PoemsStudy materials and links to resources about English-language poetry
These online resources and books should be helpful to students and teachers alike: anyone who wants to understand poetry better, and anyone who wants to know how to teach poetry more effectively.
The Poetry Foundation: Publishers of Poetry magazine, the Poetry Foundation features detailed biographies of many poets, a vast library of poems, and many related resources for those interested in poetry. Its Educators page is of particular interest for teachers, and its Browse Poems page is a powerful tool for finding poems that fit various criteria such as topic, form, and school/period. (Representative Poetry Online is also a good website for finding poems representing different movements, forms, periods, etc.)
The Academy of American Poets: This group of poets and poetry advocates publishes American Poets magazine. Its website boasts a tremendous assortment of resources for poets, readers of poetry, teachers, and students. See its Materials for Teachers page.
Glossary of Poetic Terms (The Poetry Foundation): An exhaustive and detailed list of poetic terms.
Poetry Terms: Brief Definitions (WSU): A less comprehensive glossary of terms by Dr. Donna Campbell of Washington State University, more suitable for general use by teachers and students.
Poetry at Harvard (Harvard University): Harvard’s Glossary of Poetic Genres is useful for learning to distinguish among an aubade and a dirge and many other genres of poetry. Study this list on Quizlet here. Other useful resources on Harvard’s website:
The Penguin Book of English Verse: A vast collection of English poems spanning seven centuries, arranged chronologically, not by author. Useful for anyone interested in reading important poems and poets and discovering new ones. Note that the critical reviews on Amazon focus on the formatting of the Kindle version, not the contents of the book itself.
A Poetry Handbook (Mary Oliver): Subtitled “A Prose Guide to Understanding and Writing Poetry,” this book teaches lessons for both readers and writers using examples of outstanding poetry.
How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry (Edward Hirsch): A noted poet and critic, Hirsch explores the beauty and importance of poetry, teaching readers how to understand and appreciate outstanding poems from a diverse group of poets.
A Poet’s Glossary (Edward Hirsch): Described as a “compilation of forms, devices, groups, movements, isms, aesthetics, rhetorical terms, and folklore,” this reference guide draws on poetry traditions from all over the world. Hirsch has also released a condensed version of this book called The Essential Poet’s Glossary, which may be sufficient for the needs of most teachers and students.
The Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms: Edited by celebrated poets Eavan Boland and Mark Strand, this collection of poems and commentary teaches lessons on poetry by focusing on poetic forms, such as sonnets, ballads, and sestinas.
Each of the poems posted on Camilla’s English Page features notes and questions designed to help students through the process of exploring and interpreting the poem. I occasionally put together small poetry packets based on subject, theme, or genre, including the ones below:
For students who don’t have a lot of experience with poetry, I usually start with my packet An Introduction to Poetry: Five Poems, with classic poems by Billy Collins, Alfred Tennyson, William Carlos Williams, Robert Frost, and good ol’ Bill Shakespeare. The packet helps students learn how to engage with a variety of poetry styles.
Poems About Science features poems by Edgar Allan Poe, Emily Dickinson, and Robinson Jeffers, each with a very different approach to the “problem of science”: the ramifications of its truths for humankind. In what ways do scientific progress and the scientific mindset affect us socially and individually?
Selected Poems by Poet
For the poems listed below, I have written commentary and/or study questions to guide students through the process of interpreting each poem. Each image is a link to a collection of the poet’s work on Amazon; in most cases the linked book contains the poem or poems I’ve selected for my students.
In addition to being one of the most revered figures in American poetry, Maya Angelou did just about everything it is possible for someone working in the arts to do. She was also an educator and an outspoken political activist. Her popular poem “Caged Bird” lent its title to her most famous work, the critically acclaimed autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
In The Canterbury Tales, a motley crew of pilgrims tell stories to entertain one another as they journey to Canterbury. Although Geoffrey Chaucer never finished writing it, his intention was that the teller of the best tale would be treated to a meal by the rest of the group; the telling of the tales was a kind of contest. In reading the poem, we can evaluate the tales he did write to decide for ourselves which one we think is best. I wrote these Thoughts on The Canterbury Tales to help my students explore the various criteria by which the tales might be evaluated and to measure the strengths and weaknesses of several of them.
Billy Collins, a former Poet Laureate of the United States, has been called “America’s favorite poet.” His poem “Introduction to Poetry” is exactly what it says—a good starting point for learning how to enjoy poetry, as well as a memorable poem in its own right—so I decided to begin my Introduction to Poetry: Five Poems packet with it.
Emily Dickinson is considered one of America’s greatest poets. An iconoclast and freethinker, she did not publish any of her poems during her lifetime, but they quickly achieved great popularity upon publication, beginning four years after her death in 1886. 185 is a pithy, incisive poem; it is also included in Poems About Science.
Robert Frost is generally considered one of the greatest American poets. The book on the left is a highly-rated collection of some of his most beloved and memorable poems. I like to discuss a number of his poems with my students: “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” “Acquainted With the Night,” “Take Something Like a Star,” and “For Once, Then, Something.” “Stopping by Woods” is included in my Introduction to Poetry packet.
The late Irish poet Seamus Heaney won the 1995 Nobel Prize in Literature and is regarded as one of the most important English-language poets of the twentieth century. “Mid-Term Break,” an autobiographical poem about the death of his younger brother, Christopher, is an understated and devastating portrayal of that experience.
Langston Hughes, a writer of everything from essays to novels, was called the poet laureate of Harlem and was a major figure in the Harlem Renaissance. In his writings he sought to portray the lives of African Americans realistically, and though his work often went unappreciated by critics, he was enormously popular. “Mother to Son” is one of his most famous poems.
Robinson Jeffers, a 20th-century American poet, was an insightful prophet of the consequences of civilization for humanity. Two of his poems (“The Purse-Seine” and “Hurt Hawks“) are featured in my handout Nature and Civilization. His poem “Science” is also included in my handout Poems About Science. The book pictured here is a relatively inexpensive collection of many of his essential poems.
Mei, Yaochen (梅尧臣 or 梅堯臣)
Several years ago, through my interest in Mandarin and Chinese literature, I discovered a Song Dynasty poet featured in David Hinton’s Classical Chinese Poetry: An Anthology (highly recommended) whose poetry immediately captivated me: Mei Yaochen. His poems are rich in meaning, sensitive, and surprisingly “modern” in that they flout many of the conventions of classical poetry in both style and content. I wrote a blog post about his poetry, and I’ve also put together a handout for several of the poems in Hinton’s book: Discussion and Writing Prompts for Poems by Mei Yaochen.
Killed at the age of 25 while fighting for the British army in World War I, Wilfred Owen left behind a powerful poetic legacy despite his short life. Most of his poems reflect his his hatred of war—and of the propaganda used to encourage young men to go off to war—that resulted from his experiences. The haunting “Dulce et Decorum Est” exemplifies the realism of his descriptions of the horrors of war.
Although in theory I object to the idea of ranking art or artists, Sylvia Plath might be my favorite poet. Her poetic voice is uniquely imaginative, insightful, and haunting. Those who like her poetry might also be interested in her critically acclaimed autobiographical novel The Bell Jar. Two of her poems that I have discussed with my students are “Two Campers in Cloud Country” and “Mirror.”
Although generally thought of primarily as a playwright, William Shakespeare was also a fantastically gifted poet; in fact, a great deal of the content of his plays was written in verse rather than prose. In addition to the verse in his plays, he also wrote 154 sonnets. One of my favorites, and one that I think serves as an effective introduction to sonnets, is Sonnet 29. It is also included in my poetry packet An Introduction to Poetry: Five Poems.
Shelley, Percy Bysshe
Also known as the husband of Frankenstein author Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Percy Bysshe Shelley is one of the best known English Romantic poets. “Ozymandias” is a favorite of many teachers and students and has appeared in major works of popular culture such as Watchmen and Breaking Bad.
The popular Victorian poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote a simple but memorable poem called “The Eagle” that I like to discuss with my less experienced students because it doesn’t present any particularly difficult interpretive puzzles, and it provides clear examples of a number of rhetorical and poetic devices. It is included in my Introduction to Poetry packet.
Williams, William Carlos
The American physician/poet William Carlos Williams was one of the major figures in the 20th-century imagist movement. He wrote simple, free-verse poems stripped of the flowery, ornate language often associated with poetry. “The Great Figure” reflects this characteristic style and is one of his best-known poems. It is also included in my poetry packet An Introduction to Poetry: Five Poems.