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5 Posts authored by: Joanne Diaz Expert
Joanne Diaz

Riding the Metro Haiku

Posted by Joanne Diaz Expert Sep 13, 2016

The undergraduate classroom might seem like the last place to introduce students to archival materials. We have so many other commitments—to coverage of historical periods, to literary interpretation and theory, to improving student writing—that it might seem like an extra activity that might simply take up too much class time. However, students can and should learn about the cultural conventions that affect the transmission of texts, and I would argue that their close readings of these texts is actually central to their understanding of what poems, plays, and short stories are and how they work. Reading various versions of a text can actually get undergraduates—and teachers—to work toward a clearer and more effective definition of close reading. The results of my students’ research consistently demonstrate that textual studies can actually inspire close reading and help students generate the questions that they can use in a variety of literature courses.


Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro” is one of the most famous poems of the twentieth century. It also provides us with a short, easy way into discussing archival materials. This is how the poem appears in most literature:


In a Station of the Metro

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;

Petals on a wet, black bough.


Immediately, students are engaged with the poem. The title locates us in Paris in the early 1900s, when the Metro system was still a wonderful and terrifying new symbol of modernity. The students are haunted by the “apparition” of the faces, stuck underground like the ghosts of the dead. And they like the surprising comparison between these ghostly faces and the petals on a bough. They see the commentary on the alienation of the modern metropolis. Formally, they can recognize Ezra Pound’s debt to the Japanese haiku tradition (and, as Ezra Pound wrote in his essay titled “Vorticism,” this poem is indebted to the haiku tradition), and the poems mathematical precision: the equation between faces and petals, the loose iambic pentameter of each line.


In fact, this poem is so accessible—or at least it seems to be—that it’s easy to forget that it is the result of a variety of editorial decisions, and that the transmission of the text across time actually transformed the poem. This is how the poem looked when it was first published in 1913, in Poetrymagazine (To see the original 1913 publication of Pound’s poem, you can go to this link on the Poetry Foundation website:



The apparition       of these faces       in the crowd  :

Petals       on a wet, black    bough  .

Ezra Pound


In this version, the title is boldly announced in all caps, the poet’s name appears just beneath the text, and the poem itself seems to be deeply concerned with innovations in typography and design. In this context, the words are transformed by the use of white space between them; and by the change from a semicolon to a colon. With a semicolon, Pound joins two independent ideas, but with this use of the colon, Pound suggests that the second line is an appositive, or description, of the first.


In class, we discuss the tiny differences between these two versions, and I ask students which version they like best—not which is best—and I don’t tell them which version has actually become the standard version that appears in literature anthologies until the very end of the class period. As they work through each version, they have to pay attention to the tiny, seemingly superficial choices in layout and punctuation that they might overlook in a reading of just one version in our anthology. In doing so, they are engaging in a critical discussion, even if they don’t know it yet. In recent years, bibliographical scholars have shown how such “accidentals” as punctuation, capitalization, spelling, and overall typographical design contribute to meaning in significant ways. In this example from Ezra Pound, students see that these choices in appearance are indeed substantive, even emotional.


[This post originally appeared on LitBits on November 2, 2011.]]  

Poetry is an oral as well as written tradition, and we are only doing half the work—and having half the fun— if we silently read a poem on the page. Unfortunately, I don’t always have the chance to emphasize this enough in the classroom. As I struggle for both depth and breadth in my courses, I often run out of time before I can focus on the performance of poetry.


At least a few times during the semester, though, I create opportunities for students to engage with the performance of written texts. This might seem like an optional activity that doesn’t have the substance of a lecture or in-depth discussion, but I would disagree. In fact, in-class recitations can generate real excitement among students, in part because memorization requires a slow, attentive reading that we wish for every time we assign a new text.


With this in mind, I recommend the Shakespeare Sonnet Slam as a classroom activity. In an English literature survey we spend a couple of classes reading sonnets by Shakespeare and his contemporaries, but because these sonnets represent one small unit out of many in a survey course, that’s about all the time we have for The Bard’s sequence. Even so, the memorization requires students to read their poem with a quality of attention that they wouldn’t ordinarily have. Even if our activity means that we get to spend less time discussing other poets, students quickly understand the power of a poetic sequence, and how it can convey a variety of emotional and intellectual struggles in innovative ways.


Here’s how it works:

  1. First, I ask students to memorize one of Shakespeare’s sonnets. If students are anxious about the process of memorizing a poem, I offer them several strategies: they can write the poem, longhand, several times until they get a sense of how the lines fit together; they can photocopy the poem and carry it with them, memorizing it throughout the week; or they can memorize the poem by reciting it once through, then hiding the final word of the poem and reading it through, then hiding the final two words of the poem and reading it through, and so on until they’re reciting the poem with no words exposed.
  2. Once students have memorized their poem, the next task is understanding. In order for them to deliver Shakespeare’s lines with emotional accuracy, they have to attend to his sonnet logic: the turn that occurs, usually in the final couplet; the if/then structure that Shakespeare relies on to create tension in many of his poems; and the rhetorical strategies of his poems, whether they be blazons, anti-blazons, complaints, or poems of praise. I remind students that they have to make the language come alive so that anyone who listens will be deeply moved. With as many as twenty-five students in a class or discussion section, this can be quite challenging, but I’ve found that my students are so engaged with this challenge that they’re willing to extend the slam over two class meetings. I also recommend that they go to Poetry Out Loud for some advice on reciting well.
  3. When students recite their poems in class, they must also be prepared to talk about what they learned as a result of the process. They can talk about the narrative situation of the poem, the way Shakespeare relies on inherited wisdom from Erasmus, the Bible, or his contemporaries, or anything else that they think could be valuable to our understanding of the poem as a whole.


Each student takes about 3-4 minutes for their total performance. In the past, I’ve sometimes asked colleagues to be the “judge” for the slam; other times, I’ve relied on students as the judges. The judges are allowed to award two prizes: one for exceptional recitation, and one for exceptional explication. Of course, one student could potentially receive both prizes. If you’re looking for a way to engage your students, try this exercise; if you already do something similar in your survey courses, please respond to this blog entry.


[[This post originally appeared on LitBits on 10-4-11.]]

A couple of years ago, I taught a May Term class called Survey of English Poetry, 1500-1700. During May Term, my students kept “commonplace books,” which turned out to be a surprisingly fun, and for some students, a very meaningful, exercise. In the Renaissance—and actually up through the nineteenth century—many people in Western culture used commonplace books as repositories of quotes, recipes, meditations, Biblical passages, illustrations, observations on nature and the passage of time, and poems. It was a way for people to represent themselves in relation to the inherited knowledge of the culture.  To emulate this practice requires a Renaissance habit of mind—a mind that is continually culling information from the world, and above all, experimenting with a “writerly” self.


On the first day of class, I distributed small 3 ½ x5 ½” Moleskine blank notebooks.  Each day of May Term, I encouraged students to write excerpts of their favorite poems, horoscopes, lyrics from their favorite songs, descriptions of what they were learning in other disciplines, or any other meditations that came to mind. At first, I worried that they wouldn’t be interested in writing longhand, especially when they could just enter thoughts into Evernote on their smart phones. Remarkably, though, they were drawn to the experience, perhaps precisely because so much of what they do is relegated to screens.


I was astonished by the results of this project. If you click on this link, you’ll see some examples of the most interesting commonplace books. If you want to learn a bit more about commonplace books and how they’ve been used over time, check out this page.

This post originally appeared on July 22, 2015.


When students read and discuss a poem in class, they do not usually expect to analyze the poem’s grammatical construction. But quite often, grammar is the best place to start a close reading. Years ago, I read a fascinating article that changed the way I approach poems with students at all levels. In “Deformance and Interpretation” (originally published in New Literary History), but you can also find it here, Lisa Samuels and Jerome McGann advocate for reading methods that can transform how readers engage with and contribute to a poem’s meaning. They suggest that we read poems backwards, from the last line to the first; isolate one part of speech at a time; and alter the layout of the poem in order to understand why the poet has chosen a particular typographical arrangement.


In what follows, I’ll focus on how reading for specific parts of speech, such as nouns and verbs, can alert students to the preoccupations of the poet. Of course, one could begin class by asking students what each sentence of the poem “means,” and that could yield a great discussion. But if you focus first on parts of speech—especially nouns and verbs, which are the most powerful parts of any phrase or sentence—you’ll find that your most reticent students are able to form opinions on the poem even before they’ve fully analyzed it.


For my example, I’ve chosen Stanley Kunitz’s “The Portrait”—certainly his most recognizable and frequently anthologized poem. Here’s the poem in its entirety, with an audio file of Kunitz reading the work. If you play the audio so that students can hear Kunitz’s brilliant, deeply moving delivery, they’ll understand the poem’s narrative right away: the speaker’s father has killed himself; the speaker’s mother cannot forgive him for doing this; and instead of telling her son what happened, she hits him when he tries to learn about who his father was. The poem is an incredible testament to the toll that such a trauma can take on a family.


First, ask your students to circle or highlight Kunitz’s nouns. The result should look like this:


Even before we’ve read the poem for its narrative, we can see that the poem’s first line features the mother and father; we know that the house plays a large role in the poem, with a focus on the attic (which is in fact the literal attic of the speaker’s childhood) and a reference to a cabinet (which is a metaphor for the mother’s heart); we see that Kunitz is attending to the time of year (spring) and time as a concept; and we can also see that Kunitz is concerned with the body—hand, moustache, eyes, cheek. From this reading of just the nouns, one can already sense that the story of the father’s suicide has deep, lasting effects that are attached to the memories of the house. We can also see that the child who wants to know something about his father learns that knowledge through the body—through the recognition of his father’s face and the slap on his own face that lingers in his mind for decades.


Next, ask your students to isolate the poem’s verbs:


By isolating the verbs, we can see the gothic terror at the heart of Kunitz’s poem. In this reading, Kunitz’s concern with forgiveness—his mother’s refusal to forgive the father—becomes the poem’s first action and tension. One sees, too, that the verbs are incredibly violent: killing, thumping, ripped, slapped, burning. Of course, there are three agents of action in the poem—mother, father, and son—and each of them performs one or more of these actions. In this reading, the poem is reduced to the physicality of its actions, and is already quite exciting. Kunitz wants this to be a hot poem, one that leaves us feeling singed by that “burning” in the final line. Memory, then, is not a cerebral or abstract entity, but one that is visceral, a mark that stays with us forever.


Not every poet will use such verbs of violence and assault; not every poet will use nouns that allude to the time of year or body parts. But that’s precisely the point of the exercise. By charting a poet’s obsessions with language, and with parts of speech specifically, students will be able to think more critically about how and why poets have stylistic differences that are deliberate, unique, and transformative.

This post originally appeared on April 23, 2014.



When I was in my twenties, I worked as a freelance editor and adjunct instructor in the Boston area, piecing together paychecks from one job to the next. As any freelancer knows, there’s always a point in the late afternoon when you lose your steam and wonder what to do with yourself in the hours before everyone else gets home from their office jobs. One place where I spent some of those lonely afternoon hours was the Woodberry Poetry Room (WPR) at Harvard University. I would show my reader’s pass to the security guard (anyone, even someone without any connection to the university, could apply for a reader’s card to access this special room), slip on some old chunky headphones, and listen to cassette tapes of my favorite poets reading their best lines.


Now, thanks to the WRP’s online “Listening Booth,” anyone can listen to a selection of these poems from anywhere on the planet. This digitized collection includes over 5,000 audio recordings of great American poets from the past one hundred years, including T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden, Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton, as well as newer voices such as Terrance Hayes, Julianna Spahr, Jeffrey Yang, and Jen Bervin. The WPR offers these recordings as part of a huge initiative to preserve their entire collection, which is a kind of scrapbook of all the great poets who have read their poems at Harvard over the years.


Elsewhere on this blog, I’ve emphasized the importance of recitation to students as they learn to appreciate poetry’s provocations. The Woodberry Poetry Room’s Listening Booth can be used in a variety of ways in the classroom. Here are a couple of examples:


  1. In a literature course, the students might discuss how to read Ezra Pound’s wonderfully Anglo-Saxon inflected lines in “The Seafarer.” Once students have considered Pound’s cues—his lineation, the stresses in his lines, his diction, the dramatic situation of the speaker, and so on—you might share his reading of the poem from the WPR, which is full of the song-like inflections of many poets from the early twenty-first century. Students will be surprised by Pound’s gradual crescendo, and even the way he raises the pitch of his voice, which might spur an interesting discussion.
  2. In a poetry workshop, have students listen to a more contemporary poet read his or her work. Students might be surprised to hear Sharon Olds read “The Woman: First Night” in a low-key, matter-of-fact tone. Students might discuss the juxtaposition between Olds’s visceral imagery and this quiet delivery of the lines, and why she uses that strategy.


These conversations reinforce poetry’s value as a spoken as well as written art, and they energize students to listen more actively to the hills and dales of any given poetic line. Who knows? Maybe they’ll enjoy the WPR enough to wile away a few afternoons of their own on this wonderful site.


You can follow the WPR on Twitter at @WPRHarvard to get updates on additions to the Listening Booth and related news.