Spotlight on Humorous Poetry

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.

Carnival scene at Rodeo Austin, the city's annual stock show and rodeo. Austin, Texas, 2014. By Carol M. Highsmith.

Carnival scene at Rodeo Austin, the city’s annual stock show and rodeo. Austin, Texas, 2014. By Carol M. Highsmith.

Last month I wrote in support of engaging students with literary analysis, which asks them to use critical thinking and close reading skills. These skills are integral to success. That said, students also benefit from opportunities to read poetry for its joys. In particular, I recommend introducing students to poems that are humorous and challenge their preconceptions about what a poem is or should be, and poems likely to provoke laughter or looks of “What did that poet do?!”

One poem I enjoy sharing with students for its clever use of invented words to convey meaning is Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky,” which I have written about previously.  Another poem of this type is “On a Flimmering Floom you Shall Ride,” by Carl Sandburg. Read Sandburg’s poem aloud to your class or access a recording of him reading it. Ask students to listen, then provide them with a copy of the poem for another reading. Ask students for their thoughts about Sandburg’s technique. Consider pairing this in a lesson with “Jabberwocky” to prompt a discussion about why a poet would create new words instead of using those already available.

While Carroll and Sandburg enjoy playing with invented language, poet E. E. Cummings is known for having fun with format. One example is his poem “[hist whist].” Consider again reading the poem aloud before showing students how the poem is formatted.  Students may be surprised to see poetry written in this way. Ask students: Why Cummings might have chosen to write poems in such free forms?

With younger students, consider the work of Shel Silverstein or Roald Dahl, asking them to think about and offer ideas about how each poet conveys humor.

Offer students the opportunity to write and share poems written with humor, invented language, or creative formats.

What works do you use to illustrate the humor and fun of poetry?

3 Comments

  1. C L Couch
    December 26, 2018 at 12:14 pm

    My college students convinced me they believed that all literature is depressing because of what we were reading. When I looked through the recommended anthology, I had to agree. I searched around and found a literary collection that had a humor section, which helped greatly to show the full range of responses available through reading works of different kinds.

    Thank you, this article is helpful in narrative and engagement.

  2. Sherry L.
    December 26, 2018 at 2:32 pm

    Thank you for this post. Reading your suggestions reminded me of “Cheers” by Eve Merriam — a delightful example of wordplay with sound and meaning and a student favorite!

  3. Cheryl
    December 27, 2018 at 9:59 am

    Wonderful to see the full emotional range of poetry! Billy Collins’ wonderful “Introduction to Poetry” //www.loc.gov/poetry/180/001.html reflect so many experiences.

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