What the heck is 'phantasmagoria'?
What the heck is ‘phantasmagoria’?

I am currently teaching an upper-level poetry course (hooray!), and given how tricky poetry can be for undergraduate students, I figured this was the perfect time to use PRISM in class. (PRISM is a digital, collaborative reading tool created by the inspiring students at the University of Virginia Library Scholars’ Lab.) We happened to be reading Illuminations when the schedule allowed for this asignment, and Rimbaud’s abstract dreamscapes provided the challenging content I was looking for.

In short, the assignment was as follows:

  • Read Rimbaud’s poem “Metropolitan” (translation props to Wyatt Mason)
  • Go to the text uploaded to PRISM by following the provided link (in order to keep the visualization private, you need to share the link with participating parties)
  • Highlight the text based on the three facets provided (Blue = Comprehension, Red=Confusion, Green=Concrete Image)
  • After the due date, select “Visualize” to see the highlighted poem and the “winning” facets and their percentages. (You can see the number of people who selected a certain facet, as well as what percentage of the total highlights each facet contributes.)
  • Write a one-page reflection on the data and any conclusions drawn from it.

I could write a good bit here about how I think PRISM contributed to student learning.  Furthermore, the class as a whole has asked to use the program again, so I’m going to count that enthusiasm as its own success.  With that being said,  I’m going to let the students speak below in a series of anonymous comments pulled from their reflections. The one thing I will say, and this was completely serendipitous, was that a large number of students expressed how relieved they were that they weren’t the only ones who were confused by certain parts of the poem. PRISM provided comfort to those students in that they could ask intellectual questions about their confusion as it related to the text, rather than deal with it emotionally in a way that shut them down entirely because they felt embarrassed or inferior.

Here are some comments from my students. Judge for yourself whether or not this is a tool you would use in your classroom. I will definitely be using it again, and am already seeing some possible applications in my creative writing classes.

Student Comments:

For the most part it seems as if the class had trouble understanding about 50% of the poem. The second half of the poem was the most troubling for classmates to understand (including myself). The difficulty of the second half of the poem can be attributed to Rimbaud’s odd poem format and his transition from seemingly standard descriptions of cities, battles, and the country, to rather odd descriptions of the sky and one’s inner strength.

I wasn’t sure that there even was anything to write about regarding my observations of the Visualization besides “Well, there’s a lot of periwinkle and seafoam here, and a lot of red there…”

With “Metropolitan”, understanding seems to deteriorate rather than increase.

The tool we used is interesting and helpful and I found a lot of comfort in finding that the class gets confused by many of the same lines. I often find myself discouraged by the people who seem so confident and outspoken about text. Sometimes I wonder if there are lines that they can see and read that I don’t or if I skipped a word that would act like a key and unleash all of this meaning to me.

Ossian seas is the only thing in the stanza causing some confusion and this is because it isn’t helping us place a pin in the geography of this poem. The only thing I know about the term Ossian that it is a name for some Gaelic hero so may it is acting as a adjective for the waters or maybe the hero had a famous battle on a certain sea that I would have to know more about to understand.

I think that’s what he wants, to distort our vision as his concept grows wider and devastation increases. Maybe he means to make the link between devastation and distortion. I think I can prove this in one word he uses in this stanza, phantasmagoria, which means real or imaginary images like those seen in a dream or a hallucination.

I have seen this pattern in some of his other poems. He starts out with an image or association which we can grasp. Then he slowly makes more associations off of what we are reading or makes statements that don’t seem to fit with the rest. In my opinion this is in an attempt to force us away from narrative, and to make us examine this as purely poetry not prose.

I was not confused by the images themselves. I do not know if people voted it as “confusion” because they were confused by the images or how those images fit into the poem itself.

Many times in class, I feel like I do not have anything to say because most of Rimbaud’s poems were difficult for me to understand. This exercise showed me that everyone seems to find Rimbaud confusing and it is not just me.

This line, which is highlighted by most of the class as confusing, makes some sense if you focus on association. This line called to my mind a lost age of aristocracy, a world where there are no princesses or “ancient musics.” It is now a world of democracy and the common person.

The majority of the other words in the first section of this poem were understood by the majority of the class. This is likely because the imagery in this section is easier to understand and create connections between. For example, the images portrayed in this poem such as “indigo straits,” “pink and orange sands,” and “poor young families” are images that can be pictured clearly (1, 3). In addition, though it may be a little difficult to make a connection between all of the images mentioned, there is a clear progression from nature, to urbanization, to city life that is made clear through the progression of the imagery. This connection of the imagery to the city is made even clearer by the title, “Metropolitan,” and by the word “Cities,” which the section ends with (5).

For example, “Samaria’s last vegetable garden” and a “stupid water nymph” are hard to understand because they are hard to picture (11-12). Most, if not all of the students in this class likely do not know what “Samaria’s last vegetable garden” or a “stupid water nymph” look like because we have never seen these things (11-12). In addition, the confusion is increased because the images in this section appear to be unrelated to the city imagery that is presented in the first two sections.

The percent of people who misunderstood the words in the fourth section increased from the third section. There are two reasons for this. One reason is because the connection between the reader and the poem has been lost due to the confusion in the third section. It is hard for the reader to get back on track again. In addition, the images in this section are still foreign, disjointed, and apparently unrelated, which further discourages the reestablishment of a connection between the reader and the poem. Images such as “fairy-tale aristocracies” and “inns never to open again” are difficult to understand (18-19).

A pattern quickly emerged when I was looking at the PRISM highlights of Arthur Rimbaud’s poem “Metropolitan.” Anything related to the city life or an easily understood visualization of life in the city (looking at a “wine-dark sky,” pollution, commerce), even Rimbaud’s trademark “buttocks” fleeing the city, got marked as comprehended whereas anything mythological or fantastical was highlighted in red as confusing.

The Prism assignment illustrated how I feel after reading any of Arthur Rimbaud’s poems: understanding that slowly fades to complete incomprehension. Rimbaud’s “Metropolitan” started off as many of his prose-style poems do where the message seems straight-forward enough. As the poem progresses, though, the work’s meaning becomes more challenging to ascertain. The visual results on Prism as least offer some comfort that I am not alone in my struggle to “get” Rimbaud’s work.

Including myself, the class as a whole appeared to experience a drastic drop in comprehension following the second stanza. Perhaps this is due to Rimbaud’s sparing use of concrete images in the third and following stanzas of the poem, as the main concrete images exist in the second stanza in his depiction of battle imagery.

While highlighting the poem in Prism, I realized that I highlighted a lot of words and phrases as concrete images with very little comprehension.

Mostly, it seems that confusion exists where specific names crop up that are unfamiliar to our modern American ears. The other source of confusion in this particular poem of Rimbaud’s is some of his more bizarre imagery. For instance, we have, “a stupid water nymph in/ an ugly dress, at the bottom of a river.” What on earth is that supposed to mean? How are we to take this, and for what purpose?