Teacher’s Corner: Using Poetry to Teach the Importance of Word Choice

The following guest post, part of our “Teacher’s Corner” series, is by Rebecca Newland, Teacher in Residence at the Library of Congress.

In my high school English classroom, we studied not only literature, but also writing. Students usually came to me competent in the fundamentals of persuasive and expository composition, but they gave little thought to purposeful sentence construction or word choice.

In order to begin building skills in word choice, I developed a two part lesson to illustrate the way deliberate word choice affects meaning and effect. For the first part of the lesson I used the epic poem Beowulf and five different modern English translations to illustrate the variety of decisions made by translators.* The first part of my lesson is detailed below.

Copyright Consideration: While the original text of the poem is old enough to be in the public domain, some translations are not. Be sure to consider the doctrine of fair use as it applies to classroom use.I first showed students an original Old English version of the poem. I usually use only the first eleven lines of the introduction. Since students will not recognize this as English, there is an opportunity to have a conversation about Old English as a separate language from Middle English and modern English.

Title Page, Beowulf, An Anglo-Saxon Epic Poem

Title Page, Beowulf, An Anglo-Saxon Epic Poem (1892). From Library of Congress digitized copy available through the Internet Archive. https://archive.org/details/beowulfanglosaxo00hal

Time constraints did not allow for discussion of every word of the excerpt. Instead, I prepared the five different translations and chose eight different words and phrases to investigate closely. We began the conversation by reading the first eleven lines of this modern English translation (1856) by Lesslie Hall, focusing on the eight underlined words and phrases:

Lo! the Spear-Danes’ glory through splendid achievements
The folk-kings’ former fame we have heard of,
How princes displayed then their prowess-in-battle.
Oft Scyld the Scefing from scathers in number
From many a people their mead-benches tore.
Since first he found him friendless and wretched,
The earl had had terror: comfort he got for it,
Waked ‘neath the welkin, world-honor gained,
Till all his neighbors o’er the sea were compelled to
Bow to his bidding and bring him their tribute:
An excellent atheling!

We then concentrated on their counterparts in the other translations, such as the following translation by Frances B. Grummere available from the Poetry Foundation:

LO, praise of the prowess of people-kings
of spear-armed Danes, in days long sped,
we have heard, and what honor the athelings won!
Oft Scyld the Scefing from squadroned foes,
from many a tribe, the mead-bench tore,
awing the earls. Since erst he lay
friendless, a foundling, fate repaid him:
for he waxed under welkin, in wealth he throve,
till before him the folk, both far and near,
who house by the whale-path, heard his mandate,
gave him gifts: a good king he!

Questions to prompt discussion:

  • What tone is set by the first word in each translation?
  • In what ways do the selected elements differ in each of the translations?
  • What is the effect of the differences on the way the poem sounds? On what the line means?
  • How do the differences in translation affect the overall meaning? Explain.
  • Consider also examining the differences in sentence construction in each selection. How does the word order affect the sound and meaning?

We ended with a conversation about how the activity illustrates the importance of deliberate word choice in students’ own writing.

How would you use an activity like this in your classroom?

Look for next month’s post in which I will detail the second part of this lesson.

2 Comments

  1. Sherry
    January 28, 2015 at 7:48 pm

    I’ve done a similar exercise focussing on how translators of poetry approach word choice, and the difference between strict translation and capturing the mood and tone of poetry. I’ve used the snippet of Sappho’s poem in which a lover waits up all night wondering about her love; it mentions the Pleiades, which some translations cite as the Seven Sisters, a nickname of sorts and an interesting choice already. Translations range from 19th century rhyme to lean 20th century free verse. Students get to read and think about them solo, and then volunteers read the selections one after the other, aloud. Students vote on which translation they like best and explain why.

  2. Stuart
    February 2, 2015 at 2:47 pm

    I applaud your course for our young people. Words you choose, in the written word and in daily life, are important. As a poet I am adamant about word choice. I labor over selecting just the right one for a specific context and meaning.

    The poetry I love and refer to in different translation is the Psalms. There are many translations. I have particularly resonated with a recent adaptation for the Hebrew by Stephen Mitchell. His translation of Psalm 4 had a might impact on me while I recovered from Leukemia.

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