Twenty More Questions to Ask When Teaching Poetry

Again taken from Helen Vendler’s Poems, Poets, Poetry (Boston: Bedford Books, 1997).

1. We could classify poems by content. What kind of content genre does this poem fall into? How does knowing this unpack the poem?

  • Love poem
  • Dawn poem
  • Nocturne poem
  • Pastoral
  • Elegy
  • Epithalamion (wedding poem)
  • Prayer
  • Autobiography
  • Flower poem
  • Sea poem
  • Travel poem
  • Birthday poem
2. We could classify poems by “speech act.” What kind of speech act (or acts) do we find in this poem? How does knowing this unpack the poem?
  • Apology
  • Apostrophe
  • Declaration
  • Boast
  • Command
  • Interrogation
  • Exclamation
  • Description
  • Hypothesis
  • Rebuttal
  • Narration
  • Prayer
  • Debate or dialogue
  • Reproach
3. Map the poem out by speech acts. If we do this “we are often enabled to see [the poem’s] skeletal structure and to describe it precisely . . . this is a far more exact way of describing a poem than to mention only its theme” (110-111).
4. We could classify a poem by its outer form, prosody or meter, rhyme, and stanza-form. What different elements do we find in this poem? How does knowing this unpack the poem? Here are some things to look for.
  • Line width (such as a pentameter with lines “five beats wide”)
  • Rhythm
  • Poem-length (for example, the sonnet.)
5. Once you have looked at content and successive speech acts, look at the outer form. How many lines does the whole poem have?
6. How many stanzas?
7. Are they all the same shape?
8. How wide is the line?
9. Where do the rhymes come?
10. What is the overall rhythm?
11. We must also look at inner structural form, or emotional dynamics: “very few poems represent an unchanging steady state of the same emotion all through” (113). Try to divide the poem into major emotional pieces; ask “where does the logic of the argument seem to break?” (114) Watch for changes from 1st person to 2nd person, etc., or tense changes.
12. Copy out the poem as a set of sentences, running any broken lines together as if it were prose. What do you notice?
13. How do the sentences resemble one another?
14. How do they differ?
15. Change of person is significant. Person reveals the poet’s relation to the world. Is he alone or part of a group?
16. Agency. Every poem has agents. Do these change? How does that effect the feel of the poem? 17. Write out a list of the sensory words or adjectives in the poem. Can they be grouped? Can they be contrasted? Can the groups be contrasted? Can the groups be linked? What does this tell us about the poem?
18. “About each part, it is useful to ask how it differs from the other parts. What is distinctive in it by contrast to the other members of the poem?” (121)
19. Antecedent scenario: what has been happening before the poem begins? What has provoked the speaker into utterance? How has a previous equilibrium been unsettled? What is the speaker upset about?” (128)
20. Roads not taken: imagine the poem with any one piece changed: different person, tense, rearranged, one extra stanza, one stanza left out, a different order. What would happen? What does it tell you about the poem as it is?

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