Tracking Common Themes in Post-Modern Poetry

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SWBAT provide examples and track Post-Modern themes through several examples of poetry from various authors using whole-class discussion, collaboration, and group note-taking.

Big Idea

What do Star Wars, WALL-E, Sylvia Plath, National Treasure, Martin Espada, Forest Gump, Naomi Shihab Nye, and Fight Club have in common?


10 minutes

Today we will launch in to a full discussion of the Post-Modern world, beginning with the historical features that are shaping the period.  I always seek to contextualize literature with history, and though there are only a few periods before our final exams, I feel that I owe it to Post-Modernism to get to this unit and at least give students a taste of what our Post-Modern world is like.  I will use the following set of questions to get at the heart of the time period:

  • So Post-Modernism.  What's going on during this time from 1945 and beyond that you could see impacting the literature of the time?  (Students will point to the Holocaust, Cold War, Civil Rights movement, women's rights, Space Race, and Vietnam War as major shaping features, but subculture and counterculture also start to rise in this time.  Beatniks, hippies, the Silent Generation...all these groups of people impact culture and make it quite varied.  They will also probably point out all of the advances in technology during this time and the large number of assassinations of national leaders.  These factors make the people unsteady, which also turns up in the literature.)
  • Your textbook discusses the Age of Anxiety vs. the Age of Aquarius.  What effect would this have on culture?  On literature?  (Both in culture and in literature, warring ideas are creating conflict.  Half the society is "cracking down" on things that they see as potentially-dangerous to prevent nuclear war from going further.  There is a pervasive feeling of fear that really permeates and isolates many writers and people of this time.  On the other hand, there's another culture that exists simultaneously with the first that feels like we've got to make peace and enjoy the moment instead of trying to "control" or "prevent" everything.  Likewise, literature is all over the map as well.  It's really hard to nail-down ONE specific hallmark of this time's literature, though there are a lot of recurrent themes that emerge.)
  • When I think of this time period, I think of hippies and Civil Rights...and that doesn't make me think of this urge to "seek conformity" that you book also mentions for this time period.  How are people seeking conformity during this time? Why is that a natural response for some people?  Are we still in this same frame of mind today?  (During this span of time, people start FLOCKING to the suburbs.  People become "consumers" during this time as well, consuming media, goods, advertising...everything.  We still see a consumer society today.  Like the television of the mid-1900's, the internet is driving consumerism and advertising.  While many people are taking an anti-conformity stance in Post-Modernism, lots of people are also taking a more "strength in numbers" approach.  There is a safety that calms people when they have that "American Dream" idea of the house, yard, white picket fence, 2.5 children, a station wagon and enough consumer goods in their homes to give them a "comfortable" existence.  Students will argue about whether or not we still revere and seek conformity, and they will often disagree.  This is a great segue into our next question.)
  • So are we STILL in Post-Modernism?  Or are we living in a Post-Post-Modernism world?  Do their themes and values still resonate with us?  Are we still questioning our consumerist quest?  Do you see literature and film about this theme?  How about rebellion?  Is that still held up as a theme of our time?  Or equality?  (On all counts, students will explain that we are still tied up in many of these issues, so it might follow that we're still in Post-Modernism.  At the same time, students should also recognize that it's not always clear when you're going THROUGH history to recognize major shifts in culture.  Often, it's only looking backward that you can view that "shift" in thinking clearly.  Students may bring up 9/11 as a time for that "shift" of thinking, as that's probably the biggest national issue or event that would alter our culture on a large, ideological scale.)

Building Knowledge

25 minutes

Next, we will get more in-depth with the characteristic themes of Post-Modernism and differentiate those characteristics from Modernism.  In order to save time and clarify these concepts for students, I will give them the "Modern vs. Post-Modern Characteristics Notes."  We will then look at the similarities and differences between these two literary time periods and compare them to other time periods that we have already studied.  Since we only have a little bit of time to get an understanding of Post-Modernism before the school year is over, I want to move through these themes rather quickly, but I also want to ensure that students truly understand this content.


50 minutes

Next, students will have a chance to apply their new knowledge of Post-Modern themes by reading and tracking them across a group of poems.  Since we actually read and discussed a Sylvia Plath's poem, "Mirror,"  last class period, we will begin by reviewing that poem and entering into our class's "Post-Modern Poetry Analysis Spreadsheet" so students understand what they will ultimately be doing after our discussion.

We will pull up our copies of "Mirror," then reread the poem silently to ourselves.  Next, we will go around the room from student to student, taking turns filling in each square of the "Post-Modern Poetry Analysis Spreadsheet" for the whole class.  Since this document is editable and available to all students, this activity will serve as a fabulous, complete, and interactive way to share out top-quality responses with their peers without getting bogged down in typing every single thing that their peers are saying.  Previously, I struggled with students who were more concerned about "getting down the notes" than participating in class, so we developed this collective note-taking strategy, and it's worked wonders since we started using it!  One student will enter the author's name, and the next student will link the document (to aid in consolidating study material for finals!).  I will then begin taking volunteers to offer information about the speaker and the tone (including evidence of why THAT particular 6+ letter word fits beautifully for tone), and the next students in line will note the class's agreed answers on the spreadsheet.  We will continue the procedure to solicit and note a concise, clear summary of the poem and an overall theme.  Finally, we will select from the provided Post-Modern themes (in the handout from earlier in the period) any themes which appear in the work.  In all cases, the student discussion about entries should be justified with evidence, and the designated note-taker for that square will put down an answer only after it has been entirely agreed on by the class.  

After we complete our initial look at "Mirror," we will repeat the note-taking process in this same fashion while/after we thoroughly discuss the poems in the following manner:

  1. A volunteer will read the poem aloud, taking care to pause ONLY at the punctuation marks.  (I repeat this directive every time that we read poetry aloud, because it really does help comprehension for students to think of poems as chopped-up sentences!)
  2. We will scan the poem for structural patterns, rhyme scheme, etc.  Most of these poems are NOT rhymed, though it's definitely worth pointing out the repetition in formatting when you see it (like Sexton's parallel stanza construction). 
  3. We will identify the speaker & audience.
  4. We will point out areas of the poem that confuse us.  This way, we can pay especially close attention to these points while we're summarizing.
  5. Students will objectively summarize each sentence or each stanza, depending on the structure and text complexity of the poem.  This is critical for being able to access the theme.  I want students to avoid leaping to a conclusion about what they "feel" it is about or what they "think" it is about.  They must look to the text and suss out what it IS about to truly understand what's written and evaluate how they treat these Post-Modern themes.
  6. I will ask students about an idea (in addition to looking for the Post-Modern theme and connection later in our analysis) that's present and unique from each poem for discussion.  See what I picked out to look at in each poem next to the links below!
  7. Students will identify the tone of the piece using evidence and choosing an emotion word that is six letters or greater.  (I'm crusading against low-level words like "happy," "sad," "mad," etc.!)
  8. Students will use evidence to support their evaluation of the theme and judge how effective the author was at communicating that theme to audiences.
  9. Finally, we will use the Post-Modern Themes handout to choose which connection to Post-Modernism is highlighted in the poem.  This "cheat sheet" helps students to identify these much easier, so while they still have to back up their claims with evidence, you can move much faster through this discussion!


As I said, I will ask students a specific question for each poem outside of our theme discussion to help them more fully analyze or comprehend the poem.  I picked these elements because to me, they are the crux of the poem or a feature that really makes it stand out from other poems with the same theme.  This can help students see how the same theme is investigated in different works, which is a Common Core standard.  It also allows me to draw attention to deeper content that the class may not have had time to investigate if I had let this poetry analysis unfold in an entirely organic, student-led manner.  Unfortunately, with all of our snow days this year, I had to cut back on my activities in this unit.  Rather than eliminate them entirely, I decided it would be better to craft ways to get them into the analysis more quickly than would usually happen.  See how I would teach this if it wasn't in a school year riddled with snow days in the reflection!

Specific Items for Investigation in Each Poem

  • "Courage" by Anne Sexton: We will look at how each an every memory uses "courage" and how "courage" as an idea evolves over the text and intertwines with Post-Modern themes.  I expect "lightbulb moments" for sure when they see how "courage" starts off with small things like being brave enough to ride a bike on your own (they will relate with this "wallowing" idea!), feeling alone or out of place after your first punishment, and standing up to bullies.  In the beginning, her courage allows her just to shove these thoughts down and out of mind.  In the second stanza, "courage" takes on a more physical meaning since it references war, but explains that courage was more about again refusing to face the weakness.  Students will also need to recognize that "courage" is directly related to and can transform into "love" through sacrifice, even though there's nothing tremendous about it--it's just simple and pure.  They will likely struggle with the "courage" idea in the second half of the third stanza, though they will immediately relate with using "courage" to face heartbreak alone.  I will ask them specifically about the "powdered your sorrow" section to help them see that this personification of sorrow could just be about dusting yourself off and getting back out there, or it could be something deeper (like having a child--which is an ultimate act of bravery & hope!) due to the images of powder, back rubs, blankets, sleep, and wings.  Finally, they will recognize that "courage" in the last stanza is living your elderly life with vigor, loving your family, and eventually accepting death confidently.  By looking at the evolution of "courage" in this poem, students will be able to recognize more quickly that being alone is integral to every stanza.
  •  "Streets" by Naomi Shihab Nye: In this poem, we will analyze the imagery and personification of the sky to help us see time elegantly passing.  In order to do this, students will describe how they would film this poem if they made it into a poem-version of a music video.  This is typically really effective for getting students to visualize (and understand more quickly) the poem.  We will also specifically talk about the sky sewing and dropping her "hem" on the world.  This is such a beautiful image (and one that is very non-threatening, though still symbolic of death or the absence of a full life) that it makes a great study!  
  • "Traveling through the Dark" by William Stafford: To help students see that humans/technology are taking over the natural world in a very twisted way, we will look carefully at how the vehicle is personified.  Once they see that the non-living car (one like it anyway!) is responsible killing a legitimately living thing, they will be able to better understand how we are replacing the natural with the unnatural.  
  • "Who Burns for the Perfection of Paper" by Martin Espada: How can you read this poem and NOT specifically talk about the perfection of the metaphor linking law books to "a pair of hands / upturned and burning"?!?!  You can't.  It's as simple as that.  This is such a beautiful metaphor that so perfectly recreates his pain (and the pain of others to provide our consumerist society with whatever they want), that you'd be remiss not to point out the beauty, if not for that reason alone!
  • "Freeway 280" by Lorna Dee Cervantes: This poem is a fabulous one to discuss word choice since the author expertly misses English and Spanish.  I will ask students what the mixed languages tells them about the speaker, and I will also have students translate the portions of text that are in Spanish.  Since just a few words and phrases are in Spanish, we will also look at the list of words and where they appear in the poem to try to make a connection between them.  Students will usually point out that all the words in Spanish are specifically regarding her childhood or her nostalgic memory of her childhood.  We will also discuss whether or not we needed to know the translation of all of these words to truly understand the poem, and typically students come to the idea that they do not since the syntax pretty much tells the reader what the word means or suggests that it belongs to some other kind of noun category.  If these were verbs, it would be much more difficult to understand without a translation!  Since we're talking about the Spanish anyway, I will also ask them what "wild abrazos of climbing roses" (wild hugs of climbing roses) looks like in their mind, as this is another amazing metaphor.  
  • "The Secret" by Denis Levertov: In this poem, it's absolutely critical that students can identify that the speaker is the poet who these girls have written to in a letter (where they told her that they'd "found" the secret).  Once they definitely have their speaker down, they will be able to better understand that this person--the WRITER of the so-called secret--has no idea what the secret is.  More importantly, they'll be able to make sense of that last stanza where the author admits that she doesn't really think there IS a secrete (to life).  Since it's not said directly, readers will have to consider what the author is NOT saying to see what she means.  She loves these girls for a lot of things, but at the end she loves that they "assume there is a secret," which must mean that by contrast, she doesn't.  That's the kicker for students, and it might take help considering the speaker of the poem to get them to fully understand it.


5 minutes

In the last minutes of class, I will give students their Semester II Final Exam Study Guide so that they can begin preparing for their finals.  In our district, we have an entire day at the end of the school year entirely devoted to Semester Exam Review before finals.  Often I see students wait until this day to get started on their studying.  In an attempt to get them started on studying for my final NOW, I decided that I would give out this study guide and play the video below to encourage them to start their studying today!


In addition to studying for their upcoming final exam, students should look over the Modernism vs. Post-Modernism Themes handout again and generate any additional questions that they have about the material for a discussion in a future class period.  A lot of these ideas take time to percolate, so that will be their assignment!  Percolate!

Next Steps

Next hour we will continue to survey Post-Modernism, focusing on using informational texts to give students a better background of the time.  I will also continue to harp at them to study in advance of their finals!