Would It Be Different If…

I’m currently working my way through an excellent series of Massolit lectures by John McRae that looks at unseen poetry. They’re great, really useful for teachers preparing unseen poetry, with lots of excellent choices and ways of framing an encounter with them.

However, I’ve been especially struck by a question John McRae asks across several of these lectures, which I just think is superb:

Would it be different if…?

Here are just four simple ways in which we might embed this question into our repertoire of literature teaching, as McRae himself demonstrates:

  1. Remove a word or phrase: Would it be different if I deleted this? How? Why?
  2. Replace a word or phrase: Would it be different if the poet used this word instead of the word they did use? What’s the difference between the two?
  3. Change the form of the poem: Would it be different if the poem looked like this instead?
  4. Introduce context: Would it be different if you knew that… How does that change your understanding of the text?

Whilst very straightforward, and therein lies the beauty of this question, each of these have the potential to unlock incredibly rich classroom discussions. They also help students to think about textual meaning is a far more authentic and generative manner, focusing not on ‘techniques’ but how writers craft meaning through careful and deliberate choices.

(1) and (2) both have significant potential for helping to direct analytic attention to specific choices of language. Changing a word or phrase and asking students to compare the two (the actual one and the imagined one) is a great routine I regularly use under the guise of asking ‘what other words could have been used’ and ‘what is the difference between the two’. It transforms what can be very abstract (why do you think the writer used this word or image) to something far more concrete (why this word and not that word), and as such opens up much better analysis. However, removing a phrase and then asking students to consider the difference is a variation of this routine that I haven’t tried before, but that I imagine will work very, very well for much the same reasons. Offering students two options (one with the line intact and one where something has been removed) becomes far easier to think about than just the line itself. By making it comparative, we analogise it.

Given that form is an aspect of literary meaning that students often find difficult to discuss, (3) is a really excellent way to open this up. Using this simple question can help students to better appreciate the underpinning impulses of form: the shape of poems, how this connects to their meaning, and how this shape is as much an effort of craft as an image.

Like with form, context can often be really difficult for students to use in an appropriately nuanced manner, and indeed can often be problematic to teach. It is tempting to front-load too much context and for students to bolt it onto their analysis, without really anchoring it to anything analytically meaningful. However, by introducing context only at the point at which it is textually relevant and then asking students to consider how their understanding has changed or developed, this question helps to ensure any such contextual factors are always rooted to the text itself.

‘Would it be different if…’ is such a simple question, but with endless possibilities to encourage students to think deeply about the texts in front of them.

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