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This week's guest blogger is Pamela Arlov, Associate Professor of English at Middle Georgia State University.
This summer, teaching a hybrid literature and composition class, I developed a lesson in carpe diem poetry that was close to pedagogical perfection. Because it worked (and because not everything does), I share it with you. The lesson incorporates poetry and song lyrics and requires students to read, watch, listen, and write.
The first part of the lesson presents a definition of carpe diem along with a clip from the film Dead Poets Society. Mr. Keating (Robin Williams) shows his students pictures of long-dead students and advises his own students to “Seize the day, boys . . . make your lives extraordinary.”
After viewing the introductory film clip, students move to two classic carpe diem poems: Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress” and Robert Herrick’s “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time.” I ask students to look at the formal structure of the speaker’s argument in Marvell’s poem and to contrast the formal structure with the intimate nature of the poem, in which the speaker argues that a specific “coy mistress” should make love to him. I also point out the more general, advice-giving nature of Herrick’s poem, in which the speaker cautions young women (“virgins”) to marry before they are past their expiration date.
Next, students listen to four contemporary songs and decide which two are carpe diem songs. I specify that a carpe diem song (1) alludes to the idea that life is short, and (2) names a specific thing that should be done because life is short. The songs students choose should contain both elements.
For the lesson, I chose songs I had heard in Zumba class or on Sirius XM’s Chill radio during my morning commute. I had planned to link to music videos on YouTube, but on one video, I was stopped by a “potentially offensive” YouTube warning. Mindful of my still-in-high-school dual enrollment students, I decided that I would link the audio version of that song and let students find the video themselves if they wished.
Another dilemma arose when I discovered that the song that had given me the idea for the lesson had no clean version available. I took the problem to my students and asked them if profanity in music offended them. They reacted just as I might have if an adult had asked my teenage self if I was offended by Mick Jagger’s onstage gyrations. I included the song, prefaced with a warning that I had not been able to find a clean version. I then asked myself if this issue was the same as that of the video with the YouTube warning and decided that it was not. Some of the works of literature assigned in class also contain profanity, so these lyrics add no new element.
I have listed and linked my song choices below, but the assignment is endlessly adaptable to your own musical tastes and preferences.
- “Bad, Bad News” by Leon Bridges, a song about seizing the opportunity to make “a good, good thing out of bad, bad news.”
- “Give Me Everything” by Pitbull featuring Ne-Yo, Afrojack, and Nayer, a song that riffs on the theme of Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress.” This is the song with the YouTube community warning; judge for yourself.
- “Havana” by Camila Cabello featuring Young Thug, a song about a heart divided, chosen because of its wildly entertaining video.
- “Dead Soon” by Autograf, featuring Lils and Bonsai Mammal, a song that justifies seizing the moment with the lyric “If we don’t see another light / Then at least we had tonight.”
My students responded well to this assignment; all accurately identified the carpe diem lyrics (songs 2 and 4). When I asked myself if a 100 percent success rate meant the exercise was too easy, my answer was “not in this case.” Carpe diem is a fairly easy concept to grasp, recognize, and remember. What really sold me on the assignment was not the success rate, but the ease with which students quoted song lyrics. My students find it challenging to make a point about literature and support that point with a concise quotation from the text itself. But doing the exact same thing with song lyrics seemed to be easy for them, perhaps because song lyrics are woven through their lives in a way that literature is not. This accidental discovery suggests that one good way of helping students understand how to integrate quotations into their papers is to let them start with song lyrics. While I should probably seize the day and get to work on that, it’s a task for another day.
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