Stylistics lesson (meter and onomatopoeia)

I’m teaching stylistics for the first time, which has been quite the adventure. To be quite honest, when I first saw the job posting for Highlands, I wasn’t really sure what stylistics was (rigorous readings of texts informed by issues in linguistics), but when I started researching it I quickly realized that it was a fair description of most of the work I did in my dissertation, although maybe not always as rigorously as is the norm in stylistics. Teaching the class now has been an adventure in figuring out how to adapt my methods for reading medieval texts into accessible ways of thinking about all texts. I’m not sure that I’m constantly succeeding, but I felt really happy with yesterday’s class.

Last week I very quickly introduced my students to some key vocabulary for understanding meter, and then as homework they were to scan at least five poems on the great site For Better For Verse and come to class prepared to discuss any issues they had. In class I projected the site up on the smart board and we spent an hour going through the poems they looked at and talking about the issues they had. I think it’s safe to say that they found scansion to be frustrating at times, but it seemed like they also learned a lot about it.

As the next activity I gave them an altered version of one of e.e. cummings’s poems. I altered it by removing all capital letters, punctuation, and line breaks, and then they had to go through and repunctuate and relineate the whole thing. Then I passed out copies of the actual poem and we discussed how different decisions could affect the interpretation of the poem, why certain patterns led to different people converging on one result and others led to very divergent decisions.

Then I yammered some about how much I love Gerard Manley Hopkins and in particular his poem Pied Beauty. This was meant to be a larger discussion but I was running out of time so I just ended up gushing about how awesome the language is, how the alliteration and assonance feels in your mouth. I should probably just make them discuss it in every class. Screw everything else! We’re just talking about Hopkins from here to the end of the semester baby! But no. I must be responsible.

Kind of, because then we discussed onomatopoeia, which we began by parsing James Joyce’s infamous “Bababadalgharaghtakamminarronnkonnbronntonnerronntuonnthunntrovarrhounawnskawntoohoohoordenenthurnuk!” We analyzed how we could break it up into different kinds of units and worked our way up to saying the whole thing in one fell swoop, and they did a great job at it. Our one linguistics grad student kept racing her way through it, much to the others’ chagrin, but everybody did pretty well with it.

This then led into our larger discussion of onomatopoeia. As another part of their homework, students were to collect at least ten instances of onomatopoeia and look them up in the OED or other sources, so we talked about the words they found, and I shared things about the words that I collected from my facebook friends the day of class (including words that were entirely new to me, like parp and borborygm, and others that were very familiar like strum.

We talked some about the difference between lexical and nonlexical onomatopoeia, but I felt like James Joyce was skewing the discussion too much, so I asked them to pull out a piece of paper and pencil and write down exactly what I said. Into the gaping silence, I stuck out my tongue and blew a raspberry. “Can you repeat that one more time,” one student quipped. They all wrote down their responses and then put them up on the board:


And then we were really able to talk about the difference between words and sounds and the mimetic function of language and how we use context to hear the sounds of non-lexical onomatopoeia rather than parsing individual letters.

In all, I thought it was a great class, probably my best stylistics class this semester, so I wanted to share it. I’ve also been struggling with keeping up with the blog, in part under the weight of feeling like I should say big important things, but little things are important too, small successes (and small failures).


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