June 30, 2015KR BlogBlogEnthusiamsReadingWriting

Teach This (Part IV)

[Continued from yesterday’s post on teaching Robert Hayden’s “The Ballad of Nat Turner.”]

It might seem strange to teach the same poem twice in a single semester (particularly two weeks in a row), but a poem like Robert Hayden’s “The Ballad of Nat Turner” can act as a bridge or touchstone, and I’ve found that returning to the same poem in new contexts reinforces learning in multiple areas, encouraging students to recursively synthesize and reflect in greater depth than a one-time reading might warrant.

In the context of the ballad, a discussion of “The Ballad of Nat Turner” allows for a review of the ballad “traditions”; my students discussed how and why Hayden used those traditions, and how and why he subverted them or departed from them. I asked my students to call out some characteristics of traditional ballads from the week’s reading; answers included variations on terms of theme and genre, like “plot-driven, narrative, dramatic, sensational, character-based, and oral,” as well as variations on prosodic terms, like “quatrain stanzas, ballad meter, alternating tetrameter/trimeter, alternating end-rhymes, ABCB,” and so forth. Some of the most interesting conversation about Hayden’s thematic and narrative decisions came from a very basic question, as some students simply admitted that they weren’t sure what was actually “happening” in the poem. If Nat Turner’s “story” is that he led a slave rebellion, they asked, why does this poem not depict that rebellion, if this is “his story”? While there isn’t one good answer to that question, we discussed what is happening: an experience of a literal and spiritual nighttime journey of vivid and portentous visions. Is it important to know that Nat Turner really did have these religious visions and felt that he was called by God to lead his people? Is it important to know that others saw him as a kind of prophet? The poem straddles the line of history and myth, consolidating Turner’s visions into one dramatic event catalyzing the call to rebellion. In this sense, Hayden has made use of the oral traditions of the ballad, while writing a poem that thrives on the page; though the poem is indeed “plot-driven, narrative, sensational, and character-based,” it resists the most obvious “dramatic” event of the rebellion itself, in favor of Turner’s personal interior and spiritual drama. On the blank page beyond the poem, we know that the rebellion occurs, and history.

Hayden’s subversion of expectation in the “drama” of Nat Turner’s ballad is complemented by his subversion of formal expectations. The regular quatrain stanzas and accentual tetrameter/trimeter conforms to the expectations of the ballad, but when I asked my students about the rhymes, they felt less certain. I picked that question back up the next week, not in the context of a discussion of the ballad, but in a discussion focused on broader thinking about rhyme. Looking at each quatrain’s expected 2nd and 4th-line end rhymes , we asked: does “far” rhyme with “fire”? “harshener” with “mourner”? “warriors” with “Africa”? “deep” with “me”? “blackness” with “blackness”? “shapes” with “prayed”? “was” with “darkness”? “war” with “splendor”? “bramble” with “battle”? “of” with “strove”? “ceased” with “beast”? “amber” with “waver”? “water” with “over”? “light” with “I”? “saw” with “Jehovah”? “me” with “free”? “time” with “time”?

The rhetoric of form asks us to make connections; as this is a ballad in name and in numerous other characteristics, we are urged as readers to link and interrogate these paired words. As a a class, we created an actual visual chart, reviewing vocabulary from the week’s reading while plotting the poem’s rhymes; we discussed which were closest to “perfect” rhyme (“me” and “free”) and which became more “slant” or “imperfect” (“far” with “fire”), stretching the connective limits of sight and sound (“of” and “strove”). The repetitions of “time” and “blackness” were particularly interesting, with some students maintaining that repetition wasn’t rhyme, and others positing that repetition is rhyme so close it merges into self-sameness! “Warriors” and “Africa” also led to interesting discussion; were these words linked through their dactylic similarities, were they willfully and intentionally un-rhyming, or was Hayden asking the reader to make a rhetorical and emotional connection between the words that transcended their sounds altogether?

I don’t think there’s one good answer to these questions either, but I know how those end-“rhymes” make me feel, and the exaltation I feel at “me/free” is different from the groping at connection I feel earlier in the poem at “me/deep”; and the portentous weight and urgency I feel at the tolling of “time/time” in the final quatrain is something else altogether. As Hayden adapts the thematic and narrative qualities of the ballad to a life on the page, he adapts the formal qualities as well. Readers can linger over these rhymes and this narrative on the page, urged onward into deeper meaning and more complicated thought and feeling by the pressure of the oral tradition and the weight of history.