A Preview of Part One

What Does Part One Provide on Early Folklore of the Hymn and Folk Song, Mythology, and the Epic?

Folklore from early ancient Sumerian hymns by Enheduanna are featured in Chapter One to showcase early versions of poetry and its aesthetics. Origin and creation mythological stories by the Haudenosaunee and Anishinaabe Indigenous communities of the Northern Region of America are featured in Chapter Two to showcase early versions of the narrative and representations of nature – as web of life. The epic by the Mesopotamians, the Mali people of West Africa, and the Maya of Mesoamerica is featured in Chapter Three to showcase the hero’s journey as a literary trope to negotiate human-nature binary and paradoxes between human civilization and the web of life.

Which Stories Matter to You and Why?

Stories emerge from the communities they serve. They are candid. They are sacred rituals. These stories tap into variations of oral traditions and folklore of the past.

Today, we can experience living storytelling cultures by the literary works of Indigenous communities. And, their storytelling instructs us. This point is profoundly clear in Why Indigenous Literature Matters (2018) by Daniel Heath Justice of the First Nation. The book closes with Justice retelling a childhood experience. He shares an eye-opening experience about his favorite childhood book for the purpose of explaining why Indigenous stories matter, including to him. His experience resonates.

“Without reliable stories of our past and our relations, I turned, as always, to books to make sense of who we were…And in the absence of viable family stories and any lived experience of grounded Cherokee culture, The Education of Little Tree filled that space with simplistic, romantic noble savages disconnected from community, ceremony, and kinship” (Justice 207).

If you are like me, then you and your present generation have very little to no ties to an Indigenous past. Justice found himself in a similar situation, which converged in him identifying with popular children’s literature. However, Justice has had a lifelong commitment to Indigenous communities and one that has been educational and reciprocal through relationships.

“To read and listen to these words – in prose and poetry, ceremony and song – and to share, study, consider, and teach them, is sacred trust, one in which imaginations are set free of settler shackles and new possibilities of humanity, kinship, heritage, and relationship are realized” (Justice 205).

Justice’s commitment to Indigenous literature inspires us to also see how stories matter in our own communities. His work shows the strength of many peoples whose own knowledge, multigenerational cultures, and love for one another cannot be easily erased, because they are sustained by stories.

How Do Popular and Folk Songs Reflect Lyrical Poetry?

Every day we experience the legacies of oral tradition and ancient literature, through the songs we compile and lyrics we memorize. Most of us virtually store songs in personal computers and MP3 players. As we proceed, make efforts to explain the theme of one of your songs in your own playlists. Talk about them with colleagues and peers and revisit the very same songs. The more time is spent with a piece of literature – even in its popular version – the more we learn about its merits, expressed realities, and about ourselves. Do you or your peers notice a common theme throughout your favorite songs?

Song lyrics reflect literary devices also seen in poetry: rhythm, repetition, irony, and metaphor. Like lyrical poetry, popular songs are accompanied with musical instruments and come in different styles, including pop songs, hip hop, punk, and the blues. Folk songs also have different forms – like protest songs of the 1960s and corridos from the Northern Mexican region. Differences in folk song traditions reflect a respective culture and geographic region. The similarities between songs and poetry cannot be understated; Both songs and poetry:

  • Share poetic devices: rhyme, meter, repetition, alliteration, imagery, metaphor, theme.
  • Involve ‘affect’, that is, emotions. We connect with songs on an emotional level. They inspire our emotions and in turn enhance our own sense of self.
  • Contribute to  ‘identity’ formation, like ancient hymns.

Let’s proceed with an activity on a 3000-year-old ancient song to learn about songs, and its poetics.

A Listening Activity: Practice identifying rhythm and repetition in songs

GOAL: To practice listening: To identify repetition of sound (more specifically, rhythm) in ancient instrumental music

DIRECTION: Let’s simply listen to perhaps the oldest known song, a cult hymn from the region of today’s Syria. This ancient hymn is an example of a fertility song from 3400 years ago.


(An ancient fertility hymn, the oldest known song by the Ugarit, Syria region 1400 BCE)

  •  Simply listen to its sounds and rhymes since its language is ancient.

  • Notice the variations, a) of its lyrics and b) of its accompaniment music, a lyre

    • Do you notice its rhythm?

    • Repetition? Tempo?

    • Is its structure consistent?

  • Then, listen to the 1978 interview of Dr. Anne Draffkorn Kilmer from the University of California, Berkeley by Radio Producer Charles Amirkhanian, on the role of this ancient fertility hymn:

    • What do you find most intriguing?

    • On its theme of childbirth (26:00-27:00)? On the ancient Hurrian people, from the Bronze Age?  Its connection with the ‘flood story’ and overpopulation?

    • *Note, scholars do not agree on its being an “incantation hymn”

What Are Some Examples of Regional Folk Songs and How Do They Address Sustainability?

Outcomes and Skills Practiced

Close reading of folk songs to identify literary and poetic elements in corridos and protest songs.

A well-known style of regional folk music is the corrido, from the Mexico-U.S border region. Corridos are narrative ballads, songs specific to its historical and political history: “…the form that developed in Mexico in the late 1800s is deeply rooted in that country’s specific cultural history, and especially the inequitable relationship with its conquering neighbor to the North” (Garza 2017). Corridos narrate injustices experienced by its Spanish-speaking communities throughout the region. A subgenre of the corrido is the narcocorrido (Narcocorridos Podcast). The popularization of the narcocorrido is showcased in the second season of AMC’s Breaking Bad (2009). Bilingual Educator of Northern Arizona University, playwright, and music producer Robert Neustadt cannot overstate the cultural role and value of corridos. “Music constitutes a powerful vehicle with which to raise awareness about the contemporary crisis on the border.” Neustadt’s scholarship on folk songs and corridos emphasizes the role of ‘narrative scholarship’ in Folklore Studies and Border Studies. Corridos share a folkloric style reflective of the culture of its geographic region: a corrido has stanzas of four to six lines and up to eight stressed and unstressed syllables per line, like the trochee or its opposite unstressed and stressed, in iambic and poetic devices and figurative language.  For example, the popular song “The Land That I Love” by Scott Ainslie from the compilation Border Songs (2012) has corrido folkloric themes and form. Robert Neustadt points to how this song refers to the ‘push factors’ that motivate Mexicans and Central Americans to attempt to cross the border. Take note of the  a) tone of the song, b) role of images, and c) source of conflict.

I go to the market, in the town I was born, It’s full of cheap clothes from China, and American corn.But we have a small farm that we water with tears.How can we compete? The gringo farms are so big. Now we cannot stay here: OER: Borderland Culture Corrido Song. In Ainslie’s song the nonhuman serves as a metaphor for commerce and manufactured products: “cheap clothes from China” and “American corn.” Collectively, these metaphors inform both industrialized farming and global over-production and consumption culture at the border region, a region historically well known for its vast wilderness and wildlife and newly established ‘maquiladoras’, since the late 1900s, which Neustadt identifies as the unsustainable aspects of our global economy: “Upon implementing NAFTA in 1994, the U.S. began to flood the Mexican economy with cheap government-subsidized corn, effectively driving millions of corn farmers (and others associated with corn production) off of their land.” Hence, the lyrics of this folk song shed light on the northbound movement of the borderland people and the need to rethink global consumption and its impact on both communities and ecosystems. Scholarship on folklore also shows intersections that inform  twenty-first century sustainability concerns, like those outlined in the UNSDG. Ecocriticism allows for further investigations into the role of nature in this song, as do the UN’s sustainability goals, including Goal 8 on decent work, Goal 10 on reduced inequalities, and Goal 11 on sustainable communities (UNSDG).

Gorky Gonzalez is a folklorist of the region. His poetry addresses the paradoxes of life at the border region to reveal challenges with social and environmental injustices. In his poem Soy Joaquín (1968), Gonzalez defines corridos as the windows of his community’s collective memories of shared injustices:

“Tales of life and death, of tradition, legends old and new, of joy, of passion and sorrow of the people.”

“The oral traditions and literature that have emerged throughout the borderland region reveal twentieth and twenty-first century variations of neocolonialism and the effects of climate instability, which include ‘climate refugees’ (Oswald).”The oral traditions and literature that have emerged throughout the borderland region reveal twentieth and twenty-first century variants of neocolonialism and the effects of climate instability, which include ‘climate refugees’ (Oswald). However, communities along both sides of the border have collaboratively engaged to support sustainable alternatives (OER WordPress on Sustainable Living & Peace).

Activity: A Protest Song on Sustainability?

GOAL: To practice close-reading and identifying the theme of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” (1945).

OER Recording of This Land is Your Land by Woody Guthrie, 1945

INSTRUCTIONS: Listen & identify poetic elements: imagery, rhyme, assonance, consonance, and even figurative language. Now, build on initial impressions – try to identify and explain its theme. To navigate the theme of a song is an effort for most of us and one that we may not want to participate in if we want to simply experience songs from a distance. But think about the work of songwriters. Do you think the more effort they put into their compositions means that there is less joy for them to apply and develop their own talents?  And, what if the theme of the song informs you about your culture?

What is the Structure of the Sonnet, as a form of lyrical poetry?

Outcomes and Skills Practiced

  • Close reading to review poetic devices and textual analysis on the sonnet and its form


Let’s learn more about poetry. An example is the sonnet, a form of lyrical poetry

  • The word “sonnet” comes from the Italian word for “little song,” so many use not only rhyme and meter but other sound devices like assonance, interior rhyme, or alliteration to add to its inherent musical effect.
  • Most forms contain fourteen lines structured in multiple stanzas of different length and rhyme scheme.
  • Iambic pentameter is its most commonly used rhythm in the English language, meaning five iambic feet, totaling ten syllables per line.
  • The Petrarchan sonnet contains an octave (eight lines) of the rhyme scheme ABBAABBA, and a sestet (six lines) which often varies in rhyme, but the most frequently seen schemes are CDCDCD or CDECDE.
  • The Shakespearean sonnet contains three quatrains (four lines) with the interwoven rhymes ABAB CDCD EFEF and concludes with a couplet (two lines) GG.
  • All sonnets use their structure to introduce a predicament or question and expand on its ideas and themes by the closing stanza.
  • Poetic devices including imagery, figurative language, and allusions from classical mythology or scripture are often used to enhance a sonnet’s artistic or intellectual qualities.

Known as the ‘Father of Humanism’ at the advent of the Italian Renaissance Francesco Petrarch invented the sonnet form in the 1300s and by the 1500s sonnets became a prevalent form of lyrical poetry throughout theatrical works. Most sonnets, and poetry in general, address prevalent themes on love and loss, beauty and the turn of time, and philosophical meditations.

Activity: How to close read a sonnet?

GOAL: To practice reading poetry to build on critical thinking skills, to identify figurative language, & theme

DIRECTIONS: Explicate a stanza of Petrarch’s sonnet. *To explicate simply means to paraphrase line-by-line.

  • First, read the sonnet a few times aloud and select a four-line stanza to paraphrase line-by-line
  • Then, explicate each of the four lines and try to identify any figurative language and its purpose
  • Lastly, explain how the stanza contributes to the theme of loss in the sonnet

She ruled in beauty o’er this heart of mine,

A noble lady in a humble home,

And now her time for heavenly bliss has come,

’Tis I am mortal proved, and she divine.

The soul that all its blessings must resign,

And love whose light no more on earth finds room

Might rend the rocks with pity for their doom,

Yet none their sorrows can in words enshrine;

They weep within my heart; no ears they find

Save mine alone, and I am crushed with care,

And naught remains to me save mournful breath.

Assuredly but dust and shade we are;

Assuredly desire is mad and blind;

Assuredly its hope but ends in death. Gutenberg’s Petrarch’s sonnet VIII

NOTE: Petrarch’s sonnet has a tone established through word choice and other poetic devices. Its tone addresses its theme on losing a beloved. Its tone can be described to be existential since it relates to existence.

Shakespeare’s sonnet XVIII [“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”] and Edna St. Vincent Millay’s sonnet XXX [“Love is not all…”] also demonstrate themes on love and loss. Some early Renaissance sonnets were also meant to be satirical. Miguel de Cervantes’ plays have qualities of the ‘burlesque’, of humorous characterizations in a pastoral setting – rural, farming communities.

For example, like Shakespeare’s plays, Spanish drama is also in iambic verse. Cervantes’ first play titled Galatea (1585) demonstrates both its humorous qualities and iambic verse. The narrator’s complaint is on a young shepherdess who ignores his advances.

“What man will put his trust with might and main / In the instability / And in the change, pervading human things? / On hasty opinions time away doth flee…”(OER “Galatea,” a play by Miguel de Cervantes).

The fickleness of young women is critiqued in the quote above. The narrator’s ‘lover’s complaint’ of agonizing over wasted time due to the undecided character of female shepherdess. These lines also seem to offer a commentary on the fickleness of the entire human race.

Poetry in Western Literary traditions is quite vast and complex. Cervantes’ satirical verse alludes to a major trope which is further investigated in Chapter Nine on medieval proto-feminist Christine de Pizan – the literary trope of ‘the lover’s complaint’. In the European romances of her time, this literary trope emerges with conflict between men and women, which address the same concerns women have that launched the #MeToo movement. Current scholarship on this trope offers “to help students better understand discursive practices in the past and recognize the long histories of sexual violence and consent” (Holland and Hewett 2021).

How Does Non-Western Poetry Address Sustainability?

Outcomes and Skills Practiced

  • Build familiarity of poetry and its representation of nature to refine close reading and textual analysis skills on literary eras and intersections with sustainability


In poetry,  we can also witness a poetic merit, theme, and representation of nature and humanity. For example a poem by Sufi saint and mystic Nund Rishi states:

“Food will thrive only as long as the woods survive.”

Ecocritics identify literary works from many traditions around the world that bring readers back to the fundamental connections all life on earth has and must share. Rishi’s poem engages in a play with assonance between “food” and “woods” and ties nicely with the biological and ideological concept of the ‘web of life’: OER Sufism. This metaphor is helpful in projects on sustainability, especially on the need to build collaborations across cultures and national borders to address global concerns.

“Scientists, scholars, and politicians agree that we are in the midst of a global environmental crisis in which access to resources will become increasingly limited. In a time of crisis when human societies might cooperate and collaborate to reach a common resolution, the opposite may occur” (Ybarra 2009).

Ecocriticism allows for investigations of nature in literary works. What frequently emerges in works of literature are representations that treat nature as inferior or insignificant; it is an ‘other’. These depictions often reflect an ideology not too aware of or concerned with the heterogeneous biological framework of ‘web of life’. But instead an ideology that aligns binaries with hierarchical values and worldviews. Hence, an ideology that perpetuates perspectives of the physical world that all too easily fails to consider correlations between the health and well-being of people and of ecosystems and the nonhuman. Ecocritical literary studies identify how representations of nature can also serve as a platform to learn about ourselves and emerging themes that coincide with the UNSDG.

What Are Traditional Literary Tropes?

Outcomes and Skills Practiced

  • To build close reading and textual analysis skills in mythology to identify literary tropes and representations of nature as anthropomorphism.


Stories around the world have themes that are common across cultures and literary traditions, like familiar characters, the hero’s journey, and an anthropomorphized cosmos. These commonalities are literary tropes. Literary tropes are symbolic. They hold cultural meanings and references that reflect a particular culture’s experiences and worldviews, in addition to its universality.

A few literary tropes on character include:

  • Mother figure as the giver of life and nurturer
  • Father figure as a figure of permanence
  • Trickster figures test key characters and serve in character development
  • Monster/destroyer figures test heroes, as a rite of passage into maturity

A few literary tropes on theme include:

  •  A flood story that tells of the rise and fall of a kingdom
  • The hero’s journey on a quest to find an empire, such as in the Epic of Gilgamesh, Epic of Sunjata of the Malinke people of West Africa, and Greek epic the Odyssey

Other recognizable literary tropes are more closely associated with revered natural phenomena, the nonhuman: the moon, the sun, the milky way, rivers, mountains, and animals all hold complex symbolic meaning on the passage of time, birth, rebirth, permanence, and human behaviors. The symbolism of the human skull is a well-known object that appears across cultures as a symbolic trope. Its specific symbolic meaning varies due to the cultural norms of a people and its historical context. Skulls in literature may signify the life cycle or an existential perspective to explore human existence, like Hamlet soliloquizing to Yorick’s skull in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Act V scene i.

Ink drawing of a man in a robe kneeling with a skull in hand looking up.Image of skull and hamlet and gravediggerInk engraving of a skeleton wearing a sombrero.

St. Francis’ skull (left), Hamlet speaks to Yorick’s skull (center) & La Catrina Calavera (1910) by Guadalupe Posada. CC

Skulls in Mesoamerican and Western art and literature denote an awareness of earthly death, part of the cycle of life. Skulls also are religious tropes – like crosses, crucifixes, and fish, for Jesus of Nazareth. He signifies the renewal of the human soul in Catholic mythology. Another mythological story is Jason and the Golden Fleece where Medea’s rebirth ritual ensures Jason’s success; her talents are those of an Earth goddess (Jason & renewal ritual by Medea, Pressbooks). If we travel to Oaxaca, Mexico or view a Mexican film on Mexican cultural traditions, the skulls we witness represent a renewal ritual, too. For example, the religious festivities of The Day of the Dead in Mexico and Guatemala refer to the cycle of life and the passage to a new life. The living visit and speak to loved ones at nearby cemeteries; also an archetype on ‘nature’. Ecocriticism can inform on how these renewal festivals in the twenty-first century continue to be relevant in light of honoring the life of nature (Pressbooks on Latinx & Environmentalism).

Activity: On trope of Natural Phenomena, like the Human Skull

GOAL: To practice working with an emphasized object with symbolic significance with a quote from  Shakespeare’s’ Hamlet. The scene is when Hamlet holds up the skull of a known deceased jester. Hamlet states that he has childhood memories with the jester. In the scene the skull closely aligns with Hamlet and his past. At this point Hamlet contemplates human desire and its contradictions with morality while holding the skull.

INSTRUCTIONS: A reading of Hamlet may offer insights on the presence of the skull.

“That skull had a tongue in it, and could sing once:

how the knave jowls it to the ground, as if it were

Cain’s jaw-bone, that was the first murder!”

“Hamlet”: Act 5, Scene 1 

The symbolic association of this skull in Shakespeare’s play contrasts with references to skulls in other literary texts and societies. Yet, the skull does represent a universal idea. We witness this profound object of human anatomy in other cultures and their literature – as it represents Hamlet’s contemplation of one’s morality in the face of contradicting desires.

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