Monday, July 29, 2013

Using the Personal Universe to Meet Literary Learning Objectives

"Galaxies and Universes" by Torley Olmstead
Licensor agreement Creative Commons 2.0 
Creating a Personal Universe Deck is an enlightening exercise for poets, but it can be a beneficial assignment for introductory literature students, as well.


At Naropa University's Summer Writing Program in 2006, I was lucky enough to take a workshop with Michael McClure, who explained to the workshop members how to create a Personal Universe Deck. Since that time, I have not only created several decks for my own use and practice, but I have learned to adapt the technique to use as an assignment in my Introductory Literature Classes. Slightly adapted, I use it as an assignment to meet two separate learning objectives. First, I use it to help students identify the difference between concrete and abstract diction. Additionally, I use it as a way to introduce textual analysis.

The "Original" Personal Universe Deck


McClure does not take credit as the originator of this exercise, but attributes its creation to the daughter of friends (Personal Communication, June 2006). The benefits poets find in creating one of McClure's Personal Universe Decks are explained on blogs and personal Web sites all across the Internet. Although he did not create this exercise, he has perfected and propagated it, teaching the rules to students for several decades.

Shortened versions of the rules for the exercise also can be found on several Web sites, but a more complete version of the rules can be found on Paul E. Nelson's blog.

To summarize, a writer will create a list of 100 visceral, concrete words that exemplify his or her personal universe, the good and the bad, the past, present, and future, the real, and the mythological. The point of the exercise is for the writer to be able to tap into his or her psyche, or personal universe. Whether or not the exercise leads to better poetry is irrelevant in the making of the word deck, though it often does lead to such. It's an enjoyable, meditative exercise, hence its popularity and effectiveness.

Using the Personal Universe Assignment to Teach Concrete Diction


A selection of cards from a Personal Universe Deck.
 Personal Universe Deck
The Personal Universe Deck exercise can be adapted to help students identify the difference between concrete and abstract diction. Because the list of words students use for the Personal Universe Deck should, for the majority, be concrete, the use of this listing exercise as an in-class or homework assignment helps the students put the literary terminology to good use. Provided the rules for creating the 100-word list and perhaps a pre-printed table, students can construct their Personal Universes. As stated above, it's an enjoyable exercise, and it offers a teacher or professor the opportunity to immediately assess whether or not a student understands the difference between visceral, concrete language and abstract or vague language.

Using the Personal Universe Assignment to Teach Literary Analysis


After students have created their charts and met the requirements of the learning objective, they can then use the same blank, pre-printed chart to analyze work written by others. Students can, for example, deconstruct a series of three poems by the same poet by placing all of the words from the poems into columns on the chart, labeled “Sight,” “Sound,” “Smell,” “Taste,” “Touch,” “Movement,” or “Mythology.” The students will have to think carefully about the poems in order to make decisions about which words to place in which columns. Furthermore, after the charts have been completed, the students can then look at the charts and make additional analysis statements about the poems or poet. Students can look for consistency in connotations, archaic definitions, images, or sound devices. Using a chart with which they are already familiar is a fantastic bridging exercise to encourage learning across various levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy: understanding literary terms and being able to apply literary terminology to the analysis of literature.

As a poet, I very much value the Personal Universe Deck exercise as taught by Michael McClure. As an English Professor, I have found that both of these adapted Personal Universe assignments offer real learning opportunities beyond the use of the original exercise.


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Copyright Amy Lynn Hess. Contact the author to obtain permission for republication.

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