Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

Ducking Under the Caution Tape: Approachable Poems

Before I began teaching, I had assumed that the many stories I had heard about how students don't like poetry were just myths. After all, I liked (some) poetry, so why wouldn't my students like (some) poetry? But unlike nearly every other myth I've dismissed in my time as a teacher, the one about poetry proved to be true: Nothing makes my students whine more than being handed a poem.

Maybe you teachers have the same response in your classroom, or perhaps you feel similarly when asked to read a poem yourself. It's the literary genre that most seems to be cordoned off in yellow caution tape, doesn't it? Poetry feels daunting, indeed, with all of those big words and deep concepts. It seems that we've forgotten the approachable work of Shel Silverstein and Dr. Seuss, and instead have come to feel that poetry is serious, difficult and off-putting. "Put-off" definitely describes my classroom. For my students, the two most common complaints I hear about reading poetry is that 1) it's oblique (ok, so they say "too hard" or "I don't get it," not "oblique") and 2) the words are difficult to understand.  Perhaps you share these concerns.

My purpose here, then, is to suggest some easy entry poems: classics (or at least works by generally esteemed poets) that aren't too difficult to grasp, in meaning or in words. I've tried to find them online, so you can get to them right away, and I hope that they may prove to be of use to you, whether in your classroom, or in your own reading of poetry. Before I share those works, I thought I'd share how I became more of a fan of poetry myself.

And Someday, I'll Read the Sonnets

Like many theatre people, my introduction to written poetry (as opposed to lyrics, of which I had approximately 7 million crammed into my head by the time I was 14) came through Shakespeare's plays. It's crucial that an actor appearing in a Shakespearean play understand the difference between prose and poetry, and thanks to a savvy director who pointed it out, I began to look for, note, and appreciate that difference. In a burst of teenage hubris, I decided that if I was finding Shakespeare's plays so easy to understand, I would enjoy reading his sonnets as well, so I bought a collection of them, and cracked them open.

Well, no.  My thesis was incorrect: I did not enjoy reading them. They confused me, utterly, and I was forced to realize that much of what I thought I knew from Romeo & Juliet was courtesy of the translation into American English on one side of the text.  Thoroughly cowed by this inauspicious beginning, I reverted back to my long avoidance of most poetry and read it only when I had to in or for a class. This didn't help much: What I saw in the poem was often not what the professor saw (or what she felt I should see), and I eventually just resigned myself to spending the rest of my life not really liking poetry. This seemed like a completely reasonable plan, at the time.

It took a great book, called A Poem a Day (sadly, no longer in print), picked up at a local bookstore, to change my mind. I bought it because it promised one poem a day for the year, which seemed manageable, and so I began to become a person who reads poetry...or at least a person who reads one poem a day.  Over the course of the last 5 years, reading and re-reading that book (and other anthologies I've gradually accumulated, often choosing the collected works of a poet whose work I've enjoyed in that first book), I've become a person who likes poetry.  It's the immersive process; a dozen times, I've read a poem that didn't land with me at all, only to come across it a year or two later, when it finally makes an impact on me. Additionally, I've feel I've learned the answers to the problems my students present about poetry (as above).

First, I've learned that poetry needs to be read carefully. Trying to skim it, which is what I (and most adept readers) do when first presented with a poem, might give me the overall shape of what I'm reading, but I'll need to slow down to appreciate the language. I often tell my students that we need to savor a poem, just the way we savor a cone of our favorite ice cream. For my slower readers, poems can actually seem desirable when they realize I want them to read at a stately pace, for a change.

It's also true that poetry needs time to resonate. I try not to repeat works of literature with my students, of course, but I never mind if we cover a poem they feel they've "already read." There's usually something new to discover. Someone wise once told me, "The poem doesn't change, but we do." So true!

Secondly, I've learned that poems are appreciated best when one can understand the usage of every word. It makes sense, after all, that while you might get away with not knowing a word or two in a four-page short story, the same is not going to be true when reading 10 lines of a poem. In order to help my students, I try to pull difficult words for them beforehand — I give one great example below — so that they have some foreknowledge of any tricky words they might stumble upon.

However, I should note that part of what makes poetry both enjoyable and challenging is that the words within a poem are often put together in unique ways that, in turn, create specific images and responses in each reader. While I want my students to locate their responses in the text ("This section made me feel this way..."), half the fun is recognizing that what I take to be melancholy, somebody else might find amusing.

Poems for the Very Concerned About Poetry

So, what poems do I actually teach? The specific curriculum depends on so many factors, of course, but I like to begin by dispelling the notion that poetry is going to be grueling.  So, I might begin with William Carlos Williams' "The Red Wheelbarrow," a simple yet intriguing 8-line poem (it's the one that begins, "so much depends/upon/a red wheel/barrow...").  It's easy to understand — not a vocab word in it — but provides strong imagery to discuss.

Sometimes, I follow it up with a selection I first read in 180 More Extraordinary Poems for Every Day, which, along with the first volume — Poetry 180: A Turning Back to Poetry — is edited by former poet laureate Billy Collins, and is a great source for poems that are highly approachable for students. I'm especially fond of F. J. Bergmann's "An Apology," which begins "Forgive me/for backing over/and smashing/your red wheelbarrow." It makes me laugh every time, and my students usually do too. We can talk about parody and homage, of course, but it's also good to see that poetry can be funny... and that they can totally get literary humor.

I had an administrator who tried to push "Footprints in the Sand" into my curriculum, but I resisted, finding it too saccharine (with questionable content in terms of church-state issues, too, for that matter). On the other hand, Maya Angelou's "Phenomenal Woman" is also widely known, but, in my opinion, much more worthwhile. (I apologize to any "Footprints..." fans out there.) It's got a great message, and establishes an alluring rhythm to help get that message across.  Sometimes I ask my students to make it into a song or rap.

Robert Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," although far different in tone, style and context, also drives home the power of rhythm, and repetition, too. (By the way, my students have almost always read this poem before, but they usually are glad to do so again.) If you want to talk about allusion, this is the poem for you, with that haunting, repetitious conclusion, "And miles to go before I sleep/And miles to go before I sleep."

Another poet of Frost and Angelou's stature is Edgar Allan Poe, and I find that my students enjoy his macabre style so I often include several of his poems. However, the vocabulary he made use of is difficult for today's readers.  Starting with "Annabel Lee" is a great idea. The poem has the feel  and rhythm of a nursery rhyme (a really, really sad nursery rhyme), and, so long as you pre-define sepulchre, your students will enjoy it. (Turn the lights off for maximum atmosphere!)

I like Jane Yolen's "Fat is Not a Fairy Tale" a lot, because it presents a strong point of view, and is totally comprehensible...  yet leaves intriguing questions for readers to discuss. (Who is Sleeping Tubby?) . Elizabeth Bishop's "Casabianca" is a poem I love to read with students, and I always begin by saying, "I have no idea what this poem is about, but it's AWESOME." (Define elocution and obstinate for the kids beforehand, and read this Wikipedia article if you want to know more than I did before you read it!). Wallace Stevens' famous "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" could be introduced similarly. If you've got the time, reading this excerpt from my friend Sam Swope's book I am a Pencil, in which he teaches the poem to a middle school class, is inspiring.

Poems that tell stories (often stories that are confessions) are great for reading. Everyone loves a little narrative. One of my favorites is William Stafford's "Traveling Through the Dark," which is riveting. Expect some distraught students after reading it, however.

Sometimes a historical context grounds a poem.  George Bradley's "Electrocuting an Elephant" effectively teaches the brief, sad history of Topsy the Elephant (and I must again send you to Wikipedia, where you can actually watch the event captured by Thomas Edison on film), while Richard Wilbur's "First Snow in Alsace" lands us completely in World War II, but in a blessedly violence-free zone, for once. There are so many more poems with historical context, so explore!

A poem that always confounds — but not because of vocabulary — is Ron Padgett's "Nothing in That Drawer." The poem consists of the title, repeated 14 times. It's really fun to ask your students to pick THAT apart.  Another poem that's a bit of a puzzle (which Bishop's work above is too, I suppose) is Billy Collins' "Introduction to Poetry."  I used to start my poetry unit with it, but eventually decided I was supplying students with ammunition to pre-empt my attempt to discuss anything. Still, it's a poem that satisfies on a number of levels.

I always ask my students to read W.S. Merwin's untitled work, sometimes presented as "Listen..."  It's my favorite poem and a bit of a life guide for me. I enjoy hearing my students' respond to something I've read over and over again. I always learn something new.  I know my colleagues feel similarly about works by e.e. cummings, Denise Levertov, and Mary Oliver, particularly. I think it's nice for students to hear or read a work that has inspired an adult they (I hope) admire and respect. Similarly, I ask students to bring in a poem (or song lyric) that means something to them.  This is a great way to share words that are meaningful to us, and make connections to larger themes.

This is far from a comprehensive list. I included only a smattering of the poems that I've taught, myself, let alone the many worthy poems in the world. But I do hope that these poems will be good gateway drugs, if you will, for you and your students, allowing you to slip under the caution tape around poetry and see that there's not much to be scared about after all. They're all interesting and approachable, applicable for teaching literary concepts, and excellent starting points for meaningful class discussions...and you can add it whatever else you want to cover as you go. I hope that they find a home in your curricula...and heart!

(...And I'll get out that book of sonnets again, I promise!)

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An award-winning playwright and former contributor to the Visual Thesaurus Teachers at Work department, Shannon Reed is an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at the University of Pittsburgh, where she also teaches. Read more about her work at shannonreed.org. Click here to read more articles by Shannon Reed.

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