In my ninth grade English class we are heading into a study of poetry in the first half of this semester. In order to make a transition from our work with novels (Purple Hibiscus), plays (A Raisin in the Sun), and short stories last fall, we started this week by reading the short story “A Worn Path” by Eudora Welty and the poem “Those Winter Sundays” by Robert Hayden. [The links in the previous sentence will take you to the full text of “A Worn Path” and “Those Winter Sundays.” The link to Hayden’s poem also includes a sound file of the poet reading his work.]
We read “A Worn Path” first. Welty’s remarkable ability to use imagery effectively is never more evident than in this story of Phoenix Jackson making a heroes journey to town to get medicine for her very ill grandson. It is a story that gave us much to talk about—from a close reading of some of the imagery, to a discussion of the epic conventions of the journey of “an old negro woman with her head tied in a red rag, coming along a path through the pinewoods.”
After this initial discussion of “A Worn Path,” students read “Those Winter Sundays” for homework. In addition each student had to memorize a third of the poem so that in a class of eleven by dividing the poem into three parts, we were prepared to have four recitations of the poem (as long as one student was willing to go twice).
At the start of class I read the poem aloud, and afterward, we heard the four recitations of the poem. Knowing that having to recite something, even something relatively short, is a nervous experience for many students, I was really impressed with the quality of their recitations. When we finished the recitations, we debriefed what we noticed. It was among our best discussions of the year—they were observant, and they did a nice job of listening to each other.
The last line of “Those Winter Sundays” is: “of love’s austere and lonely offices.” It is powerful particularly considering Hayden’s mastery of subject, imagery, and content in the poem that precedes it, and importantly that last line provided the transition I was looking for between short stories and poetry. Phoenix Jackson clearly understands “love’s austere and lovely offices” as well as the father does in Hayden’s poem, and this recognition allowed me to see our next step.
For Monday students will come to class with a draft of a poem of their own, or better put, a poem they are writing in partnership with Welty and Hayden. Essentially, I asked students to create a mash-up. Here is the assignment:
- Write a poem of the exact length and form of Hayden’s poem. Your poem must end with the line—“Of love’s austere and lonely offices.”
- Use the story of Phoenix Jackson and the imagery of “A Worn Path” to provide the subject and imagery of your poem.
- You should use Welty’s images though you may alter the exact wording as long as what you write is true to your understanding of her character and of the task she faces.
- Come to class willing to share what you have created.
- This task will require you to review both the story and the poem with great care.
I am excited to see what they bring to class. I believe the assignment will give us a useful launching pad for our work with poetry in the coming weeks.