Faith CoLab: Tapestry of Faith: Exploring Our Values Through Poetry: A Program for High School Youth

Activity 2: The Poet's Tools

Activity time: 15 minutes

Materials for Activity

  • Singing the Living Tradition, one per participant
  • Newsprint and markers
  • Optional: Dry erase board and markers

Preparation for Activity

  • On newsprint or a dry erase board, write these two questions:
    • What do we have here?
    • What is the big idea?
  • Write the terms below on a page of newsprint. You will want to keep this newsprint posted for the duration of the program, so write neatly and consider laminating the sheet.
    • Figurative Language
    • Form, Line, Stanza
    • Sound, Rhythm, Repetition
    • Tone and Form

Description of Activity

In this activity, you will present participants with a common vocabulary to use in poetry discussions.

Offer the group two reasons for reading a poem aloud twice:

  • To hear the poem in more than one voice
  • To help us fully absorb the poem

Ask participants to open the hymnal Singing the Living Tradition and find reading 490, Mary Oliver's poem "Wild Geese." Invite two volunteers to read the poem aloud. Allow thirty seconds between readings.

Refer to the two questions you have written on the newsprint or dry erase board. Explain that when approaching a poem, it is helpful to ask two kinds of questions. The first kind (What do we have here?) helps us examine what is happening in the poem and identify which particular phrases or lines confuse or confound us. In the process, we become familiar with the poem and can make sure that everyone has a basic understanding of it. At this time, we also share our first impressions of and immediate feelings about the poem.

Lead a discussion about "Wild Geese" to explore the question, what do we have here? Use these prompts:

  • How does the poem make you feel? (sad? hopeful? melancholy?) Why?
  • What is the poem's story? (Alternatively, you could ask, what happens in the poem?)
  • Which words or lines are unclear or confusing?

Next, move on to the second kind of question (What's the big idea?). Explain that a poem's big idea is its heart and soul: what the poem says about life, human nature, and the world. A poem's big idea is similar to the moral of a story. Use these questions to encourage discussion:

  • In "Wild Geese," what do you think the poet-through her use of the three "Meanwhile" lines-intends to suggest about the nature of being a human?
  • The poet uses words like "despair" and "lonely" and creates an image of someone walking on his/her knees. Is this poem hopeful or hopeless? Both at once? Or somewhere in between?
  • In "Wild Geese," what is the poet trying to convince us of? Are you convinced?

Point out that it is normal to end a conversation about a poem's meaning without a consensus. However, we can name and identify the tools an author uses to construct a poem. Direct participants to the four items you listed on newsprint. These are the "tools" you will discuss.

Focusing on one tool at a time, invite participants to volunteer what they already know about each one. (In the next discussion, focus only briefly on the tools that participants explain clearly now.)

Explain that a poet's work involves many choices. Poets have certain tools of language available to them, and they decide which to use to make a poem. We will look at some basic tools.

Read the descriptions one tool at a time, and refer to "Wild Geese" for examples of how Mary Oliver used or ignored that tool. Invite participants to contribute their own examples from the poem.




Figurative Language

Language used in a way that extends beyond the literal, or surface meaning. It usually uses the "not-thing" to describe the "thing." Figurative language often comes in the form of metaphor and/or imagery.

... the soft animal of your body...

... calls to you like wild geese...

Form, Line, and Stanza

Some choices a poet can make about Form, Line, and Stanza:

? Where to break the lines and the stanzas

? How to organize them

? How long or short they will be

? How the form will reinforce or otherwise relate to the poem's content

The indentation of "love what it loves" on its own line. Why?

The use of a dash as punctuation in third-to-last line. Why is it there?

What is the relationship between long lines and shorter ones? What is the effect?

Sound, Rhythm, and Repetition

A poet may use alliteration (repeating consonant sounds) and assonance (repeating vowel sounds). She/He may also use repetition of individual words, lines, or whole stanzas, much like a song uses a chorus.

Some choices a poet can make about Sound, Rhythm, and Repetition:

? The number of syllables the words will have; where to place stresses

? Where repetition will be used

? Where soft sounds and hard sounds will be effective; how various sounds will play off one another

? How sound will reinforce or otherwise relate to the poem's content

Repetition of the word "meanwhile" and the phrase "you do not." Why? What is the effect?

"Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine." This is an odd sentence construction. What does the insertion of "yours" in the middle do to the sound of the line; to its rhythm; to its meaning?

Form and Tone

A poet may use an open form or a form with a rigid structure such as a sonnet or a haiku.

Some choices a poet can make about Form and Tone:

? How the form will serve the tone and the content

? Whether the language will be formal or informal

? How the tone and the form will work together

Why is "Wild Geese" only one stanza? Does the poem have a form? If so, what is it?

What is the tone of "Wild Geese"? Is it casual or formal? Does it remind you of a conversation or something else? What role does the tone play in the effect this poem has on you?


Save the newsprint on which you have listed the poet's tools. Post it for future reference.