Teaching poetry to grade 12 interactively

Teaching poetry to grade 12 interactively

This is an account of a teacher observation I did that I would like to share with senior school teachers.

The teacher was doing a poetry class with grade 12 – Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn. Her presence, voice and knowledge were excellent. I was making notes on her class, word wall good, great commandments on how to approach literary pieces from annotation to appraisal I wrote.

What’s an ode? she begins and I am thinking children should have done a number of odes by now most notably Pablo Neruda’s odes to the onion and other vegetables. They should have written a couple themselves on their sports shoes or mobile phones.

Children are now reading the poem, and when done, the teacher tells them there are 3 scenes depicted on the urn. I would have told them before we started, if I had to tell them,  so that they know what to look for. I’d have asked them to find word clusters and label them as Nature, Time etc. and to examine what they meant in the poem. Instead she asks: What are the lines you like? Too subjective and too early for the kids to give her informed choices. I’m running my eyes through the poem and thinking the 3 scenes are on Love, Time, and Death, besides the iconic line Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty. She now begins to start at the start, and analyse. She asks them about the impact of the repeated questions in the first stanza.

” What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?”

They are not able to get it. I am thinking should I let her continue and write a report  or should I demonstrate?

On impulse, I get up and say: May I? She happily gives me the opportunity.

15 pairs of eyes look startled and curious. I smile inwardly.

I read the rhetorical questions again in a tone of wonder… no response…

I say: What a sunrise! What beauty? Whose work is this? Wah! And bingo they get to the emotional impact. Wonder, awe, amazement….they say.

Can you find the lines describing – awe at the emotional state of lovers…. Ecstacy…. Junooon, bekhudi… If I had time (I had 20 minutes left in this period now) I would have done some sufi poetry. 😛

” That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy’d,
A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.”

Is love eternal? Does it change with the times? Did the Neanderthal love differently from now? Did his heart beat? His tongue parch? Did his forehead burn in love? Oh yes!!! Love is universal – for all people and all times and in the future. Eternal truth called Love.

So, I go back to the 3 scenes. The first one is of the lovers prancing around the bough…. Is it more exciting to be in love or to finally end it with a kiss I ask… they are totally mesmerised! To be in love miss…. Why so? Anticipation they say. Yes, the thrill of anticipation being sharper than the culmination. Being in love is so much more exciting than being married, I wink. They laugh. I quote:

” Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair! “

In the marble urn, he will love forever and she will always be fair. No aging and no death. So, what’s that called? We reach the words ‘immortality’ and ‘eternity’. Frozen in time. Forever young. Time stops. Time defeated. Time captured and defeated. Do we conquer time by stopping it with our intense experiences?

Their eyes are now shining.

Are heard melodies better than unheard ones? Yes miss. How? We hear them with our mind. Do we hear them with our feelings?  I speak to them about how when we read books and imagine characters, we find they never match anyone in real quite as accurately. They are all nodding vigorously. Why is that? Our imagination knows no boundaries. If you were a brilliant artist and I asked you to draw what you imagine you wouldn’t be able to. You are feeling the image… not through your visual faculties but your mind’s endless imagination. An image that uses emotion as its medium and is defined not by strokes of the brush, but by feelings……How cool are we???

They are sitting forward now… almost salivating…

Let’s look at the next scene.

” Who are these coming to the sacrifice?
To what green altar, O mysterious priest,
Lead’st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,
And all her silken flanks with garlands drest? “

Why is the heifer dressed in garlands? It’s going to be sacrificed miss. Why is it being sacrificed? Look at green altar. What does green stand for? Freshness. Fertility.  What is the concept here in this sacrificial animal? If the first one was Love? We now reach the door of Death. The other big eternal truth. The people who have thronged for the sacrifice will never return home…. Is death too frozen in time? Is movement and life frozen? Is Death defeated by Time? Is Time defeated by Love? Yes. Wow!

I read the rest of the poem and there is barely any need for more questions or explanations. It’s clear as daylight.

So, what does this mean? 
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

They struggle. I tell them we are so close to Indian philosophy here. What is ‘truth’ in Hindi? Sachaai…. another word please….. Satyam… 
‘Satyam Shivam Sundaram!’ they chorus.
Yes. Truth, God (love) and Beauty… are all ye need to know.. they are the same. See how West and East meet. At the end of the day, there is just that one truth. What is Good is Beautiful; and what is Good is God; and what is God is Truth. They are almost clapping. 

What does the urn stand for? I ask finally. What do we call a small thing that contains larger truths or speaks volumes? Starts with an ‘s’ and ends with an ‘l’.’
Chorus: Symbol. 
So, what does the urn symbolize? Eternity. Frozen time. Frozen death. Frozen love. And yet it is but a dead thing….marble, cold, dead…. Eternal life and love contained in dead and lifeless marble.
.
The eyes are twinkling now. They are grinning…

” Cold Pastoral! “

An inanimate urn, used to keep the ashes of the dead…. And yet it becomes the canvas for containing the idea of eternity… Isn’t that paradoxical???? Isn’t that genius??? Life and death, the permanent and the transient…. two contradictions…entwined, eternal, containing one another …. Kya baat… kya baat…

Keats (1795 -1821) my dear friends … philosopher, thinker, poet who died at the tender age of 26!

Thank you, teacher, for allowing me to take your class. 

———–——————-

Ode on a Grecian Urn

By John Keats


Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness,
Thou foster-child of silence and slow time,
Sylvan historian, who canst thus express
A flowery tale more sweetly than our rhyme:
What leaf-fring’d legend haunts about thy shape
Of deities or mortals, or of both,
In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard
Are sweeter; therefore, ye soft pipes, play on;
Not to the sensual ear, but, more endear’d,
Pipe to the spirit ditties of no tone:
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;
And, happy melodist, unwearied,
For ever piping songs for ever new;

More happy love! more happy, happy love!
For ever warm and still to be enjoy’d,
For ever panting, and for ever young;
All breathing human passion far above,
That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy’d,
A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.

Who are these coming to the sacrifice?
To what green altar, O mysterious priest,
Lead’st thou that heifer lowing at the skies,
And all her silken flanks with garlands drest?
What little town by river or sea shore,
Or mountain-built with peaceful citadel,
Is emptied of this folk, this pious morn?
And, little town, thy streets for evermore
Will silent be; and not a soul to tell
Why thou art desolate, can e’er return.

O Attic shape! Fair attitude! with brede
Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!

When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

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