What happened when I asked some students to perform some of Blake’s poems

So today I encouraged one of my Year 13 classes to set Blake’s ‘The Ecchoing Green’ and ‘London’ to music by taking them to the Music Theatre and seeing what would happen.

Perhaps a little fool-hardy, but I was interested in a) what poems they would choose having the whole range of poems to choose from b) what they would do.

One group weren’t keen on the idea, but chose to read ‘The Ecchoing Green’ without a huge amount of enthusiasm. One student asked what the point of the exercise was; why couldn’t they be in class taking notes on the poems, like most poetry lessons? I tried to explain about Blake’s “aesthetics”; that he believed that poetry needed to brought alive by illustrations, by music, by being read aloud. We then looked at the ways in which the poem deploys a rising rhythm, using iambs and anapaests to create a sense of hope, of optimism, with the beats constantly rising, until the final verse when the dactylic “darkening” is used to create a sense of falling.

This group had been organised and knew that we were supposed to be in the Music Theatre; they are a studious group, with people in it keen to do well. They were, however, very self-conscious. There was a sense that they were “experienced” in the sense that a certain playful ‘jouissance’ which you can sometimes find in younger children doing this kind of exercise was missing from them.

However, the other group – who hadn’t listened about where we would be and went to the wrong classroom initially – embraced the idea with a child-like abandonment. It was almost as if I had let go of a pressure valve; they lost their inhibitions. They went completely mad on the drums and xylophones but in the end produced quite a powerful reading of ‘London’. The version was very, very rhythmic, the group caught the marching rhythm of the poem, which uses iambs in a very different way to his approach in ‘The Ecchoing Green’.

There was some debate about students reluctance to post things on the blog; they preferred to put things in their books where it could be definitively marked, rather than responded to. I have thought about this, but still feel a blog is a good venue for posting ideas and thoughts for the students because everyone can read it, and learn more easily from each other. This could be done on a discussion forum on the VLE, but that shuts down at the end of the year and everything is lost.

I suppose I left the lesson feeling that Blake’s teaching are still very radical; that they challenge not only what you teach but how you teach. His aesthetics demand a holistic engagement with his work rather than a lecture-based approach.

Next week though, having introduced the poems in this way, I am going to make the lessons much more “traditional”; the students will be researching allocated poems in depth and presenting their thoughts to the class, having looked at the relevant critics. I am aiming to teach them about the historical and literary context of Blake’s poems.

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Students’ thoughts on first reading Blake

M wrote:

From first reading through the poems of William Blake’s ‘Songs of Innocence & Experience,’ I found that some of the poems were clearly related to the title of the collection, and others seemed to have a more abstract take on the idea of ‘Innocence and Experience’.

For example, the poem titled ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ gave an immediate impression of a young, vulnerable child within the opening few lines of the first stanza. The beginning of the poem seemed to have a strong focus upon innocence and was suggestive of the fact that the young boy had a considerably lack of experience because of his age, ‘weep weep weep weep’. The repetition of the dynamic verb ‘weep,’ seems really powerful within the opening of the poem, because it suggests that the young chimney sweeper is innocent and vulnerable, possibly because of the experience of his mothers death and his father’s suggested dismissal of him.

In contrast to this, the poem titled ‘The Clod & the Pebble’ didn’t seem to give any impression of being relatable to either innocence or experience when initially reading through the poem. The concepts within the poem seemed very abstract, and the idea of the poem portraying a sense of ‘experience’ was something that I did not find immediately obvious. When thinking about this poem further, it seems to be relatable to love and relationships, and a possible interpretation of this poem would be that it is a metaphor, and is representative of the experience that love can give you, but is hidden within a more simple concept of ‘The Clod and the Pebble’.

T wrote:

FIRST THOUGHTS ON POEMS

As a group, we decided to read through all of the poems first before stopping to analyse them. Obviously, the common theme through the first half was innocence however it proved to us that sometimes it is hard to identify what the link to innocence or experience in the second half was. For example in songs of innocence a lot of the poems seemed to be to do with youth, either portrayed through children or animals (lamb) or even simply young minded. I thought that some of the poems seemed sad e.g. the chimney sweeper. I enjoyed reading the poems further to see how they linked and connected because reading through all of them gives you a better first understanding than analyzing deeply into one after a first look at it. Our group brought up the question of whether our original views of what innocence and experience was were changed after reading the poems. Sometimes, we found it difficult to understanding what was going on in the poems, I found it confusing that there is no definite beginning, middle and end like a story has. I think the poems try to get information across without saying it directly, I get this opinion because some of the poems do not link and connect.

Groupings for reading and analysing the Blake poems

Blake groups for the poems

Learning Objectives: to develop your skills at reading out aloud, to develop your analytical skills

Tasks

S&L: To read the allocated poems aloud in an EXPRESSIVE fashion (set them to music, drum beats, use echoes, SFX etc) and presentation clear explanations and analysis of them to the class; to do this as a podcast or video presentation.

Writing: to write detailed analysis of these poems and post on blog:

Williamblakereloaded.wordpress.com in reply to the poems. There are specific questions on the blog to answer.

 

Pairings — 13 B

 

Michael: Holy Thursday both Songs of Experience and Innocence; The Clod and the Pebble

Sarah: The Nurses Song both Songs of Experience and Innocence

 

Harry: A Cradle Song and the Poison Tree

Emily: A Dream and The Angel

 

Hollie: Infant Joy, Infant Sorrow

Demi: The Sick Rose, Pretty Rose Tree, Ah Sunflower, The Lilly; Blossom; Spring

 

Jez: London and The Ecchoing Green; The Garden of Love

Sophie: Introduction to both songs of innocence and experience; Earth’s Answer’ The Shepherd; The Voice of the Ancient Bard

 

 

Georgia: The Chimney Sweeper, both Songs of Innocence and Experience

Nahum: The Fly, Blossom, Spring; Laughing Song

 

Tunbi: The Lamb and The Tyger

Britney: On Anothers Sorrow, The Divine Image, The Human Abstract

 

Kabir: The Little Vagabond; The School Boy;

Millie: The Little Black Boy; The Lost Children Poems: The Little Girl Lost; The Little Boy Lost etc

Please COLLECT extra poems if you do these ones quickly. 

What are students’ favourite Blake poems on first reading?


 
 

My students finished reading ‘The Songs of Innocence and Experience’ today and then read out their favourite poems. It was interesting to see their diverse responses.

The first group chose: ‘The Fly’, ‘The Chimney Sweeper — Experience’, and ‘The Lilly’.

Harry says: “I like this poem because It uses the fly as a symbol of day to day life: it could be metaphoric in the sense that the fly represents different daily troubles.”

Millie: “I like the Chimney Sweeper I thought it showed the hypocrisy of the people living in Blake’s time who would go to church and then at same time neglect their children.”

Sophie: “I like London because it gives an insight into the context of the time; it shows how children were chimney sweepers, families were really struggling and everyone was unhappy.”

Nahum: “I liked the Lilly because it is saying that everything else has its opposite side; the Lilly stands out against the rest, she’s just there being beautiful. It can’t be touched by all this other stuff, the thorns, the roses can’t touch it or her. She’s on another level to everything else.”

Group 2:
The Chimney Sweeper: Innocence
The Ecchoing Green
The School Boy
The Clod and the Pebble

I was interested in the comment about ‘The Clod and the Pebble’ from a pupil who felt that the poem represented the problems we encounter in everyday life. ‘The Ecchoing Green’ was chosen because of the way it travelled through the different phases of the day. Interestingly, The Chimney Sweeper from the Songs of Innocence was chosen for its representation of the horrors of child slave labour and the terrible treatment of children generally.

I was fascinated to notice that some students were already beginning to sing and do drum beats to the poems.

Group 3:
Chimney Sweeper – Experience
The School Boy
Introduction to Innocence

This group liked the Introduction because of its happy atmosphere and its last line that invited every child to hear the poems.

Here are some more detailed, written responses from the students:

G writes:

The School Boy

I really liked this poem because it shows Blake’s anger and his protest against the destruction of innocence and youthful joy. The powerful animalistic imagery of the bird symbolizes freedom and innocence which is juxtaposed with the Cage which represents the education system 200 years ago. Blake’s self education influenced his views on education which we can still relate to today.

The Chimney Sweeper (experience)

The first line in this poem shows strong imagery of contrast between the black boy (covered in soot) and the snow which connotes innocence and heaven. This poem has a lot of anger in it.  I like the fact that Blake is attacking authority and blames parents for  inflicting cruelty on innocent children.

Introduction (innocence)

I like the way Blake sets the scene for his songs showing innocence throughout the introduction. He uses symbolism for religious purposes to show innocence such as the lamb and also children which is a main theme in his poems. The last line for me shows that the children are his audience, this could be why his songs of innocence seem very sweet and short?

First thoughts on reading Blake: my classes’s response to innocently reading him…

Today, the William Blake project began in earnest with my Year 13 classes reading all the poems in groups together. I asked them to read them all at a go, without lingering too long over what they are about. The whole point was that they would get an overview of the poems.


 

I introduced the poems today by getting the students to sit in my “poetry circle” which some seemed excited about! I talked about how I appeared on Radio London this morning talking about a letter a number of experts have written about the need to raise the formal schooling age to 7. Their remarks tie in a great deal with what William Blake thought: he believed that children learnt through play, that it was through play and being creative that children learnt, that it is not a “bolt-on extra” to learning but absolutely integral to the learning process. I spoke on the Radio London breakfast show defending their approach, saying that if learning is too formal at an early age, then children can become like “robots”, programmed to learn but without creativity.

He wrote in The School Boy:

But to go to school in a summer morn, O! it drives all joy away; Under a cruel eye outworn, The little ones spend the day, In sighing and dismay.

Ah! then at times I drooping sit, And spend many an anxious hour, Nor in my book can I take delight, Nor sit in learnings bower, Worn thro’ with the dreary shower.

How can the bird that is born for joy, Sit in a cage and sing. How can a child when fears annoy, But droop his tender wing, And forget his youthful spring.

The task of reading all the poems through in a group without teacher commentary/intervention is not a “traditional”, “upfront” teaching approach; I suppose some teachers would immediately start reading and analysing the poems as a whole class, without giving classes a chance to read the poems for themselves. Or possibly getting them to read them for homework by themselves. Reading them together in a group for the first time is possibly a different approach; one that immediately invites communal discussion.

However, many teachers would do what I am doing; encourage independent reading skills and a sense of independent inquiry.

As I listened to the groups, I could hear a degree of laughter and enjoyment as they read the poems; the lexis is not difficult and the poems have an easy, lilting music. The rhythms of Blake’s words really came through for me. I heard one student saying, “I quite like that one!”.

It was strange listening to the words I know so well mouthed by unfamiliar voices, but also invigorating; it made me see these poems in a new light. They live in the mouths of young people.

Here is one response from a student which is illuminating:

“I found William Blake’s Songs of Innocence thoroughly enjoyable and pleasant when reading them in todays English lesson. The majority of poems in this collection included an obvious rhyming scheme that continued throughout, making the poems easy to read and far more entertaining. A theme throughout all of the poems in Songs of Innocence was religion, whether this was a direct address to religion or a subtle undertone running continuously through the poems. The poems were written in a period of history when religion was a major part of everyone’s lives. The poems contained within Songs of Innocence are all relatively short and sweet, a lot revolving around children – this is due to the fact that children are often associated with innocence.”