Teaching Anne Bradstreet through deformance

This evening in EN340 is the first class of full-on literary analysis, and we are reading several of Anne Bradstreet’s poems. I love starting with Bradstreet in this class because we’re discussing seventeenth- and eighteenth-century women’s writing as a political and self-conscious act that is in some ways always about its status as “women’s writing.” So we are starting with Bradstreet, paying special attention to how she theorizes her agency as a writer–we’ll probably spend most of our time looking at “The Prologue” to The Tenth Muse, and “The Author to Her Book,” though I really hope we get a chance to talk about her poem to her husband, Simon Bradstreet, who is “Absent upon Publick Employment.” Rereading it today paints such a home picture of her passion within Puritanism:

In this dead time, alas, what can I more
Than view those fruits which through thy heat I bore?

I don’t have children, but…. I get her point! At any rate, this is a course that fulfills our LT-2 core requirement and is also writing intensive. So, I have no English majors or minors, and few with recent experience in close reading. I will start with an overview of Bradstreet, and then spend a bit of time discussing how to read poetry, using the Poets.org piece by Edward Hirsch, which I find conversational enough to be compelling without being formulaic. Then, we’ll discuss one or two poems, and finally, I’ll have an activity where students work in pairs to enact a deformance on “The Author to Her Book.”

My goal with this activity is twofold: first, to help students feel more competent with close reading through some fairly mechanical activities that can reveal unexpected things about the texture and the content of the language, and second, to get into a broader discussion of how Bradstreet is imagining her agency as a writer and as a mother. What rhetorical strategies does she use, and why? Are there any fissures or points of friction between those rhetorical strategies? What images can she (and can’t she) use, and under what circumstances?

From my handout:

“Deformance” refers to a mode of altering or “deforming” the text so that you can see something new about it–it’s a neologism combining “deform” and “performance”. This is often done with computers on mass scales, but we’ll do it by hand today and only with one poem so that you get the hang of it and begin to see why it might be useful. It is also a helpful technique in general to look for the way that nouns are being used, or the kinds of verbs at play, or whether there is a preponderance of prepositions or conjunctions, and so on.

Here’s a sample from “The Prologue,” where I eliminate all words but nouns from one stanza:
Screen Shot 2022-08-18 at 9.55.48 AMIf students aren’t sure of what part of speech something is, I direct them to google’s define:xxx feature:

Screen Shot 2022-08-18 at 9.56.04 AM

  • Group 1: Nouns only
  • Group 2: Adjectives only
  • Group 3: Verbs only
  • Group 4: Adverbs only
  • Group 5: Prepositions and articles
  • Group 6: Pronouns (possessive, demonstrative, and regular)
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