In “Introduction to Poetry,” Billy Collins bemoans students who want to “tie the poem to a chair with rope / and torture a confession out of it. … / to find out what it really means.” In my own teaching of undergraduate poetry classes, I often encounter the same problem: students who approach each poem as a riddle, or even worse, a trick. The author, they think, has hidden the meaning somewhere behind the image, and it is their job to never let the author get the upper hand. Images, in this line of thinking, must be dismantled and discarded as efficiently as possible.
But what if the images are the real meaning? I asked my students. What if authors are--hear me out--saying what they mean? I begged; I pleaded; finally, I turned to YouTube.
YouTube is a wealth of resources for poetry videos, and I began to dedicate in-class time to watching and discussing them. In some videos, the images the poet chose are reflected directly in the images of the video. For example, in “Ozymandius,” read by Bryan Cranston, “The lone and level sands stretch far away” in the shots of the Arizona desert. Students lingered on each image, witnessing “the decay / Of that colossal wreck.”
Similarly, in “I Go Back to May 1937,” from the film Into the Wild, we see, in particular, the setting of the college illustrated in diction that leans toward the violent: “red tiles glinting like bent / plates of blood behind his head,” and “the wrought-iron gate still open behind her, its / sword-tips aglow.” A college graduation, typically a moment of joy, turns threatening.
Then it was their turn: they were tasked with choosing a poem from their textbook, Making Your Own Days, and making a video of it.
Importantly, this video was not to be an overt act of analysis or interpretation. What was really important in the video was for the student to slow down, think about the images in the poem, and think about how to represent those images on video.
Students were wildly successful in this assignment. One student used a video game to create a visual interpretation of “Bright Star” by John Keats.
Another student chose “To My Sister” by William Wordsworth, and saw the “blessing in the air” in her own neighborhood: in the azaleas, the suburban lawns, and in her daily walks with her brother.
Yet another student, quarantined in her house, used a drone to capture video of her town. The aerial shots took on an otherworldly quality, as vast distances and softly rolling mountains illustrated Wordsworth’s “spirit of the season.”
These are just a few examples; every video submission was illuminating and drew me in.
After all the student videos were submitted, we watched the videos during class and discussed the poems.
The discussion was the best of the semester. The analysis and interpretation ended up happening, of course, but now the analysis was grounded clearly in the poem itself. Finally, the analysis served as a way of returning us to the text and providing new ways of reading, rather than moving us away from the poem.
Watching and then creating poetry videos opened the door for a new way of reading and understanding poetry, and moved students away from the idea that the author was hiding a message behind an image. Finally, students saw the images as the meaning of the poem, rather than something that concealed meaning.
Monica Wendel is an associate professor of composition and creative writing at St. Thomas Aquinas College. She is the author of English Kills and Other Poems (Mayapple Press, 2018).
Many thanks to Sidney Reeves and Emily Millman for granting permission to republish their videos.
The feature image is a still from "CHIFLADA" by Monica McClure