Creating a Response – Judith Wright’s The Surfer

For our first text of the new Stage 6 syllabus module The Craft of Writing, I chose to implement a strategy suggest by Felicity Plunkett and approach Judith Wright’s The Surfer creatively. This was designed to open up the poem ‘from the inside’ and avoid the typical analytical approach consisting of reading the text, annotating language features, compiling a table then writing paragraphs. We have a wonderful opportunity in teaching the new senior syllabus to shift our writing pedagogy so that students develop a sense of joy and anticipation in responding to texts, and developing confidence in composing their own texts.

And guess what happened? Students were deeply engaged in the double lesson and many expressed their thanks for such an ‘enjoyable class’. Here’s what happened:

  • Each student received a copy of the poem:

This poem uses natural imagery to comment on the relationship between the sea and the surfer.

The Surfer

He thrust his joy against the weight of the sea,

climber through, slid under those long banks of foam –

(hawthorn hedges in spring, thorns in the face stinging).

How his brown strength drove through the hollow and coil

of green-through weirs of water!

Muscle of arm thrust down long muscle of water.

And swimming so, went out of sight

where mortal, masterful, frail, the gulls went wheeling

in air, as he in water, with delight.

 

Turn home, the sun goes down: swimmer, turn home.

Last leaf of gold vanishes from the sea-curve.

Take the big roller’s shoulder, speed and swerve.

Come to the long beach home like a gull diving.

 

For on the sand the grey-wolf sea lies snarling;

cold twilight wind splits the waves’ hair and shows

the bones they worry in the wolf-teeth. O, wind blows,

and sea crouches on sand, fawning and mouthing;

drops there and snatches again, drops and again snatches

its broken toys, its whitened pebbles and shells.

  • I read the poem aloud. Some one muttered ‘what?’ – a typical response – and I calmly read the poem again.
  • Students were asked to make a comment or share their initial response. There were a few brief comments but most students didn’t want to make eye contact
  • After reading the poem aloud again, I gave my first instruction: write two or three lines to continue the poem. You might like to write a line after each stanza, or continue from the final line
  • each student contributed a line or lines on the whiteboard:

Next, we read our lines aloud, one at a time. I asked the class to listen for patterns and language features, and jot down something to share after we had read. This prompted a robust discussion with minimal teacher prompting, and every student made meaningful comments. We noted:

  • common ideas and starting points – lexical chains
  • images of action and energy
  • sibilance
  • tonal shifts
  • listing or accumulation of images
  • personification
  • assonance
  • rhythm
  • interesting verbs
  • temporal shift
  • alliteration

I asked the class if they felt they understood the poem in a different or deeper way. We then chose lines from the board to combine and create our own poem. I wrote:

The crisp salty taste burns his throat as he plunges

deeper  into the unknown

Isolation calling, for he is frail.

Neverending admiration and fear,

for he is small and he knows it.

We read our new poems and again discussed the meaning of The Surfer from this different perspective. Our final discussion was slightly more structured as I asked the class about their thoughts on the relationship between the ocean and the surfer. Students identified:

  • that the ocean wants to be alone
  • the simile diving and dipping reminds me of flying – freedom and an escape from stress and the real world
  • that the wolf metaphor was a strong link to wildness and unpredictablity
  • that our experience of time is altered – goes more quickly when we are enjoying ourselves and slows when we feel threatened

I gave the class their take home task to write a 3D Reflection about the process we had utilised to help us understand the poem.

  1. Describe: what have we done in these lessons/
  2. Disclose: declare your conceptual understanding of the relationship between the ocean and humans as represented in The Surfer
  3. Decide: how do you feel about this approach?

As the lesson closed, I told the class ‘you know we have to write something analytical in our next lesson’ – students felt comfortable with their knowledge and many thanked me as they left the room.

Here are some extracts from their reflections:

The dynamic relationship between the surfer and the sea shows us an everchanging connection. It portrays the strength and unproductiveness of the ocean and how quickly it can change. The poem portrays a contest between the surfer and the ocean as to who is stronger. This, along with the joy felt by the surfer, is expressed in the first stanza. The second stanza acts as a warning for the surfer to leave as the sea is about to demonstrate its strength. The third and final stanza uses and extended metaphor of the ocean being a wolf shows the power, intelligence and wild nature of the sea and the insignificance of man.

The process of reading, creating then annotating effectively allowed students to develop a more advance understanding of the meaning behind the poem, and provoked a more creative response. When studying poems, I believe many students would prefer this method as it makes the study of a poem more interesting and creates a better foundation for more effectively crafted responses.

And another:

Our extensions to the poem were written on the board so we could remodel certain lines to create an entirely new poem, these new poems were read aloud for the rest of the class to identify language devices and analyse the effect they have. This led us to share our thoughts on the relationship between the surfer and the ocean or, in reference to a broader theme, the relationship between humans and nature.

The Surfer provides insight into the dynamic relationship between the ocean and the surfer as the audience is exposed to the gradual darkening of a scene that begun with a surfer experiencing pure joy and freedom until the land warns him to return to shore because it knows the unforgiving power of the ocean. The first stanza features personification to compare the strength of both the sea and the surfer “Muscle of arm thrust down long muscle of water.” This suggests the feeling of freedom and accomplishment that the surfer feels from this experience, trying to prove to the ocean that he can withstand anything that might come his way. The way he feels when surfing is described through the use of the metaphor “the gulls went wheeling in air, as he in water, with delight” to compare the feeling to flying, representing further the freedom he experiences in the beginning of the poem. The second stanza is evidently smaller as it portrays as a warning to the surfer urging him to go back, with the use of repetition of “turn home” to further instil the message. The warning could be perceived as coming from the land, or nature itself, as it is more closely connected to the sea than the surfer is, therefore it knows what the ocean is capable of. The surfer is insignificant in comparison to the vastness of the ocean. The ocean is allowing, temporarily, the surfer to enjoy the waves but, at any moment, it has the capability to change its mind and send the surfer into darkness. The third stanza goes on to use an extended metaphor of the “grey-wolf sea” to develop the dark tone that the ocean has now been provided with. The sea holds the power in the relationship, even when the surfer is allowed to feel in control, the sea holds the ultimate call. The surfer is only a visitor to the ocean, and their dynamic relationship allows the surfer to feel free, as well as an underlying sense of fear of what might come, and when both of these emotions are combined, feelings of euphoria can be reached.

The approach that we have taken has been extremely beneficial as it has allowed me to share my ideas as well as appreciate the ideas of others in the class. We have taken our first impression of the poem and worked our own ideas into it to create new poems, which ultimately provided us with a deeper understanding of The Surfer. As we identified techniques found in the poems we created, we were also unveiling techniques from the original poem and, through discussion, we considered the effects that they have on the overall portrayal of the poem. This approach has allowed me to understand the poem in a way that I hadn’t been able to with other poems as it was engaging and came with a sense of achievement as we got the chance to produce our own poems that everyone contributed to.

And:

The different relationships that I have found in The Surfer is that the surfer and the sea have a dynamic relationship. The surfer feels freedom and isolation whereas the sea feels intruded and wants to be alone. The dynamic relationship is seen throughout the poem in the metaphor “he thrust his joy against the weight of the sea,” this shows how the surfer feels free while in the sea. Personification in the line “muscle of arm thrust down long muscle of water.” Tells the reader that the surfer is fighting the current of the sea. While the sea doesn’t want the surfer there as it wants to be alone it also wants the surfer to be safe. This is seen in the repetition of the word ‘turn home’ which tells the reader that the sea wants the surfer to be safe.

From studying The Surfer, I have learnt that there is different way to interpret the poem as well as different ways to understand the poem and find the language techniques with in the poem. It took me a long time to understand the poem however, I have nearly got my head around it now. I am not very good at identifying techniques and what they mean. But doing the activities we did such as read the poem out loud and have group discussion, making sure everyone contributes about our writing helped me to gain confidence in what I have to say because I get scared that people will judge me and I said the wrong thing.

Shifting to a creative response process is more engaging and has positive benefits for all students who develop their own meaning rather than expecting to passively receive knowledge from the teacher. Not once did I tell the class what the poem was about. Instead, hearing words and rhythms and shifting tones invited each to appreciate the images and ideas expressed. Obviously, we will use this approach in future lessons with poetry and prose.

  • image labeled for noncommercial reuse from pixabay

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