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by Oana Amariei-Hondrea, “Miron Costin” High School, Iași

Key-words: teaching literature, poetry, personal response, democracy, reader’s involvement
Abstract: This article aims to highlight the importance of teaching literature in general and poetry in particular. Teachers should offer authentic texts, a few concepts of literary theory and multiple tasks meant to offer them the opportunity to analyze, to discuss, to identify, to think, to associate, to create, to give personal responses in an attempt to turn students into involved readers. Both students and teachers may have the chance to enjoy the task of giving personal response to a wonderful text like “Song of Myself” written by Walt Whitman.

 

The study of the English literature necessarily completes the study of the English language and teachers’ purpose should be to make students enjoy reading in general and British and American literature in particular and to develop their critical thinking in giving their personal response to different types of literary texts.
According to the topic of the unit teachers are going to deal with, they can choose authentic materials (radio broadcasts, newspaper articles, but especially literary works) and offer them to EFL students as an opportunity to improve their cultural awareness, to shape their artistic taste, to improve their language skills, to acquire moral values and attitudes, to urge them to become independent readers, to help them to be sensitive and creative and, why not, to discover themselves as writers…
Being beautiful and engaging and lacking the constraints characteristic to the other genres, poetry should be more often used in English classes, even if sometimes students seem to be overwhelmed while working with it. It is very important that teachers should find out the best ways to make students comfortable with this genre. Taking into account the fact that the most part of our students do not intend to pursue formal studies in literature, we should keep to a minimum the specialized input and teach them in exchange how to use a few concepts of literary theory which could enable them to approach any literary text, even at first sight.
In order to facilitate our students’ better understanding of literary texts, it would be a great idea to introduce these texts in the context of the culture and civilization of the time they are anchored in. Moreover, we should draw pupils’ attention to the fact that throughout ages, literary works have had in common the same concepts, values and themes, but dealt with differently by authors belonging to different periods.
For example, when tackling concepts such as human rights, freedom, democracy, equality and justice, especially in the case of Grade 11 and 12 students, the teacher can introduce some of Walt Whitman’s poems and use them as a pretext to discuss the mentioned terms and at the same time to give students the chance to “taste” some drops of the beauty of his lines.
The teacher can ask students to work in pairs or small groups on given fragments taken from “Song of Myself” written by Whitman. One can create various tasks related to this poem: to analyze the structure of the poem and the form of the verse, to recognize and discuss the theme and the stylistic devices (alliteration, consonance, metaphor, paradox, etc.) or even to create visual representations of some parts of the poem. Most importantly, the teacher can ask students to give their personal response to the text.
I myself have experienced engaging together with my students in Walt Whitman’s famous poem and I should confess that I have fallen in love with his lines while attempting to personally respond to the poem. I have discovered that Whitman’s poetry mirrors the great American civilization and all his poems record his deep patriotic enthusiasm and admiration for a nation that was a mixture of different ethnic groups. In the Preface of the Leaves of Grass, the poet states: “Here does not exist a simple nation, but a nation made up of many other nations. Here exists only action, tumultuous, that passes blind over details in a huge movement of the masses.”
The poem “Song of Myself”, famous for its use of language and its vision of equality, celebrates the theme of democracy, the oneness of mankind and the greatness of the American people. The dynamism and power of the American people are transferred to his lines, whose solemn and long construction reflects his country’s vastness. The poet transfigures the realities in order to create an ideal world in which society, nature and individual form a unity. So, he imagines a world by means of perfumes - there is a whole semantic field of perfume: “fragrance”, “distillation”) opposed to another one: ”odorless”, “harmless”,…where he would like to live for ever. It is a world which makes him feel the need to penetrate into the essence of nature:
“I will go to the bank by the wood and become undisguised and naked
I am mad for it to be in contact with me.” (2)
Man and nature seem to be intimately linked, forming a single body, a single breath: “My respiration and inspiration, the beating of my heart, the passing of blood and air through my lungs, The sniff of green leaves and dry leaves, and of the shore…” (2). The feeling of hardworking and striving for a certain purpose makes people “listen to all sides and filter” all the things “from themselves”.
People and Nature coexist as a harmonious entity, destroyed only by wars, social injustice and inequity. The tale of the murder of the four hundred and twelve young men (34), who, after having courageously fought, were massacred as prisoners of war, emphasizes the horrible effects of this scourge, war: casualties, cruelty and blood. And all this-what for?! For a few moments of victory, for the ephemeral title of “conqueror”… Nobody is a conqueror in this “affair”, since both the conquerors and the conquered lose material values, human lives and human qualities. The poet seems to despise the status of conquer or at least he states that both sides deserve the same prize:
“I play not marches for accepted victors only, I play marches for conquer’d and slain persons”…
I also say it is good to fall, battles are lost in the same spirit in which they are won.
Vivas…to the numberless unknown heroes equal to the greatest heroes known!”
The poet must turn into a prophet who leads the masses in their fight for peace and equality. In Whitman’s opinion, the poet must identify with the people in whose name he speaks: “In all people I see myself” (20), he must be a good medium: “Whoever degrades another degrades me/ And whatever is done or said returns at last to me” in order to understand and be able to voice his people’s aspirations, emotions and sufferings. To represent the “voice” of your fellows is a great responsibility since it means to be opened to the Universe - the poet calling himself a “kosmos”: “Through me the afflatus surging and surging through me the current and index…”
The poet, endowed with a certain gift - “afflatus”, sensitivity and wisdom (“I laugh at what you call dissolution/And I know the amplitude of time”) (20); “I accept time absolutely because it alone is flawless, it alone rounds and completes all”, “I accept reality and dare not question it” (23) represents in fact a link of the infinite chain, the chain of being that the poet brings into consciousness: “Born here of parents, born here from parents the same and their parents the same.”
As exponent of his people - but of mankind, too - Walt Whitman believes in the future of this country and openly confesses it. But there are two major elements which shape the country: democracy and faith in science. Democracy, as that form of organization of the society in which it is the people who governs, appears to be the source of happiness.
Acutely aware of this fact, Whitman promotes the equality of human beings: “And what I assume you shall assume/ For every atom belonging to me as good belonging to you.”(1) The human beings have the same rights in this world, no matter their religion, sex, age or origin. There are not any slaves or masters, there are not any black men and white men, there are only human beings who should live at peace, as a huge family, ignoring all borders: “And that all men ever born are also my brothers and women my sisters and lovers.” (5)
While facing the Unknown - death, life and fate - mortals are equal, they share the same beginning and the same end: “Births have brought us richness and variety/ And other births will bring us richness and variety./ I do not call one greater and one smaller,/That which fills its period and place is equal to array.” 944) What bridges people is Love, “the keelson of the creation”, the ability to accept and understand each other…
The author expresses his idea of democracy: “I give the sign of democracy/ I will accept nothing which all cannot have their counterpart of on the same terms.” Democracy supposes equal rights, but also liberty of acting and thinking. The comparison with a hawk, symbol of freedom and of high aspirations, is remarkably suggestive: ”I too am not a bit tamed, I too am untranslatable,/I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.” (52)
In another poem, Whitman pushes this need of freedom and of nonconformity further, standing for the eternal rebel:” I wear my hat as I please, indoors or out”, “Why should I pray? Why should I venerate and be ceremonious?” since the result is the same: “I find no sweeter fat than sticks to my own bones”. The poet apparently oscillates between scorning the laws of society imposed to individual, but also the laws of God and recognizing the importance of Divinity for the balance of the world: “And I know that the hand of God is the promise of my own,/ And I know that the spirit of God is the brother of my own.” (5), finally accepting to be governed only by God, without questioning about Him. According to this Christian point of view, the author considers Him the supreme power -omniscient, relenting, embodying the real spirit of justice: “I see something of God each hour of the twenty-four and each moment then, /Is the faces of men and women I see God and in my own face in the glass.” (48) People have a piece of holly body in themselves because they are God’s children and this is another proof of equal rights to life, freedom and love.
Walt Whitman reminds us the importance of science in the development of mankind and he promotes “positive science” and “exact demonstration” (23) and, as a “father of the nation, he encourages people to understand their role in this world. Although he seems a little bit disappointed with the human beings who incessantly complain about their condition, who lie and weep for their sins, who are “fond of owing and possessing” and praises in exchange animals for being “placid and self-contained”(32), Whitman strongly believes in Man, in his qualities: tenderness, tolerance, wisdom, love, will, high aspirations and curiosity.
People should not fight only for reconciliation and equality, but they also should learn to be human beings, citizens, to love nature and to obey the cosmic rules. Accepting, striving, changing, working, learning, making friends and loving-all these make up a “code of Life” which helps the human beings to survive and to cope successfully with the challenges of reality.
Of course that one can approach this poem in so many other ways, but allowing oneself to freely comment on a text, to let the others know how one feels about what one reads represents a chance for the reader to involve, to establish connections between the text and the personal experiences, to interpret events, actions or characters, to describe messages or themes, to apply everything learnt before, to be creative and free. As Louis Rosenblatt stated, “a novel or poem or play remains only inkspots on a paper until a reader transforms it into a set of meaningful symbols.” (Iser p245)

Bibliography:
1. Iser, Wolfgang, The Act Of Reading The Theory of Aesthetic Response, Baltimore, Johns Hopkins UP, 1981
2. Whitman, Walt: Song of Myself, Penguin Books, 1995.
3. Rosenblatt, Louise: The Reader, the Text, The Poem: The Transactional Theory of the Literary Work, Carbondale, Southern Illinois University Press, 1978.

Biodata:

Oana Amariei-Hondrea has been teaching English at “Miron Costin” High School from Iași for 21 years. She holds an MA in American Cultural Studies from “Alexandru Ioan Cuza” University. She has coordinated the activities of the Scrabble Club in English at
“Miron Costin” High School, which she established in 2014 and she has been the coordinator of the project “Eurolexis - A Multilingual Scrabble Contest for Children” dedicated to secondary and high school children from the county of Iași. The contest has been organized in Săptămâna Altfel for seven years and involves playing scrabble in English, French, Italian, Spanish, German and Romanian.