Thursday, April 23, 2015

Tiptoeing through the tautologies

If I'd known I'd be spending the morning in TautologyTown, I'd have packed something to read besides this stack of quizzes. Of course, without the quizzes, I wouldn't have missed my turn and entered the neverending labyrinth of nonmeaning.

I asked a class to analyze a poem. A villanelle, if you must know, a form we had encountered in class only a week ago when we read Elizabeth Bishop's  "One Art." I outlined the structure on the board: 19 lines, with the first and third reappearing in certain set places, and only two end rhymes. "You will see this form again in next week's reading," I told them. "Be sure to keep a lookout."

So naturally when I assigned Theodore Roethke's "The Waking," I assumed that little lightbulbs would go off over their heads--or even if they didn't recall the word "villanelle" or the pattern we'd discussed in class, I assumed that they would notice that the first and third lines kept being repeated. But just in case they didn't notice the repetitions when they read the poem before class (assuming that they did so), I gave them a reading quiz with the whole poem printed on it and asked them to describe the pattern of repeated lines and draw conclusions about how those repetitions contribute to the meaning of the poem.

Some of them did a lovely job. I saw lots of little a's and b's or stars and check marks or arrows showing where the lines were repeated, and some students made strong connections between this pattern of repetition and the concept that learning requires a lot of feeling around in the dark and bumping into the same obstacles over and over again.

One student claimed that the poem follows no set pattern, which suggests a lack of attention to the most obvious features of the poem. Many more, though, wrote something like this:

The author uses repetition to repeat what he's trying to say.

The repetition reinforces the content by repeating it. 

The meaning of the poem is repeated so readers can understand what he's trying to say.

I could go on, but my brain is screaming at me. He repeats what he repeats! He means what he means! He repeats what he means and he means what he repeats! How did I get stuck in this miserable maze--and can someone please show me the way out?   

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