2 — Poets: The unacknowledged legislators of the world
English Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley in his manifesto In Defence of Poetry, described poets as ‘the unacknowledged legislators of the world’. For Shelley there was an inextricable link between poetry, political views and social action and he wanted to challenge the legislation of his time through his poetry.
In this sequence the students explore the interplay between context, political views and social, moral and ethical positions represented in contemporary Australian poet Bruce Dawe’s poem ‘On the Death of Ronald Ryan’ (published in Sometimes Gladness: Collected poems 1954–1978). Ryan was the last person to die under capital punishment legislation in Australia.
Activity 1: First contact — ‘On the Death of Ronald Ryan’
Read the poem aloud to the class and invite students to write down two or three questions they have about the poem. They might like to think about:
- what the poem reminds them of
- where their minds went when they were reading and listening to it
- the pictures the poem suggested to them
- ideas they might like to discuss with the poet
- how the poem made them feel.
Activity 2: The context for the poem ‘On the Death of Ronald Ryan’
Context literally means ‘with text’. This includes the social and historical context of a text as well as the contexts for its reading, hearing and viewing: who interacts with it, where, when and why. In this activity the students explore what was at stake in the writing of this poem by exploring its context.
Preview the following websites that document social reactions at the time:
- The State Library of Victoria’s information on Ronald Ryan. Highlight the navigation on the right-hand side that loads newspaper articles and images from the day.
- The video Last Man Hanged at the Australian Screen website.
Students should investigate:
- the purpose of the websites
- the origins of the information, including the authors
- the viewpoint of the website creators in relation to the death of Ronald Ryan
- the voices and views that are privileged and silenced on the site.
Activity 3: Re-reading the poem ‘On the Death of Ronald Ryan’
Students re-read the poem again in pairs and revisit their understanding of the poem from the first focus activity. They then analyse:
- how Dawe’s poem characterises Ryan
- how Dawe silences the prevailing political will of the time
- how Dawe wants to be a legislator of the time.
Activity 4: Rewriting the poem through textual intervention
Through textual intervention, the students learn about the significance of address, tone, diction and syntax in the creation of voice in a poem. After identifying these elements in ‘On the Death of Ronald Ryan’, they adapt the poem to create a new poem on a political or social issue that is significant to them. The students should choose a significant figure involved in a current social or political issue, then:
- highlight key words, phrases and sentences that create voice in the poem
- rewrite the poem for their chosen significant figure, substituting new words and phrases for the highlighted text
- publish these poems in a class anthology.