Poetry 101

artic avenue forsythiaIt’s early April and a damp, gloomy day out. Yet, in spite of the temperature being in the 40’s this morning, signs of spring are visible. When driving my daughter to the metro today I pointed out to her the forsythia in full bloom up and down both sides of the street. I told her how much my mother loved forsythia and how she always hoped it was in bloom when she and my dad visited me here in Maryland. My daughter and I talked about where we could plant some in our own yard. As happens most of the time, my thoughts turned to literature, and I asked her if she knew the poem “Forsythia” by Mary Ellen Solt. It’s a concrete poem, meaning the words of the poem are arranged in a deliberate way with some symbolic meaning or connection to the subject matter of the poem itself.

When I started teaching eight years ago, I spent a lot of time reviewing the poetry unit in the eighth grade literature textbook. I wasn’t very strong on poetry, and had always thought I didn’t care for it. But, after a few years of searching for the right combination of poems to teach to my 8th graders, I developed a new appreciation for poetry. The more I researched and read in preparation for teaching my poetry unit, the more I began to love studying poetry myself. Reading a poem and rereading a poem, looking for metaphors or allusions, digging for the deeper meaning, all of these things were like working on a challenging crossword puzzle or playing a word game with a well-matched foe.

Teaching poetry became something I enjoyed as much as teaching the fiction pieces in my curriculum. There are many positives to teaching poetry. Choosing a class novel for 40-50 eighth graders is tricky. Along with analyzing a potential novel for its use in covering the standards, one must also consider whether it will be appealing to the majority of the students. Is the protagonist male or female? Does it contain age-appropriate language and subject matter? Will it encourage intellectual curiosity or a broader world view? All of these things are much easier to take into account when selecting poems for a poetry unit.

For struggling readers, the thought of delving into a 300 page novel is daunting but for those with even the shortest of attention spans, a poem is manageable, and, if chosen carefully and presented in an engaging way, it can even be enjoyable. For example, the masterpiece “Oh Captain! My Captain!” by Walt Whitman, is a great poem to help students understand an extended metaphor. First, students read the poem silently to themselves. Then we read it aloud. Then I read the poem to them, using my dramatic voice and facial expressions. Finally, we begin to take the poem apart and break it down.

My student desks are arranged in a big square with everyone, myself included, facing the center of the square, so no one is left out, “in the back”, or excluded. As we discuss the poem, I am on the lookout for any early signs of recognition of the metaphor. If necessary I will ask some leading questions, such as, “What could the ship represent? Who is the captain? What was the prize sought?” When the light bulbs start going off and I see the signs of comprehension rippling around the room, I can sit back and let them take over the discussion. It is a great teaching moment, and I look forward to it each year.

bea swindell

Mrs. Bea Swindell

In phase two of the poetry unit the students select a poem to memorize and present to the class. While required in the academic standards, the announcement of this assignment brings wide-spread fear and terror throughout the room. Most overly self-aware adolescents will do anything to avoid public speaking and combining that with memorizing something for a grade is not something they look forward to. However, this is something of a rite of passage for all middle school and high school students. My husband can still recite the poem he memorized for school, and I can proudly share that in high school, as somewhat of a dare as well as to impress my beloved English teacher Mrs. Bea Swindell, I memorized the entire poem “The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe, all eighteen stanzas of it. I can still recite from memory the first two or three stanzas but to be able to recite it in its entirety would require some work of this middle age brain.

New to poetry? Or, perhaps do you wish to reacquaint yourself with it? Along with Mary Ellen Solt’s “Forsythia”, here are the ten poets and their poems chosen for my 8th grade poetry unit, a collection that most of my students find enjoyable and approachable. Half of these appear in our textbook, others I selected. Most can be found on the internet or at your local public library. Read them a few times and then take them apart. Look for those extended metaphors! Broaden your world view, one poem at a time!

  1. Eleanor Farjeon. Farjeon’s poem “Morning Has Broken” was the basis for the well-known Christian hymn, but its popularity reached new peaks when Cat Stevens turned it into a hit single. Examples of her poetry: “Cat!” and “Morning Has Broken”.
  2. Walt Whitman. Whitman’s collection of poetry Leaves of Grass made him a literary superstar, so much so that when he died his funeral became a public spectacle. Examples of his poetry: “O Captain! My Captain!” and “A Noiseless Patient Spider”.
  3. Emily Dickinson. Largely unknown throughout her lifetime because of her reclusive nature, after her death nearly 1,800 poems she had written were discovered in her room by her sister. Examples of her poetry: “The Sky Is Low, The Clouds Are Mean” and “Because I Could Not Stop For Death–“.
  4. William Shakespeare. No study of poetry, or literature for that matter, would be complete without including the Bard of Avon. Writers of love letters as well as students of literature can find themselves lost in his sonnets, filled with wonder at his mastery of the English language. Examples of his poetry: “Blow, Blow, Thou Winter Wind” and “Sonnet 18 Shall I Compare Thee To A Summer’s Day?”.
  5. W. H. Auden. An Anglo-American poet, Auden’s famous poem “Funeral Blues” made it to the big screen in 1994 when it was featured prominently in the Hugh Grant/Andie MacDowell movie Four Weddings and a Funeral. Examples of his poetry: “Three Short Poems” and “Funeral Blues”.
  6. Cecil Spring Rice. Another example of a poem being set to music is “The Two Fatherlands” by British poet Cecil Spring Rice, who was the British Ambassador to the United States from 1912-1918. Written in 1908 while he was serving in the British diplomatic corps, the poem speaks of service and loyalty to the two “fathers”, God and country. British composer Gustav Holst adapted a section of the movement “Jupiter” from his symphony The Planets as a setting for the poem. The music and lyrics were later modified for use as a Christian hymn. Examples of his poetry: “Day” and “Urbs Dei” (“The City of God”) or “The Two Fatherlands”, better known as “I Vow to Thee My Country”.
  7. Robert Frost. American poet Robert Frost is well-known and widely studied. Frost was asked to recite a poem for the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy, the first poet to do so but a tradition continued with Presidents Clinton and Obama. In the car on the way to the swearing-in, Frost was very nervous about the weather conditions on the bitterly cold and windy January day in 1961. When called up to the podium, he found that the wind and glare from the sun and snow prevented him from reading a poem he had written especially for the occasion, so instead he recited from heart his 1941 poem “The Gift Outright”. Examples of his poetry: “The Road Not Taken” and “The Gift Outright”.
  8. e. e. cummings. American poet Edward Estlin Cummings, known for his irreverent use of lower case letters, intentional misspellings, and irregular word/line placement, was a prolific writer, amassing nearly 3,000 poems in his lifetime, along with several novels, plays, and essays. Examples of his poetry: “Your Little Voice Over The Wires Came Leaping” and “a pretty a day”.
  9. William Carlos Williams. Another American poet who excelled in multiple careers was William Carlos Williams, a pediatrician and general practitioner, who famously said he worked harder as a poet than as a doctor. A contemporary of Robert Frost and Ezra Pound, Williams’s final book of poetry, Pictures from Brueghel and Other Poems, earned him the 1963 Pulitzer Prize. Examples of his poetry: “The Red Wheelbarrow” and “Willow Poem”.
  10. Edgar Allan Poe. Only 40 years old when he died in 1849, Edgar Allan Poe left behind a treasury of literature. His death and the circumstances surrounding it are so mysterious and compelling it is almost as though he is a character in one of his gruesome short stories. Examples of his poetry: “The Raven” and “Annabel Lee”.
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