How to Teach Poetry

Teaching poetry can be a daunting task, especially compared with something as straightforward as the prose of a novel or short story. Although your approach will differ if you're teaching Robert Frost to junior high kids or John Ashbery to college students, there are some basics to get your started.

Parse the poem and discuss the literal meaning. Take the poem phrase by phrase and talk about the basic ideas the writer is trying to convey with each sentence. If there are words that are not generally understood, look them up -- or have the students do so -- and make sure the meaning is clear.

Discuss the imagery of the poem. Why did the writer choose to use these particular words, and what kind of atmosphere or mood do they lend to the poem? Are the images related in some way? Does the writer tend to come back to the same types of images?

Discuss the poetic form. Figure out whether there is a meter or a rhyme scheme to which the poem adheres. Discuss how a poem with a rhyme scheme differs from a free verse poem and give examples of both.

Identify and discuss the speaker of the poem. Is the author speaking, or has she created a character who acts as the poem's voice? Ask students why a writer might be using her own voice in one poem but then switch to a different persona in another.

Discuss the poem's story. What happens in the poem?

Discuss the symbolism of the poem. Often the writer will use one image to represent another, so your students should discuss whether any of the poem's lines remind them of something else.

Reread the entire poem. After going through the previous steps, the overall meaning of the poem will become clearer as it's read again.

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