In Advanced Placement English Literature and Composition, students need to be able to effectively explicate a poem. I find that my students have a harder time with poetry than with prose, because they haven’t been exposed to poetry as much as to prose, and also because poetry is so full of figurative language. On the AP exam, students will have to answer multiple-choice questions that explicate poems, as well as write an essay explicating one or two poems. In the past, my students have done the poorest on the poetry portions of the exam, which is why I’m writing this unit. I need to find a more effective way to teach poetry.
While there are many critical approaches to literature, the AP exam uses mostly the New Critical method, which emphasizes detailed examination and explication of texts. According to New Criticism, the content and form are completely coherent. There are no accidents in the writing – everything has a function. This method aims at providing a means of explaining the content and providing insights needed to evaluate the artistic quality of the work. In the beginning of the year, I give students examples of New Critical commentaries. We read them together and discuss them. Often students have never seen any literary commentary, so the style and vocabulary are new. We look at not only what is being said, but also how it is said, so they can learn to internalize critical thought. Students need to learn to answer the “so what” of what they notice and think. I do remind students that there are some problems with the New Critical literary theory, especially the argument that poetry is not to be broken apart, because the poem would lose some of its beauty.