Ten Poems Students Love to Read Out Loud
Performing a poem can offer pleasures unlike any other experience of literature. “Words mean more than what is set down on paper,” the poet Maya Angelou has written. “It takes the human voice to imbue them with the shades of deeper meaning.” But approaching a poem as a script for an oral performance demands that students pay attention to aspects of the work that they aren’t used to looking for. I’ve put together a list of sonically rich poems with strong narrative hooks—and a few performance tips that will point students in the high school and college classroom and beyond to the pleasures of reciting poetry.
1. “They Flee from Me” by Sir Thomas Wyatt
What can attitude tell us? To help students find out, begin by asking who owns the action of each stanza in this poem. This will help a performer trace the speaker’s transformation from line to line and stanza to stanza. Then ask about shifts in the speaker’s attitudes toward women, the loose gown–wearing ones in particular. How does the speaker feel about women by the end of the poem? Be warned: If you plan to teach “They Flee from Me” to high school students, they’ll probably groan when they first encounter the archaic language. But entice them by telling them that this provocative poem is rated PG-13, and assure them that after close reading they will understand it perfectly.
2. “The Chimney Sweeper” by William Blake (1789)
What can rhyme tell us? At the end of the 18th century, Blake wrote two scathing poems that denounce the abominable practice of exploiting very young children as chimney sweepers. In the 1789 poem, from Songs of Innocence, the reader’s sense of horror is heightened by the jarring contrast between the nursery-rhyme structure and the grim subject matter. The perfect rhyme scheme falters as the speaker moves from recounting the loss of his mother and being sold into bondage by his father to describing the solace an “angel” promises little Tom Dacre. An oral reading reveals how rhyme contributes to the devastating argument of this poem in ways that a silent reading cannot.
3. “The Chimney Sweeper” by William Blake (1794)
What can point of view tell us? Five years later, Blake wrote a second poem about child chimney sweepers that appeared in Songs of Experience. This much shorter poem begins with the same rhyme scheme as the earlier poem. The first stanza also contains a short dialogue between an observer and the now-experienced chimney sweeper. In the second stanza the poet introduces a new rhyme pattern, which reflects a shift: the chimney sweeper’s point of view has changed from that of one who is innocent to that of one who is experienced. Struggling with the challenge of how to vocalize this poem with the chimney sweeper’s accusatory tone will help students understand how Blake uses point of view.
4. “Jabberwocky” by Lewis Carroll
What can syntax tell us? Carroll’s Alice says of “Jabberwocky”: “Somehow it seems to fill my head with ideas—only I don’t exactly know what they are!” This quote has always stuck with me, and I often repeat it when I use this poem to review parts of speech with high school freshmen. The poem reveals how syntax—the way words are structured to form phrases and sentences—fills our heads with ideas about meaning, even the meaning of nonsense words, as in this from the first stanza, which also serves as the last: “All mimsy were the borogroves, / And the mome raths outgrabe.” Playing with the syntax of this poem can provide a keener sense of its drama.
5. “Beat! Beat! Drums!” by Walt Whitman
What can intonation tell us? With pounding rhythms and overwhelming images of destruction, Whitman’s famous anti-war poem mimics the fervent speech of a warmonger but leaves the reader nearly chanting in protest of war. In three powerful stanzas, Whitman catalogs the ways in which war obliterates peaceful domesticity, civil society, and even the restfulness of death. This text presents a number of interesting challenges for the performer. Paying special attention to the actors and what they say will highlight the emotional dramas, which are expressed in a series of ironic commands and rhetorical questions. The last line in each of these stanzas suggests the question How would you say that aloud? “So fierce you whir and pound you drums—so shrill you bugles blow.” Taken as a separate unit of meaning, this line could be an answer to the question What is the cause of this horror? As part of the sentence, however, it must be spoken as a command. Thus, part of the difficulty of this performance is negotiating the irony of these speech acts. The powerful cadence of this series of iconic images and the onomatopoeic devices gathers enormous weight in performance.
6. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T. S. Eliot
What can imagery combined with sound devices tell us? As Prufrock, the would-be suitor, contemplates forging a romantic relationship, he is haunted by his inadequacies and retreats to the safety of his intellect, exclaiming, “No! I am no Prince Hamlet, / Nor was meant to be.” The emotional drama unfolds in the vivid imagery of a cityscape, where dingy streets contrast with the playgrounds of the social elite, and moves to the mythical image of a Homeric ocean a safe distance from society, where “human voices wake us and we drown.” Though tragic, the speaker and his doubt are beautiful to hear. Who can forget the beauty and sadness of the rhymes that bind Prufrock in his isolated world? “I grow old . . . I grow old . . . / I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.” Ask the students to read aloud the first couple of stanzas, savoring the beautiful rhythms and rhymes and other sound devices; then go back and ask them to consider the author’s use of verb tense, image, and allusion. This interior monologue is a perfect choice for solo or group performance.
7. “I Am Waiting” by Lawrence Ferlinghetti
What can allusion tell us? Like many of the poems on the list, this piece would be great for a group performance. The mounting frustration of the speaker, who awaits the coming of a peaceful and just world and “a rebirth of wonder,” is captured, often humorously, in twisted snippets of popular rhetoric. Ferlinghetti weaves biblical, mythological, literary, and historical allusions into a litany against tyranny and cultural hegemony. How might these allusions be brought to bear on the text? How would the strategic line breaks, particularly those between well-known sound bites of American speech and the speaker’s ironic response to them, sound with multiple voices, as in the lines “and I am waiting for the war to be fought / which will make the world safe / for anarchy”? The growing anxiety of this speaker cries out for a human voice as much as the text cries out for hyperlinks.
8. “Facing It” by Yusef Komunyakaa
What can images tell us? The drama of this poem lies in the shifting emotional tone created by the juxtaposition of paired images. The images the speaker sees reflected in the polished granite of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial—a woman’s blouse, a streaking red bird—mirror the back-and-forth between the speaker’s self and his reflection, his past and his present, and bring readers face to face with the fissures in American life present in public discussion since the Vietnam era. The challenge of performing this poem lies in bringing these word-pictures to life. The concrete sense of place, however, offers the opportunity to bring a physicality to this imagery.
9. “Let Evening Come” by Jane Kenyon
What can various sound devices tell us? In this poem, Kenyon captures the conflict between the comfort and the anxiety of death in startling ways. The reassuring pastoral imagery is often undermined by unusual vantage points and disturbing objects, as in the first lines, where sunlight is described from within a darkening barn, “moving / up the bales as the sun moves down.” Kenyon’s use of consonance—the repetition of consonant sounds—and assonance—the repetition of vowel sounds—brings a vivid physicality to the speaker’s conflict. We see this when the comforting flow of “Let the light of late afternoon” is suddenly obstructed by the tongue forming the word “chinks.” The sonic repetition in this poem also reveals the intricate phonemic—referring to the smallest distinct units of sound within words—relationships the poet has so skillfully knitted together through the dominant l and k sounds. This sonic tension, like the fear and relief the speaker finds in the idea of death, are brought to a close in the final line, “comfortless, so let evening come.” Finally, though line breaks are difficult to capture aloud, the strategic breaks, particularly in the last stanza, are well worth noting as readers explore ways in which this last line might be performed.
10. “Fundamentalism” by Naomi Shihab Nye
Why has the speaker of this poem been moved to speak, and to whom? These are the most important questions a performer must ask when tackling this text. Embodying the speaker requires a firm answer. But the uncertainty with which the speaker struggles is at the core of this poem about the dangers of unquestioning belief. The “you” may be a fundamentalist, but only half of the cause-and-effect assertion is stated in each of these rhetorical questions, leaving the reader to wonder, who is the “you” being addressed? What is the purpose of this interrogation, explanation, or accusation? Ask students to try presenting it both ways. In the second section, who is this little boy, faced with the choice between the pencil and a knife? Who is the observer? Like “I Am Waiting,” this poem offers wonderful opportunities for a chorus of voices in group performance.
Eileen Murphy taught Advanced Placement English Literature and Creative Writing at Walter Payton College Preparatory High School in Chicago. She has worked as a program associate at Facing History and Ourselves, providing professional development for teachers, and as an editor at McDougal Littell. Her students became the Illinois state finalists...