The Power of Pairing Poems: Walt Whitman and Langston Hughes

The following guest post, part of our “Teacher’s Corner” series, is by Rebecca Newland, a Fairfax County Public Schools Librarian and former Teacher in Residence at the Library of Congress.

Walt Whitman, 1869. Prints and Photographs Division.

Walt Whitman, 1869.
Prints and Photographs Division. LC-USZ62-82789 //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3b29442

When I was teaching English, I noticed that pairing poems with similar topics, imagery, or themes prompted excellent discussions. One of my favorite pairs was “I Hear America Singing” by Walt Whitman and “I, Too” by Langston Hughes.

Begin by reading aloud “I Hear America Singing” or listening to this recording by former Poet Laureate Billy Collins. Next, distribute a copy of the poem to individuals or pairs. Ask students to make a two column chart. In one column they should list each singer; in the other, the way in which Whitman describes his or her singing.

Ask:

  • What do the singers have in common?
  • What is different?
  • In what way is the poem a celebration of America?
  • What is a theme of the poem?

To foster creativity, ask students to add themselves to the poem and describe their own singing.

Langston Hughes, 1942.

Langston Hughes, 1942. Prints and Photographs Division. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3a43849

Next read Hughes’s “I, Too.” Explain to students that some believe the poem to be an answer to Whitman’s. Ask them to identify the elements of the poem that directly address Whitman’s work.

Then ask:

  • Why might Hughes have thought Whitman’s poem needed to be answered? What evidence is there in the poem for this?
  • What is a theme of the poem?

Extend the discussion of the poem by listening to this 20 minute lecture about the works of Langston Hughes. (A transcript is also available.) The first few minutes of the lecture read and discuss “I, Too.”

Pairing poems helps students think critically about common themes over time as well as the possibility that writers are influenced by those who have come before them.

What other poems work well in pairs?

2 Comments

  1. J. Paliatka
    March 23, 2016 at 11:30 am

    I used Emma Lazarus’ “The New Colossus” and Langston Hughes’ “Let America be America Again” to offer differing perspectives on America. After our discussion, students wrote their own poems about America in the style of one of these two poems.

  2. M. Kostaneski
    March 27, 2016 at 1:18 pm

    I am thinking this might be an interesting exercise for the group of adults at our school who are looking at how well we recognize and acknowledge diversity. Thanks for sharing.

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