Time for Poetry: Entering the Conversation about a Poem, Example

Students in a computer lab

Last week I explained the third response my students made to their chosen poems.  Today I want to show you the example I gave them. I always think it’s a good idea to make sure that I can do my own assignments!

In review, for this essay assignment, I asked each student to choose a poem (from a fairly lengthy list) in preparation for writing an original analysis. I then asked the students to respond to the poem in a variety of ways.

In order for a student to write an original analysis, I knew that I would need each student to read some of what has already been written about his or her poem. Eventually I would want them to use credible sources in their essay, but for now I just wanted them to get a taste of the conversation.

I also knew that most students like to rely on the Internet for their sources and know very little about the difference between peer-reviewed and other types of sources.

Now, I don’t mind if my students consult online resources. In fact, I often encourage them to do so. But I want them to read these sources with a critical eye.

In order to help them complete their third response and develop more critical reading skills, I created this example:

Example of a Response to an Online Analysis:  

Name: Jennifer Isgitt

Title of Poem: “A Story” by Li-Young Lee

Name of Site:  Name of Blog/Website


Summary of Interesting Points:

First of all, I really like the illustrations that this blog’s author has created to go with the poem. Scroll down to the bottom of the analysis to see them.  

  • This blog’s author brings in some background of both Li-Young Lee and his father.  The author surmises that perhaps the father in the poem is worried because he needs to protect his son from the Chinese government and also feels the weight of having to house his family in a small apartment because he is a medical student.  
  • This blog’s author thinks that the primary emotion in the poem is sorrow and that the theme is forgiveness.
  • The blogger calls the structure “contemporary” because it has no meter or rhyme.
  • The blogger says that the speaker occasionally “sneaks in a ‘grown-up word’” such as the word “posit.”

Response to Analysis:

This is a contemporary poem, so it’s not surprising that there isn’t a lot of analysis available online.  There are critical essays over Li-Young Lee’s work, but they will need to be accessed through libraries. I would guess that this particular blog was written by a high school student for a class assignment.

I found the first part of the analysis to be a little overly focused on Li-Young Lee’s father’s actual life.  I know that some critics analyze literature from this angle, but I like to let the literature be more open.  I don’t like to impose too much of a specific context unless the poem seems to demand it (e.g. a poem written in response to a specific historical event).

I don’t know if I agree that the primary emotion is sorrow. I think the emotion is more nuanced than that.  This statement makes me think that this particular blogger is perhaps inexperienced with the range of human emotions. I sense that the father is frustrated with himself that he cannot come up with a story. He loves his son very much, but there is a barrier, perhaps age, perhaps culture, perhaps personality, in between them.  The father senses that he isn’t able to be all that he wants to be for his son, and worries that this small failure now will lead to greater relationship failure in the future. I sense fear, guilt, and perhaps even resignation in the last word of the poem: “silence.”

I also think it’s a bit simplistic to say that the theme is “forgiveness.”  A theme should be a statement, able to be expressed in a complete sentence.  The father finds a difficulty in pleasing his son in a small way, and this leads him to ponder the ways in which he might be failing his son in big ways and the ways in which he might ultimately fail his son. But all of this pondering is mere conjecture.  I’m not sure if I can even put this into a sentence.

So, if a theme is an observation about life,  here are some observations the poem makes:

  • Even people who love each other have barriers between them.
  • Parents fear disappointing their children.
  • Parents know that they are helpless in the face of the reality that they will disappoint their children.
  • Children are largely oblivious to this struggle in their parents.
  • However, those children will eventually come to realize the struggle, as the unnamed speaker of the poem (perhaps the author) has.

If a poem has no meter or rhyme, it’s called “free verse.”  

Poetry is about language. The poet uses whatever word he or she believes is the best word to create the particular experience expressed in the poem.  “Posits” is a beautiful word.  When reading poetry, we should think about the sound and look of the word, not just the meaning or its level of familiarity.

Teaching high school students to read poetry is one of the more difficult tasks I have undertaken, but it is also one of the most rewarding. Every year I think that I understand how to approach poetry a little better than I did the year before. I hope my students experience both reading growth and an appreciation for this genre.


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