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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