S-Town from an English Teacher’s Perspective

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As my husband selflessly and singlehandedly drove us to Florida Wednesday, we listened to the podcast “S-Town” and I submitted several pieces of my writing to various contests and publications, as well as worked on some freelance projects.

Wednesday, my husband and I hit the road to visit family in Florida, and to help keep us awake and alert during our ten-hour stint on 95 South, we listened to the seven-chapter podcast, S-Town, by Serial and This American Life. It was thought-provoking, emotional, entertaining, and worthwhile. I laughed, cried, and marveled. It’s the kind of podcast that stays on your mind for days–probably weeks–popping up in your day-to-day when something seemingly inocuous inspires a memory of an emotion, thought, person, or question brought up in S-Town. It brings up big questions, like: What is fulfillment? How do different people achieve it? What does it mean to live a meaningful life? How can people achieve meaning in their lives? Do familial relationships trump relationships with friends, though in some cases, the friends are closer than family? Should familial relationships be given legal priority in every case? I could compose an entire post consisting solely of questions S-Town makes me ask myself, but I’ll spare you (listen to it yourself, if you haven’t already, and find out what questions it brings up for you). Besides, this post isn’t actually about the effect S-Town had on me personally; it’s about the connections I can make between it and my career as a writer and English teacher (though to be honest, the personal musings are far deeper than the professional ones).

The Mad Hatter

As a child, I enjoyed the cartoon version of the story Alice in Wonderland. As an adult, in a children’s literature class for my graduate degree, I had to read the full-length book–and I enjoyed that, too. Like me, you’re probably familiar with the story and its characters, including the Mad Hatter. You might also have heard the term, “mad as a hatter.” In listening to S-Town, I learned where that phrase comes from: In the 1800s, hat-makers (hatters) used a dangerous chemical compound to turn fur into felt for hats. Inhaling these chemicals on a regular basis caused many of them to go crazy, and even die prematurely.

“A Rose for Emily” and “The Masque of the Red Death”

One of the short stories I read with my students during our Gothic literature unit is William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily,” one of John B. Mclemore‘s (only click that link if you don’t mind a spoiler alert) favorites. The theme song of the podcast, “A Rose for Emily” by the Zombies, which I’d never heard before, alludes to the story and helps elucidate the meaning of the title, and the story, to a degree. I’m currently working on the best way to use it to A) enhance my teaching of the story and B) boost my students’ understanding of the literary device, allusion. In addition, my honors students complete a Literature Portfolio project throughout the course of the semester, requiring them to write short essays (Connections Essays) connecting a work of art, a piece of music, a work of literature, or a current event to the work of literature we are reading in class. Connecting the song “A Rose for Emily” to the story by the same name would perfectly exemplify the expectations for this assignment, as would connecting the short story to S-Town itself.

On a similar note, another Gothic author mentioned in the podcast is Edgar Allan Poe. One of his stories my students and I read is “The Masque of the Red Death,” in which the hourly striking of a large, black clock in a room of crimson and ebony provides a constant reminder to a group of revelers that their time is running out, and their hours are numbered. John B. Mclemore was an antiquarian horologist who built sun dials and restored old clocks. Herein lies more potential for a stellar Connections Essay.

Paradox

At the risk of spoiling everything for you, I will just say that S-Town also provides an excellent example of paradox: time as both a punishment and a gift. (In addition to spoiling things for you, I risk going way too far into my musings on the concept of a lifetime and time if I continue!)

New Words

At least three new words jumped out at me as we listened:

  1. proleptic
  2. mellifluous
  3. peregrinate.

Zora Neale Hurston

Although some might see the sometimes racist characters in S-Town as the farthest possible thing from anything relating to Zora Neale Hurston, two similarities stood out to me. First, Hurston lived part of her life in Eatonville, Florida, which the earliest residents helped build from the ground up. Janie, the protagonist in Hurston’s novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God (which I read each year with my students), also lives in Eatonville, and is there for its incorporation, her husband having become the mayor and working hard to incorporate the town. John B. Mclemore played an integral role in the project of

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During our visit, I spent lots of time building Florida snowmen (sandmen) on the beach with my niece, who has taught me many valuable lessons and inspired many of my personal narratives, availabe at richmond.com.

putting Woodstock, Alabama (originally North Bibb), on the map as an actual town. Second, Hurston had a deep appreciation for folklore, and for spoken language and culture. While many African-American writers were attempting to create characters and narrators that sounded like, well, white characters, narrators, or writers, Hurston’s characters spoke in the vernacular of the people she knew, to the chagrin of many of her contemporaries, who perhaps saw her as proliferating negative racial stereotypes. Hurston, though, seemed to see herself as advocating for the beauty of these speech patterns, rhythms, and nuances. To learn more about this (and then some!), check out this audio guide by the National Endowment for the Arts. Like Hurston’s characters, the people in S-Town often speak in artful and unique phrases–without even realizing it; it seems to come naturally. They speak in clever metaphors without consciously crafting the comparisons, and use figurative language without even trying or, perhaps, realizing. Consider these two examples:

  1. “He may have had a little sugar in his tank” as a way of saying someone might be gay.
  2. “He’d drank enough Wild Turkey to make anyone gobble” as a way of saying he’d had enough alcohol to make absolutely anyone drunk.

These aren’t direct quotes, but they’re pretty close, and good examples of phrases that stood out me as particularly unique, amusing, or clever. Hurston’s characters, too, often express themselves in equally eloquent and creative terms.

Making Connections

One of the surest ways to support retention and critical thinking is helping students make connections between what they learn in the classroom, and the outside world. I found that as I listened to S-Town, I was experiencing what I hope my students experience when we read, discuss, and write: direct parallels between my own experience and education, and the real world.

 

Poe’s “The Raven” and the Importance of Poetic Devices

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   While I don’t  have a “pallid bust of Pallas” just above my classroom door on which a raven could perch, I do have a ceiling-mounted projector, and my own raven quite effectively presides over the classroom from there. Side note: my students are always delighted to learn the Baltimore Ravens are named after Poe’s poem.

With Halloween less than a week away, my students and I are delving into Gothic literature with the likes of Poe, Faulkner, and Gilman. One of the Gothic pieces we read is Poe’s familiar poem, “The Raven.” Typically, my students are enthusiastic about the Gothic unit in general, and, as poetry goes, they like “The Raven.” Because they are already predisposed to enjoy this poem, I use it to illustrate the importance and purpose of poetic devices–especially since one question I field almost every year goes something like this: “Why is poetry so complicated? Why can’t he just say it?” Of course, I could answer that “just saying it” takes away from the art of the poem, takes the beauty out of it–but they don’t always particularly care about that. I have found it much more effective to show them why the poet can’t “just say it” by teaching what many of the various poetic devices are, and then stripping the poem bare of them.

One question I field almost every year goes something like this: “Why is poetry so complicated? Why can’t he just say it?” Of course I can answer that “just saying it” takes away from the art of the poem, takes the beauty out of it–but teenaged students don’t always particularly care about that. I have found it much more effective to show them why the poet can’t “just say it,” by stripping the poem bare of all its poetry.

The literary devices we cover include alliteration, allusion, assonance, consonance,

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In the courtyard at the Poe Museum in downtown Richmond, Virginia, one can see this bust of dark romantic, Edgar Allan Poe.

metaphor, symbolism, juxtaposition, internal rhyme, rhyme scheme, imagery, and personification, just to name a few. After I provide definitions and examples of each of these, we listen to a reading of “The Raven” by Christopher Walken, and I instruct students to follow along on their own copy, in the margin labeling any poetic devices they notice.

 

Once Mr. Walken has finished his  reading of the poem, the students and I go through each stanza, labeling the rhyme scheme, drawing boxes around all internal rhymes, and pointing out all the poetic devices we labeled as we listened.

Paraphrasing essentially strips the poem to its simplest and least artistic form. The plot–the bones–remains, but the beauty is gone, leaving the poem a sort of skeleton, all of the flesh having fallen away. A paraphrase does perhaps make the basic information more digestible, but the language is stilted and artless without the poetic devices.

The next step in this lesson is to assign students to small groups, and assign each group three to five stanzas of the poem to paraphrase. This paraphrasing essentially strips the poem to its simplest and least artistic form. The plot–the bones–remains, but the beauty is gone, leaving the poem a sort of skeleton, all of the flesh having fallen away.

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Some couples exchange their vows in the courtyard at the Poe Museum in downtown Richmond. Here, it is set up for an April wedding.

Take the stanza below, for example. It includes internal rhyme (denser and censer; lent thee, sent thee, and nepenthe), alliteration (Swung and Seraphim; foot-falls and floor; tufted and tinkled), consonance (foot-fall, tinkled, tufted, and floor), and imagery (we can imagine the scent of perfumed air and the jingling sound of little angel feet scampering across the floor).

 

Then, methought, the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer

Swung by Seraphim whose foot-falls tinkled on the tufted floor.

`Wretch,’ I cried, `thy God hath lent thee – by these angels he has sent thee

Respite – respite and nepenthe from thy memories of Lenore!

Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe, and forget this lost Lenore!’

Quoth the raven, `Nevermore.’

A paraphrase of this stanza does perhaps make the basic information more digestible, but observe how much more stilted and artless the stanza becomes:

Then I felt like the atmosphere changed; it was scented

as if angels walked across the room with perfume or incense.

‘Wretch,’ I yelled, ‘some master or demon sent you

Rest – rest and relief from my memories of Lenore!

Drink this merciful relief, and forget dead Lenore!’

The raven said, ‘Nevermore.’

After all groups have finished paraphrasing their assigned stanzas, we read the paraphrased versions aloud, in the order in which they appear in the poem, to get a complete sense of just exactly what poetic devices do for a poem.

From there, we go on to discuss the symbolism of the raven, as well as to examine the Gothic elements used in the poem, such as suspense, the dark side of humanity, etc.

In addition, I always offer extra credit in conjunction with this unit. The assignment requires students who opt to participate to visit the Poe Museum in Richmond and write a one-page, double-spaced paper about the experience.

 

My Take on 2666 (so far)

At 854 pages on my nook, Roberto Bolano’s novel 2666 is the lengthiest on my summer to-read list. This post may be slightly premature, as I am only 76 pages into the 854 pages that comprise this novel, but I felt the need to provide my observations as they stand thus far.

One of the first things of note is that one of the many reasons I wanted to read this book is actually mentioned in this book: Salman Rushdie is described as “an author neither of them happened to think was much good but whose mention seemed pertinent” (75) . The narrator tells us this during a scene where two main characters, Pelletier and Espinoza, are brutally kicking a Pakistani cab driver who has insulted them and the woman with whom they are both in love. The irony in all this for me is the stance taken on Rushdie. When I heard an NPR story about 2666, it sounded reminiscent of Rushdie’s novel, Midnight’s Children, which I thoroughly enjoyed and studied, and which consequently contributed to my desire to read Bolano’s book–yet Rushdie is somewhat disparaged, albeit in passing, on the pages of the book.

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I most recently found time to read Roberto Bolano’s novel, 2666, on the shores of Lake Michigan in Covert, Michigan.

A similar irony occurs regarding the role of translators to world literature. They are viewed somewhat disdainfully–or perhaps pitifully–by the main characters, and yet the English version of the book I am reading is a translation from the original Spanish. I can’t help but wonder what the translators thought as they transcribed less-than-complementary lines about their profession.

On page 70, Bolano makes a delicious use of ambiguity. Two characters, Liz Norton and either Pelletier or Espinoza, are discussing the possibility of a menage a trois with either Pelletier or Espinoza, whichever character isn’t the current conversation partner.

“‘I don’t think we’ll ever suggest it,’ said the person on the phone.

‘”I know,’ said Norton. ‘You’re afraid to. You’re waiting for me to make the first move.’

‘”I don’t know,’ said the person on the phone, ‘maybe it isn’t as simple as that.'”

Of course, by referring to one of the speakers simply as “the person on the phone,” there is no telling if said person is Pelletier or Espinoza. I’ve been wondering about the purpose for this ambiguity, and so far, all I can come up with is maybe it simply doesn’t matter who is talking–an effort to show us how insignificant the individualities of the two men may be to Norton, who is romantically involved with both of them.

While Bolano employs ambiguity in the dialog above, he employs wit and rhythm in a delicious example on page 68, when Pelletier and Espinoza have both come to visit Norton, only to find her with another man, a young stranger (to them) named Pritchard. As you might imagine, the situation is tense:

“‘Are you insulting me?’ Pritchard wanted to know.

“‘Do you feel insulted?’ asked Epsinoza….”

I just love Espinoza’s response.

A third way Bolano creatively expresses conversation is with a deliberate lack of dialog. It sounds counter-intuitive, doesn’t it–that you could write a conversation in which absolutely no dialog occurs? But when Pelletier and Espinoza talk on the phone about their relationships with Liz Norton, Bolano presents the conversation like this:

“The first twenty minutes were tragic in tone, with the word fate used ten times and the word friendship used twenty-four times. Liz Norton’s name was spoken fifty times, nine of them in vain…. The word love was spoken twice, once by each man. The word horror was spoken six times and the word happiness once (by Espinoza)…” (44).

Dialog with no dialog, forcing the reader to infer the use of the words and imagine the conversation.We have to fill in the blanks ourselves, use our own imaginations.

In addition to various treatments of dialog, the book so far has been rife with allusion–to Medusa, Perseus, Rushdie, and Napoleon, just to name a few.

I’ve also noticed some juxtaposition that precisely expresses the paradox of life, such as this example on page 61: “Couples or elegantly dressed single women passed briskly, toward Serptentine Gallery or the Albert Memorial, and in the opposite direction men with crumpled newspapers or mothers pushing baby carriages headed toward Bayswater Road.”

Finally, as little of the book as I have so far read, it has already provided me with six weeks’ worth of Words of the Week. Look for them in September (I can’t promise I’ll have a free Sunday before then!).

Basic conclusion so far: It’s worth the read (at least, the first 76 pages are).