Lesson on 'One Evening' by W.H. Auden
As with many of Auden's poems, the apparent superficial simplicity of 'One Evening' belies more complex ideas, and the tension that develops between singalonga-Auden metrical form and increasingly disturbed emotion packs a real punch. This makes it a good poem for mixed ability classes, as it is both accessible to many and capable of challenging interrogation by the few, and as an added bonus it has some lovely graphic semi-Goth imagery for the luridly inclined. This lesson plan focuses on ways of reading the multiple voices of the poem, and the more vocal variation is encouraged in class, the greater the contrast will be with Auden's astonishing RP reading.
For students to:
- explore the spoken dimension of poetry: specifically the multiple voices of this poem and how they might be conveyed in recital or reading
- experience poetry aurally in the high-octane form of Auden's original recording, and by listening to alternative readings by other people
- develop an understanding of the purpose of deploying competing voices in a poem.
- A copy of the poem for each student
- The Poetry Archive recording of WH Auden reading One Evening
Teaching sequence of activities
Write or project onto the board 2 love/time quotations from pop music, or play audio clips from the songs themselves, and invite discussion of what they mean, and opinions of the validity of each.
- Love is all you need (John Lennon)
- Time is on my side (Mick Jagger)
Useful questions might include:
- What exactly does this statement mean?
- Do you agree or disagree?
- What evidence is there to support your view?
- What alternative ways of thinking about this are there?
- What are the implications of this view for how we might live our lives?
Give out copies of the poem to each student and introduce Auden's 'One Evening' as an exploration of ideas about love and time, and the way we choose to live our lives in relation to these ideas. Explain that these ideas are explored through the presentation of multiple voices: of a lover, a city's 'speaking' clocks, and the rambling 'I'. Invite skim-reading of the poem to find the section in which each speaks, and mark these off with lines across the page or highlighter pens.
Divide students into groups of three, each to investigate one of the voices. Allow time for quiet individual work on this. Useful questions might include:
- Who or what is your speaker? What impression do you form of him/her/it?
- What ideas about love and/or time does he/she/it seem to have?
- What kind of attitude does he/she/it have about love and/or time?
- What tone of voice is suggested by this speaker's words?
Then get groups to do their first reading of the poem, each taking their part, followed by each person's explanation of what they noticed about their 'voice' and any wider group discussion of the poem.
Next, introduce the students to the idea of different types and purposes of poetry recital, drawing on any experiences and cultural connections they may have: Poetry Slams, readings by poets, performances by actors for things like Radio 4's Poetry Please, readings accompanied by music, poetry recital competitions in schools and/or local arts festivals etc. You could show some examples.
Then invite the students, in their groups of 3, to prepare a reading of 'One Night' – perhaps working up two or three contrasting ideas in draft form first to encourage creativity. How elaborate the readings might be will depend upon how much class time/homework you want to allocate to the task. Recording the students' work might engender a greater 'buzz' about the activity as well as enabling you to review the different versions more fully afterwards.
Then hold your poetry recital. This could get a little tedious as they are all of the same poem, so try doing it as a competitive event, a la Eurovision Contest or a la X Factor. The twist in the tale is that W.H. Auden himself is joining in too: when all of the students have done their readings, play the Poetry Archive recording and get them to compare this and vote on it too. If you want two 'outsider' recordings, try also this one by Ralph Fiennes.
Once the winners have been awarded their enormous literary prize, calm things down with a few minutes of individual written reflection on what they learned about 'their' voice by listening to other readings and recordings. Follow this up with a whole class plenary, drawing out and summarising the ideas about each voice. Finish with three questions about the significance of all this:
- What effects are created by the use of these competing voices?
- In what situation is the speaker left at the end of the poem?
- With what ideas about life are we left at the end of the poem?
Some students could - alternatively or as well - analyse the way the ideas about time and love are conveyed. This poem is a mini-masterclass in poetic technique, with much comment to be made about Auden's use of simile, metaphor, personification, hyperbole and repetition. This could be an option for students who don't want to take part in performance, or for selected students who would relish the challenge of detailed stylistic analysis. They could prepare a presentation for the rest of the class after the X-Factor part.
- Listen to the reading of Auden's poem 'Stop All the Clocks' in the film 'Four Weddings and a Funeral' for another very accessible Auden poem.
- Read Andrew Marvell's 'To His Coy Mistress' for another perspective on the relationship between Love and Time.