An Introduction to Poetry: Five Poems

Teaching and learning resources for a selection of poems

For students who don’t have a lot of experience with poetry analysis, I usually start with this poetry packet. It includes a logical progression of a variety of poems, both traditional and modern, along with information about the SOAPSTone method for interpreting poems. Poetry should be an auditory experience, so I prefer to either read each poem aloud myself as a model before having students read it out loud, or have students read each poem silently first to familiarize themselves with it before they read it aloud.

The Poems

Introduction to Poetry” by Billy Collins serves as a kind of icebreaker, helping students understand that reading a poem should be an enjoyable exercise of one’s imagination rather than an unpleasant effort to extract the “correct” interpretation from it. In the spirit of the poem, I try to take a relatively relaxed, unstructured approach to discussing it with students.

As a short traditional poem with a regular meter and rhyme scheme that involves relatively straightforward interpretation, Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “The Eagle” is a good next step, and an appropriate opportunity to introduce the SOAPSTone method.

Modernist poetry, characterized by techniques such as free verse, presents a radically different approach to poetry. William Carlos Williams’s “The Great Figure” is an excellent, representative example of modernist poetry that isn’t overwhelming for inexperienced students.

Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” a poem that combines traditional and modernist elements, is a logical follow-up to the first three poems. The step-by-step revelation of a deeper meaning behind the poem than most students initially suspect also illustrates one of the rewards of reading poetry.

An introductory collection of poems would be incomplete without a Shakespearean sonnet. “Sonnet 29” poses interesting interpretive puzzles, but with good notes and a teacher’s guidance, it is not overly challenging.

Additional Resources

After reading and discussing these poems, students should have the basic knowledge and tools to begin analyzing more challenging poems with some guidance and start reading (and hopefully enjoying!) poems on their own. I encourage my students to go beyond the traditional canon represented in this packet and explore the diverse world of poetry. Some of my personal favorites are Mei Yaochen, Sylvia Plath, Eavan Boland, and Sherman Alexie. Song lyrics can also be the source of some of the most interesting poetry to discuss with students.

In teaching this packet, I introduce some technical poetic terms, but in order to prevent students from feeling overwhelmed, I don’t place too much emphasis on memorizing them. However, I have included links to some helpful resources for learning and memorizing such terms. The Poetry Foundation’s gargantuan Glossary of Poetic Terms is an exhaustive and detailed list; Dr. Donna Campbell’s briefer list on the Washington State University website is more useful as a starting point, and it includes a link to a quiz on the terms. You can also study the terms on Quizlet here.

I’ve also linked a discussion of the modernist movement in poetry that provides some historical context for the Williams and Frost poems in this packet.

Introduction to Poetry

Billy Collins

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with a rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

Think about who the speaker of this poem probably is, as well as whom the speaker is talking about, and give some thought to the meaning of the figurative descriptions of poetry reading in each stanza. What might it mean, for example, to “hold [a poem] up to the light like a color slide”? In what way(s) could a poem be like a beehive, or a maze, or a lake? (Don’t worry about getting it “right”—the idea here is to simply let your imagination roam freely and try to have fun with it.) Consider the attitude the speaker has to poetry and how that attitude contrasts with the attitude of the people he’s talking about.

The SOAPSTone method, introduced in the next section, may help you with this process.

Related Resources

The Poetry Foundation: Billy Collins (Biography, selected poems, related content)

Billy Collins Talks About His Poetry (NPR)

The Apple That Astonished Paris
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The Eagle

Alfred, Lord Tennyson

He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ring’d with the azure world, he stands.

The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls.

To help you identify the important elements of the poem and better understand its meaning and purpose, remember the “SOAPSTone” method. For any given poem, some of these elements may not be easily identifiable or particularly important in understanding its meaning, but it is often helpful to think about them anyway.

Speaker: the person (perhaps imaginary) from whose point of view the poem is written; the person delivering the poem as distinct from the author

Occasion: the situation (a specific event or a general motivating factor) that prompted the poem and/or for which it was written

Audience: the person or people to whom the poem is addressed

Purpose: the reason why the poet wrote the poem and/or why the speaker is delivering the poem

Subject: the topic of the poem; what the poem is about

Tone: the attitude that the speaker expresses toward the subject

Questions for Discussion and Writing

1. Describe the structure and form of the poem (e.g. meter, rhyme scheme, number and length of stanzas). How do the author’s structural choices contribute to the effect of the poem, especially when it is read aloud?

2. What sound devices occur in the poem, and what is their effect?

3. What is the dominant rhetorical device used throughout the poem to describe the eagle? What effect does the use of this device have—how does it help us understand the speaker’s attitude toward and conception of the eagle? Cite specific examples of its usage.

4. What do you think the “azure world” is? (“Azure” is a fancy word for “blue.”) Why do you think the speaker describes the eagle as being “close to the sun” and “ring’d with the azure world”—what feeling toward the eagle do these descriptions evoke?

5. What rhetorical device is used in line 4, and what effect does it have?

6. What rhetorical device is used in line 6, and what effect does it have?

Related Resources

The Poetry Foundation: Alfred, Lord Tennyson (Biography, selected poems, related content)

Alfred Tennyson: The Major Works
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The Great Figure

William Carlos Williams

Among the rain
and lights
I saw the figure 5
in gold
on a red
moving tense
to gong clangs
siren howls
and wheels rumbling
through the dark city.

Obviously, this poem is much different from what many people imagine when they think of poetry. Think about the characteristics that distinguish this poem, and consider the effect of those characteristics. The form and style of this poem are closely related to its meaning. Read it aloud to get a sense of how the sound of the poem contributes to its effect. What do you think is the purpose of the poem? In this case, perhaps that is a more helpful approach to understanding the poem than focusing directly on its meaning.

Related Resources

The Poetry Foundation: William Carlos Williams (Biography, selected poems, related content)

Imagism (Wikipedia)

Early Poems
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Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

Robert Frost

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village, though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Although this poem seems rather simple and traditional, it has a deeper meaning that is expressed in a subtle and sophisticated way. In interpreting it, pay close attention to imagery—it is a major clue to the poem’s meaning.

Give some thought to the significance of Frost’s devoting an entire stanza to the anonymous owner of the woods.

Think about the horse’s reaction to the situation and what this implies.

Consider possible non-literal interpretations of the last two lines, and the significance of this repetition.

Think carefully about the tone of the poem in terms of both the poem’s meaning and the narrator’s attitude.

Related Resources

The Poetry Foundation: Robert Frost (Biography, selected poems, related content)

YouTube videos:
Robert Frost Reading “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”
A Lover’s Quarrel with the World (1963 Documentary)

Audio recordings:
Listen to Robert Frost Read His Poems (Smithsonian)
Robert Frost Interview with Randall Jarrell (Library of Congress)

A Conversation with Robert Frost (NBC)
Transcript | YouTube

Robert Frost: Collected Poems, Prose, and Plays (Library of America)
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Sonnet 29

William Shakespeare

When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless¹ cries,
And look upon myself, and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured² like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man’s art, and that man’s scope³,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts my self almost despising,
Haply⁴ I think on thee, and then my state⁵,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

¹ futile
² “having features”
³ breadth of knowledge or ability
⁴ by chance or by luck
⁵ situation; condition

The sonnet is an important traditional poetic form. The characteristics of sonnets include the following:

  • Iambic pentameter (each line has five pairs of unstressed and stressed syllables)
  • A length of fourteen lines
  • A definite rhyme scheme (for Shakespearean sonnets: abab cdcd efef gg)
  • A focus on classic themes such as love and mortality
  • Strong emotional content
  • Emphatic imagery and sharp contrasts
  • Distinct stages and shifts in tone
  • A final rhyming couplet that often sums up the theme of the poem

Note how this poem’s form and content fit this pattern, and apply some of the elements of the SOAPSTone method to the poem: Who is the speaker? Whom is he addressing? What do you think is the purpose of the poem? Think about the speaker’s attitude (tone) and the change it undergoes toward the end of the poem.

Related Resources

Sonnet 29: Poem and Discussion Questions (More detailed questions about the poem)

Reading Shakespeare: A Primer

The Poetry Foundation: William Shakespeare (Biography, selected poems, related content)

Discovering Literature: Shakespeare and Renaissance (British Library)

Shakespeare’s Sonnets (MIT)

Shakespeare’s Sonnets and Poems (Folger)
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Notes and questions © 2008-2011 C. Brantley Collins, Jr.