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, but 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 to AP Lit students:
“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, with references to various images to items that are treasured for what they carry rather than what they are (old houses, watermelons, elephants). 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 and I enjoy teaching it from my own perspective.
“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, in my experience, have shown to have a general 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, in an effort to show the breaking down of classic poetry styles.
“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, who was turned into a pillar of salt for looking backward as her hometown of Sodom and Gomorrah burned. 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.
“I, Too, Sing America” by Langston Hughes
Langston Hughes’ poem “Harlem” is a personal favorite but it is often taught in 9th or 10th grades. This poem builds on most students’ working knowledge of Hughes and his reputation for representing the plight of black artists 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.”
“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, and I can’t help but get a little misty-eyed every time I teach it. It truly is a beautiful poem.
“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’s meant to resemble prose. Secondly, it contains a strong expletive. There are ways to get this lesson wrong 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, even picking one up 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.
“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 poems written on a similar topic or theme. Even though that practice has been discontinued, 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 African Americans in a fight for civil rights, eventually leading 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. Ample opportunities for historical analysis and discussion are found in these two poems.
“Out, Out–” by Robert Frost
Robert Frost is typically remembered for his nature poems, but this longer poem titled after Macbeth’s final soliloquy has always been my favorite of Frost’s. 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, and most 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.
“Digging” by Seamus Heaney
It was hard to pick a favorite Seamus poem, but 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 poems from this Irish master.
“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 complicated and complex poem studies and spend some time with a more witty and simplistic poem. Jenny Joseph’s charming poem about growing old and “wearing purple” is humorous and relatable, but is not without its thematic applications. We usually have an interesting discussion about what students look forward to doing once they are “old” that they couldn’t get away with now. My students are also intrigued by the fact that Joseph’s poem inspired the Red Hat Society, which can now boast over 70,000 members.
There are many other wonderful poems that make up my AP curriculum but these are just a few of my favorites. Honorable mentions include Li Young Lee’s “A Story,” Robert Penn Warren’s “True Love,” Margaret Atwood’s “Siren Song,” William Carlos Williams’ “This is Just to Say,” and Countee Cullen’s “Incident.” What are your favorite advanced poems to teach?
The links included in this post are to some of the lessons I’ve created for my Teachers Pay Teachers store. If you’re interested in adding these poems to your curriculum, I’m working on creating resources for all of my AP poems and will continue to link to them as I create them. You can also buy a growing bundle of all of my AP Lit poem studies by clicking here.