This blog post is part of Build Your Stack,® a new initiative focused exclusively on helping teachers build their book knowledge and their classroom libraries. It was written by NCTE member Wesley Matlock.
As much as I love working with texts that promote discussions around important themes and issues, I gravitate toward those that provide opportunities to explore the intricacies of our shared language. Maybe it’s because my background is dominated by working with English language learners, or maybe it’s because I came to appreciate the nuances of diction, punctuation, and grammar late in life. I’ve also found that drawing students’ attention to diction-level details supports discussion of thematic content. And good poetry does this best. When looking for a good poem to teach, I try to keep the following in mind:
- A poem that employs connotative diction
- A poem that is rich in evocative imagery
- A poem that is rewarding to work with at multiple levels
To that end, I’ve recently come across several gems in the public domain that I can’t wait to work with this year: “Orchard” and “The Garden” by Hilda Doolittle (H.D.), “The Maldive Shark” by Herman Melville, and “The Fish” by Marianne Moore.
H.D. has several collections available for purchase, but many of her brilliant poems are available for free through websites that host public domain texts.
In “Orchard,” H.D. presents a speaker struggling with temptation, surrounded by the vibrant, overwhelming life of an orchard. The evocative imagery and metaphors are ripe for study, and the rich, sensory diction invites discussion of definition and connotation. The conversation could be compounded by studying the Puritan ideology that H.D. was allegedly reacting against, providing opportunities for juicy discussion of desire and evil.
In “The Garden,” H.D.’s speaker admires a lone rose among the rocks as she suffers from an oppressive heat. The first part of this short poem invites study of verb forms and a discussion of possibility, and the second promotes an exploration of imagery, metaphor, and how the environment affects the speaker.
When I think of working with Melville in an educational setting, Moby-Dick and “Bartleby, the Scrivener” immediately come to mind.
However, when a colleague introduced me to “The Maldive Shark,” I knew that I now had a delightful little poem to work with. For students who are frustrated because they think all poetry represents a puzzle for unlocking grand, hidden meanings about life, this playful poem is the antidote. There are no grand themes for discussion; rather, this poem is remarkable in its use of rich and varied language to convey a natural underwater scene. The standard rhyme scheme (ABCB) conveys a light, sing-song tone perfect for introducing students to the basics of rhyme and meter, though the poem also offers some depth through metaphor and allusion.
After my first encounter with Marianne Moore’s poetry (through “Poetry,” oddly enough), I wanted more. And that’s how I found “The Fish.”
Similar to “The Maldive Shark,” the content of the poem is a lively underwater scene. This poem is an excellent chance to show students how a consistently ordered poem can use enjambment and stanza structure for creative effect. What’s more, for students who are inclined to work in a visual medium, this poem is ripe with imagery perfect for artistic representation.
Much of the poetry we need to work with can be intimidating, so finding fresh, accessible poems with literary merit can be difficult. Because of this, I am glad to have these poems on my stack of short, rewarding works for middle and high schoolers to access poetry.
Wesley Matlock is Managing Editor at eNotes.com and an avid reader of whatever he can get his hands on. Before life in editing and publishing, he spent many years teaching English Language Arts from Moscow, Russia, to Seattle, Washington. He has presented at EFL conferences in Moscow, Prague, and Rome, all in service to advocating for student-centered learning experiences. He now works with a great team of literature enthusiasts who seek to make reading and teaching literature as enjoyable and rewarding as possible.