Features: Literature & Language Arts
Langston Hughes Commemorative Stamp

National Poetry Month: Forms of Poetry

The poet T.S. Eliot archly and glumly observed that "April is the cruelest month" in the opening lines of The Waste Land, published in 1922. Almost eighty-five years later, April also became the month of poetic celebration when the EDSITEment-reviewed Academy of American Poets established National Poetry Month in 1996.

When the Academy asked the public to vote on their favorite American poet in 2002, the verdict was decisive: Langston Hughes. In recognition of this poet's enduring popularity, as well as the 100th anniversary of his birth, the Academy created a special feature on Langston Hughes. EDSITEment followed suit with a lesson, "The Poet's Voice: Langston Hughes and You," in which students write journal entries and discuss poems to learn about the qualities that make Hughes's voice distinctive, forceful, and memorable.

Reading Langston Hughes is doubly appropriate this April, which has also been designated Jazz Appreciation Month (JAM); you can find information and teaching materials related to JAM at the Smithsonian Jazz site. As noted in the student-oriented biography of Hughes available from America's Library (a link on the EDSITEment-reviewed American Memory), for him "jazz and blues expressed the wide range of black America's experience, from grief and sadness to hope and determination." You can also find an EDSITEment lesson plan related to jazz, Jazz and World War II: A Rally to Resistance, A Catalyst for Victory.

Another American poet of enduring popularity, Robert Frost, is also the subject of an EDSITEment lesson, "Poems that Tell a Story: Narrative and Persona in the Poetry of Robert Frost." Robert Frost's "Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening" tells an invitingly simple story; but as we read and reread the poem, we are drawn into questions and mysteries. In this lesson, students explore such mysteries in journal entries that build upon narrative hints in poems chosen from an online selection of Frost's most frequently anthologized and taught works.

Deriving pleasure from the sounds of poetry is also the focus of a third EDSITEment lesson, "Listening to Poetry: Sounds of the Sonnet." At the heart of the lesson are its seven innovative "sound experiments," designed to help students understand how form, meter, and rhythm all combine to shape our experience of poetry, and the meanings we derive from it. After some preliminary sound experiments with Lewis Carroll's nonsense poem, "Jabberwocky," the lesson turns to Shakespeare's Sonnet 29, a model of how the sonnet form, with its dense knitting together of sound and meaning, can suggest an astonishing variety of emotional effects.

For younger students, EDSITEment offers a variety of lessons on poetry and form. Several of these units feature a special focus on writing skills and the writing process: "Can You Haiku?" (grades 3-5), "Writing Poetry Like the Pros" (grades 3-5), and "All Together Now: Collaborations in Poetry Writing and Recitation" (grades K-2). Another poetry lesson designed for grades K-2, "Play With Words: Rhyme & Verse," uses bouncy rhythms and catchy rhymes to develop skills related to language usage, listening, vocabulary acquisition, and auditory memory, while also fostering an understanding of thematically related concepts. Many more age-appropriate lesson plans are listed in the sidebar to the left.

Activity: Learning to Write a Poem: Forms of Poetry

The lessons and websites detailed above all involve students' understanding of how poetic form influences our reading of the poem. Sonnets, haikus, odes, and elegies all give the reader some guidance in their poetic interpretation and appreciation, and likewise guide the writer in their construction. Poets often practice by choosing a form and trying to write a poem that follows that structure, or they use a form to contextualize their work within a tradition. Langston Hughes drew on African American blues and jazz music in such poems as "Po' Boy Blues" and "The Weary Blues," reflecting the influence of African American oral tradition on artistic development during the 20th century. At other times, poets choose the form that is most appropriate for a theme or occasion. Walt Whitman's "O Captain! My Captain!" is an elegy—a poem about the death of a person—written in response to Abraham Lincoln's assassination.

This activity, appropriate for students of all ages, asks students first to choose a poetic form from the list available via the EDSITEment-reviewed American Academy of Poets. Some of these forms, like the sonnet, may be quite familiar to students, while other forms, like the villanelle, may not be. Students should read the synopsis of the form, and then read a poem written in that form. The student will answer the questions below about the poem before attempting to use that form to write a poem of their own. Parents, teachers, and caregivers are encouraged to participate as their students and children examine the myriad forms that structure poetry.

While students of every age can enjoy this activity, teachers and parents may wish to help younger students select age-appropriate poetic forms. Younger students, for example, might concentrate on forms such as the haiku, the epigram, or the abecedarian (see in particular Blake’s use in the poem “London”).

Questions:

  • List the name of the poetic form you chose and explain how it has been used in the past.
  • How has your poetic form changed over time?
  • Does your poetic form have a rhyme scheme? If so, what is it?
  • What are the basic features of your poetic form? Does it have a limited number of lines or stanzas?
  • Is there a rhythm to the poetic form? What is the effect of the rhythm?
  • Does the poetic form generally encourage the poet to write about a particular theme?

Students should then turn to a specific poem written in the poetic form they are studying. Each description in the Academy of American Poets list offers several examples to choose from. If possible, have students print out a copy of the poem. Ask them to mark the various formal features of the poem, such as rhyme scheme and stanza breaks, and to underline the appropriate themes often found in that poetic form.

Finally, ask students to try writing a poem in the form they have chosen. After they have completed their poem, students should write a brief paragraph considering how the form of the poem influenced how they decided to write.

 

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Featured Lessons

 

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Featured Websites

 

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ABOUT THE IMAGE

Langston Hughes Commemorative Stamp. Issued by the U.S. Postal Service on February 1, 2002, to commemorate the centennial of Hughes's birth, this stamp was unveiled at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture.