This unit seeks to explore links between discontent in poet's minds with an evolution of poetry that runs through three time periods and leads to today's Spoken Word. The unit is divided into three sections; The Beats, Protest of the Sixties, and finally, The Spoken Word. In each section I will give background for the students, explore the poetry of the era, give students a chance to write similar poetry and finally produce some artwork to accompany each study. Hence, the students will be working with the text, writing in their journals and working with art as they discover the commonalities that they hold with past generations.
A word about Assessment
Besides journal writing, I ask students to partake in three types of projects in this unit. At the end of the Beat Generation section, students are asked to create an artistic visual that will help portray their favorite beat poem or their own beat poem. At the end of the second section I ask students to put music to their poetry. Finally at the end of the third section, I ask students to participate in a poetry slam. Let students know ahead of time that these are the three bigger projects connected with this unit. While student participation is required throughout the unit, I'll let the students choose which section they would like to have a major grade on. This way students will be allowed to capitalize on the learning strategy that best fits their personality. We are not all musicians, artists or performers, but hopefully students will be able to choose one of these categories to be graded on.
Section One-The Beat Generation
Without a doubt the best place to begin tracing the evolution of poetry to today's Spoken Word Poetry Slam is with the Beat Generation of the 1950s. The "beatniks" as they came to be known derived their nickname from the term "beat" or "beat down." This group of antiestablishment artists was really the generation that grew out of the materialistic world of the 1950s. As white picket fences sprung up across a nation of suburban neighborhoods filled with all the gadgets and conveniences of the modern, post WWII American society, the beatniks became the anti-50s. In a world of established hairdos and pleated skirts, the beatniks chose to not comb their hair and wore dirty clothing. In a world of "Father Knows Best" marriages and stay at home moms, the beatniks chose to experiment with sex and homosexuality; in a world of complacency with keeping up with the Joneses, the beatniks chose to give everything up. They became a sort of conscience in a society that was prospering as never before. Thomas F. Merrill writes in Allen Ginsberg:
The anger is there, the zealousness is there; but what makes it different from the protests of the past is that the Beat attitude is not interested in social reform-in making the world a better place to live in where all people can have decent houses and food on the table; the beat protest is against the spiritual anemia that is a result, perhaps, of the successes of the truly social protests of the past. The Beatniks' was the only kind of protest possible, one begins to think, in a rich, affluent society. And their protest knocks against every smug layer of American convention with the full brunt of its antithesis. (21)
Teachers exploring the Beat generation with their students will have to be mindful of the material being used and make good decisions. The references to drugs, sex and godless society need to be minded according to the group you are working with. Also how in depth you want to explore the Beatniks will vary depending on the grade level you are teaching. Do you want to explore Zen Buddhism, the main religion/philosophy associated with the beatniks? Do you want to explore existentialism with your students while looking at the Beat Generation? Since this unit is designed for me to use with middle school students (eighth grade) I will forgo a very extensive study of the Beat Generation, but leave that up to the teacher to explore.
I will suggest however that teachers explore the poetry and writings of at least three of the major players in the Beat Generation; Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Jack Keroauc.
A graduate of Columbia University, Allen Ginsberg is generally thought of as the leader of the Beatniks. His poem "Howl" sparked controversy before even being published in 1957, spurring a court case in which the poem was defended by writers and critics. The famous poem and namesake for the beat generation, is lengthy and again, teachers must use their discretion in use of the poem. I think the first six to eight lines of the poem will suffice for middle school students. With the introduction to the Beatniks that you provide, students should be able to see where the author is coming from when he asserts "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked/dragging themselves through the Negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix."
Students should be able to see where the author is going with this poem and may be able to visualize the images. Another Ginsberg poem worth exploring is "A Supermarket in California" (1956) in which the author imagines seeing Walt Whitman in the aisle of the supermarket along with "Wives in the avocados, babies in the tomatoes!" Students may need to be prodded to see what exactly Ginsberg is saying about modern society in this poem, but again ample background to the Beat Generation will help with that a lot. Another poem worth looking at is "Homework" (1980) in which Ginsberg talks about cleaning up the world. This poem would work well for teachers trying to get students to look at and comment on the many environmental and or political problems facing our world today.
The second author I would include in a discussion of the Beats is Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Ferlinghetti became very influential as not only a poet but also a publisher of the beatniks. His publishing company, City Lights Books, was the first to publish Ginsberg's "Howl" in the United States. A Ferlinghetti poem that I will use with my eighth graders is "People Getting Divorced." Today's students in any grade will quickly relate to this poem of despondence with the loss of people's souls. Read through it a few times. Examine the poem's placement. Ask students to look closely at the word choice.
Finally any discussion of the beatniks is incomplete without an examination of Jack Kerouac. Jack Kerouac is best known for his book On the Road. High school teachers may want to teach the entire book as a sort of background for this unit. As a middle school teacher I may take excerpts to share with the students or emphasize some of Kerouac's poetry which revealed the beat attitude while embracing Zen Buddhism.
Have students choose their favorite work from the beat Generation and create a visual. What kind of drawings, sculpture or artwork can students come up with for the opening lines of "Howl"? How do they imagine Ferlinghetti saw divorcees, or how does Kerouac look traveling On the Road. Students choosing to receive a unit grade on this section of the unit should be reminded that while the majority of their grade will be on this art project, their participation in the other sections of the unit is still required.
Have students share their work and read the lines of poetry while the class looks at the visual. Finally have students write their own "Beat poems" in journals and share them with the class. Ask students to snap their fingers as a sign of applause. You might even consider setting up a Beatnik Café in which students can spend a day sharing their own work or their own interpretations of the Beat Generation literature you have discussed. This is also a way to lead students towards the poetry slam presentation that will be the cumulating project of this work. Have fun with it!
Section Two-Voices of the Sixties
This section of the unit probably allows the most flexibility and room for creativity for teachers. Here I will be focusing on several of the poets/musicians of the protests of the sixties. The huge amount of authors and musicians that fall into this category make for a wide variety that a teacher can choose from. Just glance at a Woodstock album to get a quick handful of musicians who were protesting at the time; Crosby, Stills and Nash, Joni Mitchell, Country Joe and the Fish, Joe Cocker, Jimi Hendrix, and countless others. The number of poets that fall into the same category is just as lengthy. For this particular unit I will focus on Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix and Nicki Giovanni.
The path of this section of the unit will follow the path of the other section focused on the Beat Generation. Students will be given some background on the era, they will examine the literature of the given subjects and they will experiment in a similar fashion with their own writing.
Although the sixties was a complicated and controversial decade, it will help teachers to focus by remembering where the unit is coming from. Since we are coming from a focus on the beatniks of the fifties, it makes sense to stay focused on similar characters in the sixties. Unfortunately, this includes most of the younger members of the US population at that time. A little background on the Vietnam War, touching on the Civil Rights Movement and talking about the rise of women's and Native American rights will help set the stage for this section of the unit. Again how in-depth a teacher wants to take the students into the background really depends on several factors including teacher interest, grade level and curriculum. This unit would work well as an interdisciplinary one between an English and a social studies teacher. Use the unit the way you see fit.
In this section of the unit I will focus on putting the poetry to music. Working at an arts magnet school puts me at an advantage here. Students in our school are constantly encouraged to tap into their artistic talents.
It will be interesting to see how many students know who Jimi Hendrix was. I suspect that in my middle school classroom about ninety percent of the students will either have never heard anything about him or would not be able to identify his music. But Hendrix is a wonderful way to start the introduction to the sixties. It should be easy for you to use Hendrix as a sort of bridge between the Beatniks and the protests of the sixties. His music, like the poetry, writing, and thoughts of the Beat Generation, was really rebellious in nature. Even among the rebellious rock and roll of the times, Hendrix's music really sticks out as an even further step away from conformity, an even larger silent protest against society just through the nature of the music itself. He lived in society that still largely shunned African Americans and was himself somewhat ostracized by his own race due to his connections to a movement dominated by white youth.
Begin the focus on Hendrix by giving students lyrics to "The Star-Spangled Banner." Read them together and ask the students to put music to the lyrics. They will undoubtedly sing you a traditional version of our national anthem written by Francis Scott Key. Next, play Jimi Hendrix's version of the song for students. Why was his song controversial? What was Hendrix trying to say in his version? Why did he burn his guitar at the conclusion of the performance? How was Hendrix's performance at Woodstock an expression of protest? This illustration will really epitomize the focus of this section of the unit; poetry as music.
It can probably be said that Bob Dylan was to his generation in the sixties what Allen Ginsberg was to a generation of Beat Poets. His impact on the music of the times and the music of generations to come can still be felt today. But he is also known as a poet and was even considered at one time for a Pulitzer Prize in poetry.
Give students the lyrics to a song like Bob Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues." Read it as a class and examine it. What does Dylan mean when he says "You don't need a weatherman to tell which way the wind blows?" Examine other Dylan songs including "Mr. Tambourine Man," "Blowin' in the Wind," "The Times They Are A-Changin'" and any number of others. The goal is to look closely at the lyrics first. Examine them like you would any poem. Ask students to imagine what kind of music they would put to the work and finally let them hear what music Dylan used. After students hear the song and talk about their feelings, allow them to reflect in their journal. What kind of connections can they make between Dylan's music and the Beat Generation and/or Hendrix? Is the music that Dylan plays similar to what they would play. How is it the same, how is it different? Once again I have chosen Dylan for this section of the unit because he seems to epitomize the movement. He is also one of my personal favorites from the era. There are many others that could be used in his place if teachers prefer. Look into Jim Morrison, Simon and Garfunkel, Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, or a number of other artists from the sixties whose work can easily be read as poetry before examining it as music.
Born in Knoxville, TN in 1943, Nikki Giovanni came to be known as one of the most successful of African American poets during the 1960s. Her first collection of poetry, Black Feeling, Black Talk was published to wide acclaim in 1967. She has continued writing and publishing into the 21st Century. Giovanni is an especially good author to use in this unit because she is a writer that many of my students know today. Her poetry is widely published in English textbooks and her work continues to gain popularity now. Giovanni becomes another bridge in this unit. Here, after all is a voice from the sixties that is being read and enjoyed by children today. Here is a living connection for the students and therefore a key to one of my goals in this unit. Dylan and Hendrix might also reach the modern day student, but I suspect that neither will have the notoriety that Giovanni will have with today's students. Ask students what music they could set to Giovanni's poetry.
Finally this section of the unit should end with students working together to put their own poetry to some kind of music. Be ready to give a unit grade to those students who feel they can best share their work through music. There is a more detailed lesson plan on this section at the end of the unit.
Section Three-The Spoken Word and the Poetry Slam
This third section of the unit is really a culmination of the previous two sections. Spoken word poetry is a newer artistic movement, but the connections to the past will be evident to your students right away. The development of spoken word in this unit begins with the Beat poets who regularly read their poetry in New York bars, it continued with protest music of the sixties and then entered a more public forum with the introduction of the open mike in the late seventies and eighties. In the eighties "performance" was added to the poetry readings and in the mid eighties Marc Smith organized the first "poetry slams" which are basically spoken word competitions in which the audience scores the performers. The poetry slam turns this new look at poetry, the spoken word, into a competitive sport. Spoken word performance poetry is really poetry reading combined with performance in a competitive format. It is poetry and emotion put out there for the audience and for the poet. Introduce the spoken word to your class with the help of others. As I mentioned in my introduction, I was fortunate to have a small group come to my classroom for a performance that neither my students nor I will ever forget. But there may not be a group that you can get a hold of right away. That's ok. There are books, recordings and movies that you can utilize. I have mentioned several of them in my bibliography. There are also open mike sessions all over our country. It is important that the students get an ample introduction to the art, so that when it comes time for them to get up and share, they won't just read the lines on the page, but they will let them live and send them out to the class.
Once students understand the spoken word and have heard some examples of poetry in action, simply let them write their own feelings. Let them spend some time with their journals and then, of course, let them share. Students will have a great time with this. Try to have a microphone available for them and if possible get the AV department to send down someone to film the students performing their work.
The Poetry Slam
After students have had their try at performance poetry, introduce them to the poetry slam. Remember the basic difference between performance poetry and a poetry slam is the competition. Audience participation is vital as they are the ones who score the performers. Devise a system of scoring that works for your class. Establish a point system where students can score the performers based on a set of criteria that you establish. (Perhaps students could score each other on a scale of one to ten with categories including performance, poem, poetic devises or whatever you decide.) Finally allow the students to perform their poetry. Invite other teachers, students and administrators to participate in the slam. Remember to grade those students who choose this option as their final project.