Some poems you love, and some you love to teach. What’s the difference? The teachable ones do half the work for you: the questions they raise and the pleasures they offer show that close reading is not, despite its chilly reputation, academia’s way of “beating it [the poem] with a hose / to find out what it really means” (Billy Collins, “Introduction to Poetry”). Quite the contrary: close reading is courtship, a passionate, delicate way to find out what makes this particular poem worth a second date (that is, writing a paper about) or maybe worth spending the rest of your life with (that is, memorizing).
Here are ten poems that have the moves my students want to know better, with a couple of tips on how to catch their eyes across the dance floor.
1. “To My Dear and Loving Husband” by Anne Bradstreet
Like most interesting people, the characters you meet in poems rarely say the same thing twice. When they seem to, listen harder: that’s a lesson Anne Bradstreet’s “To My Dear and Loving Husband” teaches my most skeptical students. Ask them to slow down and take it sentence by sentence. “If ever two were one, then surely we,” she sighs at the start, a line so satisfied, it just ends. (No other line in the poem is a complete sentence.) Your students may know couples like that. Bradstreet, though, promptly leaves this Smug Married stasis behind. She splits the couple into their public roles of “man” and “wife,” conjures some girlfriends to brag to (“Compare with me, ye women, if you can”), and keeps the poem in motion through a series of poised, propulsive asymmetries. My favorite comes in an off-rhyme halfway through: “My love is such that rivers cannot quench, / Nor ought but love from thee, give recompense.” Students quickly notice the off-rhyme; to follow up, ask them what’s equally “off” about the couplet’s logic. (You quench a fire, or a thirst, but you can’t “recompense,” “repay,” or even “reward” one.) That’s not a flaw but a flash of desire, half-hidden by decorum. Students often think that the Puritans were puritanical about sex, but Bradstreet’s poems about marriage give the lie to that assumption. Challenge the skeptics in your class to read her “Letter to Her Husband, Absent Upon Public Employment,” or use it in a follow-up assignment. As the speaker tries to persuade her husband to come home, when and how does she appeal to his head, his heart, and his “heat”? When and how does she change her mind and reconcile herself to his absence? Read either of these poems too quickly, and you’ll miss their wit, their passion, and their artistry—the more you respect them, the more you’ll enjoy them, too.
2. “Wild nights!—wild nights!” by Emily Dickinson
No one could miss the desire in this one! Its craft, though, and its wisdom take time to tease out. Try splitting your students into groups, and have each track a different element in the poem. I like to start with one focusing on sound, one on syntax, and one on diction. Make sure the sound group notices how the speaker keens those long e’s in the first stanza, the better to savor that deliciously polysyllabic, lascivious word “luxury” at its close. In the second stanza, by contrast, there’s not a long e to be found, so when they surge back in the third—another trio, from “Eden” to “sea” and back to the original to “thee!”—it feels like coming home. The syntax group can dwell on the poem’s verbs, or lack of them. Again there’s a shift from stanza to stanza: the speaker starts with the conditional “were” and “should be,” but what happens in stanza two? Eliding the verbs themselves, Dickinson brings us into a world of fantasy where we can’t distinguish between possibility and the simple present tense. “Futile - the winds [would be, or maybe are] - / To a Heart in port,” the speaker sighs. That heart would therefore be “Done with the compass,” but it might also be done with it already, tossing it overboard along with the “chart” used by more timid mariners. No wonder the verbs feel so urgent and sexual in stanza three—“rowing” and “moor” are the first active verbs in the poem. As for “moor,” there’s enough action in that to summon the Moor of Othello and the windswept moors of Wuthering Heights into the poem as well. (Dickinson loved both Shakespeare and, as she called her, the “gigantic Emily Brontë.”) Send your diction group to the Oxford English Dictionary to look up the word’s various meanings and associations—and while they’re at it, have them track down the older meanings of “luxury,” too. When you convene the whole class to discuss what they’ve found, let the ambiguities and double meanings flourish; Dickinson uses them to capture the paradoxes of eroticism. The safer this speaker finds herself, the more she can enjoy the winds of passion gusting outside; in fact, the inland waters of Eden turn out to be indistinguishable from the “sea” she’s left behind. Now, students, about those prepositions: is this a “with” fantasy (stanza one), a “to” fantasy (stanza two), or an . . . Oops! There goes the bell.
3. “Those Winter Sundays” by Robert Hayden
Some poems are so tightly written that you can’t tap on the shoulder of a single word without the whole text turning around to see what you want. Take “chronic” in Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays.” The speaker remembers, as a child, “fearing the chronic angers of that house.” Ask your students to brainstorm reasons why “chronic” is the right word here. Some will notice how its hard “c” sounds echo throughout the poem—but only when the father is around or some physical or emotional coldness is an issue. Your diction mavens will spot its wordplay: the anger is “chronic” because it’s always there, like a disease, and it’s “chronic” because the father gets up early seven days a week. That’s not how the father uses language—his first stanza is plainspoken, even blunt. But just as the father “got up” and “put his clothes on,” in the second stanza the son “rises” and “dresses,” the word choice showing him to be an educated, even “polished” adult. If you have an extra day, ask them to look up the story of Chronos, Father Time, and how he treated his offspring. Then ask them what other story about a father and his son the poem turns to, with a kind of relief, as it ends. (Here’s a hint: Where are father and son probably going in those “good shoes” on a Sunday morning?)
4. “The Sun Rising” by John Donne
You can bring nearly any poem to life by asking, partway through, “Why isn’t the poem over yet?” In “The Sun Rising,” for example, I like to read the first stanza aloud, talk about its cleverness and bravado, and then invite my students to brainstorm why the poem doesn’t end with that grand dismissal of “Hours, days, months, which are the rags of time.” What has the speaker started that he still needs to finish? Have your students “stage” the opening stanza—they’ll immediately notice that there are three characters in the poem, right from the start, and although the speaker is talking to the sun, he has an actual, human audience right there in bed, listening in. Ask them to spot the moment when this woman shows up in the poem as a separate character, someone the speaker wants to appeal to or persuade, even if he’s not addressing her directly, as in “The Flea.” Point out the drama of his pronoun shift from the “us” and “thou” of stanza one to the “I” and “her” of stanza two, and feel free to paraphrase the speaker’s attempt to be smooth: Sun, I could block your rays with a wink, he says, but then I’d have to take my eyes off her for an instant—and by the way, her eyes are brighter than you are. When do these compliments to the woman drift back into mere bragging? My female students always hone in on the end of the second stanza: “Ask for those kings thou saw’st yesterday / And thou shalt hear, all here in one bed lay.” Either she’s a king too, they’ll say—an anxious bit of gender-bending rhetoric—or he’s just talking up himself, losing her interest. That tension explains why the poem hasn’t ended yet. This sweet-talking man is now in a jam, and needs a new stanza to straighten things out. Students love to watch him backpedal and clarify: Did I say something about kings? No, “She’s all states, and all princes, I.” And they’ll swoon (just as they should) as the poem plummets from that political metaphor to its shortest, simplest, and yet most extravagant line: “She’s all states, and all princes, I, / Nothing else is.” As Donne turns their bedroom into Plato’s Cave, he finally pitches his rhetoric of seduction just right—at which point, at last, he can bring his poem to a close.
5. “Theme for English B” by Langston Hughes
The speaker of “Theme for English B” also struggles to get things right—but his constraint is a condescending classroom assignment. Listen to how Hughes’s speaker changes linguistic style from section to section of this poem. First he quotes the instructor, who speaks in pat end rhymes and singsong rhythms. “I wonder if it’s that simple,” he wonders, and then imagines the dumbed-down, prosaic answer that his instructor probably expects. Look how repetitiously he identifies himself in that first long stanza—by age, geography, and race—and at how only the first two remain when he actually starts to write his theme a stanza later. Neither of these identities suffices, though, so he tries again—“Me—who?” he wonders—and answers from the inside, defining himself for the first time by what he likes, which the instructor does not know. Race returns only when he starts answering the instructor’s simplistic rhymes on “ite” and “oo.” “So will my page be colored that I write? Being me, it will not be white”; “Nor do I often want to be a part of you, / But we are, that’s true!” If your students love music, bring in some Bessie, Bach, and bop and show them how each uses the same “theme and variations” structure Hughes deploys so brilliantly here. And ask them who—the instructor or speaker—really seems “more free” by the close.
Poets use repetition and variation to think things through, and almost any sonnet will blossom when you attend to those subtle changes of heart and mind. These two are perfect, engaging examples. The first was penned to raise funds for a pedestal for “Liberty Enlightening the World” by a Jewish woman determined to change the statue’s meaning, and the latter in praise of black self-defense against white rioters in 1919. In “The New Colossus,” ask your students to watch how Lazarus takes us from “brazen” to “golden,” from a “torch” and “beacon” to a “lamp,” and from “gates” to a “door”—and track the names she gives the westbound immigrants, too. (Are they “exiles,” cast out of the classical polis? Are they “wretched refuse,” human garbage? No, they’re “homeless,” looking for a welcoming Mother; or even “tempest-toss’d,” like characters from Shakespeare’s late romance, dreaming of a brave new world.) McKay, by contrast, starts with two inhuman characters: “we,” who are “like hogs,” and the killers, who are “mad and hungry dogs.” As the sonnet develops, “we” grow noble, even Shakespearean: we have “precious blood,” we are “kinsmen,” and through self-defense we become at last “like men.” What happens to “them”? How exactly does McKay get from “if we must die” to “fighting back,” and what prompts each shift in his language and mood? These poems may be familiar, but such questions make them new.
8. “Easter, 1916” by William Butler Yeats
For years I was afraid to teach “Easter, 1916.” I wasn’t sure how to lead students across the great divide separating that oblique, symbolic stanza about the stone in the water from the first two sections of the poem: the first stanza, where Yeats sketches how amused he was by “them” (the Irish nationalists who died in the Easter Rebellion), and the second, where he gives his first list of who “they” actually were, or were to him. Once I realized that Yeats, too, isn’t quite sure where he’s going—that he’s trying to figure out what sort of transformation has taken place in “them,” and hoping that symbolism will help him—the stumbles made sense, and our journey had a map. Set aside at least 90 minutes for this poem and take it slowly, sentence by sentence, with an eye to the speaker’s shifting feelings about the rebels, his changes of heart and of mind. As with the sonnets by Lazarus and McKay, I ask students to watch for repetition and variation; key words and phrases recur as the poet tries to decide how he feels about how the rebels have been transformed. Their hearts were put under a spell by the cause of revolution, enchanted into lifeless, static stone, he declares. A few lines later, he changes his mind. They weren’t enchanted, exactly . . . the change was caused by “too long a sacrifice.” And really, they weren’t turned to stone; they were just like children, running wild, and now they sleep. But no—they’re dead, not sleeping; and they didn’t run wild, they were bewildered, and it wasn’t by too long a sacrifice, but by excess of love! What would have been, in other hands, a patriotic cliché feels, here, like a hard-won discovery: it takes Yeats 72 lines to decide that the rebels died for love. This poem is awfully long and complex for you to assign it as an explication, but if you work through it in class up through the speaker’s final question (“And what if excess of love / Bewildered them till they died?”), you can assign students to write a short paper about how the final seven lines look back to earlier material in the poem, mostly by contrast. As “polite, meaningless words” turn into “verse,” the rebels are finally given names, the jester’s “motley” becomes a solid shade of “green,” and so on. What, you might ask, is the final set of meanings and associations triggered by the poem’s epigrammatic refrain, “a terrible beauty is born”?
9. “How Do I Love Thee?” by Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Often my students have been taught that Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “How Do I Love Thee?,” the penultimate of her Sonnets from the Portuguese, epitomizes what was wrong with poetry before modernism. “It’s sappy,” they say, “and doesn’t she know a poet’s supposed to show, not tell?” If your pupils feel that way, remind them that the first phrase is a question, not an exclamation—and Barrett Browning is as puzzled, and as unwilling to settle for easy answers, as Yeats is in “Easter, 1916.” She tries spatial metaphors to answer “how,” but they must not be sufficient—that’s why the poem’s not finished. (Some students will need to be reminded that she’s not feeling “out of sight,” like some Victorian Motown singer; she’s groping in the dark, feeling around “out of sight / For the ends of being and ideal grace,” philosophical abstractions that she uses because she’s not ready to think about God.) In the next couplet she turns to the well-lit quotidian world, but that’s too private, too domestic, too feminine, to suffice as a description. It misses the public, manly side of her love, and the way her feelings now (at the time she speaks the poem) look back to earlier stages in her emotional life. Students who find the poem “gushy,” shying away from Browning’s Victorian language of feeling, can come to see her precision of thought by giving each of those temporal stages a crisp, objective descriptor, as Helen Vendler does with a Shakespeare sonnet in Poems, Poets, and Poetry:
- T1: childhood faith and saints present
- T2: griefs intervene, saints are lost
- T3: I love, but don’t realize how this love returns me to my past
- T4: I ask myself, or you ask, “How do I love thee?”
- T5: the present moment, when I figure out that my whole life is brought into this love, which lets me imagine
- T6:love in the future, after loss and death
Call that poetry for physicists. Meanwhile, let your wordsmiths look up that word “passion” (“the passion put to use / in my old griefs”) in a good dictionary. Every meaning they find will ring true.
10. “Beam 10” of ARK by Ronald Johnson
Science and poetry never had a more playful, fertile fling than in ARK, a book-length work by the poet (and acclaimed cookbook writer) Ronald Johnson. I like to give my students “Beam 10” of this architectural poem, a little two-line riddle or treasure hunt, like “Blue’s Clues” for grown-ups. Here’s the poem:
daimon diamond monad I
Adam Kadmon in the sky
Yup, that’s all of it. Have one group start by looking up the words they don’t know. Have some think about science: What are diamonds? Where do they come from? What’s their relationship to stars, and thus to hydrogen (which enters the poem via “monad”). Set your punsters loose on Kadmon—aka Caedmon, the original English poet—and tell anyone who starts humming the Beatles’ “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” to go look up where the name Lucy comes from. While they’re at it, have them investigate how that name fits into a poem that mentions Adam, the original human of the Bible, and “Adam Kadmon,” the original, unfallen Heavenly Man of the Kabbalah. (They’ll want to report to the science group tomorrow.) Anyone who hears the Alphabet Song or Blake’s “The Tyger” in these lines is right, which is fun, and I promise that you’ll never sing “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” again without hearing a little answering voice: “Twinkle, twinkle, little star / How I wonder what you are.” “daimon diamond monad I / Adam Kadmon in the sky.” OK—enough clues! Now go play.