how to use our time, themes addressed in all the works listed here and in many of the works we would take up in these last four weeks.  But the horror of World War II, especially its atomic ending, had such a traumatic effect on the entire culture, I said—as we saw in Faulkner’s question, “When will I be blown up”—that literary voices began to explore with new urgency the flux of our existence and its apparent absurdity.  “Some of these voices,” I continued, “sound post modern in their rejection of T.S. Eliot’s allusive, academic ‘high modernism,’ as we will hear today in ‘The Fish’; others, as we will see in Vonnegut, sound postmodern in their unflinching explorations of the violent absurdities of our culture.”

I also spoke of postmodern “chaos theory,” the idea that human beings can collaborate in creating order, however tentative, from the randomness of experience, as we saw in Lahiri’s “Sexy.”  “Miranda and Dev,” I reminded the students, “met by accident; then Miranda babysat for Rohin, an encounter she never planned; but she and Rohin collaborated in shaping a tentative order from the chaos the father’s adultery had caused, an order that disallows ‘loving strangers’ when such relationships root in deceit and crush the deceived.”  By the end of that story, I concluded, Miranda had learned to open her eyes, “and her new wakefulness gave her the courage to end the affair.”  This insistence on open eyes, I told the students, would inform every postmodern work we would read, and I challenged them to reflect on this idea of wakefulness as it might relate to Faulkner’s call for literature that gives us “hope,” that persuades us we can ‘endure and prevail.’

Bishop and Jarrell

Elizabeth Bishop (Source: Poetry Foundation)

Before we turned to Elizabeth Bishop’s 1946 poem “The Fish,” I asked the class to turn to her letter to her friend and fellow poet, Robert Lowell, whom she takes to task for writing poems about his recently divorced wife, poems that explore suffering but combine fiction and fact.  In doing so, she tells Lowell, he has violated a trust with his former wife and with his readers, who can’t know “what’s true, what isn’t” (2498).  “Postmodernists may consider “truth” a fluid, ever-changing phenomenon, but what does her remark to Lowell tell you about her sense of duty as a poet?” I asked.  Earning a “10” for the day, Besa said the she shares Martin Luther King’s commitment to seeing accurately and publishing what one sees.

I thanked Besa for providing us a perfect transition to “The Fish” and asked Arlind to read the poem aloud.  After Arlind’s reading, I re-read the first and last lines aloud: “I caught a tremendous fish….and I let the fish go.”  I then asked for a show of hands, fisher-hands.  Singling out Gezim among the fishermen and fisherwomen, I asked if he ever lets fish go.  “Only if it’s too small,” he answered.  “So why would she release a “tremendous” fish?  Does her description, her use of figurative language in between the first and last lines, help us to understand her bizarre decision?”  I asked.  With no quick response forthcoming, I asked the class to focus on the first two lines, on facts and details about the fish.  “What first strikes you as odd, given his size?”  I asked.  Ragip read line six: “He hadn’t fought at all.”  He then mentioned that the “homely” fish looks warn-out, “battered.”  “What about ‘venerable’?  What does this word suggest?”  Gezim offered that the fish must be venerated, respected, because he has fought many battles, “and his ‘skin hung in strips’” (ll. 8-10).  “Don’t we normally use words like ‘homely’ and ‘venerable’ and ‘grunting’ to describe people?  Why would Bishop want to personify the fish?” I prodded.  Edita suggested that the speaker begins to see more than a fish, something to eat; she sees a fellow being who has known struggle and deserves respect.

Commending the students’ close-reading interpretations, I asked what figures of speech Bishop uses in these lines to help us to see the fish more clearly.  After we noted the skin “like ancient wall-paper” decorated in “rose” patterns and barnacles, “rosettes of lime,” I asked what we begin to notice about this ‘homely’ fish?  Edita mentioned the “sea-lice” and “rags of green weed” hanging off its huge body, but she said that the simile and metaphor suggest beauty, not ugliness.  Praising her insight, I asked what other images and figures suggest beauty and further personify the fish.  We then quickly catalogued the details of Bishop’s portrait: the gills “fresh and crisp with blood,” the “white flesh/packed in like feathers,” the swim-bladder “like a big peony,” the eyes “larger than mine,” the “sullen face” from which “five old pieces of fish-line” hang down “like medals with their ribbons/frayed and wavering,/a five-haired beard of wisdom/trailing for his aching jaw” (ll.25, 27-28, 33-35, 45-63).  “So what does the speaker realize as she stares down at the exhausted but honorable old fighter that fills her boat with ‘victory,’ surrounded by a ‘rainbow’ of oily water and rust? (l. 65, 68-75)?  Why does she let her ‘victory’ go?”  I prodded further.  We then discussed the paradox that Bishop develops, the beautiful becoming one with the grotesque.  Such wakefulness, we agreed, allowed her—and her readers—to see the respectability, even honor of fellow non-human creatures, insights, I suggested, that Black Elk would have commended.

Randall Jarrell (Source: Poetry Foundation)

As we turned to Bishop’s contemporary, Randall Jarrell, I asked the students what this master teacher and military man insists that we see in “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner,” beyond the fact stated in the title. With no quick answer coming, I asked Bajram to read the five-line poem aloud:



From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

When he finished, I asked for his response to the last line.  He said that the speaker uses the past tense, suggesting that he looks back on his own death from the perspective of eternity.  “And does he seem at all emotional about the removal of his remains from the plexiglass glass gunner’s station of the bomber?”  “No,” he responded, “he describes the removal of his guts as though he were describing the wiping of mud from a windshield.”  “Right,” I said, “so matter-of-fact, an everyday occurrence, yet such a shocking image of the consequences of aerial warfare.  What do we learn about this victim?  How old is he?” I asked.  We then wrestled with the equally horrible metaphor in the first line, which describes a baby falling from its “mother’s sleep,” from his mother’s womb, into the “belly,” the womb of the State, the bomber.  “How does the verb “fell” underscore the youth of the airman?”  I asked.  Fidan responded, stressing the almost instantaneous transformation of the infant into a soldier.  Complimenting him on his interpretation, I said we would see the same idea explored in Vonnegut’s novel, Slaughterhouse-Five, subtitled The Children’s Crusade, stressing that ‘children’ do most of the dying in wars.  “Babies of course come wet from the warm uterus.  What happens to the wet baby in the bomber?” I asked.  Several voices responded, citing the frozen “wet fur” on the flight jacket.  I then asked what they made of the fourth and fifth lines, the reference to getting loose from the “dream of life” and waking to the cacophonous “nightmare” of “black flak.”  Arlind suggested that peace must be a dream, an illusion, that reality must be the hell of war.  “Why doesn’t Jarrell end of the poem with such a statement,” I wondered.  “Who needs it?”  Arlind responded.  “Precisely,” I said.  If we have seen the image, we don’t need a tacked-on moral.  It’s all about seeing—and having the courage to keep your eyes open.”

I then invited readings from journals, those prose or poetic accounts of everyday objects or animals that ‘so much depends’ on seeing.  Remembering Merita’s reading from her journal the previous week, when she spoke of her frustrations with poetry, her skepticism that ‘so much depends’ on poetry, I feared that no one had responded with a poem.  To my delight, hands shot up across the room, and nearly everyone had a poem to share.  Many of these poems centered on their memories of their mothers.  Blerta, for example, read her poem about her mother’s “sun-beam” smiles; Xhemile described her mother’s “wrinkles” and her “vigorous eyes,” images of her “unconditional love” and her abiding guidance; then Merita brought the whole class to tears with “I See You Coming In,” her memory of her deceased mother:

I see you coming in, little by little, in small steps,
With an albatross round your neck,
I wonder will it ever go away.
You have the snow in your hair; I didn’t notice it’s already winter.
The wrinkles on you face tell that it was heavy all the way through.
I lift you in my arms as you are tall as an eleven-year-old girl,
Oh, no, the great soul of yours makes you big as a mountain.
I kiss your tired face, and then you cry.
Inside your eyes I see a mirror of me.
You kiss me back.  Don’t worry, I am fine, you say.
And I want to hold your hand until I count your ages spots
And start over, all over, again, so you don’t ever go for a second time.

As we all mopped our faces and prepared to leave, I thanked those who had read for demonstrating the power and accessibility of poetry.  I reminded them, too, that we would sample postmodern fiction next time, as represented by Flannery O’Connor’s story “Good Country People.”  After they finished the story, I asked that they write an interpretive response in their journals to the end of the story, where we see another startling revelation, Joy-Hulga in the barn-loft, legless.

Faulkner, King, and the Call to “Endure” and “Prevail”: Part I

This three-part series features my students’ responses to Faulkner’s Stockholm Address (The Faulkner Reader) and to Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” (Questioning, 137-58). When asking the class to read both nonfiction works, I explained that they would find in both pieces continued emphasis on our theme of “Justice and Injustice,” as reflected in the quotation from King’s letter on the first page of their syllabus: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Further, noting that they would hear in King’s letter his passionate concern with our other theme, families and the pursuit of the “American Dream,” I encouraged students to listen in both pieces for a challenge to look beyond selfish interests in pursuing justice and the “Dream,” a challenge, in Faulkner’s words, to “prevail” as individuals and as a nation by learning to “sacrifice.”

After the students submitted their final versions of their papers on Gaines’s novel, I asked them whether or not they would agree that A Lesson before Dying represents precisely the kind of fiction that Faulkner called for when he urged writers to write novels that ‘lift our hearts,’ that help us to “endure and prevail” by showing us evidence of humanity’s capacity for “courage…compassion…and sacrifice.” The verdict came in swiftly and unanimously in Gaines’s favor, with students citing Jefferson’s courage as he walked to his death like a man, Grant’s compassion at the end, inspired by the triumph of his student, and Emma’s sacrifice.

Elements of Persuasion: Aristotle’s Rhetorical Triangle (Source:

Stating my hearty agreement with their view of Lesson, I said that I wanted them to appreciate not only what Faulkner says about the “duty” of writers but also how he says it. Referring the class to the terminology on the board, I reminded them that we had already spoken briefly in the Research class about the elements of persuasion—ethos, the credible persona; logos, the evidence logically arranged in support of a claim; and pathos, the word choice and sentence structure that color logic with passion. In this class, I continued, when we had used Aristotle’s communication triangle to define critical approaches to literature, we had talked about the varying aims of fiction—to create a unified work of beauty, to express the writer’s feelings, to mirror the real world, to persuade the reader to engage with a myth and its implications for our lives. But we had said nothing to date, I admitted, about the aims of nonfiction when it rises to the heights of literature; Faulkner and King, I assured them, give us occasion to do so.

The Rhetoric of Faulkner’s Stockholm Address

April 21, 2012

To begin our analysis, I read Faulkner’s speech aloud and then wrote on the board the two claims Faulkner makes to prepare for his conclusion about the writer’s duty: we fear being “blown up,” and therefore young writers write visions of despair, not “truths of the heart.” “Did you notice,” I asked, “that Faulkner provides no logos, no evidence to support these claims? Why not?” Waiting patiently for an answer that never came, I finally pointed to another term on the board, ceremonial discourse, and explained that when audiences come to public ceremonies—memorial services, inaugural addresses, presentations of high awards—they come to hear a speaker who has already established his or her ethos or credibility. Faulkner himself, I noted, says he has reached a “pinnacle” by receiving the Nobel Prize, the highest “acclaim” in literature, so no one expects him to provide evidence to support his claims or to describe the horror resulting from the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki five years before, the cause of the universal fear of getting blown up. “His ethos, in other words, can rise no higher. But the audience,” I said, “does expect eloquence, passionate language that pursues the aims of ceremonial discourse, praising the honorable and blaming the dishonorable. In this case, he praises the power of literature to uplift us and of young writers with the skills to do so, but he blames those same young writers who have allowed their despair to distract them from their duty to ‘lift our hearts.’”

Pointing then to the definition of “pathos” on the board, I asked the students if they could cite some examples of powerful “diction” and emphatic “parallel sentence structures” that created the emotional appeal of Faulkner’s speech. To provide a nudge, I asked why Faulkner uses such formal diction in the first paragraph, why he describes his life-time of writing in “the agony and sweat of the human spirit” instead of ‘on the pain of human life’; or why he says he will find a “dedication” for the money “commensurate with” its “origin” instead of saying a ‘use’ for the money that ‘suits’ its ‘beginning’; or why he speaks of young writers as dedicated to “the same anguish and travail” that he has experienced instead to saying ‘the same pain and hard work.’ Gezim responded that my revisions sound too informal for such a high occasion. “Right,” I said; “Faulkner speaks as a learned, passionate writer speaking to other learned people; he needs to use language that matches his tuxedo, metaphorical language that underscores the seriousness of his challenge to young writers to become “pillars” to help readers “endure and prevail.”

“What about sentence rhythms?” I asked. “Where to you see and hear Faulkner setting up a beat that underscores his passion?” Dafina then read the charge in paragraph two that young writers have “forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.” I congratulated Dafina on her keen eye and ear, noting the parallel “worth” phrases stressing the heart-conflicts that writers feel compelled to explore, as we had recently seen in the poems about parents, in Gaines’s novel about Grant’s inner struggles, and in Willy Loman’s inner anguish. I then referred students to two other rhetorical schemes in paragraph three: Faulkner’s use of polysyndeton, the unexpected repetition of “and” to define the range of “compassion and sacrifice” that must fill the writer’s “workshop”; and his use of “antithesis” to contrast writing of “love” with writing of “lust,” writing of “the heart” with writing of “the glands.” When I asked for examples of antithesis in the final paragraph, Edita referred to Faulkner’s definition of “man” as “immortal” not because of his “inexhaustible voice” but because of his “soul”; and Besa pointed to the last sentence, contrasting writers who provide the “record of man” with writers who provide the “props” and “pillars” that sustain readers.

Poets Remembering Parents, Part II

April 21, 2012

Li-Young Lee (Source:

Turning our attention to Li-Young Lee’s poem “The Gift,” I began with the obvious but important fact that Lee’s poem establishes as we come to it from the work of Plath and Dove, namely, that men share with women this intense need to remember their fathers clearly, to ‘get back’ at them or to them, to understand them and love them, perhaps to forgive them, perhaps to get past them.  “Do you recall from the introduction what distinctions Lee’s father achieved?” I wondered.  Several voices responded with “physician to Chairman Mao” and “political prisoner in Sukarno’s Indonesian jail.”  “Right,” I said, “and our editors also credit Lee with using the same techniques that Dove used in resurrecting her remorseful but menacing father, relying on multi-sensory appeals to recreate his father and to remember him faithfully and accurately.”

Noting that the word “gift” never appears in the poem, except in the title, I asked, “What is it?”  Arlind responded with “his ‘stories,’” Dafina with “his ‘tenderness’ and ‘discipline.’”  Praising both answers, I asked how Lee uses sensory imagery to reveal that tenderness and firmness.  We then explored Lee’s use of synecdoche and metaphor, the “voice” that sounds like “a well of dark water,” the “hands” that embrace Lee’s young face but also raise “flames of discipline” over his head (ll. 1-13).  We then noticed the long-term effect of these remembered images, as Lee sees himself, years later, lifting a splinter from his wife’s hand with the same healing gentleness that his father had ‘planted’ in his hand decades before.  “And how does Lee express his gratitude for these gifts?” I asked.  Edita responded by citing “what a child does….I kissed my father” (ll. 33, 35).

“When you juxtapose Lee’s poem to Plath’s “Daddy,” or even to Miller’s play Death of a Salesman, what do you realize about the American family and about the need of grown children to look back and understand their parents?” I asked.  This prompt led to some interesting comments on the need of children to reconstruct family narratives of justice and love as well as stories of injustice and abuse.  “What do adult children receive, other than some joy and lots of pain, from remembering such stories?” I wondered.  “Is it just about assigning blame, condemning mom or dad for what we have become?  Or about kissing the parent who loved you well?”   Wisely, Merita responded, “It’s more about the adult child making a choice, saying ‘you had the wrong dream,’ or ‘I’m through,’ or ‘I choose to pass on your love to my family.’”

Applauding this perceptive insight, I asked the class where Louise Glück’s poem “Appearances” stands on spectrum of remembering family narratives and choosing what the next chapter will be.  After Laureta read the poem aloud, I reminded the class of the introductory comments on Glück’s “complex family relations,” her psychoanalysis to deal with the resulting pain (3000), and then asked where they saw pain and coping mechanisms in the poem.  We quickly caught the reference to being “analyzed” but also the humor, the reference to portraits of her and her sister hung “over the mantel,/ where we couldn’t fight” (ll. 2-3).  When I asked what she remembers about her mother, we reviewed key descriptors of the “strong,” ‘controlling’ woman who valued “order,” who grieved always over another daughter who died, who “ministered to” her living sister and, in so doing, “damaged the other” (ll. 28-36).  “So what does the adult child now realize about the consequences of her mother’s unequal love?” I asked.  Besa rose to the challenge: “She understands that because she always wanted to be “child enough” for her mother, she became “too obedient,” too ready to be shaped—“If you want me to be a nun, I’ll be a nun”—to earn her mother’s approval (ll. 26, 43-44).

Yusef Komunyakaa (Source: Indiana Review)

“Yes,” I responded, “and such realizations can liberate the adult, as we saw in Biff at the end of Salesman.  Isn’t it interesting that when adult children take a different route than the parents took, they usually do not try to ‘kill’ the parent, as did Plath; on the contrary, they try to preserve the parent, as did Biff.”  I then asked if they could recall where Yusef Komunyakaa got his name and how that naming might relate to the instinct to preserve the parent.  No one remembered, so we scanned the introduction for this sentence: Komunyakaa “adopted the lost surname of a Trinidadian grandfather who came to the United States as a child” (3075).

Noting, too, the statement that Komunyakaa devoted his poetry to restoring black faces—from rural Louisiana, from Bourbon Street, and from Vietnam—that have been ‘erased’ from cultural memory (3075), we sought to discover how he remembers his father in “My Father’s Love Letters.”  After Fidan read the poem aloud, we spoke of this illiterate alcoholic mill worker, who asked his son to write his love letters to his wife, “promising to never beat her/Again” (ll. 6-7).  “But what else does Komunyakaa refuse to erase?” I asked.  Arben answered, listing the tools of his trade, the “carpenter’s apron,” the “gleam of a five-pound wedge” that “pulled a sunset/Through the doorway of his toolshed” (ll. 12, 22, 24-25).  “Right,” I said, “and he also remembers that his father could look at a blueprint and instantly know ‘how many bricks/Formed each wall’” (ll. 30-31).   Asked for his conclusion, Arben added that the drunken brute also seems to be a true craftsman, an artist “almost redeemed by what he tried to say” in his letters (ll. 35-36).

Thanking all for their patient, insightful readings, I asked for volunteers to read from their journals about their parents.  Bajram responded with a full-page tribute to his mother, the “goddess” who never failed him as he grew from childhood to adolescence and manhood.  Though he had not attempted poetry, we all praised the poetic quality of his prose, poetic in the sense that it relied on imagery from her kitchen table, site for buttering home-made bread and learning letters, and from his bedside to stress her nurturing tenderness, and from the war—school doors closed, soldiers ruling the streets—to stress her dignity and courage in a time when ethnic cleansings made it difficult to sustain either quality. Thoroughly impressed by Bajram’s tribute, I thanked him for celebrating the ‘gifts’ his mother provided, much as Li-Young Lee had done in his poem about his father.

Poets Remembering Parents, Part I

April 21, 2012

Sylvia Plath (Source: http:/

At the beginning of the next session, as I gathered students’ drafts on Lesson, I noted that Sylvia Plath was born a full generation after Richard Wright, but that she died in 1963, a victim of suicide, just three years after Wright’s death. Circulating a picture of Plath, I then asked what they learned in the introduction that made her death hard to understand. Several voices spoke at once, mentioning her marriage to poet Ted Hughes, their two children, her prestigious degree from Smith College, her Fulbright scholarship to Cambridge University, her publications. Next, I asked the painfully obvious question: “Why would a young, attractive wife and mother and successful poet have to take her own life? Does your book offer any help?” Dafina then mentioned the death of Plath’s father when she was only eight, saying that “it seems she never got over the anger and grief.” Then Shkodran mentioned the father’s authoritarian manner, a quality shared by her husband, who also resembled her father. I congratulated both students on their attentive reading and mentioned another key point from the introduction, that the merger of father and husband in the poem makes “Daddy” more than self-expressive, suggesting an attack on all oppressive men, possessors of the phallus, abusers of power.

I then asked that two women, two female voices, read “Daddy” aloud, each taking eight of the sixteen stanzas of the poem. Merita and Edita obliged; we all followed along as they gave voice to this anguished, angry poem. Thanking Merita and Edita for their voices and their daring, I asked the class to think about the images—both visual and auditory—that give the poem its power. “What about in the first two stanzas? What images define the child’s experience of the father’s tyrannical power?” In response, many voices spoke of the “black shoe,” the child smothered in the paternal shoe “like a foot,” afraid to “breathe.” Stressing Plath’s craft, I mentioned the visual intensity she creates with the “shoe,” this specialized form of figurative language, a synecdoche, which allows her to define the whole man by focusing on a cruel, suppressive part. “But does the narrator’s voice sound submissive, defeated?” I asked. Several voices responded with the defiant line, “I have had to kill you.” “What images suggest her contempt for the father?” Ragip responded, saying that she mocks his self-importance by calling him a “bag full of God” with a disgusting, “ghastly,” swollen toe.

Moving to other stanzas, I asked the class if they heard any love mixed in with the anger and contempt. Kadrije said she “used to pray to recover” (l. 14) him, that she tried to kill herself to “get back to you. I thought even the bones would do” (ll. 59-60), and Edita added that she “made a model of you” (l. 64) by marrying Hughes. I praised their answers but wondered why she uses Nazi imagery to describe this man, these men, she loves. Perceptively, Blerta stressed the metaphor: all men become Nazis, and all their women become “Jews,” receptacles for his dominating “root” (32, 23). “Why does she shift to the vampire imagery?” I asked. Besa replied that the blood-sucking imagery further stresses the way men use up women, drain them of life after biting the woman’s “pretty red heart in two” (l. 56). “Does she leave you with this image of victimization?” I asked Besa. She answered by reading the last two stanzas aloud, sounding the anger as the narrator-daughter-wife drives a “stake in your fat black heart” and proclaims, “Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through” (ll. 76, 80). Complimenting Besa’s strong reading, I mentioned again Plath’s craft, her alliterative use of harsh “b” and “d” sounds, the sequence of strong stresses in “fat black heart”; such cacophony, I said, creates the angry tone and complements the violent images of her final rejection of her father.

Just nine years old when Plath committed suicide, Rita Dove as an adult also wrote about her father, and she did so, according to our text, with the same “friction” that we found in Plath’s poetry (3135). Reminding the class of this claim, I asked, “Where do you see and hear friction in Dove’s ‘Adolescence III,’ which begins with the father’s absence and ends with his presence. What happens in between? What’s going on inside of her as she shares gardening with her mom?” Dafina noted the simile, with the girl keenly aware that, like the tomatoes, she grows “softer, swelling out” (l. 5). “Why does she have to wrap her scarred knees in the second stanza?” I pressed Dafina. She answered quickly, “She also feels the consequence of her hard work, and she wants to cover the scars with fancy old dresses “that once went to big-band dances” (l. 9). Thanking Dafina for her sensitive answers, I asked the class how this ‘friction’ between a hard reality and romantic fantasy plays out in the third stanza. Fidan responded, saying that she stands in “rows of clay and chicken manure” dreaming of a young man who would come, profess his love, and make the “scabs fall away,” until the “father” ends the fantasy (ll. 14-21). “What do you make of the closing image,” I asked Fidan, “carrying his ‘tears in a bowl’ as ‘blood hangs in the pine-soaked air’?” “Maybe the tears show his regret for deserting them, but the blood shows that his return threatens more abuse,” he guessed.

Praising all for their close readings, I then asked if anyone cared to share his or her journaling on suicide or on adolescent memories. Gezim responded first, reading an entertaining account of adolescent sibling rivalries and his great sufferings as the ‘oldest child,’ always having to tend to the younger brothers and getting punished for their pranks. Changing the mood dramatically, Besa read of her opposition to suicide, calling it “weakness,” a choice never justified even in times of immense suffering. To support her view, she described the persecution her Albanian family suffered at the hands of Serbian soldiers in the 1990s, the loss of home, the fear of the ever-present AK-47s. She acknowledged that she thought of suicide then, just to escape the terror, but her parents’ heroic example made her put aside such despairing thoughts.

Seeing that everyone had been as moved to smiles and to deep sadness by this journaling, I thanked the readers for their candor and courage and the listeners for their attentiveness, and then asked everyone to prepare for the next session by reading three more poems packed with complicated memories about parents: Li-Young Lee’s “The Gift,” Louise Glück’s “Appearances,” and Yusef Komunyakaa’s “My Father’s Love Letters.” I also asked the students to prepare a journal entry, either in prose or in poetry, describing their fathers or mothers by using images, not abstractions, just as Plath and Dove had done.

Teaching A Lesson Before Dying: Part 3

April 7, 2012

A Lesson Before Dying

Cover of Gaines' A Lesson Before Dying

Returning to our discussion of Gaines’ Lesson, I said that, even as they prepare the final version of their Salesman papers, they would need to draw on their journaling to begin planning their essays on Gaines’ novel.  To help them begin this process, I passed out their assignment sheet, which featured the following subjects as possible focuses for their essays:

  • The effects of racism on the American justice system
  • The relationship of liberty to literacy
  • The love story of Vivian and Grant
  • Grant: the man and the teacher
  • Jefferson: His transformation from “hog” to man
  • Reverend Ambrose, Grant, and the dynamics of faith and doubt
  • The women in Gaines’ novel

I then suggested that we spend our last hour talking about approaches to one or two of these overlapping subjects, focusing particularly on chapters 20-31, the ones we had not discussed.  By common consent, we began with “Grant: the man and the teacher.”  Reminding students that we saw a new Grant emerging at the end of our last session, I asked what evidence they saw of Grant’s effective teaching.  Kadrije mentioned the radio that Grant bought for Jefferson and his defense of this purchase in a confrontation with Reverend Ambrose, who calls it a “sin box” (181).  “So how can we consider a radio a teaching device?” I asked Kadrije.  She responded by reading key quotes from Grant’s defense:  “I found a way to reach him for the first time….He wants something of his own before he dies….The only thing that keeps him from thinking he is not a hog is that radio” (182, 183).

After commending Kadrije on her insights and evidence, I asked if anyone else could uncover some effective teaching that emerges, rather ironically, from his conflict with Reverend Ambrose.  “You recall,” I said, “that Ambrose wants Grant to teach Jefferson to pray, to kneel; Grant refuses, saying that he has tried to teach him to stand.  But what kinds of teachings does Grant share with Jefferson in the meetings that follow?”  Edita answered, referring to Grant’s lesson about heroism, his teaching Jefferson to be a hero; she then read some key quotes from the lesson: “A hero does for…people he loves because he knows it would make their lives better….You could give something to Emma, to me, to those children in the quarter” (191).  “Can you tell me what Grant has to say about Mr. Farrell’s slingshots?” I asked her.  “It’s a metaphor,” Edita explained; “Farrell turns rough wood into a beautiful slingshot handle; he wants Jefferson to “decide to become something else” (193).  “And what irony does this lesson have, given Grant’s recent fight with the Reverend?”  “Grant speaks like a pastor, teaching about love,” Edita answered.  “And what does Grant tell Jefferson as they walk around the day-room, Jefferson in shackles?”  Edita answered with another quotation from Grant: “I think it’s God that makes people care for people” (223).  Naturally, I had lots of praise for Edita, too.

Delighted by these insights, I asked the class what other brilliant teaching idea Grant has just before he begins this ‘sermon’ about love.  Several answered with “the pencil and diary.”  I then asked how this teaching strategy works, and how it relates to the “liberty and literacy” subject on their assignment sheet.  “What do we learn about Jefferson from his journaling, besides the obvious fact that he had minimal literacy skills?  What does he write about?”  These questions led to an array of answers: Jefferson’s dream about the execution, his feeling that God “just work for wite folks” (227), his gratitude to his teacher, his tearful response to the children who bring him pecans and kisses and marbles, the kisses he gives to Emma at her last visit, his admission that he “been shakin an shakin but im gon stay strong” (233).  I then asked what they would call a person who admits his fears but faces them, a person who can show tenderness to children, compassion for his godmother, and gratitude to the man who made him “think im somebody” (232).  Several answered instantly: “a man.”  “Yes,” I responded, “so what does Gaines suggest here about the power of writing?  Jefferson still wears chains, he still will die, but what has he achieved?”  “Freedom,” Fidan said.  “He has escaped the ‘hog’ identity.”

Thanking the class for their thoughtful responses, I encouraged them, as they began to draft on their chosen subject, to think about blending a critical theory or theories with their analysis.   For example, I noted that the subject of Jefferson as well as the first two subjects focus on racism and the justice system and on the relationship of literacy to liberty; therefore, these subjects might invite a Marxist reading of the novel, arguing that the injustices of capitalism appear in the arrogance of the ruling class and in their oppression of the proletariat or working class.  On the other hand, I said that if they chose to write about Grant, they could take a deconstructive approach, arguing that Grant’s transformation and its effects on Jefferson and the deputy Paul undercut the Marxist critique, showing that capitalist injustices can, eventually, be overcome.  Further, I suggested that a paper on Vivian and the other women in the novel would invite a feminist reading, stressing the failed attempts to silence women, and a paper on Grant and Reverend Ambrose could take a psychoanalytic approach, tracing the conflict between the agnostic and the man of faith as a clash between a ‘son’ and a surrogate father/authority figure.