My 10 NEW Favorite Poems to Teach in AP Lit

This is part two of a previous post, where I list my 10 favorite poems to teach in AP® Lit. While I haven’t replaced all of these poems, I have added quite a few new titles to my repertoire since I wrote it, so I thought it was time for a Part 2 version! So, without further ado, here are 10 more poems I love to teach to my AP® Lit students!

AP® is a trademark registered by the College Board, which is not affiliated with, and does not endorse, this website.

“the drone” by Clint Smith

My AP Lit students studied this poem just a few weeks ago and I was amazed at how deep and varied their analysis went with so little prodding. I paired it with my AP Lit task cards and asked them to pick two questions and prepare their answers on a post-it. Then, they went around the room and shared their response from one of the post-its. This led to a strong discussion and very strong paragraph responses. It’s hard to find a poem that is interesting, relevant, and approachable for emerging learners at the beginning of the year, but this is my new go-to poem for the fall.

I use this poem in my first-day lesson, available here!

“Introduction to Poetry” by Billy Collins

This is another poem I use at the beginning of the year, particularly since it’s so aptly named. In my classes we study one poem per week, unassociated with any of the units we’re studying that follow the bell-ringers. I always use Billy Collins’ “Introduction to Poetry” to kick these lessons off. Not only is it a great representation of figurative language that connects to meaning, but it explains what I expect from them in our weekly analyses. We’re going to “waterski across the surface of the poem” or “walk inside the poem’s room and feel the walls for a light switch,” but definitely not beat it with a hose.

“mulberry fields” by Lucille Clifton

If you’re looking for a more challenging poem for your students, Lucille Clifton’s “mulberry fields” is very powerful. Despite being pretty advanced, my students have enjoyed unpacking it, since the poem’s message about the devastating legacy of slavery is so compelling and relevant.  The poem describes the soil of a plantation that profited off the backs of slave labor, one which still stands in Maryland. It is also a good one to pair with Audre Lorde’s poem, “Who Said It Was Simple.”

“The Black Walnut Tree” by Mary Oliver

If we’re talking about favorite poems, you can expect to find Mary Oliver’s poetry on my list. On my previous list I included her poem, “Oxygen,” which holds the title of being my favorite all-time poem. “The Black Walnut Tree” is one that I have less of an emotional attachment to, but still love almost as much. I first read this poem when I worked as an AP® Lit reader in 2013. You would think that reading hundreds of essays on this poem would kill my love for it, but it surprisingly didn’t. It’s a more easy-going text, too, free of any triggers or polarizing discussion risks. I love discussing it in connection with structure and characterization of all the AP® Lit Essential Skills.

I have a lesson available for purchase for “The Black Walnut Tree,” if you’re interested!

“Baked Goods” by Aimee Nezhukumatathil

OK, so technically this poem now lives in my Honors English class, but I run it like a Pre-AP® course so I’m still including it. In my Honors Poetry Boot Camp, we explore different poems in connections to emphasized skills or literary terms. I use this poem in connection with our study of personification and the students and I agree: it is just lovely. I love its feeling of freshness among poems that are so often about death, pain, and suffering. This poem and is as sweet as its title, and yet rigorous enough for a place in AP® English Lit.

“The Illiterate” by William Meredith

This is another poem I’ve used in both Honors and AP® Lit, but I use it to illustrate why it’s important to include all details included in a poem. When reading “The Illiterate,” students easily grasp that the narrative describes an illiterate man receiving a letter. They can connect the second stanza with the first, with just a little help. But only the most observant reader will connect the narrative with the first line, which says, “Touching your goodness, I am like the man who…” This reminds them that the poem is actually a giant simile for how the speaker is feeling. It’s a great choice if you’re looking for a minor “gotcha” moment, or just to see that lovely, “Oh!” look of comprehension on your students’ faces.

“The Forge” by Seamus Heaney

In my previous blog post on the subject, I talked about how much I love teaching Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ozymandias.” One of the reasons is that its meaning connects with structure when the classic sonnet form breaks down midway through the poem, matching its message on how nothing lasts forever. “The Forge” does something similar. It resembles a sonnet as well, yet moves away from the form midway through, like Shelley’s does. The poem, depicting a hard-working blacksmith during changing times, connects with the structural changes as well. It’s a great match with not only structure, but emphasis of sound elements such as onomatopoeia and alliteration as well.

I have a lesson on “The Forge” available for purchase, if you’re interested!  

“We Real Cool” by Gwendolyn Brooks

Sometimes my poem lists show my maturity and growth as a teacher. When I wrote this list three years ago, I would have never included “We Real Cool” on the it. I thought of it as a thruway poem, a gimmick (my apologies, Gwendolyn Brooks). However, I was forced to study it a couple of years ago and I discovered something: there’s a lot going on in this poem. The strange structure, the choice of enjambment, the odd lead-in about the seven at the Golden Shovel, the word choice, I can go on and on. Each year it takes me longer to get through this poem, and I love it more and more. It’s a great choice for talking about words and their connotations if you’re looking to match it to skill!

I’ve created a lesson on “We Real Cool” for purchase, available here! This lesson is also available in my Poetry Unit III bundle, aligned with the CED.

“A Valediction Forbidding Mourning” by John Donne

When making this list I realized that I had a lot of contemporary titles on it, so I tried to get one “classic” on the list. I can’t ignore John Donne (even when I sometimes want to). Donne is the master of metaphysical poetry, which is fancy talk for really weird comparisons. In “A Valediction,” Donne gives us one of the most romantic poems in history where he compares his relationship with his wife to a mathematical compass. My students adore this comparison and this poem, despite its difficulty. It’s a good one for line-by-line analysis but be sure to give it a good chunk of time. There’s a lot to unpack with John Donne!

I’ve created a lesson on “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning” for purchase, available here! This lesson is also available in my Poetry Unit III bundle, aligned with the CED.

“My Father and the Fig Tree” by Naomi Shihab Nye

The poetry of Naomi Shihab Nye is another discovery I’ve made in the past three years. I love her perspective of a person from contrasting cultures, matched with a knack for taking unrelatable circumstances and making them feel like they happened to you. Case in point, this poem. I am not a child of immigrants. Growing up, my parents didn’t move a lot. I’ve barely even eaten a fig! And yet, there is an element of relatability in this poem that makes it so approachable and lovable. We love analyzing the speaker’s relationship with her father and the impact of the fig tree as a symbol.  

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, now 20, poems to teach in AP® Lit? Honorable mentions include:

  • “Mirror” by Sylvia Plath
  • “What the Cicada Said to the Black Boy” by Clint Smith
  • “The Bean Eaters” by Gwendolyn Brooks
  • “Bedecked” by Victoria Redel
  • “Those Winter Sundays” by Robert Hayden

The links included in this post are to some of the lessons I’ve created for my Teachers Pay Teachers store. Many are available in my Daily Poetry Bell-Ringers, available here. 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 some of my favorite poems to teach in AP® Lit. Drop me a line in the comments and let me know what yours are!

Leave a Reply