Strategies for Understanding Challenging Poems

I like to fancy myself a good reader.  However, I whole-heartedly admit that poetry is tough.  It creates doubt in readers.  We are constantly doubting whether we really understand a poem or not.  Even something that seems “easy” to understand, like “My Papa’s Waltz,” ends up sending even the strongest reader into a quiver.  If I find myself a self conscious reader when studying a poem I can’t imagine how overwhelming it is for struggling readers. 

But Robert Pinsky is right in his article titled “What Makes Poetry Difficult“:  just because a poem is tough doesn’t mean we should shirk away from it or give our students alternative texts.  Instead, this gives us the opportunity to push students and enable them to feel the rewards of conquering a challenge.  There is a lot more to be learned when studying a difficult poem instead of replacing it with something easier.  While it might be easier to spend 25 minutes analyzing a song to prepare for a 10 minute lesson on a William Blake poem, we are doing our students a disservice if we allow them to shy away from the really tough stuff.

As teachers, to help build lifelong readers we have to minimize these challenging reading experiences and give our students tools to use to navigate through challenging texts.  We need to identify what makes a poem hard and try to balance that through activities that break through the blockage.  Below are traits found in difficult poems and ways to help students traverse difficult texts, especially poetry.

  1. trait to inhibit comprehension:  the length of the poem.  A long poem is daunting to even the strongest reader.  While I think we all recognize that a poem like “The Wasteland,” by T.S. Elliot, might overwhelm the students in length, even shorter poems like “The Tyger,” by William Blake, could help serve students who find poetry off-putting.  Give the students one stanza at a time and ask them to begin with main idea/content.  Then, ask them to determine the tone and make predictions about a theme or argument.
  2. trait to inhibit comprehension:  complex style.  Breaking up the poem into stanzas or segments allow students to also recognize style, something that might often intimidate students.  An extension of the above activity is to ask students to determine the order of the stanzas.  This would work really well with Dylan Thomas’ poem “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” because of the amount of repeated lines and phrases.  It forces students to examine the content and tone and make predictions about the structure.  Even if they don’t choose the correct order, asking students to recognize the natural shifts is an analytical skill important for the reading of any text.
  3. trait to inhibit comprehension:  archaic word choice.  A lot of students are initially intimidated by a poem with “big” words.  However, breaking the poem up by lines really helps to diminish this.  One of my favorite poems to use for this activity is “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”  When I read the poem from beginning to end my mind swirls.  His allusions, repetition, and comparisons become overwhelming and I’m left with just a generic summary.  The same is true with students.  However, give me one line from “Prufrock” and I can find meaning in it.  Give me another line from “Prufrock” and I can find meaning in it.  As the lines build, so does my comprehension.  Consider doing the same with your students.  As they walk into the room give them one line from the poem and 5 minutes to analyze and paraphrase every word in it.  Then, conduct a type of guided reading by projecting each line and asking the students who had the line describe it before moving onto the next line.

While they might not run up and down the hallways begging for more poetry, these reading strategies will help students learn how to unpack difficult texts on their own with more ease.

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