Poetry and Visual Literacy: Extending the “Draw a Poem” Lesson

Poems are such a great resource to incorporate into the English classroom because, since they are usually fairly short, they pack a wallop of literary and poetic devices.  One such device that many teachers capitalize on is imagery.  Many students are able to literally picture the scene conveyed because the scene conveyed in the poem is so vivid.  Think back to your education:  how many times were you asked to illustrate a poem using your knowledge of imagery? The primary problem with this assignment is that it usually keeps students at the level of summary.  They are being asked to merely retell in visual form.  And while this is an excellent idea there are many extensions to this assignment that push students to fully explore the intention and meaning of the poem.  As a result, next time you are teaching a poem and want to incorporate a touch of visual literacy instead of merely asking your students to draw the poem consider asking them to…

  1. Draw individual lines instead of the poem as a whole.  If you ask them to visually annotate each line it forces them to fully examine the connotation of each word, allowing a more developed understanding of the poem.  This also allows them to think thoroughly about the way in which the poem moves and shifts.  Ask students to study the progression of their images and to consider how the images differ, thus causing them to examine the shifts in theme or tone. This could also be done by placing students in groups and giving each student in the group a different stanza.
  2. Evaluate the ways in which abstract images relate to a poem.  Sometimes I will open class by providing students with several seemingly random images.  For me, I think about themes or ideas that are present in the poem and consider images that support the themes, not the subject matter.  To do this I have begun class giving students multiple images.  Their first task is to describe the emotions or connotations of the image.  poetry word Stock Photo - 7982684For example, when teaching “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening,” by Robert Frost, I have opened class with an image of springtime/trees in bloom and most students describe a rebirth.  However, as evidenced even by the title, this poem has no reference to trees blooming; in fact, the imagery of the poem is steeped in winter.  However, the sophisticated student will be able to recognize the shift in attitude of the speaker to the final lines (“and miles to go before I sleep”).  Even though the poem is presenting the bare winter and a speaker who is isolated, there is a sense of hope and renewal at the end.  Providing students with images with no direct correlation forces them to revisit the poem and consider the ways in which the image is reflected, forcing them to think beyond their comfort zone of summary.
  3. Analyze shifts in imagery.  Finally, for more advanced classes, have the students study multiple poems from the same poet.  Then, ask them to list the images that appear within each poem.  Have the students begin to categorize the images and determine which images are key to that poet’s style.  Instead of just summarizing the poem visually, the students are beginning to recognize trends and patterns in the images provided.  This helps them better understand the style of the poet.  An extension could be providing the students with three mystery poems at the conclusion of their study and asking them to defend which poem they believe is the poet’s based on their knowledge of his/her use of imagery.  This type of an activity works well with prolific poets, like William Blake, Shakespeare, Walt Whitman, and Edgar Allan Poe.

I don’t want to claim that I have never asked students to draw their interpretation of a poem.  For some pieces (like “Red Wheelbarrow,” by William Carlos Williams), it is effective to highlight just how varied we can perceive a poem.  However, the above can help you reach the same goal but by pushing your students to do more with their visual interpretations and truly understand the intent of the poem, not just the content.

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