Of all the skills in AP* Lit’s CED, structure is one of my favorites! My students look puzzled when they’re asked to talk about structure, often because they don’t know all that it entails. Structure can refer to a poem’s: form, rhyme, meter, line breaks, shifts, patterns, punctuation, and syntax. Basically, anything you can say about the placement or pattern of a word or phrase can be chalked up to structure. However, getting students to discuss the function of structure is even harder. Structure is a skill that can be applied to poetry and prose, but for this post we’re just going to be discussing poetry.
*AP® is a trademark registered by the College Board, which is not affiliated with, and does not endorse, this website.
Teaching Structure Through TED Ed
I almost used a song to introduce structure but I decided it would probably confuse them. After all, students are the ones constantly asking if music counts as poetry, which isn’t an easy one. Instead, I chose this excellent TED Ed lesson, which tackles how poetry can take many different forms that overlap with prose, art, and music.
This video goes through several different ways that poetry can blur lines with other forms of expression. Concrete poems and highly visual poetry from E. E. Cummings merge with art. Hip hop music and songs from songwriters like Bob Dylan merge with music, and songwriters are actually winning Nobel Prizes for literature. There’s even a growing movement of poetry on social media like Twitter and Instagram. See below for some of the examples from the Ted Ed video and ask your students, is it poetry?
E. E. Cummings’ Poetry
I love the end of this Ted Ed lesson, for it doesn’t offer any label or definition to what poetry is. Instead, it teaches what poetry does. Therefore, if any of media above “comments on what it is to be human,” then it can be called poetry. The AP® skill on Structure emphasizes how poets use form and structure to enhance their analysis of poetry.
Focus Poem & Questions
One of the most popular poems for teaching the function of structure is Mary Oliver’s “Crossing the Swamp.” It’s true that teaching sonnets and other fixed form poems are excellent for teaching structure, but students can sometimes get caught up in naming the structure rather than analyzing its function. This is why I prefer Oliver’s poem for this lesson.
After reading the poem, ask your students to discuss the following question:
Questions for Mary Oliver’s “Crossing the Swamp”
- What is this poem about? Is it a narrative poem, telling a story, or a lyrical poem, expressing ideas? Explain your answer.
- Circle or list all words that describe that describe the swamp. Then, categorize them: which have positive connotations and which have negative connotations?
- How would you describe the form or structure of the poem?
- What connection can you make between the structure of “Crossing the Swamp” with the poem’s topic or message?
- Now, let’s tackle the big question: How does this poem’s structure enhance it’s meaning?
- The poem begins with an image of a thick swamp. It moves from literal to figurative with the line, “Here is swamp, here is struggle, closure––”. The swamp represents life and its struggles; it expresses feelings rather than tells a story. Therefore, this poem is lyrical, not narrative.
- The first part of the poem describes the swamp as being “endless,” “wet,” and “dense,” emphasizing its size and danger. The speaker struggles to cross it, “trying for foothold, fingerhold, mindhold.” The swamp is all-consuming and the speaker’s “bones knock together” in the prospect of crossing it. All of these descriptions have connotations of fear and danger, therefore seem negative. However, there is a shift midway through when the speaker says, “I feel not wet so much as painted and glittered.” These words have positive connotations, demonstrating the speaker’s hopeful attitude, leaving with an image of a single stick “taking root” and creating a “palace of leaves.”
- This poem is a free verse poem with lines that increase in indents at sets of four. The structure does not appear motivated by rhyme or meter, like a sonnet would be.
- There are connections between the poem’s “back and forth” spacing with the speaker’s journey through the swamp.
- Oliver’s “Crossing the Swamp” links form with meaning as the speaker embarks on a dangerous journey through the swamp. The lines, moving slowly forward in lines of four, then returning to their original starting point in a continuous cycle, represent the speaker. Each step is short and slow, and often times one must turn back to begin where they started. However, the poem also moves in a continuous motion downward, expressing a movement nonetheless. Oliver uses structure to convey the difficult but continuous movement of the speaker of her poem as she works to “sprout” and “branch out” by the end.
Here are some other poems that can help you teach structure in poetry. Thanks to the Facebook community for helping with suggestions:
- “Ozymandias” by Percy Bysshe Shelley
- “September Suite” by Lucille Clifton
- “Women” by May Swenson
- “The Convergence of the Twain” by Thomas Hardy
- “In Just” by E. E. Cummings
- “Southern History” by Natasha Trethewey
- “Invictus” by Ernest Henley
- “We Grow Accustomed to the Dark” by Emily Dickinson
- “We Wear the Mask” by Paul Lawrence Dunbar
- “Short Story on a Painting of Gustav Klimt” by Lawrence Ferlinghetti
- “To Paint a Water Lily” by Ted Hughes
- “A Sight in Camp in the Daybreak Gray and Dim” by Walt Whitman
- “The Writer” by Richard Wilbur