The Shakespeare Sonnet Slam

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Poetry is an oral as well as written tradition, and we are only doing half the work—and having half the fun— if we silently read a poem on the page. Unfortunately, I don’t always have the chance to emphasize this enough in the classroom. As I struggle for both depth and breadth in my courses, I often run out of time before I can focus on the performance of poetry.

At least a few times during the semester, though, I create opportunities for students to engage with the performance of written texts. This might seem like an optional activity that doesn’t have the substance of a lecture or in-depth discussion, but I would disagree. In fact, in-class recitations can generate real excitement among students, in part because memorization requires a slow, attentive reading that we wish for every time we assign a new text.

With this in mind, I recommend the Shakespeare Sonnet Slam as a classroom activity. In an English literature survey we spend a couple of classes reading sonnets by Shakespeare and his contemporaries, but because these sonnets represent one small unit out of many in a survey course, that’s about all the time we have for The Bard’s sequence. Even so, the memorization requires students to read their poem with a quality of attention that they wouldn’t ordinarily have. Even if our activity means that we get to spend less time discussing other poets, students quickly understand the power of a poetic sequence, and how it can convey a variety of emotional and intellectual struggles in innovative ways.

Here’s how it works:

  1. First, I ask students to memorize one of Shakespeare’s sonnets. If students are anxious about the process of memorizing a poem, I offer them several strategies: they can write the poem, longhand, several times until they get a sense of how the lines fit together; they can photocopy the poem and carry it with them, memorizing it throughout the week; or they can memorize the poem by reciting it once through, then hiding the final word of the poem and reading it through, then hiding the final two words of the poem and reading it through, and so on until they’re reciting the poem with no words exposed.
  2. Once students have memorized their poem, the next task is understanding. In order for them to deliver Shakespeare’s lines with emotional accuracy, they have to attend to his sonnet logic: the turn that occurs, usually in the final couplet; the if/then structure that Shakespeare relies on to create tension in many of his poems; and the rhetorical strategies of his poems, whether they be blazons, anti-blazons, complaints, or poems of praise. I remind students that they have to make the language come alive so that anyone who listens will be deeply moved. With as many as twenty-five students in a class or discussion section, this can be quite challenging, but I’ve found that my students are so engaged with this challenge that they’re willing to extend the slam over two class meetings. I also recommend that they go to Poetry Out Loudfor some advice on reciting well.
  3. When students recite their poems in class, they must also be prepared to talk about what they learned as a result of the process. They can talk about the narrative situation of the poem, the way Shakespeare relies on inherited wisdom from Erasmus, the Bible, or his contemporaries, or anything else that they think could be valuable to our understanding of the poem as a whole.

Each student takes about 3-4 minutes for their total performance. In the past, I’ve sometimes asked colleagues to be the “judge” for the slam; other times, I’ve relied on students as the judges. The judges are allowed to award two prizes: one for exceptional recitation, and one for exceptional explication. Of course, one student could potentially receive both prizes. If you’re looking for a way to engage your students, try this exercise; if you already do something similar in your survey courses, please respond to this blog entry.

[[This post originally appeared on LitBits on 10-4-11.]]

About the Author
Joanne Diaz is the author of two poetry collections, *My Favorite Tyrants* and *The Lessons,* and with Ian Morris, she is the co-editor of *The Little Magazine in Contemporary America.* She is the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Illinois Arts Council, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and the Sustainable Arts Foundation. She teaches in the English Department at Illinois Wesleyan University.