My 10 Favorite Poems to Teach in AP Lit

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As a teacher of AP® Lit, you can’t avoid teaching poetry. And to be a successful teacher of AP® Lit, you shouldn’t try to. Of course there are “classics” and particular forms you have to teach, like a lot of long-dead white guys who wrote sonnets. However, the writers at CollegeBoard (who create the AP® exams) appreciate both modern and classic writers of poetry. The key is to mix old with new, to find culturally diverse and universally advanced poems that will expose students to a variety of different poem types, but also keep them interested. This is a list of some of my favorite poems to teach in AP® Lit:

“Metaphors” by Sylvia Plath

This short poem is unexpectedly witty and a little dark, and it usually disarms students as they read it. As the first line indicates, the nine-line poem functions as a riddle for pregnancy. It contains references to various images to items that are treasured for what they carry rather than what they are. Plath’s overall message is that while pregnancy is miraculous, mothers are allowed to be somewhat resentful of their treatment as a vessel rather than as a person. As a mother of three, I can attest that this feeling is surprisingly accurate. For that reason, I enjoy teaching it from my own perspective. You can find this in this work of collected poetry by Plath.

“Ozymandias” by Percy Bysshe Shelley

Shelley’s treatise against pride and hubris is just as relevant today as when it was published 200 years ago. The allusion to Ramses II usually intrigues high school students who, show a surprising curiosity toward Egyptian history. I also introduce this poem by playing a reading by Bryan Cranston taken from Breaking Bad. Like Walter White’s efforts to provide for his family beyond his inevitable death, Ramses erected monuments of himself in an effort to demonstrate his power and live forever. I also love showing how the meter and form starts off as a Shakespearean sonnet, but falls away from this form. This connects structure to meaning, and shows the breaking down of classic poetry styles. You can find Shelley’s beloved poems in this collection.

“Lot’s Wife” by Anna Akhmatova

If you don’t know anything about Anna Akhmatova, take a break and go read up on her. I can wait. Seriously, she is so awesome. This poem takes the story of Lot from Genesis 19 and expounds on Lot’s poor wife. Lot’s wife turned into a pillar of salt after she looked backward to watch her hometown of Sodom and Gomorrah burn. The bible hails her as an example of God’s punishment when we disobey or lose trust in him. Akhmatova provides context for Lot’s wife and questions if she deserves the reputation given to her in single bible verse. I’ve found the comparison between the biblical text to this poem fodder for excellent conversation, particularly with young women. Akhmatova’s poems, including her masterpiece Requiem, can be found in this collection.

“I, Too, Sing America” by Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes’ poem “Harlem” is a personal favorite, one popular with 9th or 10th grade teachers. This poem builds on most students’ working knowledge of Hughes and his reputation for representing the plight of black people in the early 20th century. “I, Too, Sing America” has a more comparative style, showcasing the unfair treatment of African Americans in Hughes’ time of composition. What makes the poem so masterful is that the tone is not of complaining, but instead is confident and triumphant. The speaker proclaims that while he does not have the rights he deserves, “Tomorrow, I will be at the table when company comes.” This poem and many other Hughes’ favorites can be found in this collection.

“Oxygen” by Mary Oliver

This is literally my favorite poem. Ever. Everything about it is so perfect. It’s beautifully simplistic and cyclical, but also has advanced poetic elements within. The ongoing image of things that feed on air is easy to relate to. The central lines, “It is your life, which is so close to my own that I would not know where to drop the knife of separation. And what does this have to do with love, except everything?” provide a beautiful image of modern romance and companionship. I can’t help but get a little misty-eyed every time I teach it. It truly is a beautiful poem. Oliver is one of the masters of 20th century poetry. Her best works, including “Oxygen,” can be found in this collection.

“The Colonel” by Carolyn Forché

Forché’s poem is radically different from most of the poems I teach in AP® Lit. For one, it doesn’t look like a poem, as it intentionally looks more like prose. Secondly, it contains a strong expletive. There are ways to botch this lesson if the incident is not researched properly, but it has the potential to be an extremely sobering and serous lesson. Forché’s poem is shocking  as it describes the dictator spilling a bag of human ears and gesturing with it. What’s even more shocking is that the events described are completely true. Trust me, you simply must teach this poem. Forché recently published details of this full experience in her new memoir, What You Have Heard is True.

“The Ballad of Birmingham” by Dudley Randall and “American History” by Michael S. Harper

One way to change up a poetry lesson is to do a poetry comparison study. Up until recently, AP® Lit exam questions sometimes asked students to write essays about two similar poems. Even though College Board has discontinued this practice, it is still a valuable skill for AP® Lit students. One of my favorite comparison studies is the treatment of the Birmingham church bombings of 1963. This hate crime united Americans in a fight for civil rights, eventually led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. These poems provide different treatments of this act of terror, with Harper’s relating it to acts of the Revolutionary War, while Randall’s is more sentimental and songlike. You can find ample opportunities for historical analysis and discussion in these two poems.  

Out, Out–” by Robert Frost

People typically remember Robert Frost for his nature poem. However, this longer poem titled after Macbeth’s final soliloquy is one of my favorites to teach. I typically guide my students through a narrative analysis of the story told in the poem, then follow up with a more historical analysis. The context and background of World War I is not coincidental. In fact, many believe that the poem’s unfortunate boy represents all young soldiers who were sacrificed in the war efforts. The poem has plenty of advanced poetic elements, as an added bonus. You can find Robert Frost’s collected works in this anthology.

“Digging” by Seamus Heaney

It was hard to pick a favorite Seamus poem, as he’s my favorite poet. Overall, the autobiographical and geographical analysis opportunities of “Digging” make it my favorite to teach. Heaney is a favorite with CollegeBoard and most of the world, especially in his native Ireland. Heaney pays homage to his beautiful Irish home and the generations of laborers who worked before him in the Irish peat. “Digging” is both simple and complex, and students find themselves easing into advanced poetry analysis quite easily. Runners up for Heaney’s poems are “Midterm Break” and “Scaffolding” if you want to include more from this Irish master. “Digging” is actually the first poem in this collection of Heaney’s, titled 100 Poems.

“Warning” by Jenny Joseph

In the spring my AP® students tend to show a veil of weariness and fatigue, as well as signs of spring fever. When I see this, we take a break from complex poem studies and spend some time with a more simplistic poem. Jenny Joseph’s charming poem about growing old and “wearing purple” is humorous and relatable. However, this poem is not without its thematic applications. We usually have an interesting discussion about what students look forward to doing once they are old. Also, what could they get away then in the future, that they can’t now? It’s intriguing to learn that Joseph’s poem inspired the Red Hat Society, which can now boast over 70,000 members. This poem is available in a hardcover illustrated version, found here.

Honorable mentions

There are many other poems that make up my AP® curriculum but these are just a few of my favorites. How do you pick just 10 poems to teach in AP® Lit? Honorable mentions include:

  • Li Young Lee’s “A Story”
  • Robert Penn Warren’s “True Love”
  • Lucille Clifton’s “mulberry fields”
  • Margaret Atwood’s “Siren Song”
  • William Carlos Williams’ “This is Just to Say”
  • Langston Hughes’ “Mother to Son”

The links included in this post are to some of the lessons I’ve created for my Teachers Pay Teachers store. You can also buy a growing bundle of all of my AP® Lit poem studies by clicking here. To learn more about how I use poetry on a regular basis in AP® Lit, check out this blog post.

These are just my top 10 poems to teach in AP® Lit. Drop me a line in the comments and let me know what yours are!

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