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Poetry and Pedagogy: Course Unit

What should we teach when we teach poetry?


Poetry is the possibility of forms, discovery of emotional locations, and transmission of meaning. For students, poetry can also teach them to “think like an artist” as Cindy Foley mentions in her TED Talk of the same title. Poems can teach students transdisciplinary practices: reverence for context that can be found in art, literature, and history. Students can see ways of communicating that may be more accessible to them. For students who dislike prose writing, poetry can offer an alternative. Certainly we cannot characterize poetry as an “easy way out” of traditional language. Far from “easy,” poetry presents us with challenges: to exist disparate worlds, sometimes with role play and definitely with word play.


Students should be sufficiently exposed to various versions of poetic expression: from hip-hop to haiku to litany. Not only will students realize they experience poetry all the time (as with hip-hop) but that they can deviate from usual experiences and create their moments (haiku observations and meditation). Students should be challenged to articulate what they are reading and what they are feeling: both are essential components to the project of poetry. Both of these articulations should be worked on specifically and separately. As students read they should be mindful of the unique rhythms, arrangement on the page, words used, symbols, themes. After this is done students this will inevitably give students a feeling. These feelings allow students to tap an intuitive process not always emphasized in reading prose, though students will be able to bring that intuitiveness to prose reading.


Poetry teaches students to make time for multiple readings of textual objects. One reading is not enough. We must first read to read, look for context, account for rhythm, symbols, and feeling. This act of rereading encourages patience and careful labor. Reading certain poems will require students to research them: what does the poem reference? This has a strong connection to writing well-researched arguments, which students in an undergraduate setting always need help with.


As poems deal with the thought life in fragments, I think we indefinitely teach humanization and empathy in ways that become immediately accessible to the student.


Course Unit Description: Introduction to Poetics


This unit will be for a standard (meaning I’d likely write my own curriculum) university English composition course.


This course will be a twice a week, hour and fifteen minute course. Therefore I will make this unit two weeks long (4 class sessions). Students will read poems paired with selections from An Exaltation of Forms: Contemporary Poets Celebrate the Diversity of Their Art. We will practice scanning poems for symbols, themes, meter. Students will also be asked to consider biographical implications. On my end, for each lesson I will model a research component where I will present information pertinent to the background and cultural context of the work we are analyzing using handouts and audio/visual aids.


List of essays used from this volume:

“Hip-Hop Rhyme Formations: Open Your Ears” by Tracie Morris

“The Metrics of Rap” by DJ Renegade

“The Blues” by Robert R. Patterson

“The Pantoum’s Postcolonial Pedigree” by Vince Gotera

“Haiku” by Jean Hyung Yul Chu

“A Wand Made of Words: The Litany Poem” by Nancy Willard

“Strange Tales and Bitter Emergencies: A Few Notes on the Prose Poem” essay by Michel Delville, selections by Maxine Chernoff

Student Audience: the first year university student at a private or public four year university.


Annotated List of 10 Poems:

Section one: Hip-Hop Poetics

1)“Tha Crossroads” by Bone Thugs-N-Harmony (An Exhaultation of Forms pg. 273)

For their essay “The Metrics of Rap,” DJ Renegade cites “Tha Crossroads” as an exemplary work. “Tha Crossroads” has a thematic focus on belief in divinity and reverence for family. As it is a rap song, the poetic musicality is paired with accompanying music (a drum machine and synthesizer). There is also the presence of rounds in the chorus and bridge sections. Renegade emphasizes in a slower rap song like “Tha Crossroads”: “Under 95 bpm you find the second prosody, where there are eight stressed syllables, but still only four beats of verse to four beats of music, and sixteen to twenty-four syllables to a line” (273). It is helpful to show this to students who may not pay attention to this detail in the musical compositions that decorate their lives. For our lesson we will watch/listen to the Bone Thugs-N-Harmony music video as a supplement.


2) “Mo Money Mo Problems” by Notorious B.I.G. and Puff Daddy (referenced by Tracie Morris in An Exaltation of Forms pg. 227)

In her article “Hip-Hop Rhyme Formations: Open Your Ears,” Tracie Morris mentions rap collaborations as well as “cutting” new music with old forms as a postmodern critique (pastiche). This particular song is an example of both, a collaborative verse using the sample of the Diana Ross song “I’m Coming Out.” For our lesson we will watch the music video for this song. To build students knowledge of outside theoretical positions I will introduce them to Fred Jameson’s “Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,” using an excerpt from the essay (not the book) where Jameson discusses the concept of “pastiche.” This will be a helpful context for students to understand repurposing art for commodification. Hopefully we can have a more open discussion of this practice as it relates to human beings always learning from one another. We will also likely discuss copyright, intellectual property, and appropriation.


3) Amiri Baraka “Why is We Americans” (video component: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7ziRjhAgTO8)

For this poem, in keeping with our section on hip-hop poetics, we will watch a clip of Amiri Baraka on Def Poetry Jam reading “Why is We Americans.” This will help students connect this genre with critiques of “The American Dream” and prepare them for their assignment of a three page poetry analysis. There are some powerful admonitions in this poem, so I suspect we will be discussing it for symbols and historical content. The venue Baraka reads at is important as Def Poetry Jam is derived from the hip-hop scene which is what our unit is based on.


4) Sonia Sanchez “An Anthem” (from Shake Loose My Skin)

To close out our section on hip-hop poetics, I thought it best to include a work by another Black Arts Movement poet (like Amiri Baraka). Sonia Sanchez’s “An Anthem” shows students the same themes and complexities can be found on the page with their own complexities and musicality. In reading this poem and scanning it for context, students will begin to see reading poetry as just as rich (or richer) than some of the musical experiences they’ve had. At this time I would also show them the songs of Erykah Badu and provide an excerpt from some of Kodwo Eshun’s work on Afrofuturism, specifically “Further Considerations of Afrofuturism.” For our next section, Writing the Blues, students will see Sanchez referenced in Raymond R. Patterson’s vignette “The Blues.”


Section two: Writing the Blues

5) Ishmael Reed “Oakland Blues” (pg. 193 An Exaltation of Forms)

Reed’s poem is listed by Patterson as one of the contemporary poets using the blues in their writing. We will analyze Reed’s use of time, illness, death, and birds in his poem as wells as listen to a musical rendering of Reed’s poem: (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AGefEMeQlds). Since this poem was written in 1989 we will discuss what the common illnesses were Reed could be referring to. We will also look at the more universal themes in the poem such as loss.


6) W.H. Auden “Funeral Blues”

In funeral blues we will talk about the cathartic effects of hopelessness. I will ask students to reflect on poetry of sadness as preventing repression of important emotions. To supplement with something current, I will ask them to listen to a popular culture favorite, Drake, a hip hop artist who paints similarly bleak portraits of emotional turmoil. We will listen to his song “Hotline Bling” and “Feel No Ways” to reflect on Drake and Auden’s connectedness as people writing about human pain in relationships. Auden talks about the connections we form with people and how those cords are carried with them, even to the grave: “He was my North, my South, my East and West/My working week and my Sunday rest/My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song/ I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong/The stars are not wanted now; put out every one.” Patterson mentions: “Perennial blues subjects like unhappy love, difficult times, hard luck, fruitless labor…” in other words: pain fuels their art.


7) Clara Smith “Freight Train Blues” (cited partially by Patterson, pg. 189 An Exaltation of Forms)

Smith’s “Freight Train Blues” is mentioned by Patterson as an example of artists who use “concrete particulars” in blues (189). I found a video of a vinyl recording of Smith’s work: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TfN-t1JIMBg) . We will listen to this in class and discuss the impact of an aged vinyl recording. Additionally I will have students bring in what they think are “concrete particulars” that tie them to emotional experiences. Volunteers will discuss their objects. We will also go over the impact of “leaving” and abandonment of pain and finding new pain as per the subject matter of Smith’s lyrics.


Section three: Hybridity of Forms

8) “Pantoun for Chinese Women” by Shirley Geok-lin Lim (cited by Gotera on pg. 260 in An Exaltation of Forms)

Intentionally spelled with an “n” instead of an “m” at the end, Geok-lin Lim’s “Pantoun for Chinese Women references the Malay tradition of pantoum. Representing the colonization of an earlier cultural tradition of Malay people, previously called pantun, was used by the French and later transformed into Anglo-American verse (Gotera 254). Gotera, in “The Pantoum’s Postcolonial Pedigree” writes: “More importantly, the pantun is a popular form, used by common folk for a variety of purposes, to express love, lyricism, and other verities”(Gotera 255). We will look at this postcolonial formation of poetry which is a creation of the Malay people and a combination of villanelle and terza (Gotera 254). We will pay close attention to the utilization of rhyme and tradition in Geok-lin Lim’s poetry as she deconstructs gender from a postcolonial, specifically Chinese feminist viewpoint.


9) “Punk Pantoum” by Pamela Stewart (pg. 259 in Exaltation of Forms)

Stewarts poem is the perfect way to discuss the feminist concept of the personal as political. Stewart uses a variety of symbols deploying strategic repetition. This is a good opportunity for students to pause and read the poem aloud in small groups. I will also supplement this reading with a performance by Pamela Stewart: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F62N9h94Uuo. Thinking of postcoloniality, we will read an excerpt from Homi K. Bhabha’s The Location of Culture which discusses hybridity. We will also discuss the field of performance studies using an excerpt from Unmarked: The Politics of Performance by Peggy Phelan to discuss the political performativity of certain groups in society as well as the political performance of poetry.


Section four: Short Poetry and Adjusting Forms

10) “In A Station of the Metro” by Ezra Pound (cited in An Exaltation of Forms pg. 219)

For this closing section of my unit, students will look at a variety of haikus, but I picked this imagist poem by American expatriate Ezra Pound to discuss economy of language. This will be a segue into an understanding of choosing the right words for the proper moment in academic writing: what students are required to learn in English composition courses. We will also explore images albeit differently than when we talked about them with Clara Smith’s blues. Students will realize the precision of the words selected for writing matters and the images we create are a result of those words.



Daily Activities:

Class duration: 1 hour and 15 minutes

Prior to each class students will have read assigned essays from An Exaltation of Forms. Since this is a 2 week/4 day unit, students will be responsible for reading 2 essays prior to each class meeting, save for the final class of the unit, which will have one assigned essay.

Warm-up: 15 minutes

Students arrive to class ready to do a brain warm-up where we will analyze an art object. Depending on the day this could be a painting, music video, or short poem. For example: one of the days we could analyze Jean-Michel Basquiat’s “Notary”to correspond with our lesson on hip-hop poetics:


Jean-Michel Basquiat "Notary"

20 minutes: In addition to the assigned readings from our main text, I will provide students with supplementary readings related to concepts we will discuss in the poems. For instance, when we talk about sampling in rap music, it will add much to our discussion if students understand what “pastiche” is, so we will read an excerpt from Fred Jameson’s Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism.

10 minutes: Some days we will do short activities to get students thinking about what they have read/listened to. For instance in the unit about The Blues, students will bring in a concrete object that is tied to an emotional meaning and share with the class.

30 minutes: Poetry analysis will be a big part of this unit, so we will save time for scanning of poems and discussion of the theoretical text we are reading for contextualization of poetry. During this time I will also have a short presentation prepared with any historical context I think students should understand. They will be encouraged to do some of this work on their own for participation points, but I will be prepared to make up for days when students are not prepared.


One Assignment:

Poetry and “The American Dream”:

3 page analysis of a poem or song

Students will analyze a poem in a three page essay. They may pick any poem they would like that focuses on the concept of “The American Dream.” Given the nature of what we have gone over in this unit, students may also pick a song if they feel it is appropriate. When students select a poem they should pay close attention to the mythological elements of “The American Dream” narrative in American literature: meritocracy, freedom, equality, prosperity. How do authors work to subvert “The American Dream” narrative or reinforce it? What symbols do they use to evoke an emotional connection to this narrative? Is there musicality to the work? Is the poem/song referential towards other art objects? What are they?

The assignment should provide a works cited page containing: citation of the poem and any other reference texts/web sources used.


Works Cited

Bhabha, Homi K. The Location of Culture. Routledge, 1994.

Finch, Annie and Kathrine Varnes, eds. An Exaltation of Forms: Contemporary Poets

Celebrate the Diversity of Their Art. University of Michigan Press, 2002.

Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Duke

University Press, 1991.

Phelan, Peggy. Unmarked: The Politics of Performance. Psychology Press, 1993.

 © MPT 2020 

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