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GS 297, Fall, 2015

Assignments and Updates

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This page has the most up-to-date information available on this website. Please check this page frequently throughout the quarter!!

(Information on this page will be listed in reverse chronological order--beware!)

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Tuesday, December 8:

Reading: Li-Young Lee, "Persimmons"

Writing: We spent part of today’s class working with the opening three stanzas of Lee’s poem.  We connected it to the conversation we had about “Mrs. Sen’s”—the story we read for Decenber 1’s class.  There we had talked about how the narrative theme of "innocence to experience" we had seen in “Boys and Girls” was here, too, though in a very different way. 

If the girl in “Boys and Girls” has moved from the innocence of girlhood to the threshold of experience as she frees herself from idolizing her father and actually resists his will by refusing to shut the gate and instead throwing it wide open, so both Eliot and Mrs. Sen begin this story as innocents—he a young boy, she a new arrival in America—but instead of moving to experience (for her something symbolized by learning to drive, and for him his new status as a latch-key kid who no longer needs a baby-sitter), both leave us wondering whether they have gotten there at all.  After all, she actually crashes the car—so her driving is a failure, and though Eliot's mother gives him a key and tells him he no longer needs a baby-sitter, he seems anything but ready to deal with full adulthood.  Instead he seems like a tiny bird pushed out of the nest before he is really ready to fly. 

So “innocence to experience” has been a theme for both the stories we have read, and it turns out to be a theme here, too.  Lee begins the poem with a memory from his 6th grade class and the slap on the head he gets from his teacher.  At that point he is surely an “innocent”—a child trying to make sense of being treated badly at school.  He then in the third verse paragraph skips to his teenage years and a tryst with Donna and an initiation into sexuality (the chui for “cricket” is an effort to capture the pinyin shuai for ). 

After that we will see him later in the poem as an adult coming back to his home to visit his aging parents.  Persimmons come up in the first stanza, then again at mid poem, and then they come to dominate the conversation he finally has with his father as the poem ends. 

For next time, then (our last class), you need to bring two things.  First you will bring to class your Class Portfolio, including your 2 page reflection about the class and what you have or have not learned (see link The GS297 Course Portfolio for more description). 

Second, you will also bring your last paper, this one describing the ways in which you think the speaker of the poem "Persimmons" has changed in its last section.  Has he become more adult, more aware, more sensitive (as the narrator in “Boys and Girls” has) to his relation to his father?  What should he now be proud of for himself, and what might he feel bad about? 

Look for key words that describe his new feelings towards his father and, more generally, to his immigrant heritage, as well.  This is finally a poem about the conflicting cultures of America and Asia, at least as Lee sees them, and the ways that conflict has led to his loss of connection to his parents. 

There is no “right answer” to this—it's a little good here and a little bad there.  So what do you think? How well you can notice key words ("whats"), and offer "why's" to explain how they work in the poem?

Tuesday, December 1:

Reading:  “Mrs. Sen’s”

Writing: One way to begin thinking about a story is to ask about its "theme," or what it seems to be about.  “Cat in the Rain” was about a marriage and the two people in it; “Boys and Girls” was about a change in a girl’s sense of herself growing up, and how and why that change came about.  “Mrs. Sen’s” is also about something—one think one could suggest is that it’s about cultural difference and the challenges of people from different cultures face in negotiating the differences between them.  That much is probably obvious.  But here, as in the other two stories, the real interest in the story comes from the author’s choice of words and situations and examples as she tells her story. 

So for Tuesday, think as you read the story about how Lahiri sets the theme of cultural differences in motion.  Pick three places in the story that seem to you to be about a meaningful difference, either of Indian culture from American culture, or American culture from Indian culture. Identify those places and explain what you think she is trying to accomplish in each.

In thinking about this, think too about how these differences define conflicts of one sort or another.  Mrs. Sen is obviously unhappy as the story ends; how would you explain what has led to her unhappiness, and write about what might help to restore her good spirits.  Think, too, about someone else who seems unhappy, and describe that unhappiness and its cause, and, again, what might help that other person to have some sense of happiness restored. 

(You have, of course, only four characters to examine—Mr and Mrs. Sen, Eliot, and Eliot’s mother!) 

Or, reread the last paragraph and look for three different sentences that address issues of culture and/or happiness.  Explain what the issues are and point to what has led you to that conclusion. 

Or (finally), be an author yourself and write your own story about a similar kind of unhappiness caused by cultural difference.  It could be something you or a friend experienced, or perhaps unwittingly caused.  It doesn’t have to be as long as Lahiri’s—just a couple pages.  But tell it as a story—with one or two characters with names that do not include your own.


Tuesday, November 24 :

Reading: Munro, "Boys and Girls" part 2.

Writing: As I said in class, for your writing I'd like you to do the same thing for Part 2 as you did for Part 1 of "Boys and Girls"—but this time pick what you might call the "key" paragraph—the one that does the most to make clear what you think the point of the story finally is. Remember that we talked about the story as leading from innocence to experience, or childhood to adulthood. It could also be thought of as a move from a naive and relatively simple way of seeing the world to a more complicated way of seeing the world.

So again, find a "key" paragraph (now one that seems important to our overall understanding of the point of the story) and explain what key words you can find and why they are particularly important to understanding the paragraph (and even the story as a whole!)

Tuesday, November 17:

Reading: Munro, "Boys and Girls" part 1.

Writing: In class on Tuesday we looked at paragraph 1 of B&G. We talked about how Munro is a writer who is more or less half fiction writer and half poet, and I suggested that many of her paragraphs are actually a lot like poems. Sometimes people talk of "prose poems"—a form of poetry so free that it is written as if it were prose—in paragraphs. That first paragraph has imagery, sound play, and a way of developing meaning that many would say is "poetic"—something last week's "How to Read a Poem" essay called "language-plus."

So as you read through the rest of part 1 (the first 22 paragraphs on the handout), pick from all the paragraphs you read one that seems to you to be especially "poem-like"—writing that could be called "language-plus." Insert your chosen paragraph at the top of your paper, underline three or four of the words or phrases that seem "poetic," and then explain what seems poetic to you about the paragraph.

(To make it easy to insert a paragraph, here is a link to B&G)

We'll use this next week as a way to continue working on "noticing" in fiction.

(By the way, as a class I much liked your writing on "Cat in the Rain"—some very good noticing, and some very good work to put your noticings together into commentary....)

Tuesday, November 10 :

Reading: How to Read a Poem (Click on Link)

Writing: As I explained in class, this week will be a kind of review. Click on the link above and it will take you to a short essay that summarizes much of what we have said this quarter about how poems work. It includes two fairly short poems, and after reading the whole of the article, I'd like you to explain each poem. What I'd like you to do is to write a letter to a friend telling them about each of the two poems. Assume your friend has read each of the poems, and write a paragraph each explaining what you think it is about, and then explain as best you can why. You can point to two or three key words and explain why you think the poet used them--what is the poet trying to do in each of these two poems?

(Each of you is coming in to talk with me this week, too, of course, and we can talk about the poems (or "Cat in the Rain") when we meet. If you didn't sign up for a time, send me an email so we can schedule you in....)

Tuesday, November 3:

Reading: Hemingway, "Cat in the Rain."

Writing: Hemingway writes prose, not poetry, but some have said his short stories are often a kind of “prose poem.”  That is in part because he is very careful about what words he uses and how he uses them. He said about his writing that a story ought to be like an iceberg: 11% shows to the eye, while the other 89% is invisible, under the water.  By that he meant that a careful reading of his stories would enable you to “see” much more in it than whatever is actually visible  We are going to look for the rest of the iceberg! So....

Here are three questions to help organize your reading.  In your response, pick one of the three questions and answer that question.  Then go on to the last paragraph below--read it and then pick three words other than "cat," "kitty" and "rain."  Why do you think your three words are there?

1.  The first two paragraphs are different from the third paragraph.  How?  What is changed and what words are used to describe that change? 

2.  We talked about symbols last time:  metaphors whose meaning is not fully clear—something that must be interpreted.  Thus the Tyger clearly represents something, but Blake never says what it is.  Still, "Tyger" is the most important word in the poem and the poem invites us to figure out what it might mean.  We suggested that that might be the paradoxical beauty and terror of creation—a mixture of a sense of good and a sense of evil—a symmetry, maybe that balances good and evil?  Or maybe something that threatens to be more evil than good—something that its maker “dares” to make. 

In Hemingway's story there is no tiger, but there IS a cat.  And here no less than in Blake’s poem the cat is symbolic for something.  But what?  Again you need to read carefully, and look for the ways the cat is talked about.  It is, for example, first seen outside, exposed to the terrible weather, sheltering under a table—though with the way the rain is described, the table probably isn't doing much to keep it dry.  It is called a "cat" sometimes, and a “kitty” other times.  “Kitty” is a word used to refer to little cats only a few months old.  Does that matter here? 

3.  Some have said that this story is about the relationship between the man and the woman.  They have a few lines of conversation, and it doesn't seem like much is said. But looked at more closely, how could those lines be seen as a way of revealing the relationship of these two Americans over in Italy—so far away from home? 

Key words here include “cat” and “kitty,” and certainly all the references to “rain.”  What other words might we notice?  List three and explain why Hemingway used them.

Tuesday, October 27:

Reading: The two Tiger Poems: Blake's "The Tyger," and Adrienne Rich's "Aunt Jennifer's Tigers."

Writing: For the two Tiger poems. Here I want you first to read the two poems, and to focus on noticing things about the tigers. Blake's Tyger and Rich's tigers are obviously similar, but they are also different. Use this as a way to NOTICE what each poet is doing. List as many similarities and differences between their "tigers" as you can.

Example: Blake's Tyger is represented as powerful and dangerous, created by a divine blacksmith. Rich's tigers are not as frightsome. Indeed, they are "topaz denizens." Look up topaz and denizen to be sure you know what they mean! (They are not very commonly used words.) Then, which of Rich's words for her tigers might Blake use if he were to write another stanza or two? Which of her words for her tigers would Blake NOT use? And vice-versa: which of Blake's words for his tiger might Rich use if she were to write another stanza? and which of his words do you think she would NOT use?

Finally, write me a sentence in which you tell me what you think each poet is trying to do or say with his/her poem. (Don't worry about being right--that actually isn't important at this point--but do give it your best effort!) This is the "So What?" step.

Tuesday, October 20:

Reading: Two poems, both, again, pretty short: Robert Francis' "Pitcher" and the poem I include just below this paragraph--a parody (i.e., a poem that mocks another poem) of Willams' "This is Just to Say."

Variations on a Theme By William Carlos Williams

                               By Kenneth Koch
I chopped down the house that you had been saving to live in next summer.
I am sorry, but it was morning, and I had nothing to do
and its wooden beams were so inviting.

We laughed at the hollyhocks together
and then I sprayed them with lye.
Forgive me. I simply do not know what I am doing.

I gave away the money that you had been saving to live on for the
next ten years.
The man who asked for it was shabby
and the firm March wind on the porch was so juicy and cold.

Last evening we went dancing and I broke your leg.
Forgive me. I was clumsy and
I wanted you here in the wards, where I am the doctor!

Writing: As with last Tuesday, except now with 3 words from each poem, write a page or two in which you identify 3 "Whats" for each poem, and then explain for each such What as best you can "Why" the poet decided to use THAT word and not other words. The purpose of a parody is to make fun of something, but it also is a kind of "criticism"--it is a way to give an opinion of a work. The goal of our conversation will be to find out what opinion Koch holds of William Carlos Williams' poem, and why?


Tuesday, October 13:

Reading: Two poems, both short. The first is Robert Frost's poem "The Road Not Taken," and the second is William Carlos Williams' poem: "This is Just to Say." Both are short, and they are very different--even contrasting--styles of poem.

Writing: Write a page in which you identify two "Whats" for each poem, and then explain for each What as best you can "Why" the poet decided to use THOSE words and not other words.

This is just asking you to do on your own what we did in class today: looking for Whats (or possibly interesting choices that the poet has made) and Whys (or possibly interesting explanations for those choices). In "My Papa's Waltz," for example, we chose in the third stanza the words "beat" and "waltz," and noticed that they have potentially very different connotations. "Beat" is connected with striking something, even breaking it; "waltz" is connected with a dance that is graceful, rhythmic and smooth. And then we talked about Why Roethke might have chosen to put those two words in his poem, and we suggested as answers that they are opposites that capture the two different ways the poem represents the actions of this poem--one ("waltz") the act of a loving and celebratory moment of family togetherness, the other ("beat") a frightening kind of punishment or other sort of inflicting of pain.

So: to restate the assignment: for each of these two different poems, notice two different "Whats" and give for each a "Why."

REMEMBER! Don't let this assignment seem scary. This is not an "English paper." It is a short response to having read an assignment. You don't have to be right here--not at all. I'm just asking you to focus on the reading and to think a little about the two poems in terms of the way we talked today in class. We will thus all be ready for a good time talking about the poems next week!