My top five poems to inspire secondary school students
Ask an English teacher about their favourite poem and you’re likely to evoke a full on ramble, beginning with the moment they first fell in love with literature.
Mine took place on an overcast Tuesday morning in a GCSE English lesson, where my teacher (who I still consider the Richard Branson of educationalists) first recited William Blake’s “The Tyger” to our class: a group of thirty pubescent teenagers. While the majority of my peers texted under the table and doodled on the back of their poetry anthologies, I was fully enchanted by the ‘fearful symmetry’ of Blake’s creature and its ‘deadly’ presence which Sir articulated so poignantly.
Perhaps it’s due to my wonderful experiences as an English student that I consider poetry the crème de la crème of my weird and wonderful subject. “It’s like looking through a kaleidoscope…” noted one of my students a few weeks ago. “…Often it seems really muddled and jumbled but at the same time it remains a thing of beauty.”
Isn’t it wonderful when our children make comments like that?
I think this student was spot on. Regardless of their shape or size, poems allow us a lens into the eccentricities and peculiarities of language. This is one of the many, many reasons we celebrate their importance.
And whilst I won’t proceed list my favourite poems (the list is copious and I wouldn’t quite know where to begin!), I will list five that I have found, in my experience, to be very successful in the classroom.
1. “A Martian Sends a Post Card Home” by Craig Raine
If you are not familiar with this poem, Google it right now. Seriously. Told through a series of rhyming couplets, an estranged alien records his findings upon visiting Earth for the very first time. From book reading (“I have never seen one fly but sometimes they perch on the hand”) to bedtime activity (“they hide in pairs and read about themselves…with their eyelids shut”), Raine finds a way to make the ordinary, extraordinary.
2. “Dulce Et Decorum Est” by Wilfred Owen
The above ballad seems to be a staple in every English department across the country. Over taught as it might be, this poem remains, in my opinion, one of the best in conveying the severe physical and psychological impact of war. Endless in imagery that is both vicious (“guttering, chocking, drowning”) and pungent (“white eyes writhing in his face…like a devils sick of sin”), Owen’s verse allows students to explore conflict in its rawest form.
3. “Kid” by Simon Armitage
Engaging pubescent boys in poetry can have its challenges! You could do head-stands and star jumps and receive the same Zombie-esque expressions. Ex-poet laureate, Armitage’s “Kid,” however, engages from the outset. Gritty to the nines, this monologue is told from the perspective of Robin, Batman’s loyal sidekick, who, having finally come to his wits end (can you really blame him?) goes on a verbal rampage essentially tearing the caped crusader to shreds claiming he is now “taller, harder, stronger, older” and is ready to let rip.
4. “Mother to Son” by Langston Hughes
Hughes' dramatic monologue (written entirely in free verse) is delivered (as the title suggests) by a mother to her child. She begins by advising him that “life ain’t no crystal stair,” which essentially forms an extended metaphor relating to the many hardships faced by African Americans in the 1900s - a world where black individuals were marginalized, oppressed and silenced by white tyranny. Hughes writes in Southern dialect throughout (which my children LOVE to read). Phrases like “I’se still goin’ honey” and “you finds it’s kinder hard” convey the mother’s colloquial and homely chatter, which gives this verse a sense of warmth despite its dark subject matter.
5. Sonnet 19, 116, 130…how about all 154?
There are Shakespearean purists out there (the type that will probably be buried with a timeworn copy of “Hamlet” clutched firmly in their bony grip) who might reel with fury at the way sonnets are being approached by many an innovative teacher across the globe. I have a good friend who gets her kids to rap them to backing music, another gets hers to make “Vines” using key phrases from a selection of their choice. Personally, I find using love songs to be particularly effective. After all, many of the sonnets were largely about “wooing.” And whilst I am certainly not a connoisseur in the old dating department, Ed Sheeran certainly seems to be.
Adam Bernard is head of English at a school in New York