Poems for TEFL

Poems for Teaching English as a Foreign Language

The passages discussed on this website represent a very personal and subjective choice on my part (is there any other way to approach poetry?).
As an EFL teacher who can now look back over about 30 years experience, I have always strongly felt that extracts from poetry, novels and plays can be used to illustrate certain points of usage, or provide discussion material, even in teaching and learning set-ups which are strongly vocationally oriented. There is nothing new in this, of course: the whole idea of literature in language teaching enjoyed something of a renaissance in the 1990s, and how many generations of EFL teachers have used Kipling's 'If' in dealing with conditional clauses!
In each case, I have tried to suggest ways in which a particular section of text might be used in class.

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1) A.E. Housman   A Shropshire Lad
It was one of Stephen Krashen's central claims - to my knowledge, never convincingly demonstrated by any body of research - that reading and listening comprehension material should always be pitched at a level just above that which the learner has actually reached.
Poem LVIII in Housman's A Shropshire Lad, it seems to me, is one which can be given to a group not very far past the beginning stage. Ask them to read through it with the aid of a dictionary and then to tell you in their own words what they think it's about. For those who do not know the poem, the second of the two four-line stanzas runs as follows:

Now Dick lies long in the churchyard,
And Ned lies long in the jail,
And I come home to Ludlow
Amidst the moonlight pale.

This in itself suffices almost to reveal the poem's "message" (a recurring one in Housman's work) - the sense of loss and sadness when looking back at the past and one's youth.
In a class of older students, a number of them could be asked to say what feelings they have when they go back home to the town or village in which they spent their childhood.

2) Thomas Hood   I remember, I remember
This poem by the Victorian poet Thomas Hood could be read together with the previous one by A.E. Housman. It deals with the same idea of loss as we move ever further away from childhood, albeit at considerably greater length and in rather more sombre mood. This rather precludes its use in a class still at the beginner stage. The last of the four stanzas, in particular, almost puts one in mind of Wordsworth:

I remember, I remember,
The fir trees dark and high;
I used to think their slender tops
Were close against the sky:
It was a childish ignorance,
But now 'tis little joy
To know I'm farther off from heaven
Than when I was a boy.

This time, students could be asked to say how they think their attitudes and priorities have changed as they have moved through life, what ideals they think they have been forced to modify or abandon completely.

3) Francis Scarfe   Tyne Dock
First published in 1950, this poem presents a rather different view of a childhood spent in the industrial north-east of England. The first verse runs as follows:

The summer season at Tyne Dock
Lifted my boyhood in a crane
Above the shaggy mining town,
Above the slaghills and the rocks,
Above the middens in backlanes
And wooden hen-huts falling down.

Here, after reading the poem, the teacher could check to find out which students in the class grew up in an industrial area and then ask them to talk briefly about their most vivid childhood memories.
Francis Scarfe was influenced in his own work as a poet by his admiration for Auden and Spender.

4) Bernard Spencer    On the road
Bernard Spencer (1909-1963) published On the road in 1947. The following is the first of the two stanzas:

Our roof was grapes and the broad hands of the vine
as we two drank in the vine-chinky shade
of harvest France;
and wherever the white road led we could not care,
it had brought us there
to the arbour built on a valley side where time,
if time any more existed, was that river
of so profound a current, it at once
both flowed and stayed.

Ask students if they can recall a certain place or situation on a beautiful summer's day where they felt so happy that time almost seemed to stand still.
The poem is almost worth reading, of course, just for the sheer felicity of the compound adjective 'vine-chinky', although this is probably something that only an advanced class will be capable of appreciating. In such a class, see if there is anyone who can explain the meaning of the phrase. As a preliminary, ask the class to identify the word in the verse which is a personal creation of the poet as opposed to a 'dictionary word'.

5) Herbert Read    To a conscript of 1940
Although probably not as well known a war poet as, say, Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, Herbert Read had as a writer a prolificness and breadth of interest surpassed by few authors of the twentieth century. Verses 4, 5 and 6 of To a conscript of 1940 provide an excellent starting point for a discussion of the topic: Does war ever really change anything?

We went where you are going, into the rain and the mud;
We fought as you will fight
With death and darkness and despair;
We gave what you will give - our brains and our blood.

We think we gave in vain. The world was not renewed.
There was hope in the homestead and anger in the streets,
But the old world was restored and we returned
To the dreary field and workshop, and the immemorial feud

Of rich and poor. Our victory was our defeat.
Power was retained where power had been misused
And youth was left to sweep away
The ashes that the fires had strewn beneath our feet.

6) Edmund Clerihew Bentley    Lord Clive
There are probably not many poets around who have actually given their name to a special form of verse. This particular clerihew, about Clive of India, runs as follows:

What I like about Clive
Is that he is no longer alive.
There is a great deal to be said
For being dead.

Since most clerihews deal with well-known people, the most obvious way of using one in class is simply to ask the students what - if anything! - they know about the subject of the poem. Afterwards, each member of the class can be asked to write their own clerihew - not a difficult task, as the formal requirements are few! Further guidance will be found under www.gigglepoetry.com/poetryclass/clerihew.htm

7) Sophie Hannah   To a certain person
Sophie Hannah, born in 1971, is among the group of writers sometimes referred to in Britain as the Next Generation Poets. To a certain person consists of three four-line stanzas plus two concluding lines: here are the first verse and the two concluding lines:

If one day I should find myself in pain,
In a predicament or in distress,
There's something you can do for me: refrain
From digging out my number and address.
Indulge yourself: applaud, rejoice, enthuse,
And maybe soon I'll have some more bad news.

The 'certain person' is obviously someone about whom Sophie Hannah feels very bitter. Get the class to speculate on who this might be: a former boyfriend, lover, husband? A former close friend who betrayed the trust between them? The poem is at base a plea for sincerity and honesty: the writer does not want the person she no longer regards as a friend to feign sympathy for her. Ask students to say whether they feel that saying what we really think would be a good basis for all dealings between people. Do they regard it as insincere when, for example, after a hard and bitterly fought election battle, the losing politician puts a brave face on it and shakes hands with and congratulates the victor? Is there anyone in their own circle of acquaintances from whom they would regard kind words as insincere?

8) Elizabeth Wilson   For Graham
This poem is thematically related to the previous one in that it is about a close relationship. It clearly differs, however, in that this time the friend is fondly remembered for his loyalty. The following lines make up the first half of the last of three stanzas:

And through it all, you stayed
my closest friend, there to lend
a smile through all the sadness
sanity through all the madness
sweeping away the cobwebs
from my embittered past.

Class discussion here can obviously focus on the more positive aspects of human relationships. Ask each student in the class to talk a little about their best friend past or present, and to describe the particular quality/qualities in him/her which helped to cement the friendship.

9) Michael Rosen   Chocolate Cake
Michael Rosen is a contemporary poet, born in 1954. The poem is quite a long one, in which he recounts in amusing fashion a childhood incident: illicitly eating a chocolate cake baked by his mother! The following are the closing lines of the poem:

and she said
well what could she say?
'That's the last time I give you any cake to take
to school.
Now go. Get out
no wait
not before you've washed your dirty sticky face'.
I went upstairs
looked in the mirror
and there it was,
just below my mouth,
a chocolate smudge.
The give-away.
Maybe she'll forget about it by next week.

After reading Michael Rosen's poem, or just the lines given here, with the class, ask individual students to recall incidents of getting into trouble from their own schooldays. Stress that this is intended as a piece of fun: no one is being asked to confess to heinous crimes!

10) Ripyard Cuddling   Geordie's Bonanza
Ripyard Cuddling is the pseudonym of Jack Davitt, who was born in the 1920s and spent all his working life - apart from a spell in the navy in the Second World War - as a welder in the shipyards of the English north-east. Nearly all his poems deal with some aspect of working class life in that part of England. Some of them are angry, some humorous: the poem under discussion here falls into the latter category. The following are the opening three verses of nine :

Just off the coast at Seaton Sluice
A drilling rig struck orange juice
And all the locals clapped their hands
And queued with bottles on the sands.

An expert from the USA
Took samples of the juice away
And after scrutiny and test
Declared it was the very best.

From miles around reporters came,
The North East coast was tasting fame,
They said ten million barrels lay
Between the Sluice and Whitley Bay.

This time, just ask members of the class to describe some highly unlikely or fantastic event which they would like to see happen.

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