April is National Poetry Month, the perfect time to help get reluctant readers interested in reading and analyzing poetry. It is often true that high school students struggle with poetry and have difficulty unlocking the meaning of poems. This introductory lesson helps to hook students on poetry by challenging them to solve the riddle that each poem presents. It's a great building block to more difficult and challenging analysis.
The first poem I use is Sylvia Plath's "Metaphors":
I'm a riddle in nine syllables,
An elephant, a ponderous house,
A melon strolling on two tendrils.
O red fruit, ivory, fine timbers!
This loaf's big with its yeasty rising.
Money's new-minted in this fat purse.
I'm a means, a stage, a cow in calf.
I've eaten a bag of green apples,
Boarded the train there's no getting off.
Most students have no idea what this poem is about, but I ask them to write down their thoughts rather than calling them out. If someone does get the meaning, I ask them to sit tight before discussing. The next thing I do is to ask the students to examine the title and then to begin identifying the metaphors in the poem: riddle, elephant, melon, fruit, loaf, etc. At this point, I check in again â most students notice that what several of the metaphors have in common is that they are large.
Next, I point out to the students the importance of numbers and colors in poetry. In this poem, the number nine is significant: there are nine lines, and each line has nine syllables. I ask the students if the number nine has any meaning in their lives. Most students mention the nine lives of a cat, but since this has no relevancy to the poem, it must be discarded. Usually one of the students will suggest "nine months." Shortly after that, most students understand that the speaker in the poem is a pregnant woman talking about the experience of pregnancy.
Once the students nail "Metaphors," they are anxious to continue with the process. The next poem up for analysis is "The Computation" by John Donne. This is an older poem and a bit more challenging.
For my first twenty years, since yesterday,
I scarce believed thou couldst be gone away,
For forty more, I fed on favours past,
And forty on hopes, that thou wouldst, they might last.
Tears drown'd one hundred, and sighs blew out two,
A thousand, I did neither think, nor do,
Or not divide, all being one thought of you;
Or in a thousand more, forgot that too.
Yet call not this long life; but think that I
Am, by being dead, immortal; can ghosts die?
Students are usually very baffled by this poem. The first question I ask is "Who is the speaker?" Most students understand that the speaker is someone who is missing his/her lover â but how long has the lover been gone? Is the lover dead? Once again, I ask students to examine the title. What is a computation? Most students move on to the next step themselves: adding up the numbers in the poem, which are listed in an increasing sequence: 20, 40, 40, 100, 200, 1000, 1000, totaling 2400. Hmm? What is going on? Bam! Most students quickly realize that the speaker's lover has been gone only one day (24 hours), but it metaphorically feels like 2400.
At this point, the students can't wait for the next poem to analyze, which is "It sifts from Leaden Sieves" by Emily Dickinson.
It sifts from Leaden Sieves â
It powders all the Wood.
It fills with Alabaster Wool
The Wrinkles of the Road â
It makes an Even Face
Of Mountain and of Plain â
Unbroken Forehead from the East
Unto the East again â
It reaches to the Fence â
It wraps it Rail by Rail
Till it is lost in Fleeces â
It deals Celestial Vail
To Stump, and Stack â and Stem â
A Summer's empty Room â
Acres of Joints, where Harvests were,
Recordless, but for them â
It Ruffles Wrists of Posts
As Ankles of a Queen â
Then stills its Artisans â like Ghosts â
Denying they have been â
The major question here is what "it" is. Most students today will not know what "sieves" are, so the dictionaries must come out. Next, we look at what "it" does â it sifts, it powders, it fills, it ruffles, etc. This is a major clue, and sometimes students are able to solve the riddle right at this point. If not, I ask students what time of year it might be and how they would know. Gradually, students do eventually figure out what "it" is, and they more fully understand the poem.
"To His Coy Mistress" by Andrew Marvell is a bit more difficult, so I usually have students work in groups to analyze this poem.
Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, lady, were no crime.
We would sit down and think which way
To walk, and pass our long love's day;
Thou by the Indian Ganges' side
Shouldst rubies find: I by the tide
Of Humber would complain. I would
Love you ten years before the Flood;
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews.
My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires, and more slow;
An hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes and on thy forehead gaze;
Two hundred to adore each breast,
But thirty thousand to the rest;
An age at least to every part,
And the last age should show your heart.
For, lady, you deserve this state,
Nor would I love at lower rate.
But at my back I always hear
Time's winged chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
Thy beauty shall no more be found,
Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound
My echoing song: then worms shall try
That long preserv'd virginity,
And your quaint honour turn to dust,
And into ashes all my lust:
The grave's a fine and private place,
But none I think do there embrace.
Now therefore, while the youthful hue
Sits on thy skin like morning dew,
And while thy willing soul transpires
At every pore with instant fires,
Now let us sport us while we may,
And now, like am'rous birds of prey,
Rather at once our time devour
Than languish in his slow-chapp'd power.
Let us roll all our strength and all
Our sweetness up into one ball,
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Thorough* the iron gates of life:
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.
Before they begin, I explain that at the time the poem was written, the word "mistress" meant "virgin," and that the word "coy" meant "modest." I then ask the students to break the three stanzas down into outline form, finishing these three sentences for each stanza:
It will take the groups a little while, but eventually they do realize that this is really a seduction poem, which could be broken down into three sentences: If we had all the time in the world, your modesty would not be an issue, but we don't because time is always chasing us down. Therefore, we should have sex NOW! Students get quite a kick out of this poem, and the shortened analysis compels them to look at the language of the poem much more deeply.
These four poems are a great way to get reluctant students interested in analyzing poetry. For other great poems to explore, try The Best Poems Ever or Poetry Lessons: Everything You Need: A Mentor Teacher's Lessons and Select Poems That Help You Meet the Standards Across the Curriculum â and Teach Poetry With Confidence and Joy.
Once students realize how much fun it is to examine and explore poetry, they will more than likely want to try their hand at the craft. Stepping Sideways Into Poetry Writing: Practical Lessons provides teachers with helpful tools for teaching students the "how to" and "heart of" writing poetry. Students can then publish their poems online.