Jean Toomer’s “Cane” Assignment

The Harlem Renaissance has been our first move away from the poetry and literature of slavery and reconstruction. That is kind of obvious, but I know that reading the early works of Black writers becomes a difficult process since it forces us to analyze the darkest period of American history. There is also a lack of deviation from the theme of oppression in the literature of this period. This is not a good or bad thing, but it does create a situation where the reader begins to recognize the consistency and while the writing is VERY important, the reader (aka the student) begins to tune out the repetitious refrains of struggle. This is unfortunate because the work here is critical to understanding the shifts that occur in Black literature.

Before I dive into the assignment for Cane, I’d like to discuss why I get so excited about reading aloud. For those of you not in the class, I actually read the text aloud using voices to create a better understanding. I find that my engagement brings about a more developed discussion and we are able to insert discussions about dialogue, characterization and in many cases the duality that exists in the text that is overlooked, is discovered. We recently read Sweat by Zora Neale Hurston. Sweat is one of my favorite short stories and the use of dialect by Zora directly influences the interpretation of the text. In other words you have to read the story out loud to garner the rich and creative language Zora uses in Sweat. One of the primary things you realize is that alliteration and biblical allusions are all over Sweat and this contributes to the foreshadowing.

Unlike Sweat the excerpt from Cane, (a huge influence on my novel Archie’s Psalm) is not so easily accessible and open to discussion. By now, most of my students realize that I don’t attempt to bring footnotes or research into the reading of a text. I attempt to place my reading in the realm of where the original reader of text may have been. Considering this is quite impossible for multiple reasons (1 I’ve studied the stuff in college, 2 I was not alive in the early 1900s so I can’t really understand the moment in which the story was created), I do feel that approaching the text without reading multiple analysis allows me to interpret the text without being influenced by someone’s ideas.

Cane is a book that defies tradition and technique. It is both novel and drama, poetry and musings, and at the core anthropological. More than likely you haven’t read a book like this before so discussing this book will lead to a lot of questions. After reading this book over and over, I still do not follow some of the references (and unfortunately for you the artwork/symbols drawn in the text is not included in this version). This excerpt does however introduce the core elements of the complete text (I use complete with a bit of hesitance here). I feel that to better understand Cane I have to give you an assignment that will place you in the proper place to discuss the text.

The CANE Assignment due March 13th 100pts

Go outside, somewhere, and observe your neighborhood, park, a house and while you are watching write down everything you see. Focus in on one thing in particular, preferably a person, and recognize the colors around, on that person, the foliage, everything. Then

Write a Syllabic Poem: 7 syllables per line 10pts. 7 lines long 10pts, use a simile in the poem 10pts, utilize imagery (sight, sound, mental, taste, touch, smell) 10pts.

Go outside another day and write an analysis/observation of the area, people and connect it to the poem in some fashion. 10pts This is 1 paragraph, maybe 2 and can include what you think a conversation might be with this person. Then talk with someone and write down how the discourse felt. 10pts.

Write a quatrain 10pts. Use Iambic pentameter 10pts with a rhyme of ABBA 10pts, utilize imagery of course and connect it to the 1st poem. 10pts.

This assignment will then make you aware of what Jean Toomer might have done to create Cane. This will also take you away from the mechanical and researched based writing that you are familiar with. If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to ask.

Prof. B.