Jehanne Dubrow’s “Penelope Considers a New Do,” published in her compilation Stateside, is one of my favorite poems to read with students who are studying Homer’s Odyssey as it puts a modern and alternative perspective on the mythology of circumspect Penelope, Odysseus’ long enduring wife. Dubrow’s poem is rich in symbolism and allusion as she channels Penelope’s tale, weaving it into her own story of being a military wife who is home while the husband is deployed overseas. There is even an audio version available, read by the poet.
Students can begin by close reading the poem, identifying the modern and mythical allusions, enjambed and end-stopped lines, and examples of alliteration as they discuss the implications of trying to change one’s hairstyle in attempt to better one’s life: how does one’s appearances dictate one’s mindset and perspective on life? Can cutting one’s hair really result in an improved outlook? Will magazines and hairstylists realistically offer solutions to one’s plights in life? Students can consider how Penelope has coped with Odysseus’ absence and compare/contrast her coping strategies to their own understandings of waiting and identity.
But the beauty of Dubrow’s poem is found in the structure: four stanzas of four lines each with each line indented so as to give the poem its shape -- anyone who has cut his/her bangs will recognize that the stanzas look like sections of hair that have been snipped on an angle. To extend the lesson, students can work in groups or individually to write or find other poems that are written in basic block format and rearrange the text so as to give it a symbolic shape or visual design. The rearranged and original poems can be presented to the class and students can discuss the artistic choices made in the arrangement.
English teacher, coach, and author Kate Baker is on the executive boards of the Flipped Learning Network and the New Jersey Council of Teachers of English. Adept at integrating technology in her classes using flipped-blended learning strategies, Kate has been recognized as a CEL’s TEacher Leader of Excellence for 2017, a PBS LearningMedia Digital Innovator, and an Edmodo Certified Trainer. Twitter: @KtBkr4 Blog: Baker's BYOD