Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Lesson 2: Thirteen Ways of Reading a Modernist Poem

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The Lesson

Introduction

Planes, (subway) trains, automobiles and World War I

Planes, (subway) trains, automobiles and World War I—A dramatic shift in sensibilities ocurred as a result of these factors of modern life.

Credit: Images courtesy of American Memory

Modernist poetry often is difficult for students to analyze and understand. A primary reason students feel a bit disoriented when reading a modernist poem is that the speaker himself is uncertain about his or her own ontological bearings. Indeed, the speaker of modernist poems characteristically wrestles with the fundamental question of “self,” often feeling fragmented and alienated from the world around him. In other words, a coherent speaker with a clear sense of himself/herself is hard to find in modernist poetry, often leaving students confused and “lost.”

This lesson prompts students to think about a poem’s speaker within the larger context of modernist poetry. First, students will review the role of the speaker in two poems of the Romanticism and Victorian periods before focusing on the differences in Wallace Stevens’ modernist “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.”

Guiding Questions

  • What are several key characteristics of literary modernism?

Learning Objectives

  • Students will understand the literary context of modernism.
  • Students will be able to identity a poem’s speaker and understand its importance.
  • Students will be able to define and understand in context common poetic devices.
  • Students will be able to analyze several modernist poems.

Preparation Instructions

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Identifying a Poem's Speaker
  • A good warm-up activity for introducing modernist poetry to secondary students is to revisit poems of the nineteenth century. Modernism as a literary movement—the “rallying cry” of which was “Make It New!”—tried to break from the formal traditions and poetic style of Romantic and Victorian poetry. One clear difference centers on the poem’s speaker. In the following example from Romantic and Victorian poetry, the “I” of the poem typically is clear and well-grounded, both in terms of the speaker’s identity and sense of himself and in terms of his/her relationship to the world around him/her. With this difference in mind, review with your class at large William Wordsworth’s poem “The Daffodils” and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “Sonnet from the Portuguese 43: How Do I Love Thee?”, both available via the EDSITEment-reviewed website American Academy of Poets.

The Daffodils
I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze
.

[Read the rest of the poem.]

—William Wordsworth,1804

Sonnet 43 from the Portuguese, “How Do I Love Thee?”
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.

[Read the rest of the poem.]

—Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Published, 1850

  • Discuss with students the following questions:
    • Who is the speaker in each poem?
    • What is the tone of the speaker?
    • What is the poem about?
    • How would you describe each poet’s language and choice of words (diction)?
  • What formal poetic devices can you identify? (rhyme scheme, consistent stanzas, sonnet)
  • Now turn to “The Daffodils” poem. Ask students to describe the speaker’s relationship to the poem’s setting.
    • Is the speaker clear about what he sees and describes?
    • Can you as a reader describe the landscape of the poem?
    • What is the poet’s relationship to nature? How does he feel about the natural world?
  • Finally, review “Sonnet 43,” and ask students the following questions:
    • What does the speaker think about love? Is she hopeful and optimistic, or negative and pessimistic?
    • Would you say the speaker believes in the power of love? Why or why not?
    • What is the speaker’s relationship to God?
Activity 2. Thirteen Ways of Looking: Introducing Modernist Poetry
  • When reading Wordsworth and Browning, students most likely felt grounded and assured when asked to study and interpret the poems. They also probably sensed the hopefulness and optimism of each poem. Ask students to reconsider Virginia Woolf’s proclamation that, “human nature underwent a fundamental change ‘on or about December 1910.’ [From the Academy of American Poets “The Modernist Revolution: Make It New”]. For this quotation’s broader context, refer back to Lesson One: Introduction to Modernist Poetry.
  • Ask students to think back to the speaker of the Wordsworth and Browning poems. Ask students to consider these poems within the context of their small group findings from Lesson One. Guiding questions include the following:
    • Compare the setting of “Daffodils” to the city scenes, factory scenes, and especially the WWI-devastated landscape. What symbolic differences can you identify?
    • Wordsworth has faith in his ability to recollect the field of daffodils as a way of filling his heart with pleasure. How might one’s “inward eye” have changed in the early 1900s? How might Wordsworth’s “solitude” have changed?
    • How would these speakers feel if they lived during the early 1900s? How might the subject matter of their poems change?
  • Ask students whether these two Romantic poems “sound” modern? Why or why not? Remind students of the speaker and “setting” they identified in Wordsworth’s “The Daffodils.” Re-read “The Daffodils,” and then read aloud the opening stanza of Wallace Stevens’ poem “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” [This exercise is meant to give students a basic sketch of literary modernism; they will analyze modernist poetry in greater depth and detail in Lesson Three: “Navigating Modernism with J. Alfred Prufrock”.]
  • Ask students to first read through the poem, and then use the Thirteen Ways chart (available as a PDF or Online Interactive) to brainstorm the similarities and differences between the Romantic poems and the Steven’s poem.

    Among twenty snowy mountains,
    The only moving thing
    Was the eye of the blackbird.

    Ask students the following questions:

    • Does this poem seem to be a poem about nature?
    • Does a speaker identify himself at the beginning?
    • Compare this depiction of nature to Wordsworth description of the daffodils? What are specific differences? Ask students to consider the movement of the blackbird versus the movement of the daffodils.
  • Moving through rest of the poem, ask students to describe the general differences between this poem and “The Daffodils.” Then point out the following basic differences by stanza; doing so enables you to begin to chart characteristics of modernist poetry in general. The stanza numbers below correspond to the stanza numbers for the poem, which is available in full at the EDSITEment-reviewed Academy of American Poets:

    II: Divided Self; Detached Speaker: The speaker does not have a unified sense of self, and the distinct “I” continually disappears throughout the poem, detaching himself to the point at which the poem’s language, not the speaker, takes center stage.

    III: Powerless and Alienated: The blackbird has no clear power/agency; the wind, by contrast, whirls around the blackbird, creating a sense of futility to the blackbird’s existence. Additionally, the blackbird is but a “small part” of the silent motions/gestures of the landscape.

    IV: Riddles: Here, the reader is called upon to decipher meaning from this “riddle” or language puzzle. Meaning is not handed to the reader easily and clearly; instead, he or she must play language games as well.

    V: Playing with Language: The speaker describes the beauty of language and demonstrates his own playing with language in the last two lines.

    VI: Desolate World: Even nature (icicles) is “barbaric.”
    Ambiguity: There is ambiguity in “the mood,” which is both ”traced in the shadow” (hence, unclear) and explicitly “indecipherable.”

    VII: Allusive: Reference to information outside the poem: “men of Haddam,” a town in Connecticut.

    VIII: Analytical: Again, riddle-like language.

    IX: Fragmentation: From here on out, the poem becomes a series of seemingly disconnected vignettes. It is up to the reader to piece together meaning from these disconnected clips.

    X: Description is Secondary: Description takes a back seat to play with allusive language.

    XI: Convoluted: Here, the references to blackbirds are becoming convoluted, demonstrating the speaker’s preference for internal musings rather than clear descriptions.

    XII: Additional disconnected musings/non sequiturs.

    XIII: Meaning through Montage: The poem ends with continued play with language, and the poems comes full circle to the blackbird in the snowy mountains. This ending positions the speaker as one who has only imagined the poem internally via language, as opposed to one who has ventured concretely in nature. The reader is left with more questions than answers and is called upon, like the speaker, to attempt to create meaning from the poem’s fragments. The question is, “Can language convey meaning after all?”

Assessment

Assessment options include the following exercises:

  • Ask students to write a typed, two-page analysis of the difference between the speaker of either the Wordsworth or Browning poem and the Stevens poem.
  • Read the popular Robert Frost poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” from Favorite Poem Project (a link on the EDSITEment-reviewed Academy of American Poets). Imagine Wordsworth and Stevens walking through these same snowy woods together. Considering their poetic voices and adopting each persona, write a two-page dialogue between the two on the topic “What is Nature?” You can refer to images in Frost’s poem.

Extending The Lesson

  • Review and analyze Wallace Stevens's "Anecdote of a Jar." Points of consideration: comparison of jar to “bird or bush,” natural landscape vs. symbol of the jar, speaker, and tone.
  • Review and analyze William Carlos Williams's "To Elsie." Points of consideration: tone, structure (pace, sentence length, stanza length, line breaks), symbols/images, and speaker.
  • Review and analyze Jean Toomer's "Reapers." Points of consideration: setting, image, and symbolism.

The Basics

Grade Level

9-12

Time Required

1-2 class periods

Subject Areas
  • Literature and Language Arts > Place > American
  • Literature and Language Arts > Place > British
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > The Emergence of Modern America (1890-1930)
  • Literature and Language Arts > Genre > Poetry
Skills
  • Compare and contrast
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Interpretation
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Poetry analysis
Authors
  • Kellie Tabor-Hann (AL)

Resources

Activity Worksheets
Media