National Collegiate Honors Council


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Copyright 2013 by the National Collegiate Honors Council


The frustration in the classroom was palpable and familiar. We were reading Anne Carson’s translation of Sappho’s poetry, If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho, in the first semester of our Honors Civilizations sequence. The students balked at the absence of text, the lack of a story line, a missing hero, the paucity of biographical information on Sappho, the seeming waste of paper where only one word appeared on a page, and the whole idea of poetry. Poetry was not their thing, some claimed, when asked if this genre appealed to them. Even to honors educators who have the privilege of teaching bright, curious, and engaged students, this assertion is all too familiar. The challenge is to convince students otherwise: to demonstrate pedagogically that poetry can be their thing and also to show them how much it can shape the way they think about the world and their place in it. The funny thing is that, just minutes before the students started complaining about reading Sappho’s poetry, most of them had removed ear buds and turned off any number of electronic devices streaming sound, mostly music. They did not yet see a connection between Sappho’s lyrical poetry and the lyrics of the songs they had just been listening to. Making that connection for them opened the door for critical understandings of Sappho’s work, its evocative imagery, and its ability to give voice to the same deep and confounding feelings of love and desire that the students were experiencing. At the same time, even as students were shown Sappho’s legacy as a lyric poet—for example, the connection between Sappho’s seventh-century BCE “you burn me” (Carson 77) and Peggy Lee’s twentieth-century Fever (Moxley)—they retained a general sense of alienation from the text every time I taught it. In 2009, a student in one of my classes offered a solution: perhaps everyone in the class could try creating love poems themselves using a technique known as “newspaper blackout.”