Words beyond words, meaning beyond meaning
This week we visited Professor Komura’s Critical Reading for Research class. Held in 2nd period on Wednesdays, this class for 1st year students incorporates both reading instruction as well as literature content – a hybrid class where the students are also lucky enough to enjoy some exposure to poetry.
The theme of today’s class was Image, and started with a question, one that Professor Komura introduced as “possibly the silliest question you’ve ever encountered in college” – do you like cats or dogs?
Why were the students being asked this? Why did they need to explain the reason for their answer? This was a mystery to everyone in the classroom, but by the end of the class, all was clear.
In fact, the majority of the students found it difficult to give a reason for their preference of dog or cat. And that was the point. Professor Komura used this confusion to lead the students into the next stage of the class, a conceptual explanation of Image. He told us that image is used to express something that is difficult to express in mere words, and this is where he used the phrase ‘words beyond words, meaning beyond meaning’. In this class, the students were being asked to move beyond word choice (denotation, connotation) to description (image). He also explained that image is a language that addresses the senses – whether it be sight, sound, touch, smell or taste.
However, learning about concepts is one thing – actually understanding them is another. It was at this point that we moved into the next stage of the lesson – an introduction of concrete examples of the concepts that Professor Komura had described. We worked with two poems: the first, “Poem” by William Carlos Williams (1883 – 1963), was used as the basis of a group discussion by the students. In their groups, the students were asked to talk about their feelings in response to the poem, its subject matter (a cat) and one of the images evoked (a cat in a flower pot). After a 10 minute discussion some of the groups reported on their discussions. The majority of the students reported that they felt that the cat in the poem was ‘cute’, and Professor Komura pointed out that the single word ‘cute’ actually doesn’t express all that is conveyed by the images in the poem. This led to the big question of the day: what do we do (or what can we do) when we want or need to express a thought or feeling that’s difficult to express? This is the function of the image: to express words or feelings that are difficult to express otherwise.
We then moved on to the second poem, “Root Cellar” by Theodore Roethke (1908 – 1963).
ROOT CELLAR by Theodore Roethke
Nothing would sleep in that cellar, dank as a ditch,
Bulbs broke out of boxes hunting for chinks in the dark,
Shoots dangled and drooped,
Lolling obscenely from mildewed crates,
Hung down long yellow evil necks, like tropical snakes.
And what a congress of stinks!–
Roots ripe as old bait,
Pulpy stems, rank, silo-rich,
Leaf-mold, manure, lime, piled against slippery planks.
Nothing would give up life:
Even the dirt kept breathing a small breath.
After Professor Komura had read out the poem, the students once again formed groups to discuss questions such as what senses are engaged by the images in the poem, whether or not this is a favorable description of a root cellar, and what line seems to be the key in understanding the theme of the poem.
Given the difficult vocabulary used, the students were allowed to look up words as needed and spent around 15 minutes deciphering the meaning and answering the questions assigned. They performed admirably, identifying the key words and themes of the poem and adding their own interpretations of its meaning.
After some further commentary from Professor Komura we moved onto the final activity of the class. It was here that the students were asked to put what they had learned into practice. In their groups, they were required to create their own poem, deciding on a theme together, and then each student adding one image or line to create their joint work. Two groups read out the finished product of their group work. While both groups coincidentally chose the subject of dogs, the tone and style of the respective poems were completely different and truly reflected the students’ creativity and imagination.
While the subject of Image and the medium of poetry may tend to be viewed as difficult, Professor Komura provided clear explanations with many examples and ample opportunities for the students to ask questions and receive individual guidance as they held their discussions. The class is predominantly in English with supplementary Japanese explanations provided. Thought-provoking and refreshing – the students looked both challenged and stimulated.