There is perhaps no other kind of text that can create such feelings of anxiety, confusion, and also satisfaction as a poem. Many students assume that there is some sort of key to reading poetry to which they do not yet have access—and that you, the instructor, possesses the key and are testing students before you will grant them access. One of the best ways to disabuse them of this notion is to muddle through the poem with them, to come at it from all different angles, and to let them try out different readings.
You can adapt the following sets of questions to your own poetry assignments. The first are simply meant to be guidelines for determining some of the things your students can be looking for when reading a poem. It is a good idea to hand out these questions as a roadmap for your students as they are reading the poem for the first time. Following the questions are some suggested classroom activities that can help students get beyond their fear of poetry by actively engaging it. They also provide different angles from which together you can creatively and collaboratively approach the poem.
Guidelines for reading poetry
- Recognize the "narrative" of the poem: Close-read the poem as you would a prose text. Look for the subject and verb of each sentence; this will be easier with some poems than with others. Note where you find yourself having to insert words in order for the sentences to "make sense." Remember that whatever you insert is an assumption on your part and may necessitate reconsidering. Indeed, sometimes noticing the ambiguity and letting it remain is more important than resolving it. Who is speaking in this poem? To whom is he or she speaking? What is the speaker's tone? What situation is the speaker describing? What are the conflicts? What is the setting? How is this setting important to the narrative? What are some of the major themes or ideas of the poem?
- Note the diction or word choice of the poem: Circle all the words you do not know and look them up in the dictionary. Underline words that seem particularly meaningful or that contain double-meanings and puns. Explain the connotations of each of these. How do these shades of meaning contribute to the overall effect of the poem? Underline unusual words (slang, made-up words, foreign language words, etc.). Explain how the poem would be different without them. How does all this word choice contribute to the tone of the poem?
- Experience the imagery of the poem: Locate all the descriptive images and consider which sense each image appeals to (i.e. visual, aural, tactile). Describe how these images help create atmosphere and mood. Now do the same with all the figurative language in the poem (i.e. metaphor, simile, personification).
- Listen to the sound of the poem: Note which sound devices the poem uses, for example:
- Onomatopoeia: the use of words that sound like what they mean.
- Alliteration: the repetition of consonant sounds at the beginning of words or at the beginning of accented syllables.
- Assonance: the repetition of vowel sounds followed by different consonant sounds.
- Consonance: the repetition of final consonant sounds that are preceded by different vowel sounds.
- Rhyme: the repetition of accented vowels and the sounds that follow.
- After noting the sounds devices, ask how they contribute to the poem's tone, atmosphere, etc.
- Look at the structure of the poem: How does the poem use rhyme schemes, stanzas, line breaks, spacing to structure the poem? What is the relationship among the structure of the poem, how it actually looks on the page, to its tone and its content?
These guidelines were adapted from Griffith, Kelley. Writing Essays about Literature:
A Guide and Style Sheet, 5th edition. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1998.
Reading poems in the classroom
- Translate the poem into prose: Ask students to attempt to rewrite the poem as a paragraph of prose without losing any of the details of the implicit "narrative" in the poem. Ask several students to write their paragraphs on the board (alternatively, ask them to write their paragraphs on clear overhead projector sheets). As a class read the paragraphs one at a time discussing what is lost in translation.
- Change the line breaks: Ask students to rewrite the poem changing the line breaks. Ask several students to write their paragraphs on the board (alternatively, ask them to write their paragraphs on clear overhead projector sheets). As a class, read the poems and talk about how the line break revisions alter the sense of the poem.
- Assign each stanza of the poem to a small group: This is particularly effective when looking at long multi-stanza poems such as Countee Cullen's "Heritage." When students can focus on one stanza, they tend to feel less daunted as when they feel they must take on the poem as a whole. Ask groups to address all or a portion of the questions under Guidelines for Reading Poetry. Each group must then report back to the class in order to make a segue from the previous group's analysis.
- Turn a passage of prose into poetry: Find a paragraph-length passage from a novel or a short story that is narrative in style. Ask students to convert the prose passage into a poem. (Ask them to write their poems on clear overhead projector sheets so you can look at a few as examples.) Reflect on what gets lost in translation and what gets added. How did they convert the narrative of prose to the narrative of poetry? Look at the effects of line breaks, omitted words, repeated words, and added words? Does the poem "work" (that is, convey the sense of the narrative and the tone of the prose piece)? Why or why not? Does it, in some ways, work better? Why or why not?
- Turn a passage of any kind of text into poetry: Ask students to bring in an everyday text: a page from a newspaper, a magazine, a flyer they received in the mail, etc.—the only criteria being that it must have a substantial amount of written text on it. Ask them to create a poem out of snippets of sentences from the text. They do not need to attend to the meaning, just to the sound and the look of the lines as they select words and phrases at random, skipping around to different parts of the text. Ask students to share their poems with the class. Notice the sound and shape of the lines. Ask students to talk about their stylistic choices in creating these poems.