What makes a poem great is a question that has, of course, been discussed for ages. But I’m more interested in “what makes a poem great for teaching?” And there are different teaching situations–great for having students see that poetry can speak to them, great for getting kids writing, great for extending the conversation about a longer work that you’re reading.
Today I want to focus on poems that are great for teaching the skills of reading poetry. I’ve called them AP Literature poems because I think that’s often the class where we focus in the most depth on poetry reading skills. But I’ve found that kids in a variety of classes really appreciate poetry reading skills. A lot of them feel like poetry is something they don’t get, but they’d like to.
So how do you teach them to get poetry? I don’t shy away from poetic devices because I think they can be empowering tools for students. What is a speaker and how is it different from the poet? What does rhyme actually do to a poem? Why do poets choose line and stanza breaks? These are all questions we tackle in a hands on way.
But I also think there’s something about the poem. There are poems I love that I don’t teach. A good classroom poem is interesting to students (sorry, “Dover Beach” and “Ode on a Grecian Urn”!). A good classroom poem is also challenging, but manageable, especially when poetry reading strategies are used. The best poems for teaching poetry reading are poems that seem to crack open when you apply the right strategy. And I love that moment! A student uses a strategy and suddenly the poem makes more sense, but more importantly they see the value of the strategy, which they can use again on other texts. Victory!
Here are some of my favorites:
“Terence, this is stupid stuff” by A. E. Housman. This might be my all-time favorite teaching poem. Kids are intrigued because it sounds like he’s advocating for getting drunk. But close reading shows there’s much more going on.
“Dogfish” by Mary Oliver. Great for structure and tracking pronouns.
“The Flea” by John Donne. Students are intrigued by this poem. It’s about a flea but it also sounds like there’s something sexy going on. Huh? Great for talking about speaker and structure, since the actions between the stanzas are key.
“That time of year thou mayest in me behold” (Sonnet 73) by William Shakespeare. Many of the sonnets work well. I especially like this one for introducing conventional metaphors which are such a powerful tool.
“My Last Duchess” by Robert Browning. A creepy classic. After students have figured out what’s going on and who’s talking to whom about what, there’s a lot to talk about with how Browning has constructed the Duke.
“One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop. Technically, this poem is a villanelle, but even if you never use that word, kids can see how the structure adds to the poem. And we can all relate to losing things.
“The Pennycandystore Beyond the El” by Lawrence Ferlinghetti. A great poem for seeing the point of what some of those “crazy” modern poets do. Just don’t leave the room or you might come back to find that a couple of boys have graphed out their interest in candy vs. their interest in breasts over time (true story).
“Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” by Robert Frost. A lot of kids love Frost. If they’ve read any poetry, they’ve probably read Frost, so I don’t spend a lot of time on him. But I do like this poem for the limits of interpretation. Is it about death? Is it about Santa Claus? Does a poem mean whatever we want it to?
“Gretel in Darkness” by Louise Glück. Students are intrigued by this sophisticated poem about Hansel and Gretel. Good for speaker and addressee.
“To His Coy Mistress” by Andrew Marvell. A classic for good reason. Kids are intrigued by the “get you into bed” message (wait, people had sex back then?!). But that message is carefully crafted. If your kids know rhetorical analysis (like ethos, pathos, logos) from the AP Lang exam, this is a nice opportunity to show them it can work in a poem, too.
“The Writer” by Richard Wilbur. A good poem for talking about the different kinds of figurative language.
“Southern Cop” by Sterling Brown. Students will no doubt find this relevant. It’s also quite accessible, although there are a lot of devices worth talking about.
I’d love to hear what poems other people like teaching.