Powerful poetic voices

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Taking issue and changing minds – the pen is mightier than the sword

This Unit contains an Indigenous perspective

ENGLISH: Later Adolescence Band of Development, YEAR 10, 5 - 6 WEEKS

This unit is prepared in such a way as to give guidelines and suggestions. Teachers are encouraged to add content and details that suit their contexts and students.

BIG QUESTION: Can the written word change attitudes?

Introduction: Throughout the ages groups of human beings have experienced the full range of hardships, injustices, hopelessness and struggle. History tells innumerable stories of those who’ve been conquered, exploited and treated as inferior others. Many writers, including poets, have expressed in words those human conditions and raised their voices against oppression, racism and injustice. Good poetry can transform and shape people’s thinking and understanding, and help the reader stand in the shoes of others.

This unit looks at the power of poetry as social comment and as a way of understanding other people’s experiences. Students will be encouraged to look at poems across cultures/nations and to pursue their interests. However, a significant thread is that of understanding Australia’s indigenous poets and their writing. Aboriginal history, since invasion and colonisation, has been marked by injustice, misunderstanding and heartache and many voices, both indigenous and non-indigenous, have been raised in protest. This experience echoes other periods of history where injustices have happened.

In setting up the resources, and in addressing the need for students to be aware of Aboriginal poetic voices, there needs to be a very wide range of poems available to the students. The teacher also needs to convey a deep understanding, in particular, of Aboriginal history and the poems that reflect that.

DESIRED OUTCOMES: students developing understanding about some big ideas –

  • that powerful, high quality poetry can move people to change their views and develop their thinking, understanding and empathy

  • that poets craft their words to achieve profound effects – it doesn’t usually happen by accident, but by skill

Students will explore a wide range of poems from around the world and from Australian poets, that tell the story of some human struggles and describe/reveal strong emotions about the particular situation.


During this unit each student will develop an anthology of poems that say something strong and urgent about emotions, social issues, or situations people have faced, and that express those ideas well. In choosing and appreciating these poems the students will demonstrate how the poets achieve their impact.

The anthology should be set out as follows:

  • The anthology must have 15 poems (no more than 2 by any one poet).

  • While students can choose poets from any period and nationality, at least two must by Aboriginal poets.

  • 10 of the poems should each be accompanied by a short reflection on the poem, including mention of theme and language. In these reflections the students can write in the first person and make personal comments. An example of such a reflection is included at the end of this unit.

  • 5 of the poems should each be accompanied by a full ‘appreciation’ – a formal essay of approx 800 - 1000 words, exploring the poem in depth. Of these 5 at least one must be about a poem written by an Aboriginal poet. These appreciations will follow essay writing conventions and be written in the third person.

  • A brief introduction to each poet should be included (1 or 2 paragraphs), explaining when and where he/she lived and what was the issue that concerned the poet.

  • The anthology should have an Introduction where the student reflects on what they have learnt about the power of poetry and the skill of poets.

  • The students should write their own poem, about an issue of concern and demonstrating poetic writing skill.

The anthology should be of high quality – examples will be used as models. (See list of resources at the end)

Students will need to demonstrate:

  • understanding of figurative/poetic language and poetic devices, giving examples

  • understanding of the themes of the poems discussed in class and the poems included in their anthologies

  • understanding of the structure/styles/genres within poetry, commenting on them in class discussions about poems being considered and giving examples from the poems they choose.

Essential content to be explicitly taught/included in this unit, taken from the Later Adolescence Band of Development:

ELA 8: The student listens and speaks with purpose and effect.

Students have opportunities to understand and learn about –

8LA1: listening and speaking as providing opportunities to examine issues, evaluate opinions, argue points, make judgements, build understanding and persuade others by using evidence and reasoning

Students have opportunities to learn to –

8LA5: listen and speak in discussions, conversation (about poetry)

ELA 9: The student reads effectively.

Students have opportunities to understand and learn about -

9LA5: how experiences created in texts can help readers to understand themselves and others, their own world and the wider world

9LA8: figurative language and imagery to express attitudes, evoke emotions and establish mood, and some techniques used in poetry

Students have opportunities to learn to –

9LA6: read and interpret imaginative texts (creative texts i.e. poetry)

9LA11: draw conclusions (and reflect) about major ideas in imaginative texts (poems)

ELA 10:The student writes effectively.

Students have opportunities to understand and learn about -

10LA1: how writers (poets) want readers to empathise with the ideas and emotions expressed or implied in their writing and select subject matter and language to try to position readers (to affect a response in a reader)

Students have opportunities to learn to –

10LA5 and 6: write an imaginative text (poem) that (in some way does some of the following) moves, informs and persuades, and contains personal, social and cultural ideas related to their own lives and communities and their views of the world

10LA8 and 10: structure an information text (an essay) with an introduction, a conclusion and order paragraphs to best support and sustain an argument

ELA 11: The student critically interprets and creates texts.

Students have opportunities to understand and learn about –

11LA3: how creators of texts (poets writing poems) select language and techniques to represent ideas (e.g. choose words and symbols with particular connotations; use imagery to establish mood and enhance ideas and feelings)

11LA8: the social justice implications of the ways in which people, places, events and objects are portrayed

Students have opportunities to learn to –

11LA15: create texts (a poem) that deal with ideas and issues where they would like to effect change or persuade a general or specific audience to change their point of view or take action

PROCESS – teaching and learning experiences

The assignment task is also the unit content. Significant lesson time is for students to read poems (similar to a wide reading program, but here there is wide reading of poems not novels). Therefore the teacher needs to have collected a great number of poetry books (mass loan from the library, plus one’s own anthologies), plus use any poetry text books available. An excellent resource is The Untamed Fire, poetry for secondary students edited by Sadler, Hayllar and Powell, published Macmillan Education Australian Pty Ltd, 1997.

Step 1 - TUNING IN: discuss with students what it means to ‘take issue’ with something, and what they think of the phrase ‘The pen is mightier than the sword’. Do they have any examples?

Note the following background information regarding the origins of saying - The Pen is Mightier Than the Sword – the idea, and similar ones, are not new:

The Greek poet Euripides, who died about 406 B.C. said, "The tongue is mightier than the blade."

In the Bible, in the Epistle to the Hebrews it reads: "Indeed, the word of God is living and effective, sharper than any two-edged sword, penetrating even between soul and spirit, joints and marrow, and able to discern reflections and thoughts of the heart.”

The Islamic prophet Muhammad is quoted as saying "The ink of the scholar is holier than the blood of the martyr".

In 1600 Shakespeare had Rosencrantz in Hamlet say that "... many wearing rapiers are afraid of goosequills." In 1621 Robert Burton wrote The Anatomy of Melancholy, in which he stated: "From this it is clear how much more cruel the pen may be than the sword." Thomas Jefferson, who in 1796 sent a letter to Thomas Paine in which he wrote: "Go on doing with your pen what in other times was done with the sword."

Who actually said the exact words? Edward Bulwer-Lytton. When: 1839

The story behind it: In Act II of Bulwer-Lytton's play Richelieu, Cardinal Richelieu learns of a plot against him contrived by a friend and confidant, the monk Joseph. Since as a priest he could not challenge the monk to physical combat, Richelieu issued a written statement which contains the following:

Beneath the rule of men entirely great,

The pen is mightier than the sword.

Step 2: visiting the known, being introduced to the new; class discussion; modelling approaches to poetry appreciation (discuss why this form of literary study is called an ‘appreciation’ – what are the connotations? Is it more than a commentary? When possibly looking at some of Geoff Pages commentaries later in the unit this question could be revisited – are his commentaries really ‘appreciations’?)

Weeks 1 - 2, approximately, should be spent:

  • looking at examples of poems, chosen by the teacher, that powerfully present a view, emotion etc.

  • revisit previous learning, to do with use of poetic devices and imagery, and make links with opportunities they’ve had to write poems themselves.

Strategies to promote student engagement and sharing of ideas

  • jigsaw group work: each expert group looking at a different poem then new groups formed where each person presents/teaches the poem they have analysed

  • photocopy a poem onto A3 sheets for group work, (and also A4 so that every student has their own copy). The poem should be read a couple of times with a few guiding hints about its story (noting the title especially). Students should then work in groups of 3 or 4 and be given one part of the poem to concentrate on. They should work on the A4 sheet, writing lots of notes, using question marks, arrows etc. They should look up words in dictionaries if they’re unsure of meanings. They shouldn’t worry about what they don’t understand, but start with the bits that are clear and go from there. After enough time has been given for this work there should be a sharing of ideas from each group and a growing understanding of the whole poem.

The following is a list of a few suggested poems, but every teacher will have other examples of such poems. It is important for the teacher to convey ‘passion’ about the poems they present. Note: these poems, and others the teacher might choose, should not then be used by the students in their anthologies. Therefore, don’t choose too many that would probably appeal to the students – look for challenging poems that will generate good class discussion. Of course, by introducing the students to a poet, they can then find other examples of his/her work. With most of the poems mentioned here, there is also mention of an accompanying appreciation which could be used as a model, after the class has discussed the poem and especially looked at the poetic devices used and the theme.

  • London by William Blake (1757 – 1827)

In this poem William Blake takes issue with the negative results of the Industrial Revolution for the poor and disenfranchised of 18th century London. The rhymes, rhythms and imagery are powerful. For a full appreciation of this poem see Poetry reading and understanding by KGW Cross and DRC Marsh, Cheshire Publishing, 2nd edition 1966. A commentary about this poem, by Geoff Page (80 Great Poems from Chaucer to Now, commentaries by Geoff Page, 2006 UNSW) is also included at the end of the unit. There are several other poems by Blake, about the evils of poverty and aspects of a developing industrialised world, that students can pursue.

  • Beach Burial by Kenneth Slessor (1901 – 1971)

This is a very famous poem, about which much has been written. It explores the theme of the futility of war. For a full appreciation of this poem see Geoff Page’s commentary in 60 Classic Australian Poems, commentaries by Geoff Page, 2009 UNSW. The theme of the futility of war is expressed by many other poets.

  • We are going by Oodgeroo Noonuccal (1920 – 1993)

This is a powerful poem and a good example of an Aboriginal poet’s work. (Oodgeroo Noonuccal was known, earlier in her career, as Kath Walker). In the anthology The Untamed Fire, poetry for secondary students edited by Sadler, Hayllar and Powell, published Macmillan Education Australian Pty Ltd, 1997, there are some useful introductory notes. In this anthology there is a section on ‘Aboriginal voices’.

  • From the Republic of Conscience by Seamus Heaney (1939)

This is a challenging, but extremely worthwhile, poem to explore as a class, as an example of poetry of social comment. It was written in response to an invitation from Amnesty International and was published on Human Rights Day, 10 December 1985. Geoff Page, in his 80 Great Poems from Chaucer to Now, 2006 UNSW, has a wonderful commentary on this poem which is very helpful to the teacher.

  • The Domesticity of Giraffes by Judith Beveridge (b.1956).

This poem concerns the controversial issue of whether animals should be kept in zoos. The giraffe in this poem is reduced to a very degraded state, whereas, out on the plains she would live with natural grace and beauty.

  • Easter 1916 by W.B. Yeats (1865 – 1939).

Much of Ireland’s 20th century history is to do with the conflict between Protestants and Catholics, and has been known as ‘The Troubles’. There are some excellent notes at the beginning of chapter 14 in The Untamed Fire, poetry for secondary students edited by Sadler, Hayllar and Powell, published Macmillan Education Australian Pty Ltd, 1997

Students should write a personal response to these poems, as a practice for the their anthologies, both the reflections on their chosen poems and also for their Introductory comment.

In the discussion of these poems there should be revision of how to read and analyse a poem (that is, the skills of ‘appreciating’ a poem) –

  • understanding the subject matter (and exploring what experiences of the poet might impact on the poem and how it is written);

  • discovering and reflecting on the theme/s; discerning the mood and emotions of the poem

  • looking at the techniques of the poet – word choice, rhyme, rhythm (including enjambment i.e. where lines run on to read and sound lie the rhythms of natural speech) and repetition; tone (e.g. irony); poetic devices – e.g. simile, metaphor, personification, alliteration, juxtaposition, allusion, onomatopoeia

  • Students should also have the opportunity to revise various forms of poetry – ballads, sonnets, rhyming verse, free verse

Note: students could also look at the poetry/lyrics in songs they listen to, plus songs of social comment and protest during 20th century and contemporary examples from later 20th century and into 21st century. They could bring in examples they, or their parents/relatives know of. Many connections could be made to the overall theme of this unit.

Step 3: immersion in poems, sharing with others, making decisions about which poems to choose, researching poets as needed

Please note that there are so many poets that students could investigate, concerning the theme of ‘taking issue’, including: Maya Angelou, Langston Hughes, Shel Silverstein, Judith Wright, Bruce Dawe, Charmaine Papertalk-Green, Nikki Giovanni and many, many more.

Weeks 3 - 4, approximately, students should

  • read a wide variety of poems during the lessons, many more than the 15 they finally choose. Some of these could form the basis of mini lessons at the beginning of the lesson, again for discussion, revision, clarification. Students need to be able to photocopy poems, or type them up

  • talk about the poems with other students

  • develop a method of recording the poems they like best (noting where the poem can be found), writing down first impressions, questions and generally using organisational and time-management skills.

During this time the teacher should have mini lessons to revise poetic devices and imagery.

During the first 4 weeks also, in an unfolding process, lessons should include the process of developing the explicit quality criteria for assessment, according to the above categories. Using examples of excellent appreciations both from published sources and also the teacher’s collection of previous students’ work of high quality, plus examples of his/her own, the class should tease out (in rubric form if desired, but certainly with explicit detail) what a high quality poetry appreciation looks like.

Step 4: writing reflections and appreciations

Weeks 4 - 5: the process of drafting and finalising the reflections, Introduction and appreciations. A process for submitting drafts for feedback on the appreciations should be put in place.


For the ten reflections students should include a clear personal response, commenting on why they have chosen the poem and including some points about the way the poet has achieved his/her effects. The teacher and students can decide how long these should be.

For the five main poems – each appreciation should have evidence of the student clearly understanding:

  • subject matter

  • theme

  • mood

  • language

  • imagery – literary devices

  • sound/rhythm/rhyme

  • form/poetic structure

Other aspects of the assessment would include:

Assessment of each student’s original poem could be part of a creative writing outcome, or part of assessing understanding of poetic devices. This decision would be made by the teacher.


Sadler, Hayllar and Powell, The Untamed Fire, poetry for secondary students published Macmillan Education Australian Pty Ltd, 1997.

KGW Cross and DRC Marsh, Poetry reading and understanding by, Cheshire Publishing, 2nd edition 1966.

Geoff Page, 80 Great Poems from Chaucer to Now, UNSW 2006

Geoff Page, 60 Classic Australian Poems, UNSW 2009

Wonderful anthologies in libraries, owned by teachers

The Internet

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