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.