Poetry, in my opinion, is like a Swiss Army knife for teaching literacy. Its rhythm and repetition helps English Language Learners develop phonemic awareness, its themes challenge gifted and advanced learners, its reliance on describing experience in short, measured bursts aids struggling learners, and most secondary students connect with its similarity to song lyrics.
Every weekend, I update the poems. If you’re interested in teaching poetry, there are many free resources online to help you. Start with this search for lessons K-12 at NCTE’s Read Write Think. Next, try out the educator resources at Poets.org and the Poetry Foundation.
January 21, 2018
the lost women
i need to know their names
those women i would have walked with
jauntily the way men go in groups
swinging their arms, and the ones
those sweating women whom i would have joined
after a hard game to chew the fat
what would we have called each other laughing
joking into our beer? where are my gangs,
my teams, my mislaid sisters?
all the women who could have known me,
where in the world are their names?
From Next: New Poems by Lucille Clifton. Copyright ©1989 by Lucille Clifton.
January 13, 2018
The New Colossus
By Emma Lazarus
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eye command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
January 7, 2018
Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening
By 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.
Robert Frost, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” from The Poetry of Robert Frost, edited by Edward Connery Lathem. Copyright 1923, © 1969 by Henry Holt and Company, Inc., renewed 1951, by Robert Frost. Reprinted with the permission of Henry Holt and Company, LLC.
Source: Collected Poems, Prose, & Plays (Library of America, 1995)
December 31, 2017
It Couldn’t Be Done
By Edgar Guest
Somebody said that it couldn’t be done,
But he with a chuckle replied
That “maybe it couldn’t,” but he would be one
Who wouldn’t say so till he’d tried.
So he buckled right in with the trace of a grin
On his face. If he worried he hid it.
He started to sing as he tackled the thing
That couldn’t be done, and he did it.
Somebody scoffed: “Oh, you’ll never do that;
At least no one ever has done it”;
But he took off his coat and he took off his hat,
And the first thing we knew he’d begun it.
With a lift of his chin and a bit of a grin,
Without any doubting or quiddit,
He started to sing as he tackled the thing
That couldn’t be done, and he did it.
There are thousands to tell you it cannot be done,
There are thousands to prophesy failure;
There are thousands to point out to you one by one,
The dangers that wait to assail you.
But just buckle in with a bit of a grin,
Just take off your coat and go to it;
Just start in to sing as you tackle the thing
That “cannot be done,” and you’ll do it.
December 24, 2017
By Carol Ann Duffy
Time was slow snow sieving the night,
a kind of love from the blurred moon;
your small town swooning, unabashed,
was Winter’s own.
Snow was the mind of Time, sifting
itself, drafting the old year’s end.
You wrote your name on the window-pane
with your young hand.
And your wishes went up in smoke,
beyond where a streetlamp studied
the thoughtful snow on Christmas Eve,
as Time, snow, darkness, child, kindled.
Downstairs, the ritual lighting of the candles.
December 16, 2017
A Visit from St. Nicholas
By Clement Clark Moore
‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;
The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads;
And mamma in her ’kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just settled our brains for a long winter’s nap,
When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter.
Away to the window I flew like a flash,
Tore open the shutters and threw up the sash.
The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow
Gave the lustre of mid-day to objects below,
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer,
With a little old driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick.
More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name;
“Now, Dasher! now, Dancer! now, Prancer and Vixen!
On, Comet! on, Cupid! on, Donder and Blitzen!
To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!
Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!”
As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky;
So up to the house-top the coursers they flew,
With the sleigh full of Toys, and St. Nicholas too.
And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof
The prancing and pawing of each little hoof.
As I drew in my head, and was turning around,
Down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound.
He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot;
A bundle of Toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a pedler just opening his pack.
His eyes—how they twinkled! his dimples how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow
And the beard of his chin was as white as the snow;
The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath;
He had a broad face and a little round belly,
That shook when he laughed, like a bowlful of jelly.
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself;
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head,
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread;
He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
And filled all the stockings; then turned with a jerk,
And laying his finger aside of his nose,
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose;
He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew like the down of a thistle,
But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight,
“Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night.”
Credit: This poem is in the public domain
December 10, 2017
When Giving Is All We Have
by Alberto Rios
One river gives
Its journey to the next
We give because somebody gave to us.
We give because nobody gave to us.
We give because giving has changed us.
We give because giving could have changed us.
We have been better for it,
We have been wounded by it –
Giving has many faces: It is loud and quiet,
Big, though small, diamond in wood-nails.
Its story is old, the plot worn and the pages too,
But we read this book, anyway, over and again:
Giving is, first and every time, hand to hand
Mine to yours, yours to mine.
You gave me blue, I gave you yellow.
Together we are simple green. You gave me
What you did not have, and I gave you
What I had to give – together, we made
Something greater from the difference.
Copyright @2014 by Alberto Rios
December 2, 2017
The holiest of all holidays are those
Kept by ourselves in silence and apart;
The secret anniversaries of the heart,
When the full river of feeling overflows; –
The happy days unclouded to their close;
The sudden joys that out of darkness start
As flames from ashes; swift desires that dart
Like swallows singing down each wind that blows!
White as the gleam of a receding sail,
White as a cloud that floats and fades in air,
White as the whitest lily on a stream,
These tender memories are; – a Fairy Tale
Of some enchanted land we know not where,
But lovely as a landscape in a dream.
November 26, 2017
Perhaps the World Ends Here
By Joy Harjo
The world begins at a kitchen table. No matter what, we must eat to live.
The gifts of the earth are brought and prepared, set on the table. So it has been since creation, and it will go on.
We chase chickens or dogs away from it. Babies teethe at the corners. They scrape their knees under it.
It is here that children are given instructions on what it means to be human. We make men at it, we make women.
At this table we gossip, recall enemies and the ghosts of lovers.
Our dreams drink coffee with us as they put their arms around our children. They laugh with us at our poor falling-down selves and as we put ourselves back together once again at the table.
This table has been a house in the rain, an umbrella in the sun.
Wars have begun and ended at this table. It is a place to hide in the shadow of terror. A place to celebrate the terrible victory.
We have given birth on this table, and have prepared our parents for burial here.
At this table we sing with joy, with sorrow. We pray of suffering and remorse. We give thanks.
Perhaps the world will end at the kitchen table, while we are laughing and crying, eating of the last sweet bite.
November 18, 2017
November 11, 2017
Praise Song for the Day
October 22, 2017
Love after Love
The time will come
when, with elation,
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror,
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,
and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you
all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,
the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.
September 24, 2017
September 17, 2017
September 10, 2017
September 3, 2017
August 27, 2017
August 20, 2017
August 12, 2017
July 30, 2017
July 23, 2017
July 8, 2017
Commentary: Whitman’s poem is a visual tour of the city, but also a kind of love letter to place. As such, it is a great model for students who may wish to use it as a guide to constructing a similar poem about their city, state, or even neighborhood. Like Whitman, students may wish to research the origin or meaning of their city’s name (or even the name of the street where they live) and use it to begin a poem or descriptive paragraph. Successive stanzas describe people, seasons, and landmarks, which also suggest a directionality for student writing about a place. Finally, students may wish to pair their writing with images, in the style of early artists Sheeler and Strand.
Whitman’s poem inspired one of the first avant-garde documentaries: Manhatta, 65 shots of early 20th-Century Manhattan, features pieces of Whitman’s poem and was created through the partnership of painter Charles Sheeler and photographer Paul Strand in 1921. It was chosen for preservation as part of the National Film Registry.
July 2, 2017
Commentary: Trethewey poetically expands upon Heraclitus’ observation: “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” She also examines the power of memory, history, and place to ground us in who we used to be as well as who we are now.
Two interesting writing/discussion prompts from the poem are the lines:
“There’s no going home” and “bring only what you must carry.”
Either or both phrases talk about the necessity of leaving the familiar and deciding what is important to keep from that time and place. What home(s) have you left? What have you kept, what have you discarded?
Start at 11:50 to see and hear the author read the poem as well as provide context
June 25, 2017
Commentary: Roethke uses some technical fireworks: the villanelle form and iambic pentameter to compose his thoughts and feelings here, but you don’t need to know any of that to enjoy it. Here’s some great analysis of the poem, if you’d like to think more deeply about it, because there’s a LOT to think about.
As June closes, some schools are letting out, others have let out, graduates are thinking of the unknown path ahead, even those getting married this month can understand Roethke’s themes of awareness, anxiety, and anticipation. You may wish to try a writing exercise I’ve used with students called “writing off the line.” The instructions are simple:
- Make a copy of the poem for everyone
- Read the poem aloud twice; once to let it wash over you, the second time as if you were a piece of litmus paper waiting to react with a word or phrase
- Have students mark the words/phrases that cause a reaction in them
- Put those words at the top of a clean sheet of paper
- That’s the line to use as a jumping off point for their own thoughts
- Write for ten minutes, giving permission to write whatever comes to mind
- Have students re-read what they wrote, marking the places in their writing that they find interesting
Alternatively, have students view this video of a custodian talking about why he loves this poem. Then, use it as a springboard for their own discussion of it.
June 18, 2017
Commentary: This Rita Dove poem illustrates a scene, almost like a short video, of people waiting to board a plane. Because it’s so visual, students may sketch the scene as you read it to them. Notice the descriptions of the passengers. You may compare Dove’s visuals with actual visuals of this short scene from the ending of the film, “Love Actually.” So much poetry comes from slowing down and noticing. You may use this as a springboard for students to study a scene of people and try describing them with the same sort of empathetic noticing used by Dove. What happens when we look with understanding?
June 11, 2017
Commentary: Mary Oliver is one of my all-time favorite poets. She catches elusive and hard-to-name experiences like no other modern poet. I’ve used “The Summer Day” to teach summer school students, having them use the poem’s final question as a writing prompt. Because its imagery is so concrete, it’s a great mentor text for learners who are attempting to write their own poetry. Advanced placement students might think about the use of present tense and what that might contribute to the poem’s meaning.
June 3, 2017
May 30, 2017
May 21, 2017
May 7, 2017
May 1, 2017
April 23, 2017
April 16, 2017
April 9, 2017
April 2, 2017
March 26, 2017
March 19, 2017
March 5, 2017
by David Whyte
It doesn’t interest me if there is one God
or many gods.
I want to know if you belong or feel
if you can know despair or see it in others,
I want to know
if you are prepared to live in the world
with its harsh need
to change you. If you can look back
with firm eyes,
saying this is where I stand. I want to know if you know
how to melt into that fierce heat of living,
the center of your longing. I want to know
if you are willing
to live, day by day, with the consequence of love
and the bitter
unwanted passion of your sure defeat.
I have heard, in that fierce embrace, even
the gods speak of God.
February 26, 2017
A video of archival images that features Langston Hughes reading “I, Too”
February 19, 2017
Listen to Amanda Palmer’s amazing reading of “Protest” here:
February 12, 2017
February 5, 2017
January 28, 2017
The Gates of Hope
By Victoria Safford
Our mission is to plant ourselves at the gates of Hope — not the prudent gates of Optimism, which are somewhat narrower; nor the stalwart, boring gates of Common Sense; nor the strident gates of Self-Righteousness, which creak on shrill and angry hinges (people cannot hear us there; they cannot pass through); nor the cheerful, flimsy garden gate of “Everything is gonna be all right.” But a different, sometimes lonely place, the place of truth-telling, about your own soul first of all and its condition, the place of resistance and defiance, the piece of ground from which you see the world both as it is and as it could be, as it will be; the place from which you glimpse not only struggle, but joy in the struggle. And we stand there, beckoning and calling, telling people what we are seeing, asking people what they see.
January 22, 2017
January 15th, 2017
Image by Elijah Hail/Unsplash