Monday, November 21, 2016

Putting Dylan on the syllabus

It started off as a joke--honestly, I never really intended to put Bob Dylan on my American Lit Survey syllabus, Nobel Prize or no Nobel Prize. But as I was casting about for ways to revise the assignment for the poetry analysis paper to solve a particular problem, I had an epiphany--a crazy idea that just might work.

The problem is that my students are afraid of poetry. Not all poetry, of course, and not all students either, but the Survey class attracts many students seeking general education credit, who tend not to be poetry-lovers. In fact, if I were to calculate the ratio of poetry-haters to poetry-lovers in any given semester, I would never set foot back in the classroom.

For many students, hatred of poetry springs from an intense, crippling fear of getting the interpretation wrong, as if each poem carried a secret hidden meaning accessible only to the initiated, and the fear of missing this secret hidden meaning sends them scurrying to online sources promising to reveal the secret. The result is a pile of papers stuffed with thinly disguised paraphrase of cliches drawn from web sites. Depressing.

I want them to think about what poetry is, what it's made of, and what it can accomplish in the world, but instead they serve me a bland cliche casserole. How to engage them in the question of why poetry matters?

Enter Bob Dylan--and, for the sake of variety, Leonard Cohen, both much in the news lately. Here is the current draft of the American Lit Survey poetry paper prompt: 
When Bob Dylan won the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature, many objected: "He's a songwriter, not a poet." Similarly, when songwriter Leonard Cohen died, many people mourned the passing of a "poet." This raises the question: What is a poet? And if a poet is someone who writes poems, then what is a poem?

This paper will require you to answer that question. First, pick either Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen as your test case, and then write an essay arguing that Dylan or Cohen is or is not a poet for reasons you will state. The successful essay will
  • articulate at least three specific criteria that characterize poetry;
  • provide examples from at least two works by Dylan or Cohen; and 
  • provide examples from two others poets on the syllabus (for contrast or support).
I hope that this assignment will drive students to think deeply about what constitutes poetry, and even if they want to argue that a poem is something that rhymes, that's just one point. They'll have to look more deeply for the others, and they'll have to find some point of comparison between Dylan or Cohen and other poets on the syllabus, like Allen Ginsberg, Elizabeth Bishop, or Li-Young Lee. 

If nothing else, I've given them something to argue about, and what could be better than a room full of student arguing about the nature of poetry?  

1 comment:

Bardiac said...

What a GREAT essay prompt!