AP Skill Spotlight: Characterization in Poetry

One of the six featured skills in Poetry Unit 1 of the AP Lit CED is CHR 1.A: Identify and describe what specific textual details reveal about a character, that character’s perspective, and that character’s motives. While characterization is an easier skill to tackle, it can sometimes give pause when practicing characterization in poetry. We often teach students not to approach poetry through plot and characters. However, by examining character and plot first, students can usually make the leap to more difficult concepts like contrasts, structure, tone, and other skills.

Teaching contrasts using Pixar’s Lou

Jeannie from the AP Lit Facebook group recommended using Pixar’s Lou to introduce this skill and immediately I recognized it as a brilliant idea. If you haven’t checked them out yet, Disney and Pixar’s short films are magical on their own. But they’re also perfect for introducing literary skills.

Pixar's "Lou"
Pixar’s Lou can be accessed on Disney+. I haven’t been able to find a full version online without this subscription.

Summary

Lou begins with an introduction to an anthropomorphized lost and found collection, intent on returning list items to his beloved schoolyard companions. That is, until a schoolyard bully begins stealing items from other students. Lou intervenes, having a full on face-off with the bully until Lou learns that the bully’s name is JJ.

When Lou suddenly holds up a small stuffed dog from the bottom of the lost and found box, we see that JJ had his dog stolen by another bully when he was younger. He reaches for the dog, but Lou holds it back until the JJ returns the stolen items. He returns every item in the box until nothing is left except his dog. JJ is reunited with his lost dog, but also realizes that Lou has disappeared since all of the materials are returned. The film ends with JJ running off to play with his classmates rather than pick on them.

Still from "Lou"
This scene is the climax to the short film. It shows us that JJ was once victimized by a schoolyard bully and implies it’s what turned him into one himself.

After watching the clip, ask students how character details helped shape the character of JJ. The pivotal moment in Lou is the flashback showing the bully stealing JJ’s dog. Draw a line on your board or screen and ask students to describe JJ before this moment and afterwards. How did that scene build sympathy for JJ and give explanations for his own bullying actions? How did it contribute to JJ’s redemption in the end, and ultimately to the disappearance of Lou?

Ask your class, how did this flashback add to JJ’s characterization? How did it build his perspective and his motives? These questions are the core of this skill, and it can be done with poetry as well as film and stories.

Focus Poem & Questions

If I had to select one poem to use in approaching characterization in poetry, I’d pick Langston Hughes’ “I, Too.” This skill can be applied to any narrative poem, but I would select a poem that has a strong speaking voice and a strong theme, rather than a plot-based poem. This will help students practice characterization in poetry rather than on something closer to prose.

Questions for Langston Hughes’ “I, Too”

  1. Tell me about the speaker of the poem. What details can you gather about him?
  2. Examine the second stanza. What is implied by being sent to “eat in the kitchen?” How do details in this poem contribute to the speaker’s background and experiences?
  3. Now reexamine the third and fourth stanzas. What motives and goals does the speaker express?
  4. The poem begins and ends with, “I, too.” What’s the effect of the word “too” as it is used in this poem? How does it imply to the speaker’s feelings and past experiences.
  5. Clarify the difference between the story of this poem (what’s happening in it) and the meaning of this poem (why it’s important). Overall, how does the characterization of the speaker contribute to the poem’s lasting significance and meaning?

Teacher’s Guide

The speaker describes himself as “the darker brother” who is sent to “eat in the kitchen” when company comes. The speaker tells this narrative as a generalization not as an isolated incident, meaning he is frequently cast aside or tucked away so “company,” or the general public, can’t see him. Despite this mistreatment, the speaker “laugh[s]” and “eat[s] well” so he can “grow strong.” The third and fourth stanzas tell us the speaker’s goals, to be welcome “at the table when company comes.” Not only that, he says that “Nobody’ll dare” tell him he’s not welcome at the table. The fourth stanza finally shows his sense of strength and confidence, because people will “see how beautiful I am and be ashamed” of their former treatment of him.

The word “too” at the beginning and end of the poem reinforces the importance of the speaker throughout the history of America, as well as his exclusion and mistreatment. He speaks as a fellow American, reminding the reader that he, like everyone else, is an American. He has just as much a right to “the table” as anyone else. If one were to describe the plot of this poem only, they’d describe the feelings of a black speaker being sent off to eat in the kitchen, but with confident hopes of one day being invited to the table because he deserves to be there.

Thematically, the speaker stands for all marginalized and ostracized members of society. He laughs and grows strong, continuing to do live confidently and speak for his deserved rights despite mistreatment. He is buoyed by his sense of beauty and value, and ends triumphantly that “I, too, am America.” It speaks to themes of the American Dream and the importance of all people being invited to “the table.”

Poem Suggestions

Here are some other poems that can help you teach characterization in poetry. Thanks to the Facebook community for helping with suggestions:

10 Favorite poems to teach in AP Lit
Looking for more AP Lit poems? This blog post lists my 10 favorites!
  • “My Father is an Oyster” by Clint Smith
  • “Penelope” by Carol Ann Duffy
  • “The Other Side of the Mirror” by Mary Elizabeth Coleridge
  • “The Book of Genesis According to St Miguelito” by Miguel PiƱero
  • “American Girl Dolls Attend Mandatory Diversity Training” by Kortney Morrrow
  • “The Apparition,” “The Flea,” or “The Bait” by John Donne
  • “Dover Beach” by Matthew Arnold
  • “Demeter’s Prayer to Hades” by Rita Dove
  • “The Undertaker” by Patricia Smith
  • “Mother to Son” or “Preference” by Langston Hughes
  • “My Last Duchess,” “Porphyria’s Lover,” or “Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister” by Robert Browning
  • “Richard Cory” and other Spoon River Anthology poems, by Edwin Arlington Robinson
  • “Digging” by Seamus Heaney
  • “Cinderella” by Sylvia Plath
  • “The Story” by Li-Young Lee
  • “Century Quilt” by Marilyn Wanek
  • “Myth of Music” by Rachel M. Harper
  • “It Couldn’t be Done” by Edgar Guest
  • “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T. S. Eliot
  • “Football Dreams” by Jacqueline Woodson
  • “Wide Receiver” by Mark Halliday
  • “Losing the 440-Yard Dash” by Afaa Michael Weaver
  • “El Sonavabitche” by Gloria Anzaldua
AP Skill Spotlights
Looking for other lessons to help with AP Lit skills? Check out the rest of them here.

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