Assignment: The Song Project

I am having such fun with my Early Modern Literature class! Yesterday we spent a whole 80 minute class close reading a single poem by John Donne, “The Sun Rising,” & while yes there was a bit of restlessness (two texting violations) (I get it, seamless time & attention are hard, weird, scary even), in the main they were on it, smart, engaged, perceptive. We went that long on one poem only because they were into it – I had other stuff ready I set aside. Loving this group. Anyway here’s an assignment they have – to put a poem we’ve read, & a song they like, in conversation.


The Song Project

The preamble

This project asks you to connect the songs (music) you listen to to the songs (poems) they descended from. For real! The shapes and tropes on your latest playlist – unrequited love, spiritual longing, political protestthey have a history, they come from somewhere. Several somewheres, actually, and one is the body of work we’ve been reading this quarter.

[We’re reading lyrics by Skelton, Wyatt, Ralegh, Marlowe, Elizabeth I, Shakespeare, Jonson, Wroth, Donne, Herbert, Herrick, Marvell]

The assignment

Compare and contrast, in terms of form, structure, technique, and rhetoric, one of the poems we’ve read, with the lyrics of a popular song.

The details

Not “popular” as in a lot of people like it. “Popular” as in a modern or contemporary song created for a mass audience. Possible genres include pop, indie, hip-hop, rock, folk, blues, R&B, country, showtunes. If in doubt, check with me.

Forget about the music. You’re working just with the lyrics on the page. Pick a song whose lyrics pack the literary punch of a poem.

Pick a song and a poem that on at least one dimension – structure, technique, rhetoric – are strikingly similar, or interestingly different. (Note that I don’t list content. Content shouldn’t figure large in your comparison.)

You’ll bring a draft in point form to work on, in class, in small groups. Details below.

The final product will be an essay, with thesis, roughly 2500 words. Follow format guidelines in the syllabus.

The procedure

Here’s how I would like you to proceed. The approach may seem time consuming, but it builds on skills you’ve been developing all quarter, and helps ensure your reading has both breadth and depth. Notice that you don’t begin to formulate a thesis until late in the process. If a thesis begins to occur to you earlier, that’s great – it’s the process working for you – note it down, but don’t get locked into it. Keep your mind open and flexible; let your reading keep developing.

(1) Print out a few copies of the poem, and a few of the song, to work on.

(2) Do our noticing practice – wide open, anything goes – on your poem.

(3) Do our noticing practice – again, wide open – on your song. Steps (2) and (3) are to get to know the texts well. Write your findings on the texts you printed out.

(4) Now put your poem and your song side-by-side. Do a focused noticing practice, first of the poem, then of the song, paying attention just to structure – stanza size and shape, rhyme scheme, turn, refrain (and/or chorus, bridge). Again, write on the texts you printed out.

(5) Do focused reading practices of poem and song, paying attention, in turn, to

1. prosody (rhythm and meter)
2. line (end-stopping, enjambment, caesura)
3. imagery (including appeals to sight, sound, smell, taste, touch)
4. figures of speech (metaphor, simile, personification, paradox, pun)
5. rhetorical stance (who’s speaker, who’s spoken to, to what purpose, who overhears)

Depending on your poem and your song, there will be a lot to say about some of these things, only a little to say about others – but if you’ve chosen poem and song well, there will be interesting likenesses and differences in the same categories.

(6) Identify the likenesses and differences that are, to you,

1. most interesting
2. most surprising
3. most important
4. most revealing
5. most disturbing

Write a long paragraph exploring each. If in (5) you focused on what is there, here you focus on what it does. You’re brainstorming and getting your thoughts in order, but this is also raw material for academic writing – so when you ask a question, make a claim, or express an insight, back it up by citing the relevant passage in the poem or song.

(7) Out of all the writing you’ve done, and especially for step (6), has any overarching insight begun to form into what the poem and song have in common, or do differently? If so, write a short paragraph expressing and developing that insight. If not, review everything you’ve written, see what stands out to you as most interesting or provocative, and write.

(8) Condense that paragraph into a draft thesis statement that makes an interpretive claim about what the poem and the song have in common, and/or do differently, in terms of form, structure, and/or technique. (If the paragraph in (7) doesn’t work out, back up and write another one. Or you might need to back up further … use your judgement.)

The deadlines

M 11/18  A packet comprised of: your most interesting findings for (4) and (5), typed up in point form; the song lyrics themselves. Four copies.

F 12/6  Final song project.


The image atop is from a blog post by Simon Costin (founder of the Museum of British Folklore and director of the Museum of Witchcraft) on visiting Derek Jarman’s Prospect Cottage. Oh all the connections in this light.