Sailing to…where? It’s open for interpretation. ☆

| May 2, 2011

An old man, scrawny and downtrodden, caught between life and a fast approaching death, reflecting on the beauty of life while pondering the possibility of an afterlife.

Sensual music, a golden mosaic, holy fire, an undulating sea, and a heart sick with desire, fastened to a dying animal.

The holy city of Byzantium: A mythical city, a metaphor for heaven, a dream?

These are some of the images and questions that came up in my group as we read and analyzed “Sailing to Byzantium” by W.B. Yeats at the Symposium’s Thursday night experiential workshop. As facilitator, Prof. Pat Zumhagen engaged participants in an exercise in poetry interpretation using art, music, movement, dance, drama, and writing.

It started with interpreting the poem, sharing ideas, raising questions, and gaining more clarity on the meaning. We were asked to pick out striking images, phrases, or stanzas that we felt inspired to represent using another medium. For example, painting one of the images of the poem, composing a song to accompany a dramatization of one of the scenes, or writing a personal narrative that connects to one of the poem’s themes.

Workshop participants rehearsing their musical interpretation of the poem

Groups were formed and then our creative juices started flowing. Working together and exchanging ideas brought forth new understandings and interpretations. When we all came back together, presenting what we’d come up with through various artistic forms of expression, it was fascinating to see how one stanza could be interpreted in such a variety of ways.

The idea for interpreting poetry through the visual and performing arts stems from a graduate summer class for English teachers taught by Prof. Zumhagen in which students went through the process over the course of three weeks. Through a PowerPoint presentation, we were able to see  how these students went through the process in stages first, followed by their final performances, before engaging in an abbreviated version of the process ourselves.

As a secondary English teacher, I was thrilled to be a part of such a creative and enlightening exercise. My wheels were turning as I thought of the ways in which the project could be adapted for different age levels, English language learners, etc.

We left with varied interpretations of “Sailing to Byzantium,” but with a unified sense of the creative power of poetry.

What’s your interpretation of this poem? Read the full text here and then share your thoughts!