Why do I have the feeling that not everyone in the English department is going to approve of this art inspired (clil) writing assignment?

Surreal poetry assignment

This might not be a lesson idea for language purists, but in my defense, I would say that encouraging learners to play with language can be an important aspect of language acquisition. I remember the satisfying buzz I started to get when my mastery of the Dutch language reached a level where I could crack a joke or maybe use a little irony. It makes the using of the language more pleasurable and dare I say it, more fun. So if my surreal poetry assignment takes us into areas of confusing and sometimes conflicting interpretation….well…..that is actually the point of it.

If you would like a little more context and history on the Surrealists, their forerunners the Dadaists and how text and language featured in their work a good place to start is the excellent The Art Story site through the links at the bottom of this post.

So how does the assignment work? I should start by saying that there are plenty of variations on these poetic themes to be found on a variety of websites. The one that I sketch out here is based on an idea from one on a wikihow.com page.

The initial task is to find an existing poem; this could perhaps be one that has been made use of in an English lesson or one that you as a teacher feel is particularly appropriate. Alternatively, allow your pupils to search for a starting point themselves in books or on websites, one that they themselves find interesting…..reading a bit of poetry can never be a bad thing!

Once a suitable poem has been found ask the pupils to identify the nouns, verbs and adjectives in the poem by underlining them with three different coloured pens. Again, this is a useful language exercise for pupils of any level to try to complete.

Then comes the creative part, ask the pupils to replace the existing nouns, verbs and adjectives with new ones of their own choice. It helps if they have already grasped the fact that in the world of the Surrealists not everything is quite as it seems. To make this point clear the paintings of Rene Magritte are my own favourite.

The challenge is to create new poetic lines that are grammatically correct, but have an intriguing and perhaps perplexing connection…..complete randomness though, doesn’t seem to engage the writer or the reader in quite the same way.

 

The examples below illustrate the process:

 

Is the Moon Tired?

By Christina Rossetti (1830-1994)

Is the moon tired? she looks so pale

Within her misty veil:

She scales the sky from east to west,

And takes no rest.

Before the coming of the night

The moon shows papery white;

Before the dawning of the day

She fades away

 

Is the (noun) tired? she looks so (adjective)

Within her misty (noun):

She (verb) the sky from (noun) to (noun),

And takes no (noun).

Before the (verb) of the (noun)

The moon shows (adjective) (noun);

Before the (verb) of the (noun)

She (verb) away.

(Noun – Verb – Adjective)

 

A new version might go:

Is the ink tired? she looks so weak

Within her misty streak:

She swims the sky from pen to book,

And takes no second look.

Before the consuming of the text

The moon shows uncertain perplex;

Before the burning of the hay

She withdraws away.

 

Two possible extensions to this project could be:

  1. Ask pupils to try to produce an illustration based on their own new version of the poem
  2. Give pupils an example of a surreal artwork (such as one by Magritte) and ask them to write a poem about the painting from scratch. The visual material that the painting offers provides a clear direction and material enough for an interesting exploration and simultaneously requires them to look long and hard at an image from art history.

The story of Dada

The story of Surrealism

Wikihow page used

Reaching a conclusion, and reading a poem in public

I’ve posted before about the commission that I’ve been working on this year. A piece involving three canvases that together are close to four metres wide. This week finally saw the installation of the work in their new home, the Max Planck Institute for Psycholingistics in Nijmegen.

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You never quite know how artworks are going to look in a new location so it is always just a bit of an edgy moment when you pull them out of the packaging and lean them up against the wall and step back to look. On this occasion the result has proved to be undoubtedly a move in the positive direction. The work itself of course hasn’t changed, but the location it has received is on a beautifully spacious white wall that is positively flooded with light. I could have asked for little more, the three panels do look, even if I say so myself, beautiful.

The paintings were given an official  presentation moment on Wednesday afternoon, along with the also recently purchased work by Alex Dima. It was a chance to thank those involved, but also a moment to say something about the ideas and intentions behind the paintings. I am always a bit wary to say too much in such circumstances, I don’t want to give the idea that there is just one route to go. However I am also keen, if I can, to offer the viewer a way into interpreting the work. On this occasion I chose for a short poem, it touches on a number of ideas and reference points that have been important whilst creating the work, but does so in a way that hopefully opens doors to interpretation rather than closing them.

I do not pretend to be a writer or a poet, but I have to admit to being quite satisfied with the resulting three verses, it was certainly well received at the opening!

 

Flight and escape, contemporary themes

Uncertain destinations, safety behind barriers

I look to the landscape

The backdrop of our lives

A rush of wings

Movement passing

 

A narrow aperture opening

Reduced geometric architecture

Refined beauty in our man made line

Engaging the serene beauty beyond

Crisp, hard edges marking space

Illusions in the décor

 

Nature meets the line

Clear blue sky and searing heat

A solitary cloud drifts

A rush of wings move the air

Lost in the colour

Swift movement passing by

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