How many times have been you met with blank or fearful stares as you ask your students, “So, what do you think this poem is about?” Unfortunately, I can tell you I’ve experienced this phenomenon far too many times to count. Teaching poetic analysis simply put is hard. How can we expect our students to analyze a poem for author’s purpose or universal themes when they’re not confident enough to figure out the literal meaning first? And let’s be honest, do the experts ever really agree what a poem is about?
In pursuit of solutions to these problems, I recently attended an AP training, and suddenly, it clicked. My research and practice finally came together in a system that not only helps me as a reader of poetry, but my students, and now, you and your students too! Keep reading to learn about my simple three question system to teach poetic analysis with success.
Appreciate the Art Form
Poetic analysis can be really intimidating to all of us, teachers included. The nature of analyzing a creative, deeply personal work is hard. But, that doesn’t mean you can’t start by appreciating a poem for what you can. Sometimes, we like the sound, or the rhythm, or maybe it reminds us of someone we know and love or a time and a place. Hmm? It sounds a lot like music, doesn’t it?
The first step should build an appreciation of poetry. Before we comprehend and analyze, we must appreciate it for what it is: a creative outlet meant for entertainment and enjoyment. If start by intimidating students with, “Read this poem, and tell me what it means,” they will naturally have a negative reaction to poetry. It’s just like that one song we all love, but we have no clue what it means. If you asked me to analyze it for its meaning right from the get go, I would hate music too—that’s way too much pressure for me. This realization can be powerful for students.
So how do we do?
- One option is to connect music and poetry, like I did above. Here is an example from an introduction to poetry with song analysis that my students really enjoy. They love talking about their favorite songs, so it makes a great positive connection to poetry.
- Another option is starting with reader response. The nature of reader response is to value the interpretation of the reader above all this, empowering the reader with authority and confidence. In my poetry unit, I always start by asking students to bring in their favorite poems. I bring a favorite too. Then, we all go around the room sharing why our selection is our favorite. We focus on points like memories, sounds, words choice, and our personal connections.
Question 1: What is happening?
Now that your students have gained an appreciation for the art form aside from any formal analysis, they will be better positioned to explore the literal meaning. Sometimes this can be challenging for students to recognize right away; however, they can almost always pinpoint the subject of the poem. In fact, this part of the analysis might already have been done for them. Students likely connected, in whole or in part, with something related to the literal meaning as they were appreciating the art form.
In my experience as a reader, I know it’s helpful to have a plan for this step. Therefore, I like to give students more structure to access the literal meaning. After annotating, we use the acronym TIES to find the “ties” between the personal connections we made in step one and the literal meaning here in step two. TIES stands for Title, Images, Emotions, and Subject. These cues help students uncover the literal meaning of the poem.
Question 2: Why is it happening?
Once students can answer what is happening, they need to discover why it is happening. Often, this will lead them to uncover a figurative meaning. In poetry, understanding the speaker is the first step to uncovering this meaning. Therefore, your students should explore the speaker and the poet. Often, the speaker is a much different persona from the speaker. So, students can engage in biographical lens research to find connections, or lack thereof, in the author’s life.
For example, my students enjoy researching the psychological dramatic monologue, “My Last Duchess,” by Robert Browning. This poem is a monologue of a twisted duke who in so many words admits to murdering his wife. Upon research of Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess,” my students discovered that the speaker is not Browning at all, but the persona of a real person, a 16th century Duke, Alfonso II of Ferrara, whose young wife died a mysterious death.
This type of historical and biographical lenses research can be supplemented with a study of what I call speaker terms, like tone, diction, and shifts.
Question 3: How is it happening?
Question three is the most important part for poetic analysis. The final step in poetic analysis is to understand how it is happening. Specifically, this process requires students to analyze how the author uses how poetic devices to arrive at a figurative, universal, or otherwise significant meaning of the work. The goal is to avoid “name dropping” literary terms that show up in the poem. Anyone can identify a simile in a poem, but if that simile doesn’t relate to the meaning of the work, then it’s not important for poetic analysis. The goal is to teach students to analyze which literary devices help the writer emphasis the meaning of the work.
Bonus: Start with Picture Books
One of my favorite ways to practice these four poetic analysis steps is with picture books. What I love about scaffolding with picture books is that the literal meaning and figurative themes are very obvious so they’re accessible to young readers. This makes the last and most important step (Answer the Question, “How is it happening?”), that much easier to grasp.
“Giraffes Can’t Dance” by Giles Andreaeis is a great place to start. This picture book is perfect for this type analysis because—are you ready?–it’s about music. It ties beautifully into the song analysis and if you’re an AP Literature teacher like me, you can use the Myth of Music prompt for essay practice.
To begin, I read the book to students and ask them to comment on how they feel about it. Then, the last line explains the literal meaning, “’We all can dance,’ he said, ‘when we find music that we love.’” However, there is definitely a deeper meaning, finding ourselves even when we’re different from others. Finally, the poetic devices are very important for the speaker to achieve the purpose. For example, the rhythmic meter and rhyme scheme create a musical effect that intentionally emphasizes the subject: finding our own music.
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Poetry Analysis Mini-Unit
If you’re ready to put these steps into practice without the labor of writing all of those activities, answer keys, and lessons (trust me, I totally get it!), check out my print-and-go poetry analysis unit here. It has everything you need to teach poetic analysis:
- Student workbook in print and digital versions
- “Pick Your Own Poem” Reader Response Activity
- Poetry Cafe Conversation Starter Cards
- “What Is Happening?” TIES Activity
- “Why Is It Happening?” Speaker Analysis
- Speaker Task Cards
- Guided Analysis for “Red, Red Rose” by Robert Burns
- “How Is It Happening?” Poetic Terms Categories
- Poetic Terms Category Cards
- Poetry Analysis Assessment
- Poetry Analysis Suggested Answer Key for “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” by Dylan Thomas
- Editable PowerPoint assessment rubric
- Suggested answer key
- Teacher guide
- Directions for downloading digital assignments
- Foster, T. C. (2018). How to read poetry like a professor: A quippy and sonorous guide to verse. New York: Quill.
- Jago, C., Shea, R., Scanlon, L., & Aufses, R. (2017). Literature & composition: Reading, writing, thinking. Second edition. New York:
- Mays, K. J. (2016). The Norton introduction to literature. Twelfth edition. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
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