Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Poetry is the Best! Analyzing Poems, Painlessly

The following post is an excerpt from my upcoming teaching memoir, "Too Cool for School." Copyright, Elizabeth Collins.

If The Teacher Can Learn to Love Poetry, Then So Can You…

            When I first began teaching poetry, I did it because I had to, because it was part of the curriculum. The kids had been told, by the school, to purchase a fat orange Heath poetry textbook (chosen by a previous teacher; I don’t even know who it was), and I needed a solid unit over the course of the school year to justify its near-$100 cost.
            That first year or two, I felt distinctly uneasy teaching poetry. I felt that I just didn’t know enough, that I didn’t, personally, like poetry enough, that I was frankly sick of that white-gowned weirdo and American Lit staple, Emily Dickinson.
            Now, she speaks to me, now I get her brilliance (one line, in particular, I dwell in Possibility, truly resonates with my life right now):
I dwell in Possibility-- 
A fairer House than Prose-- 

More numerous of Windows-- 

Superior--for Doors--
Of Chambers as the Cedars-- 

Impregnable of Eye-- 

And for an Everlasting Roof

The Gambrels of the Sky--
Of Visitors--the fairest—

For Occupation--This—

The spreading wide my narrow Hands 

To gather Paradise—
            As the years passed, I realized that poetry (and also the short story, which I have always loved---I loved teaching the short story, assigning short stories to be read and writing the short story, or having my class trying to write short stories) is an amazing vehicle and resource for an English teacher.  I came to love poetry almost best of all the works that I taught, like a child that might actually be your favorite, but it wouldn’t be right to admit.
            My favorite short story, “The Twa Corbies” by Carolyn Cooke, told in the voice of an elderly, former teacher, discusses the power of poems—and the memory of one’s own power as bestowed by the recitation of poems. The narrator recounts how he would stand at a lectern, teaching literature and (gasp!) smoking. This was, of course, decades ago. “…Poems, cigarettes…” he says as he remembers, rather dreamily, these two once-loved, now abandoned, indulgences.
            I hate cigarettes (though I used to love them), but I can sincerely relate to the sentiment in “The Twa Corbies,” the longing for the good old days of passion intertwined with literature, the deep, abiding love that a devoted academic has for the written word, for any beauty conveyed through writing.
            Poetry is--as I explained to my students after my enthusiasm for it built up and I felt myself becoming defter, looser---playing with language. It’s a puzzle, a game. It’s fun. It’s beautiful, and it’s magical, too.
            Being assigned a poem to write about is an actually a profound opportunity, I told my students. Dissecting a poem is NOT like doing a math problem (oddly, to me, my students almost universally proclaimed a preference for math “because there’s only one correct answer.”) 
            Poetry is much cooler than math, I tried to explain, because there is room around a poem, room for reasoning and even room for error.
            What’s so great about black and white, right and wrong? Nothing, in my opinion. Black and white sucks! Better, I think, to have the world wide open to you, to explore your options, to create new ideas or come to startling, unique discoveries and conclusions.
            Poetry lets us do that. There is not necessarily a correct answer when it comes to a poem. We don’t, after all, know in most cases what a poet intended his or her poem to mean. The point of poetry is that it can mean more than one thing; it can mean different things to different people. All of that is fine, and it’s what makes poetry full of wonders.
            Meaning fluctuates for the individual, just as the weather does in different parts of the country. We all feel something different, and yet the elements—the wind, the precipitation, the sunshine---are the same. There is an essential, similar truth that every careful reader of a given poem will grasp.
            To help my students figure out what poems might mean—to them and to others--I taught a system that I learned in AP teacher-training workshops, particularly in one on English Literature taught by master teacher, Mary Filak, in a CollegeBoard seminar at Drew University (thank you, Mary, for everything you taught me about how to approach AP and how to convey meaning in literature to my students!).
            This system is called TP-CASTT (an acronym for the parts of a poem that students/teachers need to focus on to start dredging up the meaning and to enhance understanding). I find TP-CASTT tremendously useful for comprehending poetry and starting to come to some ideas about meaning, metaphors, and message.
            All poems need to be read and then quickly analyzed by thinking about Title, Paraphrase, Connotation, Attitude, Shift, Themes and (again) Title. Deeper discussion and interpretation can come after this initial work is done, after this first analysis starts pulling away the layers of the poem.
            Here’s how it works: after reading a couple of times, perhaps both aloud and silently, students get to work breaking down the poem by examining the following parts of the poem--
            T (Title)           
            This is the student’s initial impression of the poem, important only insofar as it serves to later show her/him not to solely rely on the first impression! The end point of TP-CASTT (the second consideration of the title) is more important, but the first glance can be interesting and demonstrate to students that they need to think about titles in more depth.
            P (Paraphrase)           
            Putting a poem in one’s own words and learning how to summarize is a thinking skill. It may not be useful in a literary analysis, but it helps to force the student to think about what is going on in the poem. Ultimately, however, it is not the “plot” of the poem that is most important; it is the use of language.
            C (Connotation)           
            In order to analyze connotation (what the words make you think of, what images and ideas are conjured up), diction (the words) has to be the focus. Students should circle words that jump out at them in the poem and then work for a minute trying to explain the images that the words evoke. For example, in Seamus Heaney’s “Blackberry Picking,” words such as “clot,” and “Bluebeard” connote blood, lust, looting, and greed.
            A (Attitude)
            Attitude in a poem is the same as tone. It is also hugely important. Based on the diction, students should get a sense of whether a not a poem is happy or sad, brooding and funereal or whimsical, thoughtful, idealistic. See how I used fancy adjectives there? Students should begin with the basic idea—good or bad—and then progress to trying to select truly apt and impressive words to describe the poem’s tone.
            S (Shift)
            Sometimes, a poem starts out one way and then, by the end, seems completely different. There is often a shift; have students mark where the shift happens. It’s important to note because a quick glance at a poem may initially lead one to the wrong, ultimate idea. Students need to pay attention to all parts of a poem!
            T (Themes)
            Themes are the messages about life and what it means to be human that come from the poem, or other work of literature, and that resonate with the reader. What is the point of the poem? What is it saying? How is this useful to the reader, as a human? Does the poem, for example, contain the warning that people should simply enjoy what they have and not try to hoard things (as in “Blackberry Picking”) because there is no point; there will only be ruin, waste and regret? Students should consider what they have learned from a poem, what it seems to be telling them, and think about whether this lesson is, in fact, a theme. Is there more than one theme? There certainly can be; students can brainstorm themes and bounce ideas off one another in a group brainstorming session.
            T (Title)
            Yes, students should consider the final idea conveyed by the title (they do this twice—just in case the possible meaning of the title has changed in the student’s mind after the basic analysis work of the other parts of TP-CASTT).

            What makes a poem scary is the initial view of it, I think. It’s like staring down a ski slope you skied to accidentally, one you don’t think you have the skills to handle. How are you going to get down? Will it be fun or a nightmare? Will you hurt yourself? Will people laugh at you? Will you have to go hide in the lodge after this, nursing your wounds and a stiff, hot buttered rum?
            If you have some tools, some direction, though (for me, the best tool, at least initially, is TP-CASTT), it’s not so bad. You can do this, and in the end, you might even find that you’ve accomplished something worthwhile, and that it was sort of fun.


  1. You are such a good writer and boy, do I wish I'd had you as a teacher. Keep up the good work. I'm a true fan.

  2. This should be required reading for all teachers. Teacher Elizabeth, you are a force of nature. Gorgeous prose here, so well put.

  3. You made my day (despite disgusting PA political returns), M. George. Thanks!



  4. Ms Collins

    If I double posted, sorry. I hit enter before I was ready and the scripts accepted it.
    I listened to this tonite and immediately remembered this posting. I hope you enjoy listening to it.

  5. Hi Dornier,

    No double post. I will have to take a listen.