The interpretation of poetry is notoriously among the most challenging literary skill sets to teach undergraduate students. At a minimum, it requires sustained attention to linguistic and structural detail, as well as knowledge of a few poetic forms. As a result, students often feel that they are on the outside looking in, trying to understand poetic conventions in which they have no stake. The challenge for the poetry instructor thus becomes encouraging students to engage intellectually with a genre they, at best, fear is inaccessible, and, at worst, feel is irrelevant to them.
This paper will present one solution to this conundrum: leveraging streaming platforms that students are already using to make poetry more accessible and to explore the rich multivalence of poetic adaptation. To implement this solution, I designed a course in which students would engage with streaming audio recordings of poetry alongside traditional print texts. My hope was that this approach would overcome the obstacles associated with teaching poetry in three key ways. First, it would encourage students to explore poetry through an interactive and already-popular medium on their smartphones: Spotify. Second, it would highlight the mutability of poetry over time, demonstrating how the poetic tradition is in a constant state of self-refashioning through performance. In this way, students would become more empowered in the interactive process of reading, interpreting, and adapting poetry. Third, it would, by requiring students to read poems while also listening to them on a digital platform, make poetry feel more accessible rather than guarded behind the walls of high culture.
The results of this semester-long experience, outlined below, demonstrate a practical and effective tool for the teaching of poetry interpretation. The assessment data suggest a self-reported increase in active engagement with poetry through the streaming of Spotify playlists, as well as self-reported improvement in the ability to interpret poetry. Yet perhaps more significantly, the students in this course (consisting of non-English majors) became excited about the possibility of poetic adaptation—both in the analysis of interpretations encountered through the Spotify playlist and in their own performances. By the end of the course, they expressed a new level of interest and comfort in interpreting poetry. In describing the multimodal processes of engaging with streaming media and poetic adaptation that led to such an outcome, this paper will underscore the usefulness of shifting our pedagogy of poetry interpretation into interactive platforms our students are already widely using as a way to improve their skills and confidence as active shapers of an accessible poetic tradition.
My aim was to make a 300-level poetry seminar (part of the general studies requirements at a STEM and business university) feel more interesting, accessible, and contemporary to a student population likely not inclined to the self-initiated study of poetry. My course design was inspired by the explosion of streaming media options over the last decade, which I believed would provide new possibilities of active learning engagement for students of poetry. This study also builds on and extends previous efforts to rethink the pedagogy of poetry interpretation within the framework of multimodality. In an early example of this process, Mary McVee, Lynn Shanahan, and Nancy Bailey (2008) describe using PowerPoint projects in the pre-streaming era to combat student antipathy and anxiety surrounding poetry interpretation. More recently, Hessa A. Alghadeer (2014) provides a foundation for the pedagogical effectiveness of adapting poetry with digital platforms like Twitter, Instagram, and Prezi. Meanwhile, Violeta Janulevičienė and Deimantė Veličkienė (2015) similarly note how using digital adaptations to teach Shakespeare’s sonnets will “shift from monomodality to multimodality,” wherein “utilizing several modes of meaning making create new meanings” (2015, 210, 212). In engaging such multimodalities, working with playlists provides students with plentiful opportunities to ask critical questions about the typical ways genres are categorized by companies like Spotify (Ball, Sheppard, and Arola 2018, 76–77)—topics especially pertinent to poetry seminars like mine mixing print text, spoken word recitation, and digital adaptation. This paper continues this focus on multimodality, aiming to bring poetry into the digital spaces already inhabited by students as a means of increasing interpretive and adaptive engagement.
Finally, this study expands the body of scholarship focused on playlist curation as a pedagogical aid by applying existing models to the teaching of poetry. Anne Burdick, Johanna Drucker, Peter Lunenfeld, Todd Presner, and Jeffrey Schnapp (2012) suggest that playlist curation can serve as a type of content modeling in which decisions like sorting by genre, artist, or composer can open essential questions for students within the digital humanities (19). From the perspective of music education, Scott Jeppesen (2017) writes how “Online listening also empowers teachers to use technology to add additional interactive possibilities to their classes” (60). Both of these studies are indicative of how playlists could significantly revise the pedagogy of the poetry classroom by requiring students to consider critically the process of content curation through interactive streaming media.
Selection of Platform
I selected Spotify as the platform through which to disseminate streaming poetry performances and adaptations for this class because of its free account option and its ability to provide a combination of material essential to the course: poetry read by original authors, poetry read by interpreters, music incorporating poetry or poetic allusions, and the capability to build and share playlists. In respect to the first and second points, Spotify allows for the streaming of the entire catalog of the Smithsonian Folkways label, a nonprofit entity that houses the recordings of the original Folkways Records label. The long-playing vinyl records, and later cassettes and CD-Rs, of this label were once a staple of American libraries; however, with the decline of physical media, many institutions have eliminated such collections. As a result, these vital recordings have become underutilized in the era of digital media. The Smithsonian Folkways holdings include numerous albums of poetry readings by original authors, such as the seminal Anthology of Negro Poetry (1954) featuring recitations by poetry course staples such as Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, and Gwendolyn Brooks. Likewise, Smithsonian Folkways hosts albums of readings of canonical poetry such as English Romantic Poetry by John S. Martin (1962) and Early English Poetry by Charles W. Dunn (1958), to name only two among many.
Spotify’s vast catalog represents its most significant advantage as a streaming platform when teaching poetic adaptation. Instructors are able to curate playlists containing poetry readings side-by-side with musical recordings that either directly adapt a poem or expand its themes. In respect to direct adaptation, Spotify’s plentiful offerings within the ballad tradition provide a meaningful illustration for students of ballads’ adaptability and mutability over time. More broadly, Spotify’s access to many popular recordings since the advent of recorded sound provides a foundation for demonstrating to students the continued relevance of poetry. For instance, listening to Richard Burton’s reading of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner alongside Iron Maiden’s metal adaptation “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (1984), which weaves lines from Coleridge’s original text with new expansions of the plot, offers students an unexpected and productively challenging example of the continued resonance of poetry in a popular music context.
Spotify is also already used to a significant extent by people who are the age of the traditional university student and provides a free option for those unable to afford a premium account. As of October 2021, Spotify has a userbase of 365 million users (Spotify 2021). The demographics of this userbase tend toward the age of traditional undergraduate students, with a recent study finding that people between the ages of 18 and 35 are significantly more likely to use Spotify than people over 35 (Gomes, Pereira, Soares, Antunes, and Au-Yong-Oliveira 2021, 348). In fact, in the survey forming the basis of the study, 89.1% of respondents between the ages of 18 and 25 indicated that they are Spotify users (Gomes, Pereira, Soares, Antunes, and Au-Yong-Oliveira 2021, 348). As such, many students using Spotify for class will not need to download or learn the mechanics of a new platform, removing a potential impediment to learning engagement. Because of this pervasive use, Spotify represents the most accessible option for student audio streaming absent larger institutional support for a non-commercial option. Anecdotally, of the students enrolled in my poetry seminar, 11 of the 22 had a premium Spotify account (at discounted student rates) upon entering the course, six had a free account, and five did not have an account. I guided the students who did not have a Spotify membership through the steps of creating a free account, which would be accessible on their phones, laptops, or tablets. (In the event students do not own such devices, they would be able to listen to Spotify within web browsers at the university computer lab using their free accounts.) Yet because students typically prefer to listen to music on smartphones, the Spotify app is particularly useful for inserting poetry into their daily listening habits, putting vital course content directly into their pockets.
As is widely acknowledged, Spotify’s compensation model for artists and songwriters is problematic. Like many digital media platforms, Spotify’s initial promise for the democratization of music distribution has been replaced by “a consolidation of long-established power structures” in which record labels profit at the expense of the artist (Marshall 2015, 185). At best, streaming has been a double-edged sword that has lowered digital piracy while also depressing music sales (Aguiar and Waldfogel 2018). More unfortunate still, for much of Spotify’s existence artists would “receive reduced benefits because their royalty rates are lower” (Lesser 2018, 291), though this issue may be somewhat ameliorated with the passage of the Music Modernization Act in 2018. In this way, Daniel S. Hess (2019) argues the MMA will at least provide independent artists “an approachable means to collect royalties” (200–201), although the royalty rate per stream is only $0.004 as of early 2021 (Owsinski 2021).
At the same time, Spotify provides the most accessible option for students at the present moment due to its free account tier and massive user base, making it a pragmatic—if not ideal—choice for the poetry instructor. Unlike other major music streaming platforms like Apple Music or Tidal, Spotify offers an advertisement-supported free account option, thereby allowing students without the resources to pay for a premium account full access to the course playlist. As such, these free accounts facilitate the easy exchange of playlists when building a required listening list for a course. Additionally, free Spotify accounts allow students to participate in the creation and sharing of their individual poetry playlists. More than that, free Spotify accounts, like paid accounts, provide the ability to make collaborative crowdsourced playlists for group projects. For these reasons, Spotify functions as a particularly effective classroom tool even in its free version, setting it apart from other current options. In the absence of a noncommercial educational streaming platform with the full functionality and catalogs of commercial options, instructors can more responsibly integrate Spotify into their courses by making students aware of the ethical tradeoffs of using the platform in the class. Editorials by recording artists like Damon Krukowski’s (of Galaxie 500 and Damon and Naomi) “How to Be a Responsible Music Fan in the Age of Streaming” (2018) would serve as an excellent starting point for students. In particular, Krukowski’s emphasis on Bandcamp as a medium for listeners to support artists through direct purchases of digital files and physical media could help students become advocates for artist compensation, as well as more mindful consumers of sound recordings.
Some scholars have also expressed concern with how Spotify, particularly its algorithms for playlists generated by the service rather than users, might undermine the value of art. Ekberg and Schwieler (2020) argue how Spotify’s structure, particularly these algorithmically-generated playlists, can turn art and people into ephemeral commodities (12). In the context of the poetry course, however, asking students to listen to a course playlist, or even create their own playlists, can work against this dehumanizing possibility by reemphasizing the power of individual interpretation and curation. For instance, Ignacio Siles, Andrés Segura-Castillo, Mónica Sancho, and Ricardo Solís-Quesada (2019) contend that Spotify “playlists can become the basis of a shared affective experience,” suggesting how playlists can harness social power for students (7). Indeed, I often overheard students discussing the playlist before class sessions in terms of affective experience, suggesting one way by which streaming poetry playlists foster not only a pedagogical but also a deeply social collaborative experience.
The syllabus communicated to students the aim of the class related to poetry interpretation and adaptation: “the course will encourage students to approach poetry from a performative perspective—both in exposure to others’ performances and in students’ own original articulations.” As such, students knew from the outset that they would engage with a shifting poetic tradition through streaming audio of poetry and the performance of their own adaptations. Thereafter, the syllabus required print readings alongside listening assignments for each session (see Figure 1).
The first reading consisted of two foundational English-language ballads: “The Unquiet Grave” and “Bonny Barbara Allan.” In addition to reading them in print form, however, students would also be required to listen to multiple recorded adaptations. For “The Unquiet Grave,” they would hear Joan Baez’s somber 1964 performance, steeped in the acoustic traditions reignited by the folk revival of the late 1950s and early 1960s, alongside Ween’s “Cold Blows the Wind,” a 1997 alternative rock song that expands the ballad in postmodern fashion by shifting the gender dynamic. This side-by-side comparison of two recordings of a traditional ballad would show students how the poetic tradition is constantly remaking itself through adaptation, performance, and thematic revision. It was my hope that students would spend the semester developing an awareness of the elasticity of poetry within this living tradition to counter their anxiety that they would never be able to discover the “right” meaning. Instead, this process would heighten their sense of how subtle changes in performance—in lyrics, melody, tempo, vocal modulations, etc.—can dramatically reshape the meaning of a poetic text.
I would begin most course sessions by streaming one of the required audio recordings to generate critical discussion, thereby encouraging students to think of how poetic performance communicates new meaning. For instance, we started our exploration of the poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks by listening to the author’s reading of “kitchenette building” (retitled “Kitchenette” upon inclusion of the aforementioned Anthology of Negro Poetry). The poem, complete with a pointed rhetorical question (“But could a dream send up through onion fumes”), ironic feminist appropriations of quotations related to gendered behavior (“‘Dream’ makes a giddy sound, not strong / Like ‘rent,’ ‘feeding a wife,’ ‘satisfying a man’”), and multiple exclamation points (“We wonder. But not well! not for a minute!”) (Brooks 2005, 998), suggests a passionate, even angry, response to the frantic confines of domestic female roles. Yet Brooks’ performance of her poem plays with this expectation by reciting in calm, measured tones to highlight yet another way in which the speaker is constrained by the conventions of female propriety. One student noted,
“Kitchenette Building” by Gwendolyn Brooks was a performance that was not quite like I expected it to be, and since the performance by the original author of the poem I was able to change my view of the poem to the way that she had originally intended. Viewing the poem like this allowed a more in-depth understanding of the political battles that she was actually fighting with her words.
This student’s response reinforces the pedagogical power of using streaming audio alongside print poetry: by challenging the authority of the student’s initial interpretations of the print text, audio recordings of authors force the reconsideration of themes within a specific historical and cultural context.
We would also sometimes begin class sessions by listening to a musical work that recirculates the words or themes of a poem to gain a deeper understanding of the ways that poetry’s adaptability allows for contemporary engagement. In one example, we followed the reading of selected poems by Emily Dickinson by listening to Wilco’s “Born Alone” (2011). In this recording, lyricist Jeff Tweedy notes the direct influence of Dickinson’s poetry,
I opened up a book of American poetry and randomly turned to the Emily Dickinson pages, no one poem in particular. I took a lot of words, most of them verbs, and put them against words that looked appealing to me from Whittier and other 1800s poetry. (quoted in Hoyt 2011)
Students then looked for specific allusions to the Dickinson poems within “Born Alone” before exploring the ways in which this adaptation had remade Dickinson’s themes. Our discussion broadened to consider how Dickinson’s nineteenth-century poetry lives on through performance and adaptation in our digital age. Through this process of comparative analysis, I hoped students would gain an appreciation for the ways English-language poetry forms an elastic lineage constantly being shaped, challenged, and remade—even in modes of artistic expression not usually associated with the reinterpretation of nineteenth-century American poetry.
The emphasis on poetic performance was punctuated by each student adapting a self-selected poem in class, either live or by digital recording. This component of the course builds on the work of Daniel Anderson and Emily Shepherd (2016) on e-Poetry, which suggests the rich multimodal possibilities of students adapting poems into media projects in order to “learn new digital writing skills and enjoy extended engagement with the poems.” In this assignment, I communicated to students the ways by which their subtle shifts in tone, pace, and volume could affect the meaning of the poem for their audience of classmates. Additionally, I asked them to consider how the process of digital recording could be transformative, requiring nuanced attention to the multimodal experience of crafting a visual recording of a written text. At the end, students would also articulate the ways by which their performance and digital framing were designed to emphasize specific themes of the original poem. Finally, each student would lead a discussion probing the meaning of the poem via the adaptation. In each of these ways, this assignment would encourage students to take ownership of the interactive process of adaptation, as well as make the genre feel more accessible, relevant, and genuinely meaningful in a contemporary context.
I asked the students to complete an anonymous survey about their experiences in the class as a means of gauging the effectiveness of my approach in meeting the course’s goals. Absent a university- or department-wide student survey that would sometimes function as the basis for evaluating specific activities within general education courses (Walvoord 2010), I composed a series of multiple choice and open-answer questions to assess how the Spotify playlist sequence may have increased confidence in poetry interpretation and improved engagement in reading poetry through interactive digital processes.
Notably, the students self-reported low confidence in their ability to read poetry before enrolling in the course. In the survey, 20 of the 22 students reported either “Not Proficient” or “Somewhat Proficient” as their initial skill level in reading poetry, while only two reported “Proficient” and zero reported “Highly Proficient.” My initial conversations with students, as well as our discussions early in the semester of ballads, confirmed this self-reported lack of confidence. As is often the case, these non-humanities majors exhibited substantial anxiety about ever being able to “get” poetry. By the end of the term, however, the students’ confidence (as reflected by their self-reported proficiency upon exiting the course) had significantly improved. Indeed, 21 of the 22 students reported either “Highly Proficient” or “Proficient” as their skill level in reading poetry after taking the course. Clearly, these students had a much greater degree of confidence in their interpretive ability, thereby breaking through their initial fear of never being able to “get” poetry.
Next, I prompted students to reflect on whether the analysis of our required listening contributed to a shift in interpretive confidence by asking, “Did the playlist help make deciphering poetry a more accessible process?” In response to this open-ended question, many students’ viewpoints overlapped with this sentiment expressed by one of their classmates: “spoken word poetry is usually less challenging or daunting than written poetry.” Another student pointed toward how listening facilitated understanding beyond the readings: “With most poems that I was confused with while reading, the recitations on the playlist were able to help me figure out what the meaning was by emphasizing certain words/lines.” This feeling was echoed by a classmate who wrote, “For the hard to follow poems, the adaptations helped me follow and understand them better.” Overall, the students in the course repeatedly emphasized how the consideration of our streaming playlist facilitated the confidence to assert understanding of the texts.
Likewise, many of the students conveyed that listening to adaptations from our course playlist authorized them to identify new meaning and formal techniques in the required readings. As one student noted, “Sometimes you will hear things that you did not pick up when reading or hear it in a way that changes your perspective on the poem.” Several students echoed this reaction that listening to poetic adaptations acted as a conduit for identifying nuances in the poems that, in turn, shifted their interpretation of the print text. One student wrote, “Each adaptation got me to think critically about what the text was saying, how it was saying it, and what elements of that were brought in the recitation.” Another student noted that, although not all adaptations were appealing, the process of analyzing why a particular performance did not work was instructive: “I didn’t like all of the adaptations, but hearing them and being able to describe why I didn’t like them and how they related to the original poem helped me to understand the art of performance poetry a lot better.”
Several students also explained how the incorporation of interactive streaming technology made the readings feel more contemporary and, therefore, accessible. For instance, one student reflected:
it brought the process into the modern technological age. I kind of got stuck in this class and wasn’t really looking forward to it, but the playlist allowed me to get so much more out of the course than I was expecting. I thought the class would be really dry and we’d just be counting syllables for 10 weeks, but the addition of the recitations livened it up.
In this way, streaming media had helped me overcome a central hurdle in teaching poetry to the general studies student: making the texts seem relevant, accessible, and more than only exercises in technical analysis. One student emphasized how the listening contributed to seeing the readings as more than a purely isolated academic exercise: “they gave me an idea of how these poems were used and performed in the real world.” One student even volunteered that, absent the assigned playlist, “I probably would have gone to YouTube and looked up adaptations to help with my comprehension of the poem.” Formalizing this impulse through the creation of a shared playlist both directs students to thought-provoking adaptations and aligns the classroom experience with their typical processes as learners in the digital age. Students did not have to search through a variety of streaming platforms for digital adaptations of the readings but rather could reach into their pockets and shuffle the class playlist any time they wanted to engage with poetry.
The students also expressed several ways in which the multimodality of reading and listening to poetry helped them glean new meanings from the poems. One student noted how interacting with various instantiations of the poems aided in the interpretive process: “I feel that in tandem with reading the poetry first this was an effective way to better decipher a poem.” Several other students reiterated this reaction, with one student asserting that “multiple perspectives create(d) a well-rounded interpretation,” and another writing that “This method provided multiple mediums to capture the information.” Seemingly, this consistent appeal to multimodality, performance, and adaptation through digital media had allowed students to gain confidence in their interpretations.
Still three other students emphasized the importance of our playlist for appealing to their learning styles: “I am an auditory learner,” “Hearing words while reading them gives me two ways to decipher poems,” and “My comprehension has always been better when I listen to something instead of read it, so being able to do both was something that helped me considerably in my understanding.” Although most poetry courses feature reading aloud of texts during the course session, and many courses in the era of physical media included intermittent listening, the consistent integration of a digital playlist also appealed in a powerful way to these learners. One student succinctly summarized this appeal to auditory learners: the playlist “made the homework assignments more enjoyable to either get a review of what you read or hear a new way of how the poem could be interpreted.”
Many students also demonstrated a positive learning experience in creating their own adaptation of a poem. In one particularly successful digital adaptation, a student selected “Boots of Spanish Leather” by Bob Dylan as his source text—which we already read in print form in The Norton Anthology of Poetry, as well as listened to two drastically divergent performances by Dylan (his initial studio recording, a spare and earnest folk rendition, from 1963) and by hard-rock band Nazareth’s lead singer, Dan McCafferty (a mainstream rock rendition from 1975). Building on our discussions of the shifting themes of the various instantiations of the poem, the student recorded, edited, and shared a digital video of himself singing while playing guitar—featuring phrasing, tempo, and emphasis radically divergent from Dylan’s original take with the same instrumentation. Thereafter, the student led a discussion in which he invited his classmates to reflect on how his filmed visual performance shifted the meaning of Dylan’s words. This culminating project thus engaged in valuable “critical examinations of literary texts” via “mediating across sign systems,” a process explored by Heidi Höglund’s study of student video interpretations of poetry at the secondary level (2017, 43). In keeping with recent work in composition studies, however, students also had the option to perform their works in person depending on the goals of their interpretive recitation. As Jody Shipka (2013) notes, multimodality should not be viewed as synonymous with “digitally based or screen-mediated texts”; instead, students should “leave our courses exhibiting a more nuanced awareness of the various choices they make throughout the process of accomplishing that work and the effect those choices might have on others” (76). In this spirit, students were able to take ownership of their performances by defining their process of interpretation and adaptation—therein demonstrating their power to engage actively with the tradition of English-language poetry in the genre of their choice rather than acting only as passive readers.
Since the implementation of the Spotify playlist in this poetry seminar, I have expanded this approach in subsequent courses to include students curating their own public playlists on Spotify. As Anja Nylund Hagen (2015) argues, although playlist curation is not wholly removed from the processes of collecting “rare gems” of physical media, “playlist collecting involves imposing one’s will (and oneself) upon an intangible realm of endless abundance” (643). This narrowing process, in which students select a particular theme, issue, or timeframe and create a succinct one-to-two-hour playlist from Spotify’s overwhelming amount of recorded material allows them to take ownership of research processes for public outreach. In my projects, after creating an overview of relevant recordings (both spoken word and musical) students select a playlist image and write a brief description to draw in listeners, as well as submit a “curator’s statement” in which they outline key aspects of the theme, issue, or period while explaining the inclusion of these particular recordings. Such public-facing acts of criticism and curation have provided a meaningful context in which my students have forged unexpected intellectual connections while also serving as a training ground for more traditional argumentative research-based essays later in the semester. Kelly J. Hunnings (2019) also suggests how the curation of Spotify playlists from the perspective of a fictional character can provide a meaningful space for students to engage with pre-twentieth-century literature in the digital era. In all of these ways, a Spotify curation project carries through the themes of the original reading and listening assignments by asking students to become informed content-creators of streaming media in a real-world setting.
My students’ experiences in the original seminar and subsequent courses demonstrate how streaming media is a valuable tool at the disposal of the poetry instructor. By overcoming the all-too-frequent student intimidation or resistance at the prospect of poetry interpretation, interactive streaming media helps make poetry feel comprehensible and approachable to students. Moreover, asking them to create a unique adaptation or public playlist enables them to take ownership of their reading practice through active interpretation. As streaming media platforms continue to evolve at a rapid pace, we, as poetry instructors, can continue this work to rethink our practice within the context of technologies already shaping the cultural context of our students’ lives.