Words on Canvas: Helping Students Visualize Poetry

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This week's featured guest blogger is Joseph Couch Professor at Montgomery College.

Poetic language is often the most evocative of all the literary genres. With just a few words, deep emotions and entire landscapes can come alive on the page. For students with limited experience reading and analyzing poetry, though, the challenge can be especially daunting. The short length—often less than a page per work—looks like an easier proposition than working through a lengthy story or play. After an initial reading, the work is over so quickly, and any deeper meaning rushes past the student. To help students slow down the reading of poetry and better visualize the images and emotions of speakers, I devised an in-class exercise for students early in a poetry unit or to help with a particularly difficult work.

Thanks to the Internet, access to paintings and other images for classroom use makes this exercise possible with a couple of points and clicks, but a hard copy of a work on the overhead can work just as well as a digital one. The most important element is for the painting to have a direct visual and/or thematic connection to the poem as the class works through these steps. 

1.) Show the painting to the class as a whole, and ask them to provide brief answers to questions that ask them to engage the work, keeping in mind the thematic connections to the poem. Some areas of focus could be:

  • Subject: Questions could ask students to consider what their response is to the physical subject, such as a flower, landscape, animal, or person (particularly if the figure is well-known from history, literature, or mythology)
  • Color: Which moods or atmospheres do certain colors or combinations of colors suggest in the painting?
  • Light and shade: How do these sometimes subtle, sometimes blatant, differences underscore and obscure certain elements of the painting, and why?
  • Composition: How does the placement of figures in the frame draw your eye to certain elements of the painting, prioritizing them over others? If the painting is abstract, try to get students to focus on the shapes and colors in the frame, perhaps directly tying them to questions about color.

The idea is certainly not to turn a literature class into an art history one by having students consider all of these possibilities. Instead, select a few questions that you think best relate to the subject and themes of a poem for class discussion.

2.) Break the students into small groups and have them share answers about the painting, emphasizing the importance of subjective interpretation.

3.) Share the poem with the class as a whole on the overhead or by having students look at their own copies. Some moving back and forth between the poem and the painting to underscore the connection between the two in the exercise might be needed.

4.) Have each group look at a stanza in detail, or the entire poem if it is short, comparing/contrast their answers and discussion about the painting with the assigned stanza. Have each group consider how the poem reflects or challenges their previous answers and discussion, and why?

5.) Have each group report back to the class as a whole and welcome cross-talk between and among groups as interpretations share, question, confirm, and challenge what the group members interpreted.

One poet whose works lend themselves to the exercise is Blake since his poems and paintings appear in the same work. With a little creative zooming, or covering the poetry and painting can be kept separate in the first step. Another option is to use a painting that inspired a poem, such as Van Gogh’s The Starry Night and Anne Sexton’s poem of the same name or Marcel Duchamp’s and X. J. Kennedy’s Nude Descending a Staircase. If a direct pairing is not possible, as is most often the case, a little savvy searching for paintings on the Web can yield rewarding results for the activity and student engagement with

Classes can revisit this exercise as an instructor sees fit to aid the visualization of words and images in poems as well as refresher just before an exam. Working through all of the steps is also not always entirely necessary. Sometimes I find that reminding students of some of the connections made about colors, patterns, and subjects can help keep foster ideas and discussion. When it comes from students’ own engagement with the challenge of poetry and not from lectures or notes, the results are so much the better for them and for the instructor.