Lesson on 'Considering the Snail' by Thom Gunn

Gary Snapper

Introduction

Like the snail, packed tightly into its spiral shell, this poem is a slow-moving bundle of meatiness, packed tightly into three beautifully shaped stanzas. This lesson is designed to get students to focus on poetic form in modernist poetry, in particular the way the layout of a poem might affect its impact and the way it is read and understood. It also encourages them to think about the modern poet's toolkit and why s/he might make certain choices about how to write.

Objectives
  • To consider the definition of poetry and the nature of poetic language
  • To consider the nature, purposes and effects of poetic form in modernist poetry
  • To develop understanding of half rhyme, syllabic metre and enjambement
Resources needed
  • A sheet with the following prose text, or a display with screen and projector: The snail pushes through a green night, for the grass is heavy with water and meets over the bright path he makes, where rain has darkened the earth's dark. He moves in a wood of desire, pale antlers barely stirring as he hunts. I cannot tell what power is at work, drenched there with purpose, knowing nothing. What is a snail's fury? All I think is that if later I parted the blades above the tunnel and saw the thin trail of broken white across litter, I would never have imagined the slow passion to that deliberate progress.
  • A sheet containing the following two texts, which are both verse versions of the previous text with the words unaltered:

    The snail pushes through a green night,

    for the grass is heavy with water

    and meets over the bright path he makes,

    where rain has darkened the earth's dark.

    He moves in a wood of desire,

    pale antlers barely stirring as he hunts.

    I cannot tell what power is at work,

    drenched there with purpose,

    knowing nothing.

    What is a snail's fury?

    All I think is that if later

    I parted the blades above the tunnel

    and saw the thin trail of broken white across litter,

    I would never have imagined

    the slow passion to that deliberate progress.


    and

    The snail pushes

    through a green night,

    for the grass is heavy

    with water

    and meets over the bright

    path he makes,

    where rain has darkened

    the earth's dark.

    He moves

    in a wood of desire,

    pale antlers barely

    stirring as he hunts.

    I cannot tell what

    power is at work,

    drenched there

    with purpose,

    knowing nothing.

    What is

    a snail's fury?

    All I think is that

    if later I parted the blades

    above the tunnel

    and saw the thin trail

    of broken white

    across litter,

    I would never have imagined

    the slow passion

    to that deliberate progress.



  • The Poetry Archive recording of Thom Gunn reading 'Considering the Snail' and a copy of it in text form.

Teaching sequence of activities

Starter

Ask the group to work in pairs for a few minutes to write a definition of 'poetry'. Get each group to feed back their definition and discuss whether it works - i.e. does the definition fully define what poetry is?


Development

1. Put the discussion about the definition of poetry aside and hand out or display the prose text, without telling students that it is the text of a poem. Ask students to discuss this text. First, they should think about the text's meanings and their response to the ideas in it and the language used. Discuss as a class.

Then, ask them to think about what kind of text it might be. Might it come from a longer text? If so, what kind of text? Could it be considered poetry - or, if not poetry, 'poetic'?

Next, ask the students to convert the text into verse. They can either take the words exactly as they are, or thy can modify them in a way that they think would be effective, for instance by leaving words out or adding them. Share some of the students' work with the class and ask them to talk about what they did and why.

Does this exercise help them to refine their definition of poetry?

2. Hand out the sheet with two verse versions of the text. Ask students to work in pairs to read these two versions and compare them. Does the text seem different from the prose version because of its different layouts? Do they hear it or read it differently, and does this seem to change the meaning or impact of the text at all? How are the two different versions different, and which of the two seems more effective? What can they say about the form of these poems - e.g., can they see any rhyme or consistency in line length or stanza length, or is it entirely free verse? What, if any, logic can they see in the way the lines and stanzas are laid out?

Ask students to prepare readings of the three different texts so far. Listen to some of the readings and discuss the way the layout of the text seems to affect them.

3. Now give students the actual poem 'Considering the Snail', without telling them that it is the actual poem. Ask them to read it, and discuss how this version is different from the other versions. Which do they prefer? What can they say about the form of this last poem?

Reveal to the students that the words they have now read in four different forms are the words of an actual poem. Ask them which of the three verse versions they think is the actual poem.

Play the Poetry Archive recording of 'Considering the Snail'. What do they think of the reading? Which of the three poetry versions does the reading suggest is the real one?

4. Reveal that the last version is the actual poem, and, if they have not already spotted it, draw out and discuss the elements of form in it - rhyme scheme using half rhymes (ABCABC), syllabic metre (7 syllables per line, apart from the last line which is 8 syllables), six line stanzas, frequent enjambement. Why do they think the poet has arranged the poem in this way? Does it enhance or illuminate the meaning in any way or change their response?

5. Develop a discussion of the ideas of half rhyme and syllabic metre, and help students to understand their significance within the tradition of modernism. Explain that these features were not commonly used in poetry until the modernist movement reacted against the conventions of traditional poetry.

Why might poets decide to use a 'hidden' form, with partially hidden rhyme and metre, rather than free verse or fully rhyming and metrical verse? What are the possible attractions or advantages of each from the perspective of (a) the writer and (b) the reader. Are the three types of verse particularly suitable for specific types of content or expression?


Plenary

Return to the original question - what is the definition of poetry? Has the exercise (especially the transformation of a text from prose to verse) helped them to decide on a definition? Reflect also on what they have learnt about poetic form, especially the use of rhyme and metre.


Extension Activities

Show students a selection of expressionist paintings (e.g. Picasso, Kandinsky, Mondrian, Pollock) to help them to understand the idea of modernism, and the way in which modernist artists reacted against traditional forms but often incorporated elements of traditional form in original ways.


Further Reading

Students could read Thom Gunn's 'The Human Condition' and Ted Hughes' 'Wind' as further examples of the ways in which modernist poets use elements of traditional poetic form but use them in new and original ways.


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