This curriculum unit is written for junior year students of Hillhouse High School at the basic and college-prep level. American literature is the focus of third year English and this unit will concentrate predominately on American poetry; at least half of the selections will be by Afro-American male and female authors.
This unit will concentrate on poetry as a vehicle for character portrayal and raise questions about the storytelling qualities of poetry. The classroom discussions will ask students to consider the relationship between prose and the short story and poetry and the rhythmical use of words to tell a story. This unit will particularly focus on poems with dialogue—such as Robert Frost’s “Death of the Hired Man.”
The students will be encouraged to read each poem for four levels of meaning: (1) the sense: what is said; (2) the feeling?: what are the emotions expressed?; (3) tone or tact: what is the writer’s attitude towards his audience?; (4) intention: what is the purpose or why has the author written the poem?
Along with the above, this unit will include a greater understanding of terms such as meter and cadence—the flow of natural speech. Also, metaphor, allusion, alliteration analogy, hyperbole, simile, folk ballads and blank verse of plays, as well as sonnets.
This poetry unit will also consider the English language as it changes and evolves over time and experience of people. This poetry unit will show the students that the idiom of language evolves as people change, that words acquire their sense from the current experiences of people. The words from poems of long ago are more difficult and images are more obscure when they are not common to us today. For this reason, this unit will concentrate more on the modern poets—the poets whose expression is more closely related to the experience of the students of Hillhouse—an urban school with a majority of Afro-American students—many of whom also have a rural southern experience. Moreover this unit will endeavor to connect and use the students’ present experience of streets and violence with the experience and feelings of poems of older times and similar experiences. Hopefully, this discussion will give students a heightened awareness of the English language.
To illustrate the importance of making a connection with students’ experience, I will describe a class experience.
Finally, this unit will have the students write their own poetry, from their own experiences. Some of these writing exercises will imitate forms of authors studied and others will be free verse or poems of their own choice of form.
I have had a class this year become disruptive at the prospect of reading an assigned poem. After putting the poetry aside and doing something else—I decided to bring out the poem again. “We want to read Kris Parker”... and “Kris Parker is a poet” were the remarks they made from their seats.
It was in this way that I learned how deeply they were involved with listening to and writing about their own kind of poetry. Kris Parker is a popular rap poet—from New York, with Boogie Down Productions. I agreed to read his poetry and assigned three students to write down the verses of their favorite selections of Kris Parker. Within two days they brought in about 5 sheets of rhyme—one called “Necessary”, a long dialogue about violence and another called “Poetry”, a dialogue in rhyme about rap music and poetry. I photocopied these pieces, passed out copies, and found that the class was volunteering Danny Gorham, a student, to read them.
Danny not only read the Kris Parker selections, but brought out two notebooks of his own full of verse. There were too many to be read in one night—but I took one poem “Old Park Man” and made copies for the class. I also made copies of “The Hired Man” by Robert Frost. It was in this manner that I was able to introduce and discuss poetry with this class.
This class showed great interest, attention and even excitement about poetry. During the spring semester once a week, we would break from our other readings to do poetry in class. Danny would often read or introduce his poems—sometimes accompanied by music and then I would pass out selections of classic poets. Sometimes we would discuss them as a class, and other times I would ask them to write their own interpretations in paragraphs. Two other students emerged in this class with their own writings. With Danny’s music tapes the students wrote their own poems to a certain beat. Also, I was able to assign topics to write on in class.
Most of the student critiques favored the rap music and found great favor with Danny’s poems. In this way, the students found their own voice and expression which is the heart of poetry—an expression of feelings. In fact, it is with this class in mind and Danny that I was able to compile the following selection of poets many of whom are Afro-American. I include short biographies to introduce in class as the “Kris Parker’s” of their own time.
I invited Danny to visit our poetry seminar this summer and he read for our class. He also listened to our poems and joined in the discussion that we had for class. This poem is reprinted with Danny’s permission.
OLD PARK MAN
A man sat quietly in Pecan Park, his attire was dusty, his skin was dark. No whiskey or wine on his breath gave a scent, just a wise old man with time well spent.
In a pocket was bread that he fed to the birds, though he whistled and chirped he said not a word.
As the hours got elder he sat still on his spot, was he waiting for family? That he was not.
No son, no daughter nor wife for that part, just bushes and birds and squirrels in the park.
Alone on the holidays no one to share with, a Thanksgiving dinner or Christmas gift.
As I walked out the park I thought of that man, and many more like him, poor homeless clans.
Danny D.F. Gorham
One of my objectives is to give my students a background in the literature of American poetry along with the poetic influences from English literature. I have selected poems of three kinds: one, American Classics; two, poems that represent an important regional influence, such as Afro-American poetry; three, poems of English literature which are classics and have strongly influenced American poetry.
I would suggest two major texts,
Sleeping on the Wing
Black American Poets
with inclusions of photocopies of Frost, Shakespeare, Afro-American folk poetry and spirituals.
Poets to be studied:
(b.1875, d.1963) Poet of New England, New Hampshire. He is the poet of work, the farm—rural vs. urban living. He uses talk. There is meaning in each of his poems. Born in San Francisco, lived in California, until his father died when his mother moved to Lawrence, Massachusetts and became a school teacher. After high school, Frost attended Dartmouth; however he dropped out after one semester. He held odd jobs, factory work for the next several years. He married in 1895 and two years later, he entered Harvard. He studied English for two years leaving again without a degree. He taught school. In 1900, he bought a farm in Derry, Vermont where he lived for eleven years trying to make a living on a rocky soil. In 1912, he decided to write full time and left for England where he lived for three years. In 1913 his first book was published,
A Boy’s Will
. When he came home to the United States, he was a recognized poet and his success continued. He lived on farms in Vermont and New Hampshire. He received a Pulitzer Prize. The poems included from his works are “Death of a Hired Man”, and “Mending Wall.”
(1564 to 1616) Born in Stratford on Avon in England. He is regarded as the greatest poet in the English language and popularized the sonnet form in English poetry. He wrote 154 sonnets which were published in 1609. He refers in them to various people, a woman, a handsome man and a rival poet. The sonnet is fourteen lines of IAMBIC PENTAMETER, 5 stressed syllables for each line with a set rhyming pattern. His sonnets remain extremely popular even 400 years later.
At 18 he married a local girl, Anne Hathaway. He had three children. By 1584 he had become famous in his own time.
(b.1902, d.1967) Black American poet and writer. Born in Joplin, Missouri, young Hughes was raised by his mother and grandmother. His father, light skinned black lawyer, left for Mexico when he became embittered by racial discrimination. After his grandma’s death, Hughes and his mother moved frequently looking for better living conditions. Hughes discovered his identity with the “folks” and not the literary snobs. He was always the Harlemite, always the poet of the working poor. He moved to Harlem, where he began writing and published 75 books. His most famous poem, “If we must die”, was written in response to lynchings. It was read by Winston Churchill before World War II. It was the first time in history a Black writer wrote about fighting back.
Born in Topeka, Kansas, 1917. Her works deal with the everyday life of urban blacks. She grew up in Chicago, graduated from Wilson Junior College in 1936.
, published in 1949, won her the Pulitzer Prize. It is a loosely connected series of poems relating to a Negro girl growing up in Chicago. The
published in 1960 contains some of her best verse and the poem “We Real Cool”. She stayed married to the same man until he died and is the mother of two children. She was the first Afro-American poet to receive the Pulitzer Prize.
In The Mecca
was published in 1968 and is a long narrative poem about people in the Mecca, a fortress-like apartment building in Chicago—a slum. It contains two famous poems. “Boy Breaking Glass” and “Malcolm X”. Both of these poems will be in the collected poem attached to this unit.
Imamu Amiri Baraka
formerly Everett Leroi Jones (b. 1934) Newark, New Jersey—Afro-American poet—A leading Black Nationalist who writes of the experiences and anger of Afro-American people. He graduated from Howard University in 1953. He came from the middle class. His mother went to college, his father worked for the post office. He attended an integrated High School, was popular and well liked. He did graduate work at Columbia University and lived in Greenwich Village in the late 50’s. He lived in the center of the Beatnik movement, married a Jewish woman, had two children. Later, he left his wife and went to Harlem where he started a theater and a school. The government broke into the school and accused him of having semi-automatic weapons. He moved back to Newark and started a Spirit House. Because of his involvement in Afro-American identity, he changed his name to Imamu-Spiritual; Amiri-Blessed; Baraku-Prince. In 1968 he founded the Black Community Development and Defense organization—a Moslem group, committed to affirming Black political power. “Air” and “A Poem for Black Hearts.”
Walker, Giovanni and Ntozake Shange
is included as a contemporary Afro-American woman writer. Her book
The Color Purple
won the Pulitzer Prize, is enormously popular with students, and it is helpful for understanding her poems. Alice Walker was born in Eatonton, Georgia and now lives in San Francisco. She has published poetry, short stories, essays, novels as well as a biography of Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston reader. “On Stripping Bark from Myself”, “Gift”, “The Abduction of Saints”, “Hymn”, and “Burial”.
(b. 1943) poems are considered revolutionary. She is a poet of black feelings. I have included in this appendix the following poems to be studied: “ego-tripping”, “My House”, “Trips”, “A Poem for Carol”, “Basketball”, from
The Woman and the Men—
“The Women Gather,” “All I Gotta Do”, “The Way I Feel”, “Poem”, and “How Do You Write a Poem”, “The Funeral of Martin Luther King, Jr.”
is an Afro-American playwright who puts her poems to song and dances. The selections I have included are from
For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf
. In her own words: “In the summer of 1974 I had begun a series of seven poems. . . .which were to explore the realities of seven different kinds of women. They were numbered pieces: the women were to be nameless and assume hegemony as dictated by the fullness of their lives. I was smitten by my own language.”
one thing i dont need
is any more apologies
i let sorry/didnt meanta/& how cd i know abt that
take a walk down a dark & musty street in brooklyn
i’m gonna do exactly what i want to
& i wont be sorry for none of it (p. 57.
For Colored Girls
She is a poet of the city woman and happens to be one of my favorites.
(b.1903, d.1946) He was one of the finest poets of the Harlem Renaissance. He was married to the daughter of W.E.B. DuBois for one year. Born in New York City, he went to high school in Harlem and graduated in 1925 from New York University. He received an M.A. from Harvard and wanted to write beautiful lyrical poetry. He was recognized and successful at a young age. He taught in New York City public schools. He struggled with his racial identify and Christianity and had a hard time believing in God. The sonnet “Yet do I Marvel” addresses this conflict. “Heritage” is included in the appendix. It addresses the question, “What is Africa to me?”
(b. 1890, d. 1948) Born in Jamaica and died in 1948 in Chicago. He is of particular interest because of his Jamaican background, which so many of our students share. McKay was a good poet who also stands as a critic of race relations between the old days of Booker Washington and the “black power” movement of the 1960’s. Before coming to American in 1912, he wrote two volumes of Jamaican dialect verse,
Songs of Jamaica
He attended Tuskagee Institute 1912 and Kansas State Teachers College 1914. The shock of American racism turned him from his old conservative ways. He became the most militant poet of The Harlem Renaissance.
The poem “America” is included in the appendix.
Emily (Elizabeth) Dickinson
(b.1830, d. 1886) American woman poet from Amherst, Mass. was a master of short lyric poetry. Her greatest literary output (800 poems) coincided with the Civil War.
She attended school at Amherst Academy, then Mt. Holyoke Female Seminary in 1847 for a year. She did not return. Her gardens and her home in Amherst became her whole world. She began to write about 1850, inspired by R.W. Emerson and Emily Bronte. Her themes were love, death and nature. Only five of her poems were published in her lifetime; she preserved the others in hand sewn leather booklets. She wrote with great passion and wit. The remarkable thing about this great artist is that she was alone most of the time and almost no one knew that she wrote poetry.
E. E. Cummings
(b. 1894, d.1962) Born in Cambridge, Massachusetts and died in North Conway, New Hampshire. Poet and painter. He eliminated all punctuation in his poems. He won the Bollingen Prize in Poetry 1957 and completed twelve volumes of poetry.
His poems appeal to the young. They are tough or tender.
Edgar Lee Masters
“The voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses. Nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands.” These lines are from the poem “Somewhere I Have Never Travelled Gladly Beyond” and it is included in the appendix.
(b. 1869, d. 1950) His fame rests on
Spoon River Anthology
published in 1914. It ruthlessly exposed hypocrisy. He attended college, studied law and practiced successfully in Chicago. In
Spoon River Anthology
, people speak from the grave about bitter unfulfilled lives in a small town. Students will really enjoy these short narratives of human lives—telling the truth from the grave. I have used these poems in lessons on group discussions to give students confidence in their interpretive skills. See the appendix for poems and lesson plan one.
(b. 1931) Born in Missouri. An Afro-American poet who joined the army, went to Korea and was injured with shrapnel. He became addicted to heroin to control the pain and resorted to armed robbery to support his habit. He spent eight years in prison. In prison he started to write poetry.
Poems from Prison
Black Voices from Prison
. He was discovered by Gwendolyn Brooks and paroled from prison in 1968. His philosophy is that poetry belongs to the people: If the people won’t go to the poet then the poet should go to the people. He gives a lot of poetry reading and I have included a reference to a tape in the bibliography. He writes about the dispossessed and life in prison. He makes an effort to understand the human realm—his theme is love, not revolution. Married three times, he once married Sonya Sanchez, a successful Black female poet. He has had to struggle with major addictions to drugs and alcohol.
I have included “The Shine”, “Dark Prophesy”, “The Violent Space”, and “Belly Poems”. In “Belly Poems” Knight writes that’s where his feelings come from—from the guts. “The Idea of Ancestry”