An Introduction to Poetry: Five PoemsTeaching 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.
“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.
For each of these poems, I also have a separate page and PDF with more specific and detailed questions about the poem. (See the “Related Resources” boxes for links to these pages.) For their first experiences with poetry analysis, it may be fruitful to guide students in a more unstructured, organic way as discussion of these poems unfolds. However, the more structured questions on those pages may also be helpful.
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 stimulating and relatable poetry to discuss with students.
In teaching the poems in 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.
See the main Poems page on this site for much more.
Introduction to Poetry
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.
“Introduction to Poetry”: Poem and Discussion Questions (More detailed questions about the poem)
The Poetry Foundation: Billy Collins (Biography, selected poems, related content)
The Best Cigarette: Poems read by Collins, free for noncommercial use
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 a poem and better understand its meaning, remember the “SOAPSTone” method:
Speaker: the person (perhaps imaginary) from whose point of view the poem is written; the person delivering the poem (often 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 (i.e., readers or listeners) and/or the person or people to whom the speaker is talking directly within the poem
Purpose: the reason why the poet wrote the poem and/or why the speaker is delivering the poem; the poem’s “message”
Subject: the topic of the poem; the primary thing that the poem is about
Tone: the attitude that the speaker expresses toward the subject; the speaker’s emotional (and perhaps moral) point of view
Note that for any given poem, some of these elements may not be easily identifiable or particularly important in understanding its meaning—for example, the speaker may be abstract or have no direct “presence” in the poem, or the occasion may be impossible to identify as anything other than an abstract motivating factor. However, it is often illuminating to give some thought to each of these elements anyway.
Another guideline to keep in mind is that these elements are sometimes complex; in some poems, for example, the audience may be thought of as both readers or listeners and as a “character” that the speaker is directly addressing within the poem.
If you can identify these distinct elements and see how they are related to each other, you are well on your way to developing a solid interpretation of the poem.
Now apply the SOAPSTone method to “The Eagle.” For this poem, focus on subject, tone, and purpose more than speaker, occasion, and audience, which are more abstract and not as critical in developing an interpretation of the poem. What is the poem about, and what attitude is the abstract speaker expressing toward it? Based on these factors, what can you say about the poem’s purpose?
In addition to these elements, take some time to consider the form of the poem (structure, meter, rhyme scheme, number and length of stanzas). Read it aloud and listen to it. How do these aspects of the poem contribute to its effect?
Finally, think about the use of rhetorical devices in the poem such as simile, personification, and anthropomorphism. (See the lists of poetry terms above for help.) How do these elements of the poem contribute to its effect? Cite specific examples and explain them.
The Great Figure
William Carlos Williams
Among the rain
I saw the figure 5
on a red
to gong clangs
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.
“The Great Figure”: Poem and Discussion Questions (More extensive notes and questions)
The Poetry Foundation: William Carlos Williams (Biography, selected poems, related content)
Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening
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.
“Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”: Poem and Discussion Questions (More detailed questions about the poem)
The Poetry Foundation: Robert Frost (Biography, selected poems, related content)
Robert Frost Reading “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”
A Lover’s Quarrel with the World (1963 Documentary)
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.
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.
“Sonnet 29”: Poem and Discussion Questions (More detailed questions about the poem)
The Poetry Foundation: William Shakespeare (Biography, selected poems, related content)
Discovering Literature: Shakespeare and Renaissance (British Library)
Shakespeare’s Sonnets (MIT)