Comparing William Carlos Williams's Poetry with Cubist Paintings
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In this lesson, students are introduced to Cubist and Precisionist painting, and they explore how the poetry of William Carlos Williams adapts similar artistic strategies. Students learn how to analyze a painting, create Cubist- and Precisionist-inspired drawings in response to Williams's poetry, and write an essay comparing Williams's poem “The Great Figure” to Charles Demuth's ekphrastic response to that poem in his painting The Figure 5 in Gold.
- Painting Analysis Chart: This handout provides students with a guide for detailed analysis of a painting.
- Characteristics and Types of Cubism: This resource provides students with a list of characteristics of Cubist painting, along with explanations of each.
- Characteristics of Precisionism: This resource provides students with a list of characteristics of Cubist-influenced American Precisionist painting, along with explanations of each.
From Theory to Practice
Visual literacy can serve as a valuable springboard to understanding literary texts. John Golden makes this claim in his book, Reading in the Dark, in relation to transferring the skills of interpreting film to print text. Golden states thats “the skills [students] use to decode the visual image are the same skills they use for a written text” (xiii), and he offers a variety of strategies for teaching literary terms through film.
Gloria Shultz Eastman makes a similar claim, arguing that by combining the examination of visual art with poetry, teachers provide an important bridge to understanding an often difficult literary genre. She says that as
students interact with messages, whether visual or textual, they learn that each form of communication has unique techniques. They become more skilled at understanding the subtleties of the author’s purpose. Classroom experience has shown that students can become quite skilled at interpreting visual images. They enjoy the visual work and feel confident in their interpretations. When teachers explain transfer and show students that they can think about poetry in much the same way that they were able to analyze visuals, resistance is reduced and barriers are removed. (45)
She offers examples of linking poetry to a wide variety of visual art forms. This sequence of lessons builds upon this idea of using visual art to help students understand poetic craft.
Common Core Standards
This resource has been aligned to the Common Core State Standards for states in which they have been adopted. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, CCSS alignments are forthcoming.
This lesson has been aligned to standards in the following states. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, standard alignments are not currently available for that state.
NCTE/IRA National Standards for the English Language Arts
- 1. Students read a wide range of print and nonprint texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world; to acquire new information; to respond to the needs and demands of society and the workplace; and for personal fulfillment. Among these texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary works.
- 2. Students read a wide range of literature from many periods in many genres to build an understanding of the many dimensions (e.g., philosophical, ethical, aesthetic) of human experience.
- 3. Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, sentence structure, context, graphics).
- 6. Students apply knowledge of language structure, language conventions (e.g., spelling and punctuation), media techniques, figurative language, and genre to create, critique, and discuss print and nonprint texts.
- 7. Students conduct research on issues and interests by generating ideas and questions, and by posing problems. They gather, evaluate, and synthesize data from a variety of sources (e.g., print and nonprint texts, artifacts, people) to communicate their discoveries in ways that suit their purpose and audience.
- 8. Students use a variety of technological and information resources (e.g., libraries, databases, computer networks, video) to gather and synthesize information and to create and communicate knowledge.
- 12. Students use spoken, written, and visual language to accomplish their own purposes (e.g., for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and the exchange of information).
Materials and Technology
- Computer with Internet access to view paintings:
- Magritte, René. The Treachery of Images. 1929. Oil on canvas.
Picasso, Pablo. Portrait of Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler. 1910. Oil on canvas.
Picasso, Pablo. Still Life with Chair Caning. 1912. Oil on oil cloth over canvas edged with rope.
Watterson, Bill. You're Still Wrong, Dad. Calvin and Hobbes. June 17, 1990.
Picasso, Pablo. Three Musicians. 1921. Oil on canvas.
Demuth, Charles. Buildings, Lancaster. 1931. Oil on board.
Demuth, Charles. My Egypt. 1927. Oil on board.
Demuth, Charles. The Figure 5 in Gold. 1928. Oil on cardboard.
- Copies of the following poems by William Carlos Williams: The Great Figure, To A Solitary Disciple, and Spring Strains
- Colored pencils, chalk, and/or crayons and blank paper
- Characteristics and Types of Cubism
- How is Three Musicians Cubist? Handout
- Guide to Analyzing Paintings
- Painting Analysis Chart
- Three Musicians Teacher's Guide
- Nude Descending a Staircase Teacher's Guide
- Characteristics of Precisionism Chart
- Imagism and Reading an Imagist Poem
- Poem and Image Comparison Chart
- Poem-Image Comparison Essay Assignment
- Poem-Image Comparison Essay Rubric
This collection of resources from the J. Paul Getty Museum contains background information and activities to deepen teacthers' and students' understanding of artistic elements and principles and develop the capacity for critical thinking about art.
Check links to paintings to confirm you have access to the images linked above. Familiarize yourself with the paintings and their key characteristics.
Make copies of all necessary handouts (see above).
Collect art supplies listed above.
- understand how visual images rely on illusion to influence viewers.
- apply knowledge of the characteristics of Cubist elements in an analysis of selected paintings.
- understand elements of art and principles of design and apply them when analyzing selected paintings.
- understand the idea of Imagism and apply it to a reading of an imagist poem.
- compare similar artistic strategies used in a poem and a painting.
- apply knowledge of the characteristics of Precisionist elements in an analysis of selected paintings.
- create ekphrastic visual responses to poems.
- write a short essay comparing a poem and painting.
This session leads students to question the relationship between artist, art, and viewer as well as consider how “realistic” art may manipulate and mislead.
- Display Magritte’s The Treachery of Images and share with students the title as well as the French phrase “C’est ne pas une pipe” and its translation: “This is not a pipe.”
- Facilitate a discussion around these questions:
- What do you think Magritte wants viewers to understand from this painting? Why might he want viewers to understand this?
- By implication, then, what should the relationship be between readers/viewers and art? How does this differ from, say, the way Hollywood tries to establish a relationship between viewers and film?
- What are the advantages to these two approaches?
- Have students brainstorm incidents in which images might be treacherous. Why might the creator of these images want to fool an audience? Ask students to discuss their ideas in a small group before sharing with the full class.
- Then, guide the discussion to how this also applies to literary art and discuss examples of authors fooling or deceiving their readers in a text (through, for example, an unreliable narrator or a deceptive plotline such as an event that turned out to be a dream).
- Close the session by asking students to write informally about their current thinking about the artist, the viewer, and the potential for art to manipulate or mislead the viewer.
This session introduces Cubism and asks students to reflect upon how Cubism effectively challenges the notion that art should accurately represent “reality.”
- Distribute the Characteristics and Types of Cubism handout and facilitate a discussion around the key concepts.
- Show students the three examples of Picasso’s work (below) and have them discuss how the paintings exemplify Cubism, including identifying which type of Cubism each represents and why:
- Distribute the How is Three Musicians Cubist? Handout and give students time on their own, or in pairs, to respond to it.
- Ask them what the approach of Cubist painters might have in common with the intentions of Magritte’s Treachery of Images from Session One.
- Project for students the Calvin and Hobbes comic You're Still Wrong, Dad and discuss how Bill Watterson is using Cubism as metaphor for seeing the world in a different way.
- Have students return to their informal writing from the previous session and add to their thinking about the relationship between artist, viewer, art, and reality.
This session introduces students to the language of painting and visual art and provides a graphic organizer to guide them through a thorough painting analysis. The teacher modeling/guided practice connects to their prior learning about Cubism and then students collaborate in an analysis of a Cubist painting that introduces the idea of multiple temporal perspectives to go with Picasso’s multiple spatial perspectives.
- Introduce the Painting Analysis Guide and briefly discuss the terms with the students. For a more detailed explanation of most of these terms, see the Understanding Formal Analysis K-12 resources at the J. Paul Getty Museum website.
- Model how to use the Painting Analysis Chart, a blank version of the Painting Analysis Guide, by interpreting The Three Musicians. See the Three Musicians Teacher's Guide for support in this modeling.
- Then ask students to form small groups to use the Painting Analysis Chart to interpret Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase. See the Nude Descending a Staircase Teacher's Guide for ideas to use in supporting the small group work.
- Lead a discussion to generate responses across groups. Be sure to address such questions as “How is Duchamp asking us to reconsider what a painting should be and how we should view it?” and “How does Duchamp represent 'time' in his painting?”
Building upon students growing understanding of Cubism, this session allows students to explore the similarities between Cubist painting and an Imagist poem by William Carlos Williams. It also introduces the idea of ekphrastic art and gives students the opportunity to create a Cubist visual image of the poem.
- Read The Great Figure aloud and ask students for their initial responses to the poem.
- Introduce the idea of Imagism to them and facilitate a discussion of the poem using the Imagism Definitions and Interpretation Questions. After this discussion, ask them what The Great Figure has in common with the Cubist paintings they have seen.
- Explain the concept of ekphrastic art: art that directly responds to or interprets another work of art. Then give students a blank sheet of paper and tell them that they will sketch the poem, but they will need to do it in pieces or fragments.
- Most students them will want to try to draw a realistic image of a fire truck, so remind them of the way that a Cubist painting focuses on geometric shapes rather than a realistic representation, and remind them of the way in which Duchamp represents movement in Nude Descending a Staircase.
- Then, read the first line of the poem and ask them to draw just what that line describes. Then read the next line, and ask them to draw just that. Continue giving them one line at a time, until they have a composite sketch.
- Ask them to share their images, along with any necessary explanations.
This session extends the previous session’s exploration of ekphrastic art by examining Charles Demuth’s painting of Williams’s poem. Demuth’s painting also serves as a springboard to introducing Precisionism, an American adaptation of Cubism. Students are given another opportunity for visual expression in creating a Precisionist representation of their school building. This creative exercise requires that they look at the building in a particularly Cubist or Precisionist way.
- Introduce Charles Demuth and show them his painting, The Figure 5 in Gold.
- Use the Venn Diagram to create a two-circle diagram with the labels “The Great Figure” and The Figure 5 in Gold, leaving a large overlap. Ask the students to list in the overlap those aspects that appear in both the poem and the painting, and in the two side sections list any aspects from the two texts that only appear in one or the other, but not both.
- Discuss how the poem and painting adopt characteristics of Cubism.
- Introduce Precisionism by distributing and discussing the Characteristics of Precisionism handout. Ask the students to reconsider The Figure 5 in Gold using Precisionism as a lens. Then extend this exploration by leading students in an interpretive discussion (following the Painting Analysis Guide) of Demuth’s My Egypt. You may need to help them recognize the way in which Demuth uses multiple temporal perspectives in the way the rays of the sun emerge from several places and how he uses these rays to create the geometric patterns in the image.
- Tell students they will be creating a Precisionist drawing similar to My Egypt and provide them with paper and crayons, pastels or colored chalk. Remind them of the following:
- The building in My Egypt has few details but rather consists of geometric shapes of smooth colors.
- That Demuth used rays of the sun from different positions in the sky (multiple temporal perspectives) to create the geometric fragments of lighter and darker color.
- Then project a photo of the front façade of your school, or go outside for a viewing, and ask them to translate the photo into a Precisionist image.
- Have students share their sketches and explain the choices they made in creating them.
In the previous session, the students practiced seeing a realistic photographic image in a Precisionist way. This session will build on this understanding in two ways: by beginning initial work on the culminating essay assignment and by examining a William Carlos Williams poem in which the persona is teaching someone how to look at a scene from a Precisionist perspective.
- Introduce the Poem-Image Comparison Essay Assignment and have students work in small groups to complete the first side of the Poem and Image Comparison Chart as a prewriting activity.
- Distribute and then read aloud William Carlos Williams’s poem To a Solitary Disciple.
- Ask students the following questions:
- What are the “facts” of the poem? (A church with a squat edifice, a steeple, an ornament topping the steeple, a quarter moon directly above the steeple, the colors)
- What specifically does the persona want the disciple to observe? (tilting angle, converging lines, hexagonal shape)
- What does the persona add to the scene that realistically is not observable (escaping lines projecting upward from the steeple, the metaphoric image of petals and flower, the weight of the church pulling downward, the growth of the flower upward)
- How might one draw a Precisionist image of what the persona wants the viewer to see?
- Provide students with paper and crayons, pastels, or colored chalk and ask them to create a Precisionist image of the scene as described by the persona of the poem.
- Have students share their creations, explaining the choices they have made.
- Finish the session by asking them to consider what they have learned about the choices a Precisionist artist makes in their own attempts at creating Precisionist sketches. In the context of their assigned essay, how might they apply this understanding to their reading of Demuth’s The Figure 5 in Gold?
- Ask students to begin work on the second side of the Poem and Image Comparison Chart for the next session.
The previous sessions have developed students’ knowledge of Cubism and Precisionism and given them practice at visualizing scenes from these artistic perspectives. This penultimate session brings all of this prior learning to bear on a verbal and visual interpretation of a more complex William Carlos Williams poem.
- Remind students of the Cubist and Precisionist focus on geometry, color, multiple perspectives in space and time, and the way in which Demuth used rays of the sun to fragment an image.
- Read Spring Strains aloud.
- Ask them to reread the poem, only this time they should try to distinguish between the visual “facts” of the poem versus the “impressions” of the scene by underlining those impressions that would not normally be visible.
- Ask them to consider how the idea of multiple temporal perspectives might be working in the poem.
- Ask them to brainstorm ways in which a Cubist or Precisionist artist might make visible the things described in the poem.
- Give the students sheets of blank paper and colored pencils, pens, or crayons. Ask them to create an ekphrastic image in response to Williams’s poem.
- Have students share and discuss their images.
- Conclude the unit with a general discussion of the following questions:
- What are the strengths and limitations of a poem’s ability to describe a Cubist or Precisionist image?
- What are the strengths and limitations of a painting’s ability to describe a poem?
- Provide students any time necessary to complete the essay comparing Williams’s The Great Figure with Demuth’s The Figure 5 in Gold. They should use their thinking from the Poem and Image Comparison Chart to begin the analysis.
- Share the Poem-Image Comparison Essay Rubric to help students understand the expectations for the assignment.
- Examine Williams’s poem The Red Wheelbarrow from an Imagist/Cubist perspective.
- Compare Picasso’s collage Still Life with Chair Caning to Williams’s collage poem Rapid Transit which offers images and soundbites from a trip on the subway. Have students write a similar collage poem of their trip to school.
- Williams’s poetry collection Pictures from Brueghel includes many ekphrastic poems in which he responds to paintings by the to the original paintings. Discuss the choices Williams’s makes in recreating the paintings in poetic form. Have students create ekphrastic poems in response to their favorite paintings.
Student Assessment / Reflections
- Collect the How is Three Musicians Cubist? Chart and assess student understanding and identification of Cubist characteristics.
- Collect the Painting Analysis Chart for Nude Descending a Staircase to assess student understanding and application of terms of art.
- Collect sketches of The Great Figure, To a Solitary Disciple, the school façade, and Spring Strains and informally assess the application of Cubist and/or Precisionist characteristics.
- Collect the essay and use the rubric to provide feedback based on its application of concepts related to Cubism/Precisionism and poetry.
- After they complete their essays, have them return to the informal writing from Sessions One and Two and reflect on how their understanding and opinions have changed as a result of the activities in this unit.