traci's lists of ten

Traci's 35th List of Ten:
Ten National Poetry Month Activities

Posted to WPA-L, WCenter, NCTE-Talk, and TechRhet on 4/22/01.

April is National Poetry Month...and better late than never. Here's a list of poetry-related activities. Many could easily be adapted to short stories and other works. For instance, #2 (Cymbalic, so to speak), could be adapted for any genre of literature (and some non-literary works as well).

If you're looking for ideas to get students started on poems of their own, you might look at the 17th List of Ten: Ten Creative Writing Activities.

  1. [POETRY BY COMMITTEE] Your town is celebrating, and they're looking for special poem to kick off the event. Your job? Find an appropriate poem and write a nomination letter to the selection committee telling about the poem that you've found and the reasons that it is ideal for the situation. Be sure to include a copy of the poem with your nomination letter.

    NOTE: You might begin by taking the perspective of the selections committee and establishing some guidelines for their poem; then, give ask them to use the guidelines to nominate a poem. If you have more than one class, you might have classes trade guidelines and submissions. Class A uses Class B's guidelines; and Class B uses Class A's guidelines. If your school or another group in the local area is really having an event where a poem might be acceptable, you might contact them and propose they really have such a contest.

    [This assignment can be adapted for any location and event — rather than a town, you might focus on an event at your school, your state or county, or a particular group (the local Y, a community church, and so forth). You can make this assignment more concrete by referring to the town and event involved. For instance, I might try one of these alternatives: Blacksburg is celebrating "Steppin' Out".... Or Kent State University is celebrating another Black Squirrel Festival....]

  2. [CYMBALIC, SO TO SPEAK] Think about the loud crash that cymbals make in some pieces of music. Everything has lulled into a quiet place, and CRASH! The loud ringing calls everyone to attention. Of course, that's not the only way cymbals are used; but it is one of the more dramatic ways. For this paper, your job is to find a SYMBOL in a poem that works like the loud crash of a CYMBAL in a piece of music. Find a symbol in a poem that we've read recently that makes you wake up and take notice. You're looking for a symbol that is the strongest, loudest one in the poem — but also one that is particularly meaningful. It needs to serve a purpose just like those cymbals do in the piece of music. It's not there just because the poem needed another line. It might change the poem's direction, or it might punctuate a series of symbols. In your paper, point out the symbol that you've chosen and explain why it's particularly meaningful and important in the poem.

    [NOTE: You might play an excerpt from a piece of music that demonstrates the kind of cymbal crash that this poem refers to, in order to help students who aren't sure what you're talking about. You might even invite them to bring in examples — those cymbals in the rock band's drum set are just as relevant as the two that they clap together at a symphony. It can also help to demonstrate the kind of symbol that students are looking for — to help them understand the task. The symbolic raisin in Langston Hughes' "A Dream Deferred" is a good example.

  3. [IT'S THE LAW! NO MORE POETRY] During a routine examination of the legal code, the officials down at town hall found a law on the books from 1912 outlawing poetry. The law states that because poetry is "unwarranted fluff that leads to sentimental tripe.... no poetry may be read aloud or silently, nor may any book of poetry be allowed in city limits." And the law is still in effect! From now on....It's the Law! No More Poetry. Naturally, folks are talking — and the town council has to make a recommendation to rescind or maintain the law. They've issued a 30-day grace period while they make a decision, so poets and poetry are safe for the next month. At the end of that period, though, they'll make their decision. At first it seemed like it would be obvious. They'd rescind the law, and everything would go back to normal. A group of citizens is campaigning to keep the law on the books though, and they've been gaining support. Your job is to write a letter to the editor of the local paper indicating your stance on the law and urging the town council to take action based on your argument.

  4. [ELEMENTARY DEFINITION] Take a look at the way that the dictionary defines "poetry." Encarta's Dictionary defines "poetry" as "literary work written in verse, in particular verse writing of high quality, great beauty, emotional sincerity or intensity, or profound insight." The Encarta's Encyclopedia begins similarly, "Poetry, form of literature, spoken or written, that emphasizes rhythm, other intricate patterns of sound and imagery, and the many possible ways that words can suggest meaning." The Encyclopedia goes on to talk about historical background, types of poetry like epic and lyric, and particular poetic characteristics such as rhythm and parallelism. All that's well and fine, but it's pretty complicated for your purposes. You have to explain poetry to a class of elementary students. Look at the information you have from the dictionary and encyclopedia, and write your own definition and explanation suitable for those students. Use appropriate poems to illustrate your definition.

    [Rather than using the Microsoft Encarta definitions, you might just borrow a few dictionaries and encyclopedia from the library to use in your classroom while students work on this assignment. If you have access to them, you might also bring in a children's dictionary and/or encyclopedia. The Microsoft dictionaries are available online:

    Alternately, you could have students write encyclopedia entries for their own use rather than for younger students.]

  5. [METEORIC] Wallace Stevens said, "A poem is a meteor." Robert Frost wrote, "Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting." Octavio Paz stated, "There can be a 'boom' in petroleum or wheat, but there can't be a boom in the novel and less still in poetry." What would you say? Choose a metaphor or simile that expresses your way of thinking about poetry, and write a paper that explains how the metaphor works, why you choose it, and points to example poems that help strengthen your explanations.

  6. [POETRY KIT] Construct a poetry inspiration kit. Collect items which someone else in the class will incorporate into a poem. Your job is to create a kit — various items that someone else will either name or describe in a poem. The items may be used to symbolize something or referred to specifically as is. Go through magazines, newspapers, and similar resources, and cut out pictures that will inspire someone else to write. Glue or tape your pictures to a regular-sized sheet of paper in a collage. Along with your collage, turn in a reflective piece that explains the choices that you've made. Share what you were thinking when you collected this particular set of items — what kind of poem did you have in mind? how do the items connect for you? why did you choose these particular items? The point of your reflection is to explain why you believe these items would be inspirational for a poet and the sorts of poetic devices you were hoping to inspire.

    EXTENSION: To continue the classroom activity, you might pass the kits back out, and ask students to write poems based on the kit that they've received.

    [ALTERNATIVE: Rather than creating an inspiration kit for a new poem, you might give students the chance to choose a poem that they've read recently and construct what they imagine the portry inspiration kit would have been for the poet. As an example, if someone had given Langston Hughes a kit for "The Dream Deferred" it could have included the front of a box of raisins, a picture of a bright sun, a picture of someone sleeping, and the word DREAM in large type letters.]

  7. [DESIGN A CELEBRATION] The Academy of American Poets established National Poetry Month with seven goals in mind — the first of which is "to highlight the extraordinary legacy and ongoing achievement of American poets" (All seven goals are available at and you can find more information about National Poetry Month at Not everyone agrees that the month succeeds in its goals. In his article "Against National Poetry Month As Such," poet and author Charles Bernstein argues that the way that poetry is defined for the purpose of National Poetry Month is unnecessarily limiting. Bernstein states, "National Poetry Month is about making poetry safe for readers by promoting examples of the art form at its most bland and its most morally 'positive.'" (Bernstein's article is at ).

    Given this background, here's your job: write a proposal for a National Poetry Month Celebration at your school, a local community center, or similar forum that fulfills the goals that the Academy set for the month while avoiding the pitfalls that Bernstein outlines. Your proposal will probably include the following parts: Introduction & Background, Objectives for the Celebration, Implementation, and Costs.

    [alternatives: Have students write an persuasive paper that agrees or disagrees with Bernstein's criticisms. Have students actually plan and present/lead a celebration for their school.]

  8. [W. H. AUDEN'S SYSTEM] Poet W. H. Auden tells us all we need to know to analyze a poem: "Speaking for myself, the questions which interest me most when reading apoem are two. The first is technical: 'Here is a verbal contraption. How does it work?' The second is, in the broadest sense, moral: 'What kind of a guy inhabits this poem? What is his notion of the good life or the good place? What is his notion of the Evil One? What does he conceal from the reader? What does he conceal even from himself?" (The Dyer's Hand, Pt. II)

    Write a two-part paper. In the first part, consider Auden's technical question, and in the second, address his moral question.

  9. [TITLE] How does the title of a poem that you've read recently relate to the poem itself? Is the title descriptive? somewhat of a moral? a statement of the theme? a symbol the poet is highlighting? something else altogether? Why has the writer chosen this title over other possibilities? In your paper, analyze the relationship between title and poem, paying attention to the reasons that the title highlights something that the author wants readers to know or come to understand about the poem.

  10. [MATCHING SONG] Find a song that pairs well with a poem we've read. The song and the poem may share the same theme, similar symbols, or a related series of events. Write a comparison paper that explores the two pieces and explains why they are a good match. What things are similar in the two pieces? What things were left out? How closely matched are the theme, symbols, and/or events? How similar are the things that are described and the emotions that are expressed? (Be sure to turn in a copy of the song lyrics with your paper.)

    [NOTE: You might have time when student can share cds/mp3s/tapes of their songs with you, the entire class, or small groups.]

Originally Posted on the NCTE Web on May 14, 2001.