Reading Poetry in the Classroom

Poetry is an elusive thing. When I ask students to read poetry I often find they end up on the verge of pulling their hair out, especially when I ask them questions like what does this poem mean, or how is this poetic device being used to effect by the poet in the poem? Students often view poetry as a mystery. Just ask them to write their own poem and they’ll say things about their poetry like I want my poem to be confusing here. I want the reader to have to figure things out for herself. The idea that the reader of poetry should be confused isn’t developed out of thin air. Students believe the reader of poetry should feel confounded and they emulate their own reading experiences when they write poetry.

So the question is how do we get students to appreciate and understand reading poetry in the same way that they might a good short story or novel? Here are a few suggestions for reading poems, any and every poem, that have worked for me:

  1. Your first question, or even your last, should not be what does this poem mean or what is the poet trying to convey? Instead, ask students about what they like. It’s as simple as that. The doorway to a class discussion about any poem is opened by asking students what they like about the poem. It takes students off their guard. It is less daunting to be asked this question than having to decode the entire poem and take a chance in class to say what it means. When they begin by talking about what they like in the poem they naturally begin talking about what the poem is about and begin trading ideas about the poem’s meaning. Don’t be afraid to talk about what they don’t like as well.

  2. Have some fun with the poem. Cut it up. White it out. Glue it. Circle and underline. Draw. Have students begin finding favorite words or lines in this way. This can be fun, but it is not just child’s play. Many contemporary poets are applying various elision techniques to full length books of poems. See Jen Bervin’s work with Shakespeare’s sonnets in her book, Nets, as an example.

  3. Read and re-read a single poem over the course of one week. Unlike the plot driven novel that wants us to read-read-read until the last page, a poem wants us to read, stop, consider and reread. Give students this experience with a poem by building upon the discussion over the week.

  4. Emulate. Have students write their own poem based on the poem they’re reading. Some of the best poetry I’ve seen students produce comes from emulating the works of other poets. If the poem has four stanzas, a rhyme scheme, or is driven by metaphor students can challenge themselves to develop their poems in the same way. (Notice how those poetic terms are popping up here? Now, instead of explaining how they work in someone else’s poem students have to decide how they will work in their own poems.)

Number four points a finger at another side of poetry, writing it, that deserves a post of its own. But for now, try approaching poetry in the classroom with one simple question – what do you like? – and see where it leads you and your students.

~ Dennis

Suggested poems that lend themselves to discussion and writing prompts, all available on the Poetry Foundation’s website:

“The Pull Toy” by A.E. Stallings

“Fifty-Fifty” by Patricia Clark

“Dog in Bed” by Joyce Sidman


One response to “Reading Poetry in the Classroom”

  1. Carol says :

    Forever, I seemed to have great difficulty understanding poetry. Over the past ten years or so, I have learned to enjoy the simplicity of many poems and this has caused me to look at poetry differently. Your suggestions are perfect for creating an environment of enjoying poems, rather than fearing the eternal question of, “What does it mean?”

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