A Lesson on Animating the Abstract with "Watching Her Listen Probably to Janis Joplin"



In this lesson students will:

  • Generate a list of abstract and concrete nouns
  • Analyze an extended metaphor
  • Write a poem in which they make an abstract concept concrete



In 1913 Ezra Pound published an essay in Poetry Magazine entitled "A Few Don'ts by an Imagiste." In it, he lays out his theory of what makes good poetry. Among many other prescriptions, he advises "Go in fear of abstractions." This sentiment has been echoed by countless poetry teachers over the last century, who have encouraged their students to process the abstractions that generate so much poetry—love, heartbreak, loneliness, life, death, change, and grief—through the powerful machine of the particular.


Encountering the Poem

  1. Introduce or review the concept of abstract and concrete nouns. Have students brainstorm examples of each, and write their responses on the board. Continue the brainstorm long enough that students generate examples that could belong to either category depending on context (light, school, woman, etc.) and help students articulate what uses would count as abstract or concrete.
  2. Have two students read the poem aloud, switching readers where the poem breaks in the second half ("Now, after seven years . . .").
  3. Ask students to describe the shift in the poem.
    1. How does the tone change in the second section?
    2. How do the two sections relate to each other?
    3. How does the poet use past and present tense?
  4. Ask students what abstract concept they think the rats represent in this poem. Ask them to explain their answers, and encourage them to point to specific lines in the poem for support.
    1. If students identify the rats as "grief" and point to the line "this her shedding grief," ask them if they knew the poet was talking about grief before he named it, and how they knew this.
  5. Discuss the use of rats as a metaphor in the poem. Metaphor is often taught as a "[noun] is a [noun]" formula, but the poet does not directly say what the rats are.
    1. What effect does this omission have on the poem?
    2. Why might the poet have chosen rats?
    3. What do the rats communicate?
    4. How do they make the reader feel?


Writing Prompt

Have each student tear off two scraps of paper. On one, they will write an abstraction—a noun that conveys a very large concept. Students can refer to the examples you have written on the board for inspiration. On the second scrap of paper, students will write an animal. Collect the scraps of paper separately and mix them up.

Redistribute the abstractions and give students 5 minutes to silently brainstorm specific ways they have personally experienced the concept they received. Walk around the room and check to see if any students are stumped. If a student doesn't have any personal associations with the abstraction, suggest an alternative word they could work with.

Redistribute the animals. Have students write a poem that about something from their brainstorm in which their abstract concept is represented by the animal they received. For an extra challenge, ask students not to name their abstraction in their poem.


Related Reading in The Collagist