Walt Whitman’s Poem “A Noiseless Patient Spider” Brought to Life in Three Animations

How can a modern educator go about getting a student to connect to poetry?

Forget the emo kid pouring his heart out into a spiral journal.

Ditto the youthful slam poetess, wielding pronunciation like a cudgel.

Think of someone truly hard to reach, a reluctant reader perhaps, or maybe just someone (doesn’t have to be a kid) who’s convinced all poetry sucks.

You could stage a rap battle.

Take the drudgery out of memorization by finding a pop melody well suited to singing Emily Dickinson stanzas.

Or appeal to the YouTube generation via short animations, as educator Justin Moore does in the TED-Ed lesson, above.

Animation, like poetry, is often a matter of taste, and Moore’s lesson hedges its bets by enlisting not one, but three animator-narrator teams to interpret Walt Whitman’s “A Noiseless Patient Spider.”

Originally published as part of the poem “Whispers of Heavenly Death,” and included in the 1891 “deathbed edition” of Leaves of Grass, the poem equates the soul’s desperate struggle to connect with something or someone with that of a spider, seeking to build a web in a less than ideal location.

Two of the animators, Jeremiah Dickey and Lisa LaBracio launch themselves straight toward the “filament, filament, filament.” Seems like a solid plan. An industrious spider industriously squirting threads out of its nether region creates a cool visual that echoes both Charlotte’s Web and the repetition within the poem.

Mahogany Browne’s narration of Dickey’s painting on glass mines the stridency of slam. Narrator Rives gives a more low key performance with LaBracio’s scratchboard interpretation.

In-between is Joanna Hoffman’s spiderless experimental video, voiced with a wee bit of vocal fry by Joanna Hoffman. Were I to pick the one least likely to capture a student’s imagination…

Once the student has watched all three animations, it’s worth asking what the poem means. If no answer is forthcoming, Moore supplies some questions that might help stuck wheels start turning. Question number five strikes me as particularly germane, knowing the ruinous effect the teenage tendency to gloss over unfamiliar vocabulary has on comprehension.

Ultimately, I prefer the below interpretation of Kristin Sirek, who uses her YouTube channel to read poetry, including her own, out loud, without any bells or whistles whatsoever.

A noiseless patient spider,
I mark’d where on a little promontory it stood isolated,
Mark’d how to explore the vacant vast surrounding,
It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself,
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.
And you O my soul where you stand,
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them,
Till the bridge you will need be form’d, till the ductile anchor hold,
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.

 Related Content:

Hysterical Literature: Art & Sexuality Collide in Readings of Whitman, Emerson & Other Greats (NSFW)

Orson Welles Reads From America’s Greatest Poem, Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” (1953)

Marilyn Monroe Reads Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (1952)

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Follow her @AyunHalliday


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