The subject of a number of the poems in this lesson plan is this fascinating creature.
For I will consider my Cat Jeoffrey…he is an excellent clamberer"
The purpose of this project is two-fold: first, to encourage students to make the reading of poetry a creative act; and, second, to help students appreciate particular literary devices in their functions as semaphores or interpretive signals. Those devices that are about the imagery of a poem (metaphor, simile, personification, description) can be thought of as magnifying glasses: we see most clearly that upon which the poet focuses our gaze. Similarly, those poetic devices that are about the sound of the poem (alliteration, consonance, enjambment, onomatopoeia, and repetition) can be thought of as volume buttons or amplifiers: we hear most clearly what the poet makes us listen to most attentively.
The poems listed below (under Preparing to Teach This Lesson) are all about animals, birds, insects, or the natural world more generally. A few belong to common middle school canons; many may especially appeal to a middle school audience because of the poet's (or persona's) unabashed love of animals and the natural world. Finally, this selection is meant to offer a group of poems especially vivid in its imagery and its use of sound device.
Before deciding which poems you will ask students to read, you may want to read the following poems, all of which are available online. (In the interest of time, you can choose to focus on just a few of them. Perhaps the class can choose them together after a very quick reading of them all.) You might prepare yourself by locating some key examples of the literary devices being considered here in each poem. Depending on the time available, some of this lesson's activities could be combined in a single class session.
From the Academy of American Poets:
From the Library of Congress' Poetry 180 (linked from poets.org):
If you want to review additional information about some of the poets, you can consult biographical links on the Academy of American Poets website. You will also find comments by Robert Bly on James Wright's "A Blessing" as well as a biographical sketch of Wright and background reading on Mary Oliver's poetry and on Emily Dickinson's use of the dash on the EDSITEment-reviewed Modern American Poetry website. The EDSITEment-reviewed Poetry Foundation and Representative Poetry Online websites are also good sources for additional information and a larger selection of poets and poems.
Read some or all of the poems aloud. As a class, come to some agreement on what each poem is generally about: list a few primary and secondary subjects, a few of the key emotions involved, any very overt statements the poems make. If you want your students to engage in some small-group work, choose a poem or two for them to do in pairs or small groups after the class as a whole has done a few together. Students can use Worksheet 1 (reproduce as necessary) to help them keep track.
If, for example, you and your students choose James Wright's "A Blessing," with Worksheet 1 in front of them, the class might concur that the poem is generally about the persona's very intense, blessed experience of an encounter with some horses in a field. Primary subjects would include the horses, the speaker, perhaps his friend, and the place where it all transpires. Secondary subjects would include friendship, love, these humans' interaction with nature, and the revelation of the poem's last three lines. Especially notable emotions and attitudes would include those feelings of love and friendship, the gladness, happiness, shyness, and loneliness all referred to in the poem. The title is perhaps this poem's most overt statement, and unraveling what the blessing is should be the ultimate task.
To foreground both how much poetry often relies on the visual imagery it evokes and on how active and creative the act of reading poetry can be, ask students to re-imagine one or two of these poems as series of visuals. Encourage them to be as imaginative as possible. They should not feel as if they have to represent the whole poem, nor should they feel that their work is supposed to explain the poem or illustrate the poem's narrative in any way. The goal is to respond somewhat viscerally to the poem's essence, rather than to its meaning. Students could focus on just a couple of images that they find most compelling or interesting, or they could try to represent through their artwork a more general assessment of the poem's tone or attitude.
Students can be abstract in their presentations, offering a canvas of all the colors mentioned in "A Blessing," for example. If students are working with a couple of images, you might suggest that they use their imagination to alternate between long shots and close-ups. They should also feel free to broaden the frame, so to speak, to what they imagine lies beyond the image (the highway just exited, in "A Blessing"), or to narrow the frame to a detail within the image (the lines of horse hair in the mane "wild on her forehead," also in "A Blessing"). All of this activity can be done through nearly any fine art—painting, drawing, collage-making—or through prose writing, perhaps of a very casual nature. Let the students choose.
If possible, display the students' work in the classroom, and give them some time to walk around and observe. Then discuss what students have produced. Can students explain why they focused on any particular image? Do they think the imagery on which they focused affects the poem as a whole more than other imagery in the poem? Did fleshing out the imagery—or adding color, shape, an impressionistic representation—contribute to their understanding or appreciation of why the poet includes that imagery? Did the students' own creative work make them better understand the poem as a whole?
Ideally, in Activity 2, students have been free to stray a bit from the poem's immediate content. At this stage, the goal is to bring them back to the poem's specificity and its particular use of device. The question you are asking is: If literary device is a magnifying glass, what stands out, gets noticed, gets bolder? Students can begin by circling all the devices pertaining to imagery that they can find—all metaphors, similes, personification, as well as any special references to sensory experience. (Students can use Worksheet 2 to keep lists of these moments and to record their reflections.) Then, ask them to consider their lists. What emotions get magnified, what attitudes get expressed through this imagery, what concepts get evoked?
Proceeded by an example of the process with the teacher: With Worksheet 2 and "A Blessing" in front of them, students might list any of the many allusions to the details of the physical space (the willows, barbed wire, pasture, darkness), to the complex and surprising images of twilight bounding or eyes that "darken with kindness," the similes of bowing "shyly as wet swans" and "delicate as the skin over a girl's wrist," and, of course, the final metaphor of breaking "into blossom." They can select those examples they appreciate most, identify the device, and then comment accordingly. Concepts evoked by the many physical images here might include either imprisonment (barbed wire) or freedom (the pasture). Emotions or feelings evoked by the similes mentioned above might include timidity and vulnerability. The tone of the final metaphor might be described as astounded or amazed.
The goal is not necessarily to locate and explicate each and every device, but to meditate on a special and remarkable few.
Now the question is: If literary device is like an amplifier, what gets louder, what echoes, what hums? Again, led by example from the teacher first, as above, students can then begin by circling all relevant sound devices (alliteration, euphony, cacophony, enjambment, onomatopoeia, and repetition). What tone is evoked? And here, too, ask what emotions get magnified, what attitudes expressed. (Use Worksheet 3 here.)
For "A Blessing," students can be helped to hear the "B" sounds that pepper the poem, especially the alliteration in "body," "break," and "blossom" of the final lines, all of which might suggest an energy-gathering buzz that leads to the final break. The pauses caused by enjambment set up surprising moments like the eyes that "darken with kindness." Students might hear euphony all over the poem. The repetition of "they" in the body of the poem might set up students to hear a division of some kind, or a distance, or even an increasingly attentive appreciation. (Line length is also important to listen to in this poem in particular.)
As in relation to imagery, the goal is not necessarily to locate and explicate each and every device, but to listen for those that stand out.
Students might be asked to look at the Library of Congress's Poetry 180 or the Academy of American Poets websites, or the Poetry Foundation or Representative Poetry Online websites, and choose a new poem about an animal or other aspect of the natural world, then practice a smaller version of these explicatory acts. They could print out their poem, circle the devices, and write a brief commentary about the effects of those devices. Ask them to pay special attention to the question of what is it these poets love so much or are so moved by in their subjects.
The creative goals of Activity 2 could be further explored by inviting students to set a poem to music or to film the poem, either by trying to reproduce its narrative or something more abstract.
4-5 class periods