I’ve been teaching English for 30 years and am always trying to figure out how to make literature intersect in young students’ lives in the 21st century. The problem is that most of the time we read old poetry and it’s hard to access. Luckily, there are modern poets still getting their point across with the same poetry techniques. Here’s ten. All of these poets are included in the new release, Stronger Than Fear: Poems of Empowerment, Compassion, and Social Justice. All of the images link to the books so you can check out some related work!
Proceeds of Stronger Than Fear will benefit the Malala Foundation
1: Mimicking is Learning and Creating
Little kids mimic their parents when they learn language. Although life gets more complicated, it is still a powerful tool for learning. When we master enough language as a child, we pick up pencils or crayons and start creating our own versions of heroes we admire. From Leonardo Da Vinci to Beethoven, all art forms have their masters who started by mimicking their teachers. Stephen Massimilla is one of those poets. The title to one of his poems speaks volumes. He admires Pablo Neruda. He studies his poetry. The Workers of Macchu Picchu: After Neruda. Try that with your students.
2. Odd Juxtaposition
“Juxtaposition” in middle school language just means “Next to.” English geeks know that, which might be why they become teachers. Poets finesse their words for maximum impact, since they don’t have as much time to get the reader’s attention. One of the simplest ways to do this is to take an adjective, noun and verbs that are radically different and put them together. Carol Alexander does just that. In one of her poems she is describing insects. One line says, No jeweled grasshopper ravages lettuce or hay. It is easy to pass by because most of the time we race by words in our social media world. However, jewels are diamonds. They symbolize power and wealth. Grasshoppers are small insects. They symbolize something small and insignificant. Ravages is a violent verb of great power. If you are a farmer, you get it. If you are not, those three very precise words add power. Have your students play with odd pairings that aren’t obvious at first sight. Let them play.
This term pops all the time in our grammar books. For your middle school students, it’s pretty easy to understand, since person is the word. Naomi Shihab Nye in her poem Two Countries does this masterfully with simple repetition and just two words. Personification, simply means assigning verbs to nouns that are not people. I know… English geeks get that. I’m writing this for your students. In Naomi’s poem she says, Skin remembers… Skin ate…Skin felt. She weaves magic because it doesn’t hit you over the head with the idea and since skin is on your body, you don’t quite notice. Try to get your students to pick an inanimate object and assign 10 verbs that only people can pull off with much power.
Volta is an Italian word that translates to Turn. The Spanish equivalent is Vuelta. There are many nuances to the literary term that shares that name but for a middle school student you might describe it as a twist. It’s a way that writers surprise the reader at the end. In a murder mystery, you don’t expect the ending when you discover who committed the crime. Poets do the same thing. Rita Dove does an incredible job of showing this to students with her poem The Breathing, the Endless News. If you get a chance check it out. It’s a powerful poem pointing toward social justice and childhood. (I don’t want to give away the ending!)
Repetition of words or ideas in a poem can become powerful. Kate Gale in Wound Care does just that when she repeats the word wound and all the places in our world where we gather them onto our bodies and souls. This poem impacts me on a personal basis, because my wife is a registered nurse who comes home everyday to explain the intricacies of actual medical wound care she must perform on her patients to aid their recovery. Have your students take a word like wound, love, or daisy and come up with a list of 10 places they see expressions of that word.
Music has power, in part, because it creates a steady rhythm. Poetry finds its early basis, in the West, in music. One simple and commanding way to create rhythm in a poem is to repeat phrases at the beginning of each line. The poem takes on a song-like quality, where you hear a choir repeat the chorus, or the back-up singers sing, Do-Wop.
Toi Derricotte creates this effect in her poem, Why I don’t write about George Floyd. To boil it down for your middle school students, it’s like every line is a sentence starter somebody wrote up on the board. The first five lines start with “Because” and followed by a simple phrase. The last five lines start with “Something is” followed by an alliterative verb that starts with the letter “s.” Read the poem. Try the technique with your students.
Enjambment is a huge word that means continues on next line. For a middle school student, just learning the finer points of grammar, a missing period in poetry could feel way above their pay grade. That coupled with modern sensibilities about poetry, not following strict forms, can add to the confusion when people are just learning. However, Reginald Dwane Bates helps us deal with the confusion when we break down his poem Prison. After a couple of readings, you can see where he uses the techniques to communicate the chaos involved in the lives of incarcerated people. There is a small jolt to the reader as they read the next line in the stanzas. Have the students be patient with the words and see if they can write their own poems about chaos, violence or struggles in their own lives.
If you are going to pour concrete, you hammer 2 x 4’s together and drive rebar into the ground. That frame is called the form. (My father-in-law was a master carpenter and taught me all things construction.) Without the form, there is no solid foundation. The challenge is that many modern poems either react against rigid forms or hide them in some fashion. Musical forms come in the shape of a concerto. Religious art form comes with the rules of an icon. Middle school students can learn about older poetry by looking at modern poets who use forms. A Sonnet is a classic form, made famous by Shakespeare in English poetry. It uses 14 total lines. 12 devise the first stanza and then the last 2 devise the heroic couplet. Molly Peacock creates a beautiful poem using the sonnet form when she writes Three Young Women. The nice thing about showing Molly’s work to students is that her English is very accessible. Once students learn about this form, they can examine a sonnet by Shakespeare. In the end, they can experiment with their own 14 lines. The form can be their training wheels. A template of sorts to gain access to poetic ideas.
An ode is a poetic form that comes in various flavors. English geeks across the globe like to obfuscate the simple purpose of some poetic terms making them difficult to teach. Simply put, an ode is a form that pays tribute, or honors people, nature, or abstract ideas (like love or justice.) It can be a powerful exercise to write something that proves you honor a person or idea. We don’t always have to have met them. That’s the power of passing language on to the next generation. Kwame Dawes with his poem, Talk does just this when he wrote a tribute to the playwright August Wilson. I admit that I am glad Kwame wrote for August Wilson to clarify who this was written for, or I might have missed the point of the poem. Anyway, this poem, and the simple attempt at writing a short poem to a person or idea you admire can also give middle school kids a way to engage with poetry.
10. Forms- Witness and Remembrance
For a middle school student maybe the word witness means a person saw a murder and is put beside a judge in court to be cross-examined by lawyers. Maybe students saw a witness on T.V. Maybe students saw a witness in person. Those definitions, however, typically leave out the emotional elements of the word. An elegy is a poetic form that, tries to express the sadness of an event, or grief surrounding a dead loved one. Many of the poems in Stronger Than Fear are elegies. The title points to the common occurrence that dictators eliminate the poets first. Extreme versions of government, through the ages don’t want to have these ideas remembered. They are bearing witness to the loss of a culture, a person. They are remembering the current tragedy in our culture, such as systemic racism or incarceration on youth. Thomas Davison does just this with his poem The Forgotten Faces. He writes of trying to teach students in jail, struggling to get a GED. For this exercise, simply have the students focus. That them try to write about a problem they see in society or a loved one that they missed.
Thanks for reading. Let me know if I can ever share other ideas. Please consider this book for your personal collection and a teaching tool. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org
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