The teacher should not read the poem to the class first: this always constitutes an intervention in the process of interpretation - and, whilst that is nevertheless a good thing in many circumstances, in the case of this poem students need to be allowed to make their own decisions, initially, about how it should be read.
Students read the poem to each other in pairs and try to make sense of it. What is the initial impact of the poem? Even if they can't make sense of the words, do they seem to have a general theme or tone? Do they recognise any of the phrases? What do they notice about the use of punctuation and the form or structure of the poem? Get some of them to attempt a reading to the class and get feedback from their discussions.
1. Pause the discussion of the poem and hand out the national anthems sheet and the religious passages sheet. Get the students to read and discuss the three patriotic anthems and the two religious pieces. First of all, can they spot what these have in common with cummings' poem? Second, what do they feel about the national anthems? What kinds of sentiments do they express, what kind of language do they use, and what do they have in common? Third, what do they feel about the religious pieces, and what do they have in common with the patriotic pieces?
2. Now return to cummings' poem. Does their reading of the other pieces help them to understand what the cummings is about, and how it is written? At this point, having found the sources of the allusions, they should be able to detect the way in which cummings has elided a number of well-known phrases to make a kind of verbal collage. Point out to students that the first 13 lines of the poem are in fact a speech, whilst the 14th line is narration. Then ask the students to write a punctuated version of the speech. What do they make of the phrases for which they have not seen the sources?
3. Play the Poetry Archive recording of cummings reading the poem. Does this change or confirm the students' view of the poem? How does his manner of reading the poem affect their interpretation - especially his use of pauses and his tone? At this stage, draw out the satirical tone and style of the poem. Ask students to discuss the form and structure of the poem: do they notice that it is a sonnet? Why do they think cummings might have chosen the form of a sonnet?
4. Pause discussion of the poem again. Hand out or display the two Dada paintings and get students to talk about what they see in the paintings. Then ask them if they seem to have anything in common with cummings' poem. Draw out the following features of modernist art and poetry:
- Fragmentation, collage, breakdown of conventions
- Satire, especially of military and patriotic figures
(Students could also at this point read the Wikipedia entry on Dada which describes the anti-war origins of the Dada movement.)
5. Finally, play the recording of another cummings poem, 'anyone lived in a pretty how town', and show students the poem. Although this is a very different kind of poem in some ways, can they see cummings using similar techniques in both poems?
Hand out or display the list of features of modernism and ask students to discuss which of these features the poems and paintings display. Finally, ask them to sum up how effective they feel cummings' use of these features is.