Time for Poetry: Writing about Poetry

Entrance to Poet's Corner, Blacon

Recently I encouraged you, dear readers, to try new things! Today I wanted to outline one new thing I have tried this year: a researched analytical essay over poetry.

Okay, when I say it that way, it doesn’t sound all that exciting.  More like drudgery and drooling into the late nights of studying.

But oh, I promise you, it has been a journey of awesomeness into the depths of poetry.

Too much?

Anyway, I’ll just tell you about it.

This year I decided that my research essay needed a change and my students needed poetry. My students consistently struggle most with poetry on the AP Literature exam, which I guess is not all that surprising since poetry is the genre that most high school students (and indeed most Americans) are probably the least familiar with.

But I believe in the power of poetry, and I believe that students can learn to see its power too.

This year, upon the suggestion of a great friend of mine, I set my former research essay, based on a novel, aside, and opted for an essay in which  students have to analyze a poem.

We’re still working out the kinks, but so far I’m pretty happy with the project.

A little background:

For the past several years I have been asking my students to choose a contemporary novel of literary merit (I have a long list, but they can go off-list with parent permission and my approval), read the novel over a time span of a few months, and then write an essay with an original thesis.  I tried to give a wide variety of options in the novel list; my only stipulation was that the novels needed to have adequate literary criticism that they could read for secondary source material.

From this original assignment framework, I knew that I wanted to preserve a few key elements:

  • Student choice
  • The reading and study of literary criticism
  • The writing of an original thesis

This year I replaced the list of novels with a list of poems.  I did have a few criteria for the poems that made the list:

  • The poems needed to be long enough for student writers to dig their teeth into. Not a lot of high school students can pull a 1,000 word essay out of “The Red Wheelbarrow.”
  • The poems needed to have adequate literary criticism in our school library.
  • The poems needed to be selections that we had not studied together in class. I didn’t want students to approach the poems with that kind of bias.

I asked my students to choose a poem that was included in the Poetry for Students volumes that our library owns (volumes 1-21).  Our librarian was also able to secure a trial of the Poetry for Students database so that we could evaluate this resource and so that students could have electronic access to the relevant sections while we were working on this project.

Overall, I am pleased with how the process has gone, with how the essays have turned out, and with my decision to change from a novel-based essay to a poetry-based essay.

In the coming weeks, I will share some of the steps the students have taken to dig into their poems and create an analytical essay.

Anyone else do any work teaching kids to write about poetry? Improving my teaching of poetry was one of my goals for the year, so I’m gathering and hoarding all suggestions!


1 Comment

  1. I do a timed explication with my ninth graders and my seniors–I use this link from UNC-Chapel Hill: https://writingcenter.unc.edu/handouts/poetry-explications/ and this one from the University of Toledo: http://englvm00.utad.utoledo.edu/english/?page_id=733 both to help frame the assignments and show them that this is a common expectation in college-level courses. It helps that we do a fair amount of explication in our class discussions of poetry, and that they get to choose the poem they explicate. Hope this helps!


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