This is the sixth installment in a series at #TeachLivingPoets. The Poet Laureate Project features a different U.S. Poet Laureate each month during the 2019-2020 school year. Guest author Ann Cox highlights one or two of their poems, suggests activities to use these pieces in the classroom, and touches upon their contributions to the promotion of poetry in America. Ann Cox has over 20 years of experience teaching high school English, including AP Lit, Creative Writing, and Speech. She also spent several years as a teacher consultant for the Illinois State Writing Project.
This month’s featured poet is Pulitzer-Prize winner Tracy K. Smith, who served as U.S. Poet Laureate from 2017-2019. She is the director of the Creative Writing program at Princeton University and the host of American Public Media’s daily radio program and podcast The Slowdown.
In a profile by The New York Times, Smith states her belief that “Poetry is a shortcut to honest conversation, a way of getting past small talk to probe the spots where our culture is most sore.” I’ve chosen her poem “Declaration” to help teachers explore one of those sore spots with their students.
Ways to Introduce the Poem
You might begin the lesson by writing the words “Freedom means” on the dry erase board or a poster. Distribute one sticky note to each student and ask them to write down what freedom means to them. They should add their sticky note to the board or poster. Ask for volunteers to read responses out loud.
Alternatively, you might write the phrase “All men are created equal” on the dry erase board. Ask students to talk about where this phrase originated and what it means. Encourage them to consider the time period in which the phrase was written when they consider its meaning.
Working with the Poem
“Declaration” is an example of erasure poetry, a form in which the poet takes a pre-existing text and removes some of the original words to create a new piece, often one that comments on the original text. Erasure is a way to give an existing piece of writing a new set of meanings, questions, or suggestions.
In this case, Smith used the Declaration of Independence to create her poem. I recommend making copies of the Declaration of Independence and examining it with students. Ask students to focus on the second paragraph (the most recognizable lines from the Declaration of Independence) as well as the final paragraph. They should highlight words and phrases that stand out. Take a moment to discuss those ideas, then teach/review the authors, intended audience, and purpose of the document.
Once you’ve explored the original text, students will be ready for the poem itself. Distribute copies of “Declaration.” Then read the poem aloud or listen to Tracy K. Smith read her work. I always like to listen to a poem at least twice; first, just to listen, then a second time to begin analysis.
Ask students to highlight or underline words or phrases that stand out to them. Then offer the following questions for discussion:
- Who are the speakers (the “our” in the poem)?
- Who is the intended audience (the “He” in the poem)?
- What attitude do the speakers seem to have toward the original work? What is their message about the Declaration of Independence? Does the poem celebrate, criticize, or subvert the Declaration of Independence?
- Smith uses epistrophe (the repetition of a word at the end of successive clauses or sentences) throughout the poem. Look at each example of epistrophe (“our–”) and infer possible ways to end each of those statements. What message are the speakers trying to get across here?
- What might be the different “stage[s] of these Oppressions” that the speakers mention? What might be the “repeated injury” the speakers have suffered?
- Do the first two lines of the poem (“He has / sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people”) remind you of any injustices we see in our current world? Do you think this poem speaks only about events in the past, or can you apply the ideas to today?
Pair “Declaration” with other contemporary poems about racial injustice in America, particularly those that focus on the present day. Try Sha’Condria Sibley’s “Black Woman Steps Up to Mic,” Rudy Francisco’s “Adrenaline Rush,” Clint Smith’s “Counterfactual,” or Jason Reynolds’ “This Has Always Been Our Active Shooter Drill.”
Check out 12 Poems to Read for Black History Month. The Academy of American Poets asked twelve contemporary black poets to choose one poem and explain their selection. The result is a mix of classic and contemporary poems you will definitely want to share with your students. There’s also this playlist of poetry videos to celebrate Black History Month.
Encourage students to write their own erasure poems. You might select one specific text for the entire class to draw from (perhaps an excerpt from a novel they are studying), or you can give students the option of choosing their own texts. They can use other poems, speeches, advertisements, song lyrics, and more as inspiration for their own original poetry.
I hope you found some exciting ideas for teaching Tracy K. Smith’s work. Join me again next month, when the featured Poet Laureate will be Natasha Trethewey.
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