If it doesn't tell a story, my mind won't remember it. Help?
August 27, 2011 12:59 PM   Subscribe

My Master's exam is coming up in two weeks, and I can't concentrate enough on the poetry to read it, let alone remember it... help?

My MA exam is looming over me and it's not a pretty picture. The MA exam basically works like this, read ten novels and five books of poetry then answer four questions about whichever of those novels/poems/authors the examiners chose - and explicate a story/poem that isn't on the list. I've read all ten novels and listened to Paradise Lost, Canterbury Tales, and Rime of the Ancient Mariner on librivox which helped me a lot with retaining them.

However, whenever I listen to poetry such as Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass I fall asleep. My focus is linguistics -- TESOL to be exact -- not literature, but everyone has to take the same exam... *sigh* I've tried reading these poems aloud with the same result - my mind shuts down and I start drifting off. I read the novel part of Pale Fire but couldn't get through the poem... I still have two other books of poetry (Coleridge and someone named Stevens... I've tried reading them too with the same results.) to muddle through, but I just can't seem to concentrate. I've tried to read and listen to book one of Leaves of Grass three times, and I still cannot tell you what I've read. It's very frustrating. I've been trying for months now... I know that at least one of the questions will be about these books of poetry I'm having trouble with because that's just my luck. I need some help with this.

How can someone like me, who's not big on poetry, struggle through three books of it and retain enough to write a coherent essay? Am I screwed? Any kind of helpful hints would be great.

I don't know if this helps, but I have Dyscalculia, which may or may not have something to do with why I'm having trouble with poetry.
posted by patheral to Writing & Language (10 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Sing them...? Singing is a bona fide learning aide. Pick tunes you know or find the inherent melody within the verses (which can be a fun way to re-encounter each phrase and give them their own space in your memory).

You can also go beyond reading aloud and instead act the poems to yourself in a mirror, the more melodramatic, the better.
posted by batmonkey at 1:08 PM on August 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

Have you tried dancing to the poetry? Find the rhythms of the poems, and then move to them by running, walking or dancing to them. Feel the rhythms in your heart and then add the words.
posted by pickypicky at 1:09 PM on August 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

Try reading commentary alongside (or instead of) the poetry. They're testing your ability to talk about the poems, not your recall and not the literal subjective experience of actually reading them.
posted by gerryblog at 1:17 PM on August 27, 2011 [4 favorites]

Gerryblog, why didn't I think of that??? So obvious... Now I feel stupid.
posted by patheral at 1:26 PM on August 27, 2011

Memorize them one stanza at a time. Yes you can concentrate long enough to memorize one stanza. Then memorize the next.

You won't manage them all in two weeks, obviously, so rotate the authors one poem at a time.

Plus... dare I say it... to help you with Pale Fire, here's a free introduction to the basis of hypertext literature for ya.
posted by tel3path at 2:01 PM on August 27, 2011

1. OK, you're reading--but what are you doing while you're reading? Annotating? Taking notes? Freewriting after you finish? When I had to do a mega-version of this exercise for my doctoral exams, I did a combination of marginal notes/typing up the marginal notes (this sounds redundant, but it helps with retention, and makes it easier to review)/and then freewriting. That last helped me tie in whatever I was reading that day with other texts on my lists.

2. Why are you reading? Yes, you've got to take an exam, but what questions are you asking as you go along? You'll remember more about a text if you've got an argumentative framework--questions about genre, for example, or figurative language, or themes, or what-have-you. Stuff that seems boring at first may become much more interesting once you start asking the what/when/where/why/how questions ("Why does Shelley stick the main verb at the very end of this stanza?"), or think about it in terms of everything else you've been reading.

3. In fact, one way to stay awake is to ask yourself why you're bored. I sometimes tell my students that, despite what they may have heard, there's no moral imperative to love any Great Work of Literature. But they ought to be able to explain why they don't love, or even like, said work. Paradoxically, this exercise can make the reading a lot more interesting...
posted by thomas j wise at 2:10 PM on August 27, 2011 [4 favorites]

Head to the library and look at a copy of the Cambridge History of American Literature or even the Norton Anthology of Poetry. These texts should give you some background on the works you're reading.

As for Leaves of Grass, you might also read up on Walt Whitman as a person; he was such an interesting character, and knowing a bit about his life and how he made Leaves of Grass his life's work could make the experience of reading it that much more enjoyable. When I think, for instance, of how lovingly he cared for wounded soldiers as a volunteer hospital nurse during the Civil War, I find a poem like "Come up from the Field, Father" (a poem about a family receiving word of their son's death death) extremely moving and powerful.

Next, narrow your focus: Read each text in full and get a general idea, but then focus in on passages/sections that interest you most. I bet the examiners will you give you latitude about which part of a text you decide to discuss so long as you can touch on the key themes raised in the question. Spend some time with a few poems or excerpts that intrigue you but that let you get at some of the major themes. For instance, I love, love the poem from Leaves of Grass that starts with "A child said, What is the grass?" in part because it is so beautiful but also because it encapsulates so many of Whitman's major ideas about love, death, and connectivity.

Finally, let go of the idea that there is One Possible Interpretation for a given poem or text. You'll succeed not by locating the Big Important Interpretation of a given work and then spitting it back, but by writing about a work with enthusiasm and specificity. One of the best pieces of advice I ever received about writing about literature was to always, always combine the abstract and concrete. In other words, when you make an interpretive claim about a text or author (abstract), *immediately* locate that idea in a specific example (concrete). The words "for example" and "for instance" should be very important to you as you prepare. Try creating some flashcards of key themes and on the back of each card write 2-3 specific examples (write key words and titles!) of that theme. Secondary sources (or commentary) should help you with the themes, but use your own eyes and ears to come up with the examples.

Good luck!
posted by cymru_j at 5:25 PM on August 27, 2011

On top of recommendations to read analysis and commentary, I also recommend a trick I used a lot to keep me amused when a long slog of poetry started to melt my brain: get a pen or pencil and start breaking down the difficult poems' sound structure. Underline particular sounds that get repeated - and see how many times the poet mixes and matches the same sounds in different combinations. Circle words that rhyme with each other. See if the poet uses a lot of hard sounds (t, b, d, with short vowels between then) or soft sounds (zz, sh, s, f, v, l). Or if there's a conspicuous amount of vowels, or interesting examples of onomatopoeia (shizzle, bang, squawk). Basically, be aware of the pet favorite tactics the poet uses as a way to get to know that poet and be less bored by how repetitive their poems sound over time.

For example, Dylan Thomas's "Do not go gently into that good night" gets a ridiculous amount of underlining just trying to track down all the "jeh", "oo", "n", "t" sounds, and that's just one line. Coleridge does this a ton, as does Wallace Stevens (who I guess is the other poet).

Another example: When reading Shakespeare when I got bored I would start sounding out the stressed/unstressed syllables and then mentally cross out the unstressed ones to see what I was left with. For example, "To be or not to be"... when you remove unstressed syllables you get 'be not be", which are the most important words in that line (the rest aren't even necessary to get across the idea). This is true for most of Shakespeare's lines ("A fool thinks himself to be wise, but a wise man knows himself to be a fool" = "fool thinks self wise, wise knows self be fool"). Repeat these tactics for other poets.

This won't help you necessarily understand and comprehend the theme of a poem, but it might help you recall the poem in better detail later and remember the poems separately rather than letting them all leak into one massive vague poem in your mind. For me, it just makes poetry reading less passive by actively marking up the more difficult poems and figuring out their underlying structure before trying to tackle some obscure theme they've vaguely alluded to.
posted by subject_verb_remainder at 6:24 PM on August 27, 2011

Thanks for the great advice. I have looked up commentary and analysis on the poems and it has helped a lot. But I revisited the list of books we're supposed to be reading and discovered that I'm not supposed to be reading the entire "Leaves of Grass" just the poem "Song of Myself." *sigh* That just shows how disconnected my mind is from this whole poetry thing...
posted by patheral at 12:25 PM on August 29, 2011

btw, if anyone has this on thier "recent activities" I just want to say thanks for the advice! I passed the MA exam (2 of the six people who took it this semseter did not) and y'all's advice was very VERY helpful. Thank you, everyone, I appreciate the help.
posted by patheral at 12:04 PM on October 8, 2011

« Older Breaker breaker, what's your twenty?   |   Want to have my cake and eat it too. Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.