Five tricks to help your students get to grips with a new poem

[Traveling In The Dark] is not a poem that is written to support a position that I have chosen, it’s just a poem that grows out of the plight I am in as a human being.

William Stafford

The poem ‘Traveling Through The Dark’ by William Stafford is one of my favourite poems to share in class. The narrator explains how a journey along the ‘Wilson River road’ is interrupted by the discovery of a dead deer. On further inspection, he realises the doe is carrying a fawn, ‘alive, still, never to be born.’ It’s a beautifully simple example of free verse that evokes a singularly disturbing moment and it always resonates with students.

As I’ve suggested before, the process of the shared reading of the poem in its entirety and the ensuing discussion is a great opportunity to model the process of reading, understanding and thinking analytically. 

For those departments who’ve chosen to not teach the anthology this year, helping students to deal confidently with an unseen poem is still on the agenda, and these approaches could be helpful.

1. Obfuscate parts to illuminate the whole.

Blacking out parts of the poem until it resembles the redacted version of the Mueller report is a great way to generate discussion. The couplet which follows the four quatrains might suggest, for example, a profound ending or moment of revelation. Blacking out everything apart from the nouns or verbs helps students to spot patterns and make connections, whilst reducing the cognitive load of looking at a poem in its entirety.

2. Make word categories to discover structures, binary oppositions and themes.

Using Snipping Tool alongside PowerPoint or your favourite interactive whiteboard software, each noun from the poem can be bordered with a dotted line then snipped and pasted onto a new slide. The nouns can then be scrambled. Students are usually quick to spot the binary opposition of nouns from the lexical field of the motorcar and those from the natural world.

When exploring verbs, students often point out the contrast between the active verbs and those which are more passive, such as ‘traveling’ versus ‘waiting’.

3. Generate questions together.

Asking students to generate, in pairs, questions about what they’ve read can be very illuminating, even if the answers to the questions themselves are ostensibly obvious. Why is he traveling in the dark? What might have killed the deer? Where is the Wilson River Road? Why is it best to roll them into the canyon? When students feed back to the whole class, others can respond or speculate. This way, the process of what happens when we’re reading is modelled: the problems we must surmount, the uncertainties we face and the inferences we must make.

4. Model the process of annotation clearly.

Modelling annotation works well as a way of showing students they must be discerning and focused in their approach. I tend to use some simple colour coding, with yellow text boxes for ideas, plot points and character, and blue ones for aspects of form, language and structure.

5. Offer a loose framework to discuss and write about the poem rather than ‘analysing by numbers’.

A series of prompts – or something akin to ‘Key Questions’ – can work as a framework for class discussion, enabling students to think, and ultimately write, about the poems and also to provide a ‘schema’ to help them build and consolidate their knowledge and understanding.

A ‘series of prompts’ as a cognitive tool can function, when applied to a text, as a sort of ‘loose structure’ to help students produce a focused written response.

Stafford’s own career inspires those of us who harbour dreams of late-flowering literary achievement (we’ve all got one great novel inside of us, although for the time being at least, mine seems to be stubbornly staying put). He published the collection Traveling In The Dark, of which the poem is a part, in 1962 when he was 46 years old. It’s one of his most anthologised poems. The patterns of language and the structure of the poem are accessible but profound, and always stimulate authentic personal response from students.

Further reading

The Poetry Foundation has published an excellent profile of Stafford.

This interview with William Stafford, from The Iowa Review, is very good.

Featured image by Alex Lamb on Unsplash