P is for Poetry

10 10 2010


The Lake Isle of Innisfree (by W.B.Yeats)


A couple of days ago I got the following email:

I am a fellow kiwi (like so many, living in Australia) preparing for the DELTA which has led me to read a rather large number of your books (among other authors) which I have really enjoyed and I just wanted to say how interested/ inspired I am to see your frequent examples using poetry in the classroom. I have a fondness for poetry but have always been a bit wary of using it in the classroom especially as even colleagues will label poetry as “elitist” or “obscure” and therefore not fit to use in a communicative environment.

Now, however, I feel ready to sally forth and use poetry in the classroom more frequently, ignoring what my other colleagues have to say,

To which I replied:

Thanks for your message — it’s nice to know that the poetry is appreciated. The fact that poetry is open to multiple interpretations, exploits repetition and figurative language, breaks rules, is generally short, and encodes interesting cultural information, all make it exploitable in the language classroom, I figure.

How, then, would you use a poem in class? Here’s what I said about the classroom use of literary texts in Beyond the Sentence:

Essentially there needn’t be any major differences between the approach to using non-literary texts and the approach to using literary ones. However, you might have to work harder at the pre-text stage, providing any helpful background knowledge (including cultural and biographical information), and you might have to intervene more at the comprehending stage, i.e. the stage where learners are attempting to construct a coherent mental schema of the text. What is important (as with non-literary texts) is that at some point you should solicit the learners’ response to the text, including their feelings about it: did they find it moving, funny, difficult, thought-provoking, etc? And why, or why not? At some point, and especially if the text is a poem, learners should be given the opportunity of hearing the text read aloud. Often … the text doesn’t properly come alive until it is heard.

In order to demonstrate how this might work, let’s take an example by one of my favourite poets, W.B. Yeats:

The Balloon of the Mind

Hands, do what you’re bid:
Bring the balloon of the mind
That bellies and drags in the wind
Into its narrow shed.


...that bellies and drags in the wind.... (photo by Saeid Shahin Kiya)


1. Project or dictate the title, and ask “Why is the mind like a balloon?” Brainstorm possible answers.
2. Read the poem aloud, naturally but at an easy pace. Students listen. (Or play this recording).
3. They then write down any words or phrases they caught on this first hearing and compare notes.
4. Repeat stages 2 and 3.
5. Project the poem, or write it on the board. Read it aloud again.
6. Check the meaning of bid (= order), bellies (from the noun belly), drags, and shed.
7. Ask some check questions: Who is addressing whom, in order to do what? What is the object of do? What is the object of bring? What or where is the narrow shed? Elicit a translation, if feasible.
8. Ask “Why is the poem a good example of its own message?”
9. (Optional: Draw attention to the (half-)rhymes and the rhythm (three prominent syllables in each line) and ask the students to practise reciting the poem, in pairs and as a group).
10. (Optional: Ask students to draw an image that “describes” the poem; compare).
11. “Think about a way that the poem reflects your own experience”. Discuss and report.
12. “Hide” the poem, and see if the class can re-construct it from memory.
13. Ask students to write a poem beginning “X, do what you’re bid” – where X stands for any of the following: eyes, ears, tongue, heart, feet etc.

Do you have a “poem lesson” that you’d like to share? Or a favourite poem you have used in class?


Yeats, W.B. (1950) The Collected Poems of W.B.Yeats (2nd edn). London: Macmillan.



63 responses

10 10 2010


I must confess that I’m a huge fan of John Clare’s poems ;)) I’m an English teacher and I often use his poems in class. Great post thanks for sharing!

10 10 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for being the first to comment!

John Clare – not easy stuff. And yet the first line of his supposedly last poem

I am! Yet what I am none cares or knows…

consists of nothing but one-syllable words, and all within the top 500 most frequent words in English. (This has the makings of an interesting task to set your more creative students).

You can read the rest of this incredibly sad poem here:


10 10 2010
Mike Harrison

Hi Scott,

Many thanks for the post. Like the chap who emailed you, I’d really like to use poetry much more in my lessons (without overdoing it though) but am still sometimes reluctant. This is partly because it can sometimes be tricky to distill a particular teaching point in a poem – in fact you could probably exploit some poems for weeks and weeks, and although I’d like that, I don’t know if all my students would!

One of the of poem lessons I’ve done fairly successfully in the past was your parts of speech activity in your book for the Oxford Resource series, Grammar. A great way to get the students thinking about the different word in their poem, and it provides a nice structure for students to follow in writing their own – when it can be difficult to get started. I particularly like the suggestion you make above and with this activity in Grammar about asking the students to reconstruct it as you wipe it off the board.

Another poem based lesson I like is the Animated Poem lesson plan on Jamie Keddie’s TEFLclips site. I really think that the addition of the video can add a lot to the reading of a poem (although of course not something you want all the time with poems).

Which leads me to a poem I crafted a lesson on – Roger McGough’s My First Day At School (on my site here). This is a case where I think the animation adds so much to the poem (a rich resource in itself), so the text and audio can be exploited with or without the video element.

Look forward to hearing others’ ideas for using poems in the classroom


10 10 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for the comment, Mike, and for the references to the poem ideas in Grammar (OUP). For those who don’t have this (incredibly useful) book (and you are not alone!), here is the first idea that Mike referred to:

1.2 Grammar poems.

Level: Intermediate and above
Time: 10 – 15 minutes
Aims: To reinforce grammar terms, through creative writing.
Preparation: Prepare a poem “rubric” (i.e. the framework for a poem) that consists solely of parts of speech.

For example:

1. article + noun
2. participle, participle, participle
3. adjective, adjective
4. repeat 1
5. pronoun + verb
6. pronoun + verb
7. pronoun + always/never/still + verb
8. repeat 1
9. repeat 3
10. repeat 2


1. Write the rubric on the board, and check that the learners are familiar with the names of the different parts of speech.

2. Tell them that this is the model for a poem. The first line is the title of the poem. For example: The Sea; A Forest; The Sharks, etc.

3. Learners work individually or in pairs to compose their poems.

4. They then exchange poems, or the poems can be illustrated and displayed around the room. Here, for example, is a poem that is based on the above rubric:

The Sea

Smiling, frowning, laughing
Angry, joyful
The sea
It comes
It goes
It never sleeps
The sea
Angry, joyful
Smiling, frowning, laughing


Rub the rubric off the board, and see if the learners can re-construct it, using their own poems as a guide.

10 10 2010
Karenne Sylvester

My favorite poem to use in class was one I got from a Headway book back in the day… but I kept the idea and have used it many times since:

W.H. Auden’s: http://www.npr.org/programs/death/readings/poetry/aude.html (legal version)

there is also a beautiful clip from the 4 Weddings movie on YouTube (copyright violation) so I won’t link it…

Anyway, the poem is rich in language (as poem’s often are) and leads to many discussions on the nature of love and loss and can be used around Valentine’s day or whenever someone “important” in the public eye has died and students are up for discussing the taboo subject of death – this essential and overlooked lexis (not to mention the other love taboo) can be dealt with in context and without causing any offense.

Also, because it’s so visual, students can use to this to create photographic or drawing intrepretations to understand its text.

10 10 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thank, Karenne. That’s a great poem (although I must confess I’ve always been irritated by the way it is presented in Headway: “A loved one has died. What in general does the poet want the world to do?…” Note how awkwardly the authors (or their publishers) pussy-foot around the issue of the poet’s sexuality!

10 10 2010
Karenne Sylvester

uh-huh… that’s not all they pussy-foot around ;-).

um, I forgot to add – I don’t know how relevant this or whether it’ll sound all “me, me, me..ish” but um, as you may know am a bit of a closet-poet and have actually done my own work with students.

In particular, the History of English, (the thing I did at IATEFL) was a running theme in one class for a few weeks (because they were interested, she blushes, convincingly) and they actually helped quite a lot to keep the language both simple and visual (because it was a PK) and to keep the “story” going.

Also with one of my one-on-one students, she was quite a successful poet in her own language and we created translations for a couple of them and had many a discussion on how to keep the art intact.

So.. um, my point is, poetry good – not only the work of great Poets but also the own work of students (and…um teacher too…) in class.


10 10 2010

Ah poetry! That’s what I am very involved in at the moment, both in performance and also as a major resource for language learning. I am doing a talk about it at the moment. So many good activities with poems, from running dictation, to line re-ordering (has to be done in the right way), from filling a poem with blanks and gradually re-showing it with one letter then two then three of the missing word shown, from…well that’s what I am talking about at the moment. And in particular I am interested in getting students to recite poems.

Two favourite poems that I think are REALLY useful for teaching are ‘A Blade of Grass’ and ‘The Confession’ by Brian Patten. And guess who is one of the plenary speakers at next year’s IATEFL conference!!


10 10 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Jeremy – I have to admit, I had half hoped you’d respond on this topic, knowing how dear poetry is to your heart. And how modest of you not to mention ‘Touching Dreams’ – your poetry-plus-music compilation that was such a hit at IATEFL last year, and which is now available on CD.

For those of you who don’t know ‘A Blade of Grass’, by Brian Patten, you can read it here: http://tinyurl.com/2vvobpl

11 10 2010

Hi Scott,

back again.

In the talk I am doing at the moment I refer to an inspired and charismatic teacher who was at the UNAM (national university) in Mexico for many years (after working at the Cultura in Mexico). His name was Colin White. In an unpublished article which Richard Rossner has been kind enough to show me he describes selecting a group of very low level students and making them learn (and recite well) the romantic poets even when they didn’t understand what the hell the poems were about. It sounds crazy. A bit like learning the Holy Koran by memory even though you don’t understand the words. Yet, Colin claimed, the drop-out rate in the ‘poetry’ group (where they also did regular teaching and learning) was far lower than in other groups, and it provoked ‘outstanding’ and ‘unexpected’ achievement in a minority of the group.

Do I believe him? Well I certainly have problems with the choice of poems – and on the whole I think students fare better when they understand what they are saying – but the effect of properly mediated recitation for all sorts of pronunciation, fun and speaking confidence is, at least for some students, unarguable in my opinion.


11 10 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Jeremy — to me that makes perfect sense, as I still remember whole poems in German that I learned by heart when I was 16, studying German at school. I accidentally discovered an LP of German poetry in our local library, and I listened to it obsessively. A lot of it was the Romantics (the German variety) including Schiller, Goethe, and Heine, and I was not always clear as to what I was memorising, but I think it gave me a feel for German that I never had for French. (Curiously, a number of these poems have come back to haunt me in the form of Lieder by Schubert, Brahms etc).

10 10 2010

Awful to have colleagues who think poetry is “elitist and obscure”. In the introduction to one of books of collected poems, Seamus Heaney writes about the origin of his poetry: the rhymes and chants of his childhood.

“Found” poetry is a way to go too – looking for rhythm and rhyme in unexpected places can yield some wonderful surprises and encourages to attention to words and their use.

And doing all those wonderfully sacrilegious things with poems such as mixing and matching lines to create new surprises and serendipitous meaning.

When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes I must go down to the sea again.

10 10 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Josie – and the ‘cut-up’ activity is a great idea (I’m always intrigued by the random juxtapositions in the Index of First Lines at the back of most anthologies. E.g.

Walking in gardens by the sides
Watching hands, transplanting
We go, in winter’s biting wind,
We grant they’re thine, those beauties all

(from The Oxford Book of Garden Verse,chosen completely at random).

As for found poems, here’s one I “found” this morning, as I was reading the packaging of a packet of green tea I bought in Japan last month. (I’ve slightly re-arranged the lines, but haven’t changed the words):

The one that coarse tea and brown rice were mixed.
Powdered green tea was put in.

The feature

The color is beautiful
Good smell
Bitter is a little

How to drink
Please flow into the bowl
after I put a leaf in a teapot

10 10 2010
Vicky Loras

Hi Scott!

Thank you for this, as I have a great love of poetry and teaching it (as I hope a lot of ELT educators do as well).

One of my favourite poems and one I love to teach (and students of various age ranges have enjoyed) is Robert Frost’s “Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening” http://www.poetryfoundation.org/archive/poem.html?id=171621 .I find it so rich in images and the interpretations the students have come up with are absolutely amazing. We have worked a lot on the vocabulary as well (synonyms and such).

There are so many ways to teach poetry and I believe it is very beneficial for students to delve into poetry, both for linguistic and educational reasons. It is wonderful to expose them to literature of any kind.

Thank you so much for this, Scott – and thank you for the poem in your post and the great ideas!

Kindest regards,

10 10 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for that Vicky. Yes, that’s a wonderful poem, and most of Robert Frost’s work is generally fairly accessible for English language learners. Not only that, some of his lines have taken on ‘catchphrase’ status, hence there are levels of cultural depth that might be worth exploring in class. I’m thinking, in particular of:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I–
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

and (slightly more problematic):

Good fences make good neighbors.

11 10 2010

I’ve used Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” with a class and see it as a poem that is truly amazing. There is a fascinating YouTube lecture on it (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a5140uJOUDE) where Kevin Murphy points out that Frost is NOT writing an inspirational ode to the pioneering spirit, but a typically cynical poem about the human condition to turn our rather mundane lives into mythical stories of great daring-do. The fact that the poem itself has been transformed throughout time bears out this fact.

Tellingly, this interpretation was mind-blowing to me (despite having studied Frost at university). My students, on the other hand, picked it up easily and ran with it.

Another poem that I have enjoyed with students has been Armitage’s “You’re Beautiful”. Once again, students surprised me with their ability to pull out far greater truths than I could.

11 10 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for that link, Diarmuid. Very interesting: I certainly will have to review my understanding of that poem. What is this ‘darker underside’ to Frost’s personality, I wonder, apart from his apparent misanthropy (according to the lecturer)?

10 10 2010
Joanne Sato

Hi all,

I teach at a women’s college in Japan and teach a weekly seminar on British culture (ten students, ninety minutes). The students will eventually write a paper on their chosen area, with this in mind I have been guiding them through some aspects of British culture. As a component of this course I have the students write a two page journal on the aspect of culture we have been exploring in class. The students than bring the journals to the next class and introduce their ideas and what they studied to their friends.

We have a lovely library at the college and I am always trying to find ways of encouraging the students to explore the large collection of English books that are just waiting to be read. A few months ago we were looking at the idea of the countryside in Britain and how it has been represented in literature and film. I read Wordsworth’s poem “Daffodils” to the students at the end of the class and gave them a list of British Romantic Poets names (including the big names Shelley, Byron, Keats etc. and some lesser known names and women writers). Their task was to go to the library and find a poem they liked, write a verse of it down and describe why they liked it. This task sounds enormous (it was), but as I sat on my favourite hidden chair just behind the philosophy section and heard the whispered words of love and romance from the poetry shelves I felt vindicated in setting such a big task. The next week in class as the students talked about their journal entries I was overwhelmed by all the beautiful poems the students had chosen and how well they did at reading them to each other. There were tales of heartache, grief, passion, awkwardness, new love and beauty (very relevant to nineteen year olds, not a lot of grammar though) and every poem reflected how that student felt about something personal to them. It was a brilliant class (no evidence of that) and just maybe encouraged students to be interested in poetry in English. I know if I had conducted a grammar class with poetry it may have had the opposite effect. Conclusion (for this context): passion first, grammar later.

In my Japanese culture class the students write haiku in English. Here is one by a student:

Which one is taller? (5)
Girl, boy or the sun flower (7)
Smiling together (5)

P.S. Scott. What was the name of that poet whose work you introduced us to in Tokyo?

10 10 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Jo, that is a great teaching story (I love the image I have of you eavesdropping on your students discovering the Romantics!).

As for the poet whose work I mentioned in Tokyo, this is Jo being a little bit cute! I’ll give you a clue: his name is Rhys Burton, and his work appeared in a coursebook that one S. Thornbury wrote in the mid 90s.

10 10 2010
Joanne Sato

I live in Japan and if I’m not occasionally cute (kawaii) my students (or husband) no longer listen to me!

Rhys Burton. I shall sleep tonight. The name had played on my mind, I even resorted to an online anagram tool, with no luck.

As I sat listening to the whispers of my students I was reading Sylvia Plath and Emily Dickinson. There is this seat, it is hidden behind philosophy and next to the oversized books, it is where I escape. There’s no phone there, no mail, no ipod, no mac, it is my ‘unplugged’ space on a pink chair with thoughts.


A pink chair with thoughts
Fragrant olive is dying
The end of summer

10 10 2010
Malu Sciamarelli

I have to confess that I’m a huge fan of poetry and when I started to teach at a software company a year ago I felt a little bit frustrated thinking that I couldn’t use it in the classroom anymore because my students are all software engineers!
Big mistake of mine! My favourite poem is “The road not taken” – Roberto Frost – and as soon as I started talking about it, they got completely involved. Some of them are now fans of poetry themselves.
So, everyday I send them a “piece of wisdom”, as they call it, and use them in class as often as I can! =)

11 10 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Malu – yes, that has to be one of the all-time greats (and here’s the link), its final lines on a par with other great ‘journey’ poems, such as Cavafy’s Ithaka:

…Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.

And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

and Machado’s

…Caminante no hay camino
sino estelas en la mar.

10 10 2010
Ceri Jones

One of my favourite “ways in” to using poetry in class is William Carlos Williams’s This is just to say…. We start the lesson eating fruit, and end it writing our own versions of the poem. We play around with the word order, and the line breaks, we read it aloud, we recreate it to fit our classroom and we listen to each other’s recreations. And the poem stands the test of being read, re-read, taken apart and reconstructed and still survives. By the end of the class most of the students can quote most of the poem, and still remember it really clearly weeks later.

11 10 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Ceri – that’s a great little poem (and I’ve linked your mention of it to the text). I once heard tell of a lesson where the students composed other ‘apology’ poems to leave around the house, beginning ‘This is just to say…”.

William Carlos Williams is a great source of learner-friendly poetry. His Red Wheelbarrow is another one that is deceptively simple, but also provides a wonderful template for the learners’ own creativity.

31 10 2013

I too saw a variation on ‘This is just to say…’ .The students had to write apology poems between different pairs of people – teacher/student, football player/referee, taxi driver/customer etc They would then read out their poems while the other students guessed who the people apologising were..

10 10 2010
Ben Goldstein

Thanks, Scott, for this post. A topic very dear to my heart, as well. Poetry is something that I have never tired of using in the language classroom and, when my editors let me, of including in coursebooks and the like.

Not sure where to begin but for the moment here are two very different poems, exploited for very different purposes:

Firstly, I have found poetry very useful for exploring different World English varieties with learners. For example, the Guyanan poet John Agard’s ‘Listen Mr Oxford Don’ is a brilliant rejection of standard British English and that all that it represents for him:

Listen Mr Oxford don

Me not no Oxford don
me a simple immigrant
from Clapham Common
I didn’t graduate
I immigrate

But listen Mr Oxford don
I’m a man on de run
and a man on de run
is a dangerous one

I ent have no gun
I ent have no knife
but mugging de Queen’s English
is the story of my life

I dont need no axe
to split/ up yu syntax
I dont need no hammer
to mash/ up yu grammar

I warning you Mr Oxford don
I’m a wanted man
and a wanted man
is a dangerous one

Dem accuse me of assault
on de Oxford dictionary/
imagine a concise peaceful man like me/
dem want me serve time
for inciting rhyme to riot
but I rekking it quiet
down here in Clapham Common

I’m not a violent man Mr Oxford don
I only armed wit mih human breath
but human breath
is a dangerous weapon

So mek dem send one big word after me
I ent serving no jail sentence
I slashing suffix in self defence
I bashing future wit present tense
and if necessary

I making de Queen’s English accessory/ to my offence.

Students find it incredible that Agard can break every rule in the book and yet his writing remains entirely intelligible to an international audience. In this way, they can seek out links between Agard’s message and the rebelliousness of rap music, especially when you hear the man himself recite it: http://thepoetrychannel.org.uk/poems/listen-mr-oxford-don/.

In one class, I asked students to identify the particular characteristics of Guyanan English as evidenced in this poem (e.g. how the /th/ sounds becomes a ‘d’ at the start of a word but ‘t’ at the end, etc.) Once they’ve identified these, they can then rewrite the poem in standard register, read it back and see and hear the difference. In this way, I think we can make learners aware of how the poet’s identity is marked by such spellings as well as the rhythm and delivery which contribute, of course, to the verse’s overall message.

Secondly, it was also good to read Mike’s post and his comments about animated poems. I agree that this is a great way of of appealing to a generation unused to just sitting down and reading a poem. I’ve prepared a task on the poem Forgetfulness by the US poet Billy Collins based on an animation I found online.

Coincidentally I just uploaded this to my blog. Check out the video and the task here:

I hope you agree that the video format lends itself really well to what the poem wants to say about memory.

11 10 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Ben – and what I particularly like about the poem is that it’s about language – and the English language, at that. So it lends itself to lots of discussion about varieties and accents.

Tony Harrison’s ‘Them and [uz]’ is another in this tradition – you can watch the poet himself reading it here.

11 10 2010

I think this post ties in really well with the “can you teach pronunciation” one back a little bit because poetry is a great way of getting learners to work on pronun in a realistic and fun way – particularly on stress and intonation.

In order to say poems (especially things like limericks with a set form) correctly, people have to use all the facets of connected speech, and they of course can be so much fun – especially if you get them writing their own, which is a great way on getting learners working with tone units etc.

There was a great piece on the BBC a little way back – “Would you kill the fat guy” with a great intro in a train like rhythm, then an excellent couple of podcasts on philosophy to go with it. Great for ordering, reciting etc, followed by a great discussion. More poetry I say!

11 10 2010
Scott Thornbury

Hi Darridge – yes, good point about the ‘prosody’ of poetry – i.e. the attention you need to give to stress and rhythm in order to recite them. As you say, short, rhythmic poems like limericks are ideal for this purpose. I have fond memories of doing what was called ‘choral speaking’ at school, where we all (the whole class) would recite poems in unison with a great deal of ‘expression’, as the teacher ‘conducted’. One of the ones that is etched in my memory is ‘The Sands of Dee’ by Charles Kingsley, which begins:

“O Mary, go and call the cattle home,
And call the cattle home,
And call the cattle home
Across the sands of Dee”;
The western wind was wild and dank with foam,
And all alone went she.

Needless to say, Mary meets a cruel fate – but we loved repeating the refrain, and howling like the wind!

You can read the rest of it here.

11 10 2010

Here is a poem that helped keep me out of law school, and got me into circus school, the best decision I ever made in my life.

Edgar Lee Masters (1868–1950). Spoon River Anthology. 1916.

60. Fiddler Jones

THE EARTH keeps some vibration going
There in your heart, and that is you.
And if the people find you can fiddle,
Why, fiddle you must, for all your life.
What do you see, a harvest of clover? 5
Or a meadow to walk through to the river?
The wind’s in the corn; you rub your hands
For beeves hereafter ready for market;
Or else you hear the rustle of skirts
Like the girls when dancing at Little Grove. 10
To Cooney Potter a pillar of dust
Or whirling leaves meant ruinous drouth;
They looked to me like Red-Head Sammy
Stepping it off, to “Toor-a-Loor.”
How could I till my forty acres 15
Not to speak of getting more,
With a medley of horns, bassoons and piccolos
Stirred in my brain by crows and robins
And the creak of a wind-mill—only these?
And I never started to plow in my life 20
That some one did not stop in the road
And take me away to a dance or picnic.
I ended up with forty acres;
I ended up with a broken fiddle—
And a broken laugh, and a thousand memories, 25
And not a single regret.

11 10 2010

I also like the poetry of students: the things that get said, the freshness of everything.

Using improv with high school students learning English, there is a lot of poetry in titles they choose for improvised sketches: The head that didn’t talk, A glass of people…

11 10 2010
Cecilia Coelho

Hi Scott,

What a fantastic treat it was to start my morning by reading the wonderful comments, poems and ideas for teaching with poetry!

One of the ways I use poems when teaching is when we’re studying/reviewing adjectives. I’ll start by saying I want them to close their eyes, because I will read them a poem describing something and that I want them to listen carefully so they can tell me what is the poem about.

Then I read them part of Neruda’s “Ode to an Onion” – leaving out the onion mention, of course. This is what I read:

luminous flask,
your beauty formed
petal by petal,
crystal scales expanded you
and in the secrecy of the dark earth
your belly grew round with dew.
Under the earth
the miracle
and when your clumsy
green stem appeared,
and your leaves were born
like swords
in the garden,
the earth heaped up her power
showing your naked transparency,
and as the remote sea
in lifting the breasts of Aphrodite
duplicating the magnolia,
so did the earth
make you,

Then I ask students to say what is the poem about – only once did a student guess it. They’re usually very amused when they hear it’s about an onion, and then I show the poem on the board and ask them to refer to where they can “see”the onion – now that they know it’s about an onion. We go over what is an ode.

I tell them THEY are going to write their own odes. They have to choose an object (I usually take some odd objects to class, and images of everyday objects to give a few ideas. I put them around the classroom on display – but they don’t have to use those, they can just think of an object). I encourage them to use as many adjectives and metaphors as possible. When they’re done, I ask for volunteers to read their poems aloud and the other students have to try and guess what is the ode to. I usually ask them to bring a poem they like and a paragraph explaining what is it about that poem that they like as a homework assignment. It’s always been a fun lesson.

Thanks for this wonderful post Scott. 🙂 Will keep coming back to get more ideas. Cheers.


11 10 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for that poem, Cecilia, and the teaching ideas. I like the idea of withholding the title, and seeing if the students can divine what it’s about. Also, the follow-up, writing ideas are great – the ‘safety’ poetry gives is that it values expression over accuracy, which is good news for learners!

11 10 2010
Cecilia Coelho

Sorry, I forgot to add the link to Neruda’s “Ode to an Onion”‘s full version. You can find it here: http://www.poetryconnection.net/poets/Pablo_Neruda/8992


12 10 2010
Ben Goldstein

Cecilia, I love that onion poem. Have to check out the original Spanish,too.

Talking of onions… Here’s another poem about one by Carol Ann Duffy, called Valentine:

Not a red rose or a satin heart.

I give you an onion.
It is a moon wrapped in brown paper.
It promises light
like the careful undressing of love.

It will blind you with tears
like a lover.
It will make your reflection
a wobbling photo of grief.

I am trying to be truthful.

Not a cute card or a kissogram.

I give you an onion.
Its fierce kiss will stay on your lips,
possessive and faithful
as we are,
for as long as we are.

Take it.
Its platinum loops shrink to a wedding-ring,
if you like.

Its scent will cling to your fingers,
cling to your knife.

Again, you could do similar guessing game with this one. Leading in with students brainstorming different, more conventional ways, of sending a valentine. Follow-up with debate about whole notion of Valentines maybe and what the poem might be questioning?

12 10 2010


Neruda is a personal favorite of mine… I fell in love with his house in Santiago (La Chascona). That house is a poem on its own, made of concrete and stone. The poem choice was for the uniqueness of object choice for a poem – and of course because it’s a perfect of the use of adjectives to describe something. And it’s fun.

Thank you so much for the other onion poem. It would be great to give it to students after the first activity and have them compare, give their impressions on how different/similar each poet has described the same thing. They could say which they like best, which they think best describes it… Possibilities are endless!

I didn’t know that one by Carol Ann Duffy, but my favorite poem is actually by her: You. Really, really beautiful.

And thank you once again Scott for the wonderful post. I’m really enjoying reading the comments.

12 10 2010
Mário Lindberg

I’ve never used poetry in class with my students, but after reading this post, I think I’ll give it a try. I also read this http://bit.ly/dml7P7 and I’m impressed with the numbers of activities we can work with our students.
Thx a lot.

12 10 2010
Bruno Leys

For younger learners I have developed activities around (funny) poems by Michael Rosen, Allan Ahlberg, Shel Silverstein and poetry from the site gigglepoetry.com.
Children and teachers tend to love these activities as they are something else than the coursebook, less predictable and leave room for creative comprehension and discussion.

Poetry rules OK!

12 10 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks Bruno – nice site. And it reminds me of the fun that can be had with parody, e.g. comparing a parody with the original, and then writing one’s own.

Here, for example, is Lewis Carroll’s parody of ‘Twinkle, twinkle, little star’:

Twinkle, twinkle, little bat!
How I wonder what you’re at!
Up above the world you fly,
Like a teatray in the sky.

And here is Spike Milligan, parodying John Masefield:

I must go down to the sea again,
to the lonely sea and the sky;
I left my shoes and socks there –
I wonder if they’re dry?

12 10 2010
Bruno Leys

Love the Spike Milligan one especially, Scott.
It also brings it back to “the marvellous world of possibility” as Norman MacCaig states in his poem ‘Incident’.


I look across the table and think
(fiery with love)
Ask me, go on, ask me
to do something impossible,
something freakishly useless,
something unimaginable and inimitable

like making a finger break into blossom
or walking for half an hour in twenty minutes
or remembering tomorrow

I will you to ask it.
But all you say is
Will you give me a cigarette?
And I smile and,
returning to the marvellous world
of possibility,
I give you one
with a hand that trembles
with a human trembling.

13 10 2010
Fiona Mauchline


Cecilia and Ben, I love the onion poems…

Scott, I also use Spike Milligan with proficiency students but his version of Twinkle Twinkle to look at how words create feelings or atmospheres through sound. Semiotics, I guess. Contrasting the first stanza with the second.

Twinkle twinkle little star,
How I wonder what you are,
Up above the world so high
Like a diamond in the sky.

Twinkle twinkle little star,
I’ve just found out what you are,
A lump of rotting rocket case
A rubbish dump in outer space.

As a kick off for a more conversation ‘let’s see where it goes’ class, I use an Adrian Mitchell poem called Celia Celia. I don’t tell sts who it was written by. They decide if it was written by a man or a woman, and who ‘you’ refers to and why. (they often say ‘my boss, because then I laugh’…)

When I am sad and weary
When I think all hope has gone
When I walk along High Holborn
I think of you with nothing on.

Also Roger McGough.

14 10 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Fiona. That’s a good trick – deciding on who the poet is – their gender, age, physical setting, mood, even what they’re wearing! – this makes for an excellent means of focusing attention on the text and its possible sub-text. I’ve done this with extracts from several poems, all about the sea. For example,


Break, break, break,
On thy cold gray stones, O Sea!
And I would that my tongue could utter
The thoughts that arise in me.
…Break, break, break,
At the foot of thy crags, O Sea!
But the tender grace of a day that is dead
Will never come back to me.


The sea is calm to-night.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits;–on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanch’d land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.


Let me stop here. Let me, too, look at nature awhile.
The brilliant blue of the morning sea, of the cloudless sky,
the yellow shore; all lovely,
all bathed in light.

Let me stand here. And let me pretend I see all this
(I really did see it for a minute when I first stopped)
and not my usual day-dreams here too,
my memories, those images of sensual pleasure.

(High-fives for anyone who can identify the poets!)

13 10 2010
Nick Bilbrough

Very interesting topic and comments as ever. I’m particularly interested in what people have written about learning poetry by heart.

A conference I was at in Angola this year began with several Angolan teenage learners performing a range of poems by Keats and Byron that they had learnt by heart. They performed them very dramatically and incorporated a lot of gestures and movement. It was great to watch. The kind of language contained in the poems was clearly very different from what they might be able to use in conversation and I’m not sure they even entirely understood what they were saying. The audience loved it though and so apparently did those who were performing.

Since then I’ve been experimenting with learning things by heart in Portuguese. I’ve recently learnt two Brazilian songs, one by Chico Buarque and one by Tom Jobim, and can now sing them pretty confidently all the way through. In fact I belt them out nearly every day as I cycle through the Devon countryside – much to the bemusement of my three year old sitting behind me and any wildlife I pass! Again they consist of language which is way above my level of spoken Portuguese and lots of things that I can’t really imagine myself saying.

There are a couple of reasons why I feels like this is a pretty useful thing to do in terms of my own language development. Firstly I’ve found it a really enjoyable challenge to put myself through -and getting to the end of memorising a whole song feels rather like coming to the end of a really good book. Secondly I feel it’s really helped to build up a kind of bank of good examples of Portuguese in my head – chunks of language that flow smoothly and almost effortlessly from my lips.


13 10 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Nick, for that comment connecting recitation and memorisation. I remember trying to do the same with Spanish poetry, knowing how important and formative the memorisation of German poetry had been in my learning of German. I even bought, and listened to, cassettes of Spanish poetry being read aloud. The problem was, though, aged 40, I just couldn’t keep the poems in my head with the same tenacity that I had been able to when I was 16. Then, only yesterday I heard a snatch of a song on television and realised it was a setting of Machado’s ‘Caminante, no hay camino’, one of the poems that I’d tried and failed to remember by heart, and it occurred to me that I would have had a better chance if I’d learned the poems as songs (i.e. with their musical settings) and not simply as words. The music, as it were, provides the rails along which the poem can run.

14 10 2010
Nick Bilbrough

So having now hit 41 I’m now wondering where the cut off point is in terms of memorising poetry. Is it all downhill from here?

Yes Scott, I’m sure the musicality and the rhythm and the rhyme helped me too in the process of storing the lyrics of the Chico Buarque song, but I also find that I can now recite the entire text if I just say it without singing it. So I wonder if the music is useful at the time of storage but less necessary in terms of retrieval?

In this study by Noice and Noice (which I think you first alerted me to) the authors make a similar point with regard to physicalisation, about actors learning lines in a play. Gestures and movement help actors to initially store the lines, but interestingly, they don’t necessarily have to repeat the gestures at the moment of retrieval.

Click to access actors_memory.pdf

So here’s the challenge. Memorise the lyrics of this song by Silvio Rodrigues and then recite it (or sing it if you like!) at IATEFL in Brighton. The worst effort buys the drinks!


14 10 2010
Ben Goldstein

Fascinating post, Nick and one I can certainly identify with. I would love to know which songs by Chico Barque and Tom Jobim that you’re referring to. In fact, like you, my whole relationship with Portuguese is bound up with the music and its sensuality.

Only problem (as you say) is that you can’t always fit this language neatly into the everyday chat, always the danger of coming out with something overly poetic or totally inappropriate!

Of course, there are exceptions. For example, it seems to me that the Brazilians are unique in their ability to make poetry out of football commentary. The most famous example of which is the song “Filho Maravilha”, written by Jorge Ben about a fantastic striker of the same name.

The song is about a game between Flamengo and Benfica in the Maracanã stadium. After 33 minutes in the second half he scores the goal that’s immortalized in the song. The lyrics go into great detail about the striker dribbling past the defenders and goalkeeper and knocking the ball into the back of the net. It has certainly helped me understand what a ‘gol de placa’ is – an expression Brazilians use all the time – which we would have to translate as ”the perfect goal’ or ‘the goal of an angel’. Now, isn’t that poetic?

14 10 2010
Nick Bilbrough

Hi Ben,

The songs are ‘Eu sei que vou te amar’ and ‘Eu te amo’. Both hopelessly romantic, I know!

I didn’t know the Jorge Ben Jor song but just listened to it. It’s a cracker and it might have to be the next one for me to learn by heart. I didn’t know the term ‘gol de placa’ either – although I’ve scored a few in my time (none at Maracanã stadium though yet 🙂

14 10 2010
Ben Goldstein


They are classics, aren’t they?

Still never tire of hearing them. You might be interested to know that there is a CD of Brazilian football gems with a brilliant photo of Pele on the cover:


Incidentally, it was Pele who scored the original “gol de placa”!

14 10 2010
Luke Meddings

Yes, but can Maravilha do it on a wet winter Wednesday at Wolves? ; )

Lovely stuff here. Scott, do I get a high five for Tennyson and Arnold without googling the other? The Arnold is one of my favourite poems, I can’t look at the English Channel without thinking of it – the crack in the heart of all those stony daguerrotype countenances..

One of the nice things about introducing some poetry into class is that it ‘permits’ the poetic register thereafter: as Matt says, the poetry of students – the poetry of languages crossing over. A phrase might not be correct English, but it might be beautiful, funny, more appropriate than what’s already available. Adopt it, if only in that class!

And while we’re at it, a favourite passage, by Rafael Alberti, from Retornos del amor en los vividos paisajes.

Y tú, mínima estrella perdida que me abres
las íntimas ventanas de mis noches más jóvenes,
nunca cierres tu lumbre
sobre tantas alcobas que al alba nos durmieron
y aquella biblioteca con la luna
y los libros aquellos dulcemente caídos
y los montes afuera desvelados cantándonos.

18 10 2010
Nick Jaworski

I’ve often shied away from poetry in my classes. My students don’t often seem interested in that kind of thing and it reminds me of being forced to read poetry in high school when I had absolutely no interest in most of it.

I’ve observed two lessons using poetry and in both the teacher ended up spending the entire hour explaining it to students. The vocabulary used was pedantic or out-dated, the grammar was strange, the underlying meanings were difficult. Poetry can be used to good effect, but it just doesn’t come across as worth the trouble to me much of the time.

However, I do like easier poetry like that described in Grammar (OUP) activities. The only other poetry I consistently use in class is that by Shel Silverstein because it’s very accessible and highly amusing.

18 10 2010
Scott Thornbury

I agree, Nick, that poetry has a bad press. And you have to really like it, perhaps, in order to ‘sell’ it to your students. But also, it’s not always necessary to call it poetry. A dictogloss of a short text (e.g. a limerick) only reveals itself as being verse at the very last stage – when the original is compared to the students’ (consensus) version. On the other hand, I think there are some learners who get a real kick – especially at quite low levels – of having unpacked the meaning of a ‘poem’. Wow! (But you have to be very careful in what you select).

Here, for example is a Japanese poem that I think would work for quite low level – and poetically-suspicious – learners, if done as a dictogloss, or just presented as a text:

Early summer — floating down a clear running river in a wooden boat,
A lovely girl gently plays with the crimson lotus flower held in her white hands.
The day becomes more and more brilliant.
Young men play along the shore
And a horse runs by the willows.
Watching quietly, speaking to no one,
The beautiful girl does not show that her heart is broken.

(from Stevens, J. (trans.) 1977. One Robe, One Bowl: The Zen Poetry of Ryokan. New York: Weatherhill).

In line with my latest post (G is for Grammar-Translation) you could do worse than get the learners to work up a translation – into Turkish.

29 10 2010

I’d be with Nick above in hesitating to use poetry in the general English class (in most contexts it will appeal to one or two enthusiasts, but at the cost of frustrating the others). As with songs, it would probably be better to ask the students to select. Perhaps they might be interested in researching how poems in their L1 have been translated into English?

Having said that, here is a poem which, whilst I’d hesitate to use it with students, I think you could extract a great teacher training session from …

What is the language using us for?
It uses us all and in its dark
Of dark actions selections differ.

I am not making a fool of myself
For you. What I am making is
A place for language in my life

Which I want to be a real place
Seeing I have to put up with it
Anyhow. What are Communication’s

Mistakes in the magic medium doing
To us? It matters only in
So far as we want to be telling

Each other alive about each other
Alive. I want to be able to speak
And sing and make my soul occur

In front of the best and be respected
For that and even be understood
By the ones I like who are dead.

I would like to speak in front
Of myself with all my ears alive
And find out what it is I want.

– W.S.Graham

30 10 2010
Sarah Walker

HI Scott and all who have posted- great poems! What a resource this is!

I’ve often used The Stolen Orange by Brian Patten as a basis for reading, guessing, mixing, matching and writing your own poem.

The topic of ‘things that can be stolen’ seems to be inexhaustable if you brainstorm it – apart from the obvious things like money, purse, car, phone, students have at times also suggested love, heart, kiss, daughter, time, look, idea and country.

I’ve also used the first quatrain of My Love Is Like A Red Red Rose, which can click even with students whose language resources are very limited, but developing the whole idea of simile – one thing being like another very different thing. It is a great boost for students to write poetry in another language, especially in a culture where it is a high-status activity.

In my youth I took some verse speaking exams to overcome a speech defect, and can still remember some wonderful poems almost by heart, especially Theodore Roetke’s The Waking

and Thomas Hardy’s wonderful Afterwards:

I’ve never used them in class, though… I shall have to think how.


30 10 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Sarah, for contributing more poems to this unfolding anthology!
I didn’t know the Brian Patten one – great! For those interested you can read it by clicking here.

4 11 2010
Scott Thornbury

A colleague in Japan kindly sent me a book of translations of poems by Japanese children, which are really marvellous. Here are two about teachers:

Our Teacher’s Face

Our teacher’s face during class!
Each time he speaks
the round ball in his throat moves busily up and down.
Wrinkles are gathered around his nose.
“Teacher, if you speak too much,
you’ll become an old man quickly.”


The day snow blew down from the black valley
my teacher was standing by the stove.
I wanted to call, “Teacher!”
but I couldn’t because she seemed to be angry.
My teacher was staring outside
and in her eyes you could see the white storm.

(from Lewis, R. There are Two Lives: Poems by Children of Japan, translated by Haruna Kimura, 1970, New York: Simon and Schuster).

7 11 2010
Stuart Wiffin

My favourite poem to use in class is « O what is that sound » by WH Auden.

Regarding Joanne’s comment about Rhys Burton, I have been unable to find the poem online except in your “My ten favourite grammar lessons”. Are you Rhys?

I used a poem in the past about neighbours. The narrator gets bigger until he is too big to see himself in the shaving mirror and pokes out of the chimney pot of his house while his neighbour starts to shrink, dragging his briefcase up the garden path and struggling to put the key in and eventually shrinking to mouse size. It finishes with the big neighbour hoping that if he gets smaller in the future his neighbour will treat him in the same way. So, I’ve put all these words in google, looked on poemhunter and can’t find any sign of it. Does anyone know it?

7 11 2010
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Stuart – and here’s a link to Auden’s ‘O what is that sound?’ – a great poem.

As for the poem by Rhys Burton that Joanne (archly) refers to, yes, I wrote that for a coursebook series I was involved in in the 90s. If you unscramble the letters of Rhys Burton, you get…

Incidentally, there’s one other coursaebook writer who included poems in his books under the guise of an anagram – in this case ‘Lewis Mancha’. Anyone able to work out who this was?

7 11 2010

I’d have to guess… Michael Swan? I wish I were home to check in the books I have by him. But I’m usually good with anagrams 🙂

13 11 2010
Stuart Wiffin

“Highlight” Pre-int. I like the idea of using poetry with pre int classes. Here’s a couple of bits from my students.

1. I have seen your face in my dreams,
I’ve heard your voice telling her you love her,
Why wasn’t I this person?
I smelled love, it made me cry because I’ll never smell it again,
I’ve done all I can to make you love me,
How can I live alone so far away from you?
2.I have seen a shadow moving in a dark street,
I have heard a strange noise behind me,
I have touched the walls of the town to feel secure.
3. I’ve seen the English room and understood nothing,
I’ve heard the bad quality of the tape recorder,
I’ve smelled the flavor of the board pen,
I’ve tasted an English breakfast which made me sick.

I like the way the “copy then write your own poem” idea offers something for everyone. The confident and/or imaginative students can branch out a bit, the less adventurous can stick closer to the original text and the jokers can express themselves as well.

7 11 2010
Scott Thornbury

Ten points, Cecilia!

11 11 2010

Should anyone be interested, there is now a blog for ELT poetry. Post your poem and critique others! http://bit.ly/bvxhNB

11 10 2012
Umes Shrestha

Reblogged this on Oh, late became ! and commented:
1.2 Grammar poems.
Level: Intermediate and above
Time: 10 – 15 minutes
Aims: To reinforce grammar terms, through creative writing.
Preparation: Prepare a poem “rubric” (i.e. the framework for a poem) that consists solely of parts of speech.

For example:

1. article + noun
2. participle, participle, participle
3. adjective, adjective
4. repeat 1
5. pronoun + verb
6. pronoun + verb
7. pronoun + always/never/still + verb
8. repeat 1
9. repeat 3
10. repeat 2


1. Write the rubric on the board, and check that the learners are familiar with the names of the different parts of speech.

2. Tell them that this is the model for a poem. The first line is the title of the poem. For example: The Sea; A Forest; The Sharks, etc.

3. Learners work individually or in pairs to compose their poems.

4. They then exchange poems, or the poems can be illustrated and displayed around the room. Here, for example, is a poem that is based on the above rubric:

The Sea

Smiling, frowning, laughing
Angry, joyful
The sea
It comes
It goes
It never sleeps
The sea
Angry, joyful
Smiling, frowning, laughing


Rub the rubric off the board, and see if the learners can re-construct it, using their own poems as a guide.
Thornbury,S. Grammar (OUP)

8 10 2015

This one struck a chord with me as a language learner and teacher:

Speaking a Foreign Language
Alastair Reid

How clumsy on the tongue, these acquired idioms,
after the innuendos of our own. How far
we are from foreigners, what faith
we rest in one sentence, hoping a smile will follow
on the appropriate face, always wallowing
between what we long to say and what we can,
trusting the phrase is suitable to the occasion,
the accent passable, the smile real,
always asking the traveller’s fearful question–
what is being lost in translation?

Something, to be sure. And yet, to hear
the stumbling of foreign friends, how little we care
for the wreckage of word or tense. How endearing they are,
and how our speech reaches out, like a helping hand,
or limps in sympathy. Easy to understand,
through the tangle of language, the heart behind
groping towards us, to make the translation of
syntax into love

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