Poetry of the City

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.

[City skyscrapers]. Bacher, Otto H. (Otto Henry), artist. [1901?]

[City skyscrapers]. Bacher, Otto H., artist. [1901?]

The students I work with live in one of the most densely populated, bustling, suburban areas in the United States: Northern Virginia, just outside Washington, DC. Those who choose to partake have the benefit of urban offerings such as mass transit, cultural experiences like theater and the symphony, and many of the nation’s most beautiful buildings, including the Library of Congress and the United States Capitol. But they are also in close proximity to Shenandoah National Park, the Potomac Rivernot to mention the Atlantic Oceanas well as local parks and preserves. This post, the first of two, offers works and ideas for engaging students with poetry of the city. The second, next month, will explore works about nature and rural living.

Before introducing any of the poems, ask students to individually record a list of words, ideas, or concepts that come to mind when they think about cities. Create a class word cloud using an online tool or chart paper. Ask students to peruse the cloud and note ideas that recur and those that are unique. If the class has used predominantly negative terms, begin with the first set of poems below. If the class has used mainly positive terms, begin with the second set of poems.

First, read F. S. Flint’s “London, my beautiful” once aloud, asking the students to listen. Next, offer a copy of the poem so they can follow along for subsequent readings. Ask them to note anything that stands out as they listen and read. Follow the same format for reading Claude McKay’s “The City’s Love.”

Ask:

  1. What does each poet love about the city?
  2. What are some specific words or phrases the author has used to convey these thoughts?
  3. In what way has the poem offered a view of the city that differs from your own? From that of the class in general?
  4. Has the poem caused you to rethink your original thoughts about cities? Why or why not?

The next set of poems includes William Blake’s  “London” and C. P. Cavafy’s “The City.” Use the same basic questions as before, but change the first to ask what criticisms the poet offers about the city.

Extension:

  1. Compare and contrast the two sets of poems, noting the differing viewpoints of London and cities in general.
  2. Students may want to read laterally by accessing biographical information or other poems by the suggested poets. Ask them to discover experiences the author had that may have led to these attitudes toward cities.
  3. Ask students to write their own “city” poems. They might begin by revisiting their original list of ideas, adding any new concepts gleaned from the four poems.

Come back next month for a post exploring ways to engage students with poetry of nature and rural life.

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