National Poetry Month: American Originals

Dickinson | Hughes & Whitman | Frost & Brooks | Sandburg & Others | Featured Lessons | Featured Websites | About the Image

Langston Hughes stampInaugurated by the Academy of American Poets in April 1996, National Poetry Month (NPM) brings together publishers, booksellers, literary organizations, libraries, schools, and poets around the country to celebrate poetry and its vital place in American culture. This April EDSITEment is featuring lesson plans and websites that focus on the poetry of some of America’s most original poets: Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Langston Hughes, Robert Frost, and Gwendolyn Brooks.

Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson’s poetry is accessible to readers of all ages. Known for their penetrating language and the subtleties of their insights, her poems reward close attention: “The truth must dazzle gradually,” she remarks in “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.” And yet her lines can also entertain younger students with their sparkle and whimsy. This EDSITEment lesson plan for grades 3 through 5 introduces some of Dickinson’s unique qualities: “Leap, plashless”: Emily Dickinson & Poetic Imagination.”

Hughes and Whitman

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.

EDSITEment also features a lesson plan that links Langston Hughes and Walt Whitman, America’s great poet of democracy: “Walt Whitman and Langston Hughes: Poems for a Democracy.” And for those who want to delve deeper into Whitman, there are EDSITEment lessons that engage students with his notebooks: “Walt Whitman's Notebooks and Poetry: the Sweep of the Universe.” The NEH-funded American Experience can be viewed online on the American Experience website.

Frost and Brooks

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. They can also listen to an audio clip of Frost reading “The Road Not Taken” on the Academy of American Poets website.

Also featured in EDSITEment lesson plans is Gwendolyn Brooks, the Pulitzer Prize winner and former Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. Her iconic “We Real Cool” provides an occasion to examine the poet’s evocation of youthful bravado and deft exploitation of poetic technique: “The Impact of a Poem's Line Breaks: Enjambment and Gwendolyn Brooks’ “We Real Cool.” In an audio clip on the Academy of American Poets website, Brooks explains where she got the idea for her famous representation of Chicago teenagers and then gives an expressive reading of the poem.

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Carl Sandburg and Others

Another poetic evocation of Chicago emerges from the EDSITEment lesson on “Carl Sandburg’s ‘Chicago’: Bringing a Great City Alive” This lesson plan helps readers glimpse the images that informed Sandburg’s celebration of Chicago as the “City of the Big Shoulders” with links to early twentieth-century photographs and rare footage from Thomas Edison’s documentary films on the Library of Congress’s American Memory website.

Teachers looking for fresh ways to introduce poetry into the classroom will find some creative activities in two recent EDSITEment lessons, "Seeing Sense in Photographs & Poems", which features William Carlos Williams’ poem, “Danse Russe” and Animating Poetry: Reading Poems about the Natural World.

Several of the new EDSITEment Picturing America lessons also include activities that encourage students to compare the works of art to poems on the same or similar subjects. Midnight Ride of Paul Revere — Fact, Fiction, and Artistic License, the lesson on Grant Wood’s The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere,, includes an activity that encourages comparison with details of the story recounted in Longfellow’s poem “Paul Revere’s Ride.” Edward Hopper's House by the Railroad: From Painting to Poem asks students to compare Hopper’s painting to Edward Hirsch’s description of the house in his poem “Edward Hopper and the House by the Railroad.” Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series: Removing the Mask asks students to interpret Lawrence’s The Migration of the Negro Panel no. 57 by comparing the work of art to the images and symbols in Helene Johnson’s “Sonnet to a Negro in Harlem” and Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “We Wear the Mask.”

Finally the March/April 2009 issue of Humanities magazine includes an article by Carol Frost, “A Poet’s Inner Eye,” on Elizabeth Bishop’s composition of the poem “The Fish.” Elizabeth Bishop is just one of the poets featured on Voices and Visions on the EDSITEment-reviewed website, where you can view of video clip of Bishop reading her poem “One Art.” The Voices and Visions series funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities is devoted to twelve great American poets including Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens.

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Featured Lessons

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Featured Websites

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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