These lessons focus on poems about poetry itself:

Ars Poetica by Archibald MacLeish
so you want to be a writer by Charles Bukowski
Poetry by Marianne Moore

What is poetry? Why is it important? The poets included in these lessons address these questions, as only they can, from their experience as poets. As you might suspect, Archibald MacLeish, Charles Bukowski, and Marianne Moore have different takes on the subject. We ask your students to learn from what these poets have written, debate the various perspectives, and create their own personal definitions. As a possible culminating activity, we ask students to write an Op Ed piece defending why they think poetry is important—whether they "dislike it," like Marianne Moore, or not!

Aligned with the Common Core Standards, these lessons address the three Literacy areas—Reading, Writing, and Speaking and Listening. They can be used at the beginning of a poetry unit, in a unit on persuasive writing, or in any other way conjured by your own imagination. To make sure you reach diverse learners, feel free to adapt any or all parts of these lessons to your students’ learning styles.

Literature Common Core Standards Addressed in These Activities

Reading, Key Ideas and Details:
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.1 and 11-12.1

Reading, Craft and Structure:
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.4 and 11-12.4
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12. 6

Writing, Text Types and Purposes:
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.1a,b,c,d,e and 11-12.1a,b,c,d,e

Production and Distribution of Writing:
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.5 and 11-12.5

Speaking and Listening, Comprehension and Collaboration:
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.9-10.1d and 11-12.1d
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.9-10.3 and 11-12.3

Speaking and Listening, Presentation of Knowledge and Ideas:
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.SL.9-10.4 and 11-12.4


Studying the Poem


Students will:

  1. Understand and synthesize multiple perspectives to develop a definition of poetry
  2. Understand and synthesize multiple perspectives on why poetry is important
  3. Write an argumentative essay
  4. Defend their interpretations with evidence
  5. Understand the importance of strong imagery in writing


Whole Class Warm-up: What is poetry?

  • Ask students quickly to write their own definition of poetry in their journals or on a sheet of paper.
  • Whip around: Teacher starts: Poetry is…then goes around the room asking students to add something to form a class definition. Students can repeat what others have said, or add new thoughts.
  • If a student is having a problem, she can say "help and skip." At that point you may give her an example of two poems (one rhyming one not) you have selected for this purpose from the collection. Return to this student after all others are finished for her contribution.
  • While the students are going around the room, you should keep a list of the key words/ideas they generate on the board for future reference.

Small Group Work:

  • Divide your class into groups of no more than four students each
  • Ask each group to come up with a tableau (a still portrait with no words) to illustrate what they think are common subjects for a poem.
  • Give them 10-15 minutes to decide what their tableau would look like and practice getting into their still poses
  • Depending on the length of your class, and the number of small groups you have created, you can either ask:
    • One or two groups to present their tableaux to the class
    • Half the groups to present to the other half of the class and switch, or
    • Each group to present their tableau to the rest of the class
  • When you ask a group to present, ask the others to watch closely. Count down to the tableau—3,2,1 hold. Have them stay in pose for a few minutes, then relax.
  • Ask the observers the following questions:
    • What did you notice in the tableau?
    • What positions were people in? High? Low? Far apart? Together? Touching?
    • What are they doing? Why do you say this?
    • How does it make you feel? Why do you say this?
  • On the board, record the key ideas, feelings and evidence that come out of this conversation.

Collaborative Reading:

This reading activity focuses on the poems as a group in order for the students to grapple with the multiple perspectives on poetry presented.

  • Ask your students to get back in small groups. (You may or may not want them to stay in their groups from the previous activity based on how well they functioned and what more they could learn from working together on reading.)
  • Give each group a copy of one of the three poems
  • Ask each group to pick a recorder/reporter, and a facilitator who will make sure each person in the group speaks
  • The facilitator asks
    • One person to read the poem out loud to the group
    • Another person to read the poem out loud
    • What jumps out at you in the poem?
    • What does the poet think is important in poetry?
    • What is not important?
    • What images does the poet use to make his/her point? Give examples.
    • How do these images add to your understanding? How do they make you feel?
    • How does the poet feel about poetry? How do you know?

The recorder/reporter takes notes on what the group says and checks back with group members to make sure her notes accurately represent the conversation

After Reading the Poems:

We suggest three activities here. You can choose to do one, a couple, or all three, depending on your goals for your students. Nonetheless, we recommend you conduct the first whole class discussion, and, if you choose to do more, conduct the others in whatever order works best for you.

Whole class discussion:

Goal: To develop a definition of poetry. To develop an understanding of the importance of strong images in writing.

Make sure all students have copies of all three poems. Ask each recorder/reporter to answer the following questions:

  • Who is your poet?
  • What does your poet think is important in poetry?
  • What is not important?
  • What images does your poet use to make his/her point? Give examples.
  • How do these images add to your understanding?
  • How do they make you feel?
  • How does the exercise we did with tableaux relate to this discussion?
  • What is the relationship between a physical tableau and an image in a poem?

Facilitate a discussion that develops a shared set of understandings about each poem and the poems as a group. After reading these poems, how would your class define poetry? How does the use of images contribute to the points the poets want to make? What makes an image strong? How might the students use strong images in their own writing?

Poets Debate:

Goal: To synthesize multiple perspectives. To develop skills of argumentation, speaking and listening.

  • Divide your class into three groups.
  • One group will represent Archibald MacLeish ("A poem should not mean / But be"), one Marianne Moore ("one discovers in / it after all, a place for the genuine"), and the third Charles Bukowski ("it will do it by / itself").
  • Each group will construct a well-developed argument to represent the ideas of their poet on the following questions: What is poetry? Why is it important? What do you need to know to write poetry?
  • Follow the rules you usually use for having debates in your class.


Writing Activity

Goal: To understand the structure of an OpEd piece. To write a persuasive essay on the importance of poetry.

  • Give your students a model of what you think is a great OpEd piece.
  • Have them read the piece, then write in their journals what they think are the key features of this kind of writing.
  • Ask them to turn and talk to the person next to them about the key features.
  • Conduct whole class discussion on features of an OpEd.
  • Ask your students to write an OpEd talking about why poetry is important. They should use evidence from the three poems read earlier, as well as any other sources you may want to provide.
  • Ask them to have their partner (from the turn and talk) critique their piece. Remind them to start with positive comments about the piece and then offer suggestions for improvement.
  • Publish the OpEds on the school's web site or in another appropriate way with a title suggested by students.


Vocabulary Words

Ask your students to list words in the poems they do not understand.  These might include: