Teaching Tone with #TeachLivingPoets

Students may feel confused or lost when identifying a speaker’s attitude towardcropped-teach-living-poets-logo in a poem. I offer this post as a means to help teach students how to grapple with tone, starting with a poem that has a clear — no — more like, in-your-face tone, followed by a poem with a tone that’s a little more subtle and complex.

bludRachel McKibbens is one of my favorite poets for many reasons, one of which is the hardcore honesty of her speaker. In her book Blud (Copper Canyon Press, 2017), McKibbens explores the traumatic relationship between her speaker and the speaker’s parents, most notably her mother. How many students sitting in your classroom might be able to relate to having strife with their parents? Whether their parental problems are monumental or superficial, I think every single student will be able to relate to McKibbens’ speaker in some way.


for Carol, who is no one

 by Rachel McKibbens


Mother, you lousy walk-on.

You muddy old witch.

I have become your good daughter,

I have given you a part

big as Mississippi, I have authored

you a new womb filled

like a gas chamber. Here is your

fat mouth brimming with

pills. This is no poisoned apple

movie-star spell, Mother.

You still are what you are: a plotting

mirror-bitten hag

who hobbles the halls like a jilted

landlady, babbling on & on

about a ghost-skinned girl.

Your angry daughter.

Your bad invention. Where did you

go for so long?

Why did you leave us alone with

the woodsman?

Did you know I have five dizzy

dwarves of my own?

They have heard all the stories.

They know your real

name: Carol! Carol! We sing

knots into your hair

& piss on your soap. We’ve built

you a castle covered in

witches & if you should come,

dear Mother, to visit us

we will serenade your face with

a choir of hammers.

Feed you to the river in a dress

made of stones.

McKibbens, Rachel. Originally published in Blud. Copper Canyon Press, 2017.

If you click on the Tumblr link in the title, you’ll see a different format. I have typed the poem here as it appears in Blud, with the second line of each couplet being indented. In the book, each couplet is actually single-spaced with a blank line in between couplets, but WordPress’s formatting options aren’t that advanced, so I tried my best to preserve the structure of the poem. And, judge me if you will, but when I teach this poem, I do change the B-word in the first couplet to “witch” (as seen above). The majority of my class are freshmen, and I would just rather avoid the phone calls from parents. I think “witch” still effectively gets the same message across while maintaining school appropriateness.

Even the students who tend to struggle with reading tone and/or with poetry, can understand how McKibbens’ speaker feels toward Carol, her mother. She is certainly not Carol’s number one fan. Students can pick out connotative words and heavily charged phrases used by the speaker that contribute to tone. They can recognize the fairy tale allusions of the mean, ugly, witch-like stepmother archetype.

Next, we read Patrick Rosal’s poem, which has a more subtle and complex tone.


If All My Relationships Fail and I Have No Children Do I Even Know What Love Is

by Patrick Rosal

Listen to audio of poem

This fireman comes every afternoon

to the café on the corner

dressed for his shift in clean dark blues

This time       it’s the second Wednesday of January

and he’s meeting his daughter again

who must be five or six

and who is always waiting for her father like this

in her charcoal gray plaid skirt

with green and red stripes

She probably comes here straight from school

her glasses a couple nickels thick


By now I know     that she can sit       (except

for her one leg swinging from the chair)

absolutely still      while her father pulls

fighters’ wraps from his work bag

and begins half way down the girl’s forearm

winding the fabric in overlapping spirals

slowly toward her fist           then     he props

her wrist      like a pro    on his own hand

unraveling the black cloth   weaving it

between her thumb and forefinger

around the palm                       taut but

not so much that it cuts off the blood          then

up the hand and between the other fingers

to protect the knuckles         the tough

humpback guppies just under the skin


He does this once with her left       then again

to her right             To be sure her pops knows he has done

a good job              she nods        Good job       Good

Maybe you’re right              I don’t know what love is

A father kisses the top of his daughter’s head

and knocks her glasses cockeyed

He sits back and downs the last of the backwash

in his coffee cup         They got 10 minutes to kill

before they walk across the street          down the block

and out of sight         She wants to test

her dad’s handiwork            by throwing

a couple jab-cross combos from her seat

There is nothing in the daughter’s face

that says     she is afraid

There is nothing in the father’s face

to say he is not                     He checks his watch

then holds up his palms    as if to show his daughter

that nothing is burning                     In Philadelphia

there are fires      I’ve seen those  in my lifetime too

Copyright © 2018 by Patrick Rosal. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on April 23, 2018, by the Academy of American Poets.

When asked to identify the tone, students’ first inclination is to go to the the way the father feels about his daughter: loving, caring, protective. I let them explore that for a bit, and have them identify phrases or lines as textual support. But here’s where the complexity comes in–because the father is not the speaker. I direct students back to the title which includes information about the speaker with “I have no children.” I ask them,

“Who is the speaker of the poem? Is it the father?”


“Okay, then, who is it?”

“Some guy watching the father and daughter.”

“Right. So how does he feel about watching this moment happen in the cafe?”

With some guiding questions students will start to pick up on the poem’s complexities in regard to tone.

I like this lesson because it starts off by building students’ confidence in identifying tone with McKibbens’ poem, but then stretches them to infer more between the lines in Rosal’s poem. My class also finds the topic of parent-child relationships relevant to their own lives, and are able bring experiences and opinions of their own to the poem based on their individual familial relationships and backgrounds.

More poems by living poets about parent-child relationships

Icarus Does the Dishes” by Tommye Blount (Kenyon Review, March/April 2018)

“Learning to Pray” by Kaveh Akbar (from Calling a Wolf a Wolf, Alice James Books, 2017)

“Barbie Chang’s Father Paid,” “Barbie Chang’s Father Calls” and many more by Victoria Chang in her collection Barbie Chang (Copper Canyon Press, 2017)

“Fish Heads” by R.A. Villanueva (from Reliquaria, University of Nebraska Press, 2014)

“Counterfactual” and “a lineage” by Clint Smith (from Counting Descent, Write Bloody Publishing, 2016)

“c’mon” by Ross Gay (from Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015)

“Boy & The Belt” and “My Mom Puts on Makeup” by José Olivarez (from Citizen Illegal, Haymarket Books, 2018)

“Mother” by Tarfia Faizullah (from Registers of Illuminated Villages, Graywolf Press, 2018)

Thank you for reading! Do you have a story, lesson, activity, or something else to share with TeachLivingPoets.com? Be a guest author! Email me at msmith@lncharter.org. 

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You can follow me on Twitter at @MelAlterSmith and please tweet all the awesome things you are doing in your class with the #TeachLivingPoets hashtag! 

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