7 tips for teaching free verse poetry
When you think of free verse poetry, do words like modern, unfamiliar, or even scary come to mind? It’s probably because much of modern poetry is either too confusing or too graphic.
The good news is that some poets have combined the best of literary talent and historic research, and their work is too good to pass up! That’s why I am recommending Margarita Engle and her free verse novel The Poet Slave of Cuba for our April celebration of National Poetry Month.
This is the story of Juan Francisco Manzano, a talented boy growing up on the sugar plantations of nineteenth-century Spanish Cuba. His greatest curse—and his greatest blessing—is this: he is the Poeta-Esclavo, the Poet Slave.
Engle’s book masterfully portrays the tragic struggles and sweet triumphs of a slave culture in the not-so-distant past. The stories, while tastefully drawn, do portray human suffering in a stark, startling manner. For that reason, this book is recommended for high school, or perhaps junior high at the parent’s discretion. As you read this book, keep in mind the following tips for teaching free verse poetry.
1. Compare Free Verse Poetry with Prose
Poets usually write free verse poetry using grammatical, non-rhyming sentences. Their free verse stanzas might look deceptively similar to prose. Help your children understand the difference between poetry and everyday prose using this exercise:
- Choose a stanza from The Poet Slave or other poem. Example: I am the big brother of two freeborn babies, twins / a brother and sister, my own / free, so free, / while I am not.
- Ask your child to rewrite the stanza in their own words, using as few words as possible. Example: I am older than my baby brother and sister. They are twins. Both of them are free, but I am not free.
- Read the two versions out loud until your children can hear the difference.
2. Read Aloud to Understand Lines and Pauses
A line in a free verse poem can be as long as a sentence or as short as a single word. Poets put great care into making each line the perfect length to convey a thought or a feeling. Teach your children about pauses at the end of lines by taking turns reading aloud:
- Practice breathing at the end of lines, not in the middle of them.
- Take shorter pauses at the line break when a sentence in one line is continued in the next.
- Take longer pauses at the line break when the two lines have separate thoughts.
You may also enjoy a more in-depth discussion of stanzas and line breaks in free verse poetry.
3. Identify Imagery and Themes
In The Poet Slave, references to feathers, wings, and birds start appearing in the very first stanza. This poem, however, is not about birds. The story is about a mind, soul, and body longing to be free. Note how the imagery (feathers, wings) and the theme (freedom) are closely tied together.
When you study free verse poetry, help your children identify the key images in the poem. Ask them to keep a list of ways these images are used. Most importantly, help them see the parallels between the imagery and the overarching theme.
4. Watch for Alliteration
In The Poet Slave, the proud Marquesa says:
They flicker all around him, like fireflies in the night.
This is an example of alliteration. This poetic device is fun to find—and even more fun to read. Keep an eye out for alliteration when reading free verse poetry.
5. Listen for Sound Patterns
Teach your children to be aware of sound patterns in free verse poetry. Interesting sound patterns show up when the words in a poem mimic the sounds in the story. We can almost feel la Marquesa slowly exhaling when she says:
The sight of so much invisible music
makes me sigh.
6. Try a Hands-On Experience
The Poet Slave of Cuba offers a first-person glimpse of a house slave’s world: the central courtyard, the tiled floor mosaics, the delicate blooms of tuberose and jasmine. When you read a free verse poem with your children, try to find real-world examples of things in the poem. For example:
- The art enthusiasts in your family will appreciate making a mosaic with brightly colored scraps of paper.
- If you live in California or Florida, you might visit a historic Spanish-style home such as the Casa de Rancho Cucamonga.
7. Make a Character Study
A character study can be as informal as a lunchtime discussion between you and your child. It can include a T-Chart to compare the inner qualities of two characters in the story. Or, you may assign a character study essay. Your older child will choose one person in the poem (such as Juan) and write about how he learns to overcome his own character flaws.
For example, the poet slave Juan is surrounded by superstition from an early age, and he sometimes wishes that he knew how to pray. His journey into manhood teaches him not only about faith in God, but also about the true meaning of mercy.
I hope you’re excited to try a study of free verse poetry with your family, and especially your high schoolers! If you want to start with a shorter poem, try one of these classics:
- Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird by Wallace Stevens
- Taking Leave of a Friend by Ezra Pound
- The Cultivation of Christmas Trees by T.S. Eliot
Daniella Dautrich is a WriteShop alumna and a graduate of Hillsdale College. She and her husband fill their home with books on writing, literature, and computer science. Daniella blogs at www.waterlilywriter.wordpress.com.
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