Time for Poetry: Questions to Ask When Reading a Poem

Recently I read Dr. Louise Cowan’s essay entitled “The Lyric Nostalgia,” which can be found in the book The Prospect of Lyric, published by the Dallas Institute for the Humanities and Culture.

I shared several of Dr. Cowan’s ideas with my students before beginning poetry.  In her essay, she argues that the lyric (as distinguished from epic, tragedy, and comedy) is the art form that longs for humanity’s “original pattern of being,” the garden of Eden, a time of perfect harmony. As the epic tells us how civilization began, as tragedy tells us how civilization is protected from the faults of rulers, as comedy tells us how civilization is protected by the institution of the household, so lyric longs for  the time before civilization was necessary.  The poet has a vision of the way the world should be and attempts to articulate that vision to the rest of us.

As I believed it was an excellent framework for helping students enter a poem, I decided that I would revise my reading bookmark to include some questions based on her ideas.

And then I thought it would be a much better idea if I had my students help me create the questions.

Like so:

photo 1

I tried to arrange the questions into categories.  Here is the compilation:

The Lyric and the Beloved Object

What is the object of love in the poem? What is the main beloved object? Is there more than one?

What stage is the lyric voice in?

  • Anticipation?

  • Fulfillment?

  • Lamentation?

The Lyric Vision of the World

What does this poem say or criticize about civilization?

What does this poem say the world should be like? What is the poem’s vision for the world?

How can we glimpse the poem’s vision of the world?

  • Love for another person?

  • Art?

  • Poetry?

  • Nature?

  • Other?

What does this poem seek to remind us of?

The Lyric Enemies: Death and Time

What does this poem say about Death?

What does this poem say about Time?

What does this poem say about Immortality?

I plan to add these to questions on the bookmark that deal with literary elements (the “how” of the poem).  So far, this framework seems to help the students get the “what” of the poem pretty quickly.

I’m interested in any ideas for teaching poetry, so please share!

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