The Rhetorical Analysis of Poetry
Poems can be a valuable companion to nonfiction texts for covering rhetoric because of their compactness and vivid language.
Poetry is not a given in AP Language and Composition—in fact, some teachers use only nonfiction texts because a major focus of the class is rhetorical analysis. But rhetoric is everywhere, and its compact form and concentrated language make poetry a particularly effective vehicle for introducing students to rhetorical analysis.
So when we were in the midst of a unit on civil disobedience and had read Thoreau, Martin Luther King Jr., articles on the “take a knee” protest, and some interesting political cartoons, I introduced the lyrics to Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall.”
Dylan’s recent Nobel award led my students to interesting speculation on the changing nature of ethos, and the lyrics provoked research by some of the more historically curious among them.
But the most wonderful discovery was that studying this poem made rhetorical analysis finally click for many of my students. During our study of essays and speeches and articles, students were relatively adept at identifying rhetorical techniques and elements of the rhetorical triangle, but when it came to the synthesis at the end, to getting to the heart of what it all means, they struggled.
So I reached into my AP Literature toolbox and pulled out methods I had used to demystify the process of poetry analysis, and it worked. Students were able to finally see not just the mechanism of rhetorical strategies such as anaphora and allusion, but ultimately how these all worked together to create an effect on the audience.
Teaching Rhetoric With Poetry
Begin with what students notice. Whenever we tackle any text in my class, we start with these two questions: “What do you notice?” and “What do you think?” Because I let my students determine the direction of the discussion, they are empowered to become the meaning makers and to take ownership of the process.
One of us will read the poem aloud, and after taking a few minutes to gather our thoughts, we’ll discuss what we notice and think about the poem. In Dylan’s lyrics, my students often first notice the repetition of the line “it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall” and the sense of impending danger it creates. I’ve had students describe the tone of the poem as “urgent” and “ominous,” and these first noticings lead us into a more in-depth, focused examination of the poem.
Start small. After discussing our first impressions of the poem, students reread it silently on their own. They then underline one or two words of their own choosing, writing down denotations, connotations, and other associations.
They then share their annotations using a shared copy of the poem posted to the class Smart Board, and this continues until the board is a conglomeration of our ideas. This provides the jumping-off point for further discussion.
Discussion is key. Student-driven discussion is one of the most effective ways of helping students develop the language and ideas necessary for in-depth analysis—rhetorical and otherwise. Using annotations from the common copy of the poem, students explain why the words they chose are significant to them, what denotations and connotations they associate with the words, and how those associations affect the meaning and purpose of the text.
The discussion that results from just this small part of our poem study is especially rich and leads to the discovery of other rhetorical moves the poet is making—tone, speaker, audience, purpose, etc.
Look for patterns. As our discussion progresses, students recognize patterns emerging in their ideas about the poem. This is when we begin to apply our ideas more deliberately to elements of the rhetorical triangle and connect them to other texts.
Pulling it all together. The product of these explorations depends on our purpose as a class. Often, students will write informal journal responses to sum up and record their thinking, and on occasion, they’ll write a synthesis essay after we study several texts on a certain topic. Sometimes we’ll record our conclusions on a Flipgrid video and continue the conversation by responding to each others’ videos.
And there are many times when the conversation is the only goal. The more practice students have with articulating their ideas and listening to others do the same, the more adept they become at the process of reading and writing analytically about what they read.
One of the poems that engaged students the most in this unit was Clint Smith’s “Playground Elegy,” from Counting Descent. My students immediately connected emotionally with various lines and phrases in the poem. They argued about the many implications of the word gravity, the difference between living and being alive, and how raising your hands could affect someone’s ability to do either. The ideas in the poem started a conversation about current and historical civil rights movements and how the disparate concepts of playgrounds and elegies could relate.
Exploring the rhetoric in poetry gives students a bite-sized opportunity to practice rhetorical analysis, often in the span of one class period. The confidence they gain from their success transfers to an increased willingness to tackle longer texts and continue to build their analytical skills in the future.