Performing Poems

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Transforming Your Students into Poetry S.T.A.R.S.

Introduction: Personal Meaning versus Thematic Meaning

Simply put, poem performance has been the key to my love and understanding of poetry. I earned a Master’s Degree by reading, studying, and writing all kinds of poetry. When I began memorizing poetry and performing it I began to see a different side of poetry —the Inside. Suddenly poetry was something not simply to be studied, but to be experienced, celebrated, and lived.

I do NOT think that poem performance is a substitute for the more traditional approaches of reading (silently and aloud), discussion, and analysis. I DO think that poem performance can be a great way to hook young people who so often think that poetry is inaccessible and dull with nothing to offer them. Too often young people (and adults) see poetry as something that is “done to them,” like a 6-month dental cleaning. Poem performance activities place students at the center of authentic learning and allow young people to discuss poetry using terminology that is already familiar to them.

Only when students are engaged with the poetry will they truly care about matters of form and meaning. I routinely advise teachers not to ask young people what a poem means. I’ve found that most of us, young or grown, don’t really care what a poem means. But we do want to know what a poem means to us. The difference is not so subtle. The first question regards “thematic meaning” and implies that there is a definite, authoritative answer that lives within the pages of the “teacher’s manual.” The second question regards “personal meaning” and implies that the reader and the poem are somehow connected.

Most often when adults claim to know what a poem means, they are really saying that their life experiences have allowed them to find “personal meaning” in the poem. More than likely any “thematic meaning” has been derived through their extant knowledge of literature (and sometimes their extant knowledge of what the Teacher’s Manual says the poem means). But young people don’t have this pre-existing knowledge base. At best their knowledge of “thematic meaning” is not fully formed; at worst it is nonexistent.

Performance Poetry allows students to make meaning (personal meaning) on their own terms through their experience of transforming the poem’s text into a presentation piece. After making this personal connection the academic matters of theme, symbolism, form, and poetic devices suddenly matter.

Poem Performance 101

Poem performance encompasses a wide variety of presentation models. Students can work separately, in pairs, or in teams up to four. (In my experience teams of four kids make for the best collaborative learning experience, and the most interesting performances.) From a collection of poems assigned by the teacher, or found on a “poetry search” through classroom and library resources, students choose one poem. The goal for the students is to memorize the lines of the poem and stage it for presentation to the rest of the class. Performance teams of two or more, can divide the lines into speaking parts to create a script. Poems can be delivered “straight up” in the manner of a storyteller sharing a tale or “theatrically” with gestures, movements, blocking, and characters. Participants are urged to match the mood of their presentation with the mood of their chosen poem. No scenery or props are necessary—except what can be “suggested” by use of a couple chairs. Your stage area can be the front of the classroom. A simple show can be “thrown together” within a 50 minute class period. An elaborate show can be staged and polished with a week or more of preparation and practice.

Poetry Performance S.T.A.R.S

This is a simple way of linking your students’ presentations so they flow efficiently from one poem to the next to create a seamless poetry extravaganza.

Set the stage. After being announced, the presenting team quickly enters the stage area to place any necessary chairs in their starting positions.

Title and Author. Standing in a neat line, the performers say the poem’s title and author, then pause for a count of two, before quickly getting into starting positions.

Action! The team performs the poem.

Receive Applause. After the presentation is complete, performers line back up and bow, respectfully and in unison.

Strike the set. Any remaining chairs or props should be quickly cleared away. Performers then take their seats as the next group is called forward.

C.A.S.T: From Poem to Play in Four Easy Steps

Taking poems from the page to the stage is all in the C.A.S.T. This is a series of four steps you can take to begin speaking about a particular poem in theatrical terms. These terms (i.e., character, action, setting) tend to be more familiar and less intimidating than our traditional poetic terms (i.e., theme, mood, symbolism).

Character: Make a list of all the specific characters within the poem. Start with the “major” characters—those that are mentioned directly. They may be human, animal, or even non-living things. Then find the “minor” characters—nouns within the poem that may not be directly important to the story.

Action: Make a list of all the action in the poem. Look carefully for the verbs, the action words. Be sure to make your list in the order (sequence) that it happens in the poem. This list will come in handy as you decide what actions to use to stage the poem. Some poems have a lot of physical action. Other poems contain only thoughts, or “mental” action.

Setting: Where does the poem take place? If the setting is not specified, look for clues in the text that might help you to invent something appropriate.

Transform the text into a script: Determine what characters are the most important and then assign those characters speaking parts. The line of the poem must be appropriate to the character who says it. Lines may be spoken simultaneously by two or more different characters. You can even split a line in half, assigning each half to a different character. Play with the sound of the poem. Use your imagination.

Some poems work better than others when using this approach. I’ve included a few famous examples on the next page.

There is no standard way to present a poem. The students’ aesthetic choices should be based on the needs of the poem and the comfort level and ability of the performers. Sometimes simplicity works best. Sometimes a poem is best left to speak for itself. I’ve seen performers stand motionless as they recite a poem to good dramatic effect. Ultimately what makes a poem performance effective is the amount of heart the presenter puts into it.

Now You Try It!

In groups of four, try acting out the poems on this page.

• Read them aloud and clarify any confusing words.
• Pick which poem you will perform.
• C.A.S.T.: List Characters, Action, and possible Settings. Transform the poem into a script by assigning speaking parts.
• Come up with staging ideas and practice. Memorize the lines if you can.
• Use S.T.A.R.S to present your poem to the rest of the class.
• As a class discuss what you observed from this activity.

Poem by Langston Hughes

I loved my friend.
He went away from me.
There’s nothing more to say.
The poem ends,
soft as it began.
I loved my friend.

Sammy by Elizabeth Ripley

There was a young hopeful named Sam.
Who loved diving into the jam.
When his mother said, “Sammy!
Don’t make yourself jammy.”
He said, “You’re too late ma, I am.”

We Real Cool: Pool Players, Seven at the Golden Shovel by Gwendolyn Brooks

We real cool. We
left school. We
lurk late. We
strike straight. We
sing sin. We
Thin gin. We
jazz June. We
die soon.

Fire and Ice by Robert Frost

Some say the world will end in fire.
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
to say that for destruction ice
is also great, and would suffice.

The Termite by Ogden Nash

The termite knocked upon the wood.
Tasted it and found it good.
And that is why your Auntie May.
Fell through the parlor floor today.

Assorted Top-Secret Tips for Memorizing Poetry

from Immersed in Verse: An Informative, Slightly Irreverent & Totally Tremendous Guide to Living the Poet’s Life (Lark, 2006) by Allan Wolf

Here are a few tips that may help you on the road to memorization:

• Relax. Don’t worry, be happy. Memorization is a lot easier when you are relaxed.

• No Background Noise. I hope by now this should go without saying, but if not, I’ll say it now for the record. DO NOT memorize while the television is on! Or the computer. Or loud music.

• Experience the Poem. Have a variety of experiences with the poem. Write it down. Read it out loud. Recite it in the bathtub. Recite it on the way to lunch. Discuss it with your friends. Divide the poem into speaking parts. Record it into a tape player and listen to it over and over.

• Combine Techniques. Each of us travel the memorization trail riding atop a different pony. Use a combination of memorization techniques—listening to the poem, saying the poem, writing the poem, reading the poem, acting it out, setting it to music, dancing to it, etc.

• Memorize a Poem You Like. This may come as no surprise. It’s typically easier to memorize a poem that you really like from the start. On the other hand, if you are required to memorize a poem you don’t initially like, you may grow to appreciate it more as you memorize it.

• A Poem in Rhyme, Saves Time. Poems that rhyme are usually easier to memorize because the rhyming words continually give you clues as to what line follows. Poems with a very consistent rhythm can be easier because of their predictable beat. Not surprisingly rhythmic poems that also rhyme can be easiest of all.

• Memorize While Standing Up. Typically you won’t be reciting poetry while seated, so why memorize it that way? It is always best to involve your whole body in memorization if possible.

• Create Memorization Movements. For each word or cluster of words in the poem, create a body movement that will help you remember what comes next. Many people can remember movements more easily than words.

• Speak Out. Speak your poems out loud as you repeat the lines. This gives you experience listening to your own voice and, again, gets your body involved.

• Memorize Multiple Poems Together. If your goal is to memorize more than one poem, you are best off dividing your time between them each day. Don’t wait until you’ve finished one before starting on the next.

• Use A Tape Recorder. If possible record your poem onto a hand-held tape recorder. Listen to it repeatedly. Gradually begin to recite along. Think how many songs you’ve memorized like this already, simply by hearing them on the radio or in your earphones.

• Memorize The Last Part First. For especially long poems, try memorizing the last half first. We tend to repeat the first part of the poem more when memorizing it and thus, learn the first part better. It is best to know both halves of a long poem equally well, but if you have to choose, it’s better to start shaky and finish smooth. Also, for some reason memorizing the first half always seems easier when you’ve already got the second half down. That way all you have to do is meet yourself in the middle!

• Carry Your Poem With You At All Times. Think of all the snippets of time you spend simply waiting for something to happen or someone to show up. Pass that extra time by looking at your poem.

• Create Your Own Personal Mnemonics. Conjure up your own pictures, initials, phrases, associations, and movements—anything to help you remember what word comes next. The idea is to hang the strange new words onto well-known old “hooks” which already exist in your head, like hanging your keys on a hook just inside the front door so you never have to go searching for them.

• Speed-Through Rehearsing. If you have successfully memorized your poem, but your recitation is still tentative and halting, try “speed-through rehearsing.” Say the words as quickly as you can with little to no expression. The idea is to learn the transitions from line to line and from stanza to stanza so you don’t stop the flow of your reading. Place 10 dimes on the table before you, removing one every time you complete your poem. Or line up ten M&Ms and eat your way through them as you complete each recitation. If you can complete ten “speed throughs” of your poem, you are probably ready to recite it in front of a live audience.


Allan Wolf

This is a fun community building activity that also allows students to cut loose a little bit. In teams of 4, 5, or 6, their task is to demolish their own individual poems and put the pieces together in some way to create a new text that combines at least some of each poem. Then the “monsters” are brought to life through an impromptu performance. This is a fun end of year activity to unwind and have fun with.

• In group. Each person reads their poem aloud and proud.

• Build the poem: by word/image association—images, words, phrases, ideas in common; word/image juxtaposition—images, words, phrases, ideas in conflict; linear connection—combine parts of your poems to tell a story, or explore a theme; montage—images, words, phrases, ideas in a jumble, not immediately related in any way; if possible, find a “refrain” among the poem parts which you can repeat throughout the presentation; think of an appropriate conclusion—the refrain, or words (or action) of summation.

• Build the script: (who says what and when?), determine any characters. Play with the voices. Consider saying certain words in unison, especially the final line of the poem.

• Stage the poem: Figure out how to create the setting (if there is one). How will you use your performance space? What movements are appropriate to the poem (and comfortable to the presenters)?

• Create a title for the new poem and decide on a special name for your group.

• Present/perform the poem: Remember that you must gather together, before the presentation, to introduce the poem title and group name. After the presentation is over be sure to take a group bow. The winning poem/presentation will be chosen by “applause-o-meter.”


Allan Wolf

Give teams of four or so students each one index card with some emotion (or other descriptive adjective) written on it (mad, sad, furious, frightened, nervous, excited, happy, tired, in love). In secret each group should generate a list of vocabulary words related to the word on their card. Then they are to write down a list of mannerisms that are associated with the word (movements, stances, vocalizations, facial expressions, etc.). Next they must come to consensus over how to present a recitation of Mary Had a Little Lamb by Sara Josepha Hale or some other popular Mother Goose rhyme. (Little Miss Muffet works well.) Their object is to communicate the word on their card but only speaking the words of the poem. The rest of the class attempts to guess and discusses afterward what was effective and what was not clear.

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