If you teach English Literature at GCSE or A Level at some point you will need to teach either a single volume of poetry or a poetry anthology.
The typical way to approach this, and the way I do it, is to take a poem or maybe two poems at a time and devote one or more lessons to them. You might work through these poems sequentially or, like me, thematically. But, for the most part the poems are being taught with a certain level of isolation from one another. Whilst you teach you may well seek to make connections to previous poems or consider an imagine in one poem in light of another, but nonetheless the default mode will still likely be a block of lessons for one poem.
However, there’ll also be a point, perhaps mid-way through or at the end, where you want to take a step back and consider the anthology at a more macro level. At that level, you may wish to step outside of a single poem and consider the volume or anthology as a single entity and as such pay really close attention, in the wide angle view, of its motifs, patterns, connections, recurring ideas, and so on. You want to begin to see the anthology or volume as a textured whole, comprised of individual poems but, certainly in the case of a volume, also having its own unique contours. Yet, how to do this? Well, here’s one strategy, certainly not the only one, that has worked really well for me.
First, I wrote on mini index cards the title of every single poem in the volume or anthology and displayed these under the visualiser. Already this is going to help us in making connections because now we can see in one single glance the whole volume. The two red tokens you can see, which are just bits of a cardboard box, are moved around these mini-cards to designate which two poems are currently being connected to each other. From this very simple, but as you’ll see, very effective set-up we can do so much with our students.
1. I could start by placing a red token on a single poem and then asking students to consider any and all possible connections to other poems they can see. I’m then able to move the second token around to track the discussion that is taking place, as I’m probing and exploring why and how they chosen poems connect.
2. By placing the token on two poems I know connect well I could then ask students to discuss in pairs how they think these two connect before we then beginning a discussion.
3. A student could be asked to offer a starting poem, which then has the token placed on it, and the class could consider and examine which other poems might work well the initial poem, again moving the second token around to track the conversation.
4. Or we could even use this as an opportunity to be a little more imaginative in our connections, by placing a token on two random poems without much thought, but then thinking of all the possible ways they can connect. This strategy works especially well because it takes us away from perhaps familiar lines of connection and instead forces us, myself included, to think of new ways of framing the poems.
5. We could begin with a certain theme or idea and then consider all the possible poems that connect to that chosen idea. Or, in a similar manner, we could specify perhaps a specific image and consider all the poems that seem to make use of that kind of image.
All of these strategies to encourage thinking about connections across the anthology or volume could, of course, be utilised alongside class discussion, paired discussion, or even short bursts of writing. The key is that the token offers a physical way of tracking the developing conversation and the method allows us to think of the anthology as a patterned whole and not just distinct poems.
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