Poetry 101: How to Discuss a Poem

///This is the second post in a series about teaching poetry.
Over the course of the next few weeks, I’ll be sharing reasons why we need to teach poetry to our kids, explaining how to discuss a poem, offering lesson ideas, as well as giving you plenty of resources that will help in your journey of making poetry a part of your everyday learning. I look forward to your comments and questions, and I hope very much these articles will be useful to you.
Now let’s get started!///


“Poetry is the best words in the best order.” Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Poetry is the journal of a sea animal living on land, wanting to fly in the air.” Carl Sandburg
“Poetry lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world, and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar.” Percy Bysshe Shelley
“Poetry is truth in its Sunday clothes.” Joseph Roux
“Poetry is what in a poem makes you laugh, cry, prickle, be silent, makes your toe nails twinkle, makes you want to do this or that or nothing, makes you know that you are alone in the unknown world, that your bliss and suffering is forever shared and forever all your own.” Dylan Thomas

There is a philosophy out there that says  a poem should never be discussed.
That a poem should simply be read, the words savored, and then the book closed.
And the poem put away.
The proponents of this philosophy would say that the poem exists in and of itself, and that to pick it apart, to analyze it, and to talk it to death, destroys it.
I beg to differ.

I think that talking about a poem makes it even more enjoyable than just reading it.
The poem is beautiful in and of itself.
But if there is a meaning or lesson hidden in the words of the poem, I want to ferret it out.
If there are beautiful word pictures the poet has created, I want to pull those out and celebrate their loveliness.
If I am confused by a poem, I want help figuring out the parts I don’t understand.
If the poem makes me laugh, I want to share that part with others and laugh with them.
Things are more enjoyable when they are shared.
That includes poetry.

When we are moved by something we want to share it with others.
And the way we share a poem with someone is by talking abut it.
Not talk it to death, of course.
But to discuss it, study it, think on it, and yes, also to rejoice in its beauty.
I think the magic of a poem only grows when we talk about it together.

But how do we do that?
How do we go from reading a poem to our kids, which is sometimes a difficulty in and of itself, to actually talking about a poem with them?
The first thing is knowing what we can’t do.
Which is read them a poem and then say, “well, what do you think?”
At the most you might get an, “I liked it”.
At worst you might get a shoulder shrug.
Talking about poetry, just like talking about any art form, is something that must be taught.

You are the leader in this.
You are the one who gets the discussion going, and who keeps it going when there are long, awkward silences.
Because those will happen.
At least at first.
It takes time to learn how to talk about poetry, and then to feel comfortable doing it, and finally to enjoy it.
I encourage you to persevere.
It will be worth it!


Here are some tips for getting your discussion going:

*First, read the poem aloud a couple times.
I like to read the poem once, and then say, “I’m going to read it again. Sometimes it helps us to actually hear a poem better if we read it more than once.”

*Next, ask some easy questions about the poem to get the discussion going.
What is the setting? A farm, the woods, the city, inside or outside?
What season is it?
What time of day is it?
What colors are in the poem?
Can you describe what the animals, people, or other characters look like?

*Then, how does the poem feel?
Is it a happy poem or a sad one?
Is it slow and thoughtful?
Does it move quickly?
Does it feel hurried?
Is it a cheery poem that makes you feel glad?
Or does it make you slow down and really think?

*Next, what kind of poem is it?
Is it a describing kind of poem?
Is it a poem with a lesson or a moral at the end?
Is it a poem that wants to teach you something?
Is it a poem that is meant to make you laugh?
Is it a poem that is just meant to help you see something in a new way?
Or is it a poem that tells a story?

*Now tackle unfamiliar words in the poem.
Ask your child if there are words in the poem he doesn’t know.
Have him guess the meaning of those words. I
If his guesses are incorrect, have him look those words up, or tell him the definition.
Read the poem again with the new understanding of the meaning of those words.
Does it help you understand the poem better or see new things?

*Lastly, have everyone share their favorite part or thing about the poem.
Be sure to share yours.
It can be as simple as a single line, or an image that captured your imagination.
Or you could talk about how the poem made you feel, or what it taught you.
If the poem wasn’t your favorite, its OK to say that.
None of us share the same taste
So give your children the freedom to tell you if a poem didn’t really resonate with them.

*If you’d like, you can add a discussion about the poem’s meaning.
But this isn’t neccesary or even applicable for every poem.
Some poems really are just a descriptive journey and that is their purpose.
However, if you are struck by the message the poet is conveying through the poem, share it with your kids.
And don’t be afraid to ask them if they heard a message in the poem too.
On the other hand, if you are completely lost when it comes to the meaning of the poem, share that.
Once again, BE HONEST!
Just because you are the grown up doesn’t mean you have all the answers.
I think it helps our kids tremendously when they see we struggle with things just like they do.
Be human in front of them and let them see that you are on a learning journey together.

*You don’t have to do all of this every time.
Don’t let this list make you feel like you have to do all these things every time you read poetry together.
You may just choose a few questions from the list and talk about the poem for a few minutes.
But imagine you are doing that every day, and the many, rich discussions you are having as a result.
Some poems will really strike a chord with you and the discussion will last longer and be more animated.
While other poems won’t have the same effect, and will only merit a short discussion.
That’s OK.
The value comes not in the length of the discussion, or even the depth, but that poetry is being read daily, enjoyed, and talked about together.
As the discussions happen again and again, your children are experiencing an exposure to a literary world that will grow them as readers, writers, thinkers, and listeners.
And most of all, as people.
That is a truly valuable outcome.


Resources and Ideas For Further Study:
If you find a poem that really strikes yours or your child’s interest, don’t hesitate to learn more about it.
Spend some time researching the poet who wrote it.
Learn when she wrote it–at what point in her life, and what was happening in the world around her when she wrote it.
You can even look for other people’s thoughts on the poem.
See if you can find some critical analysis on the poem.
It never hurst to stretch yourself and learn more.

If you’d like some more inspiration for teaching poetry to your kids, including lesson plan ideas, I highly recommend this book.
You can buy it on Amazon here.
Or you can download it for free here.
There is a LOT in this book, and I haven’t gotten through it all yet.
And I don’t agree with everything I’ve read either.
But it has given me much to think about and opened my mind to new ideas.
Some of my favorite essays so far have been:
The Read Aloud Handbook (a must read)
The Process of Opening Gifts
Teaching Children to Write Poetry
The Care and Feeding of a Child’s Imagination
Recitation, Imitation, Stillness

There are some great lesson ideas too.
One of the ones I am excited to try is Street Sonnets.
It sounds like a fun one for writing spring poetry.
I’m also excited to try the lesson, Image LIst.
I hope you’ll try some of the lessons with your kids and share with me what you liked best.

Lastly, if you are looking for a great anthology of children’s poems that you can access for FREE, I’d love to direct you to the Ambleside Online website.
This Year One Poetry Anthology is a list of poems divided up by month.
So you can read seasonal poems, and poems that relate to particular holidays, as well as general poems.
You can simply read the poem from your phone or computer, or you can download and print a month’s or a year’s worth of poems.
It is a fantastic resource.
And did I mention it is FREE?!!
You can find it here.

I truly hope these Poetry 101 Posts are helpful to you.
If they are, I’d love to hear from you.
And I’d love if you let me know other things you are looking for from this series.
Lastly, if you are enjoying these articles, I’d love it if you share them around the inter webs. .
Truly, it would mean the world to me.
Thanks so much!
I’ll be back next week with the next article: Learning and Using Poetic Devices

2 thoughts on “Poetry 101: How to Discuss a Poem

  1. Stacy

    I listened to you recently on the Read-Aloud Revival podcast, so I stopped in to check out your blog. (Great job on the podcast!… I loved the things you shared, and can completely relate to identifying with the parents in books and admiring them. One of my own favorite examples is the father in Little Britches. 🙂 Loved him.) And I get all weepy when I read aloud good books, too. My kids are always asking me, “Are you crying?” [If they have to ask, that would be a YES.]
    On poetry, it is something we have done, hit and miss, for several years, but this year we are all LOVING it. I have chosen two poems per month one as review, and one new to us. We do a bit of discussing, but not a whole lot. It’s really fun for me as a mama to see what poems my kids identify with; which ones they’re quick to memorize (because, my goodness! They have a poem down after about a week!) and which ones they love. Thanks for all the ideas!

  2. Ace

    Thank you for your encouragement and resources in pursuing poetry. My kids and I have read it on and off, and we always love it when we do, and often recite the few we have memorized, but it is often so hard to stick to the routine once the school year gets into high gear.
    Thank you for the time you put into this and for sharing your heart. We are definitely going to get up, dust off, and try it again!


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