Blackout Poetry!

Celebrate National Poetry Month with a revealing take on close reading!

If I’ve learned anything about poetry in ten years of teaching the stuff, it’s this:

“This is Thunderdome. There are no rules.”

Poetry is all about self expression, unexpected discovery, and the power of close reading and artistic craftsmanship. But how you get from point A to point B is entirely up to you.

When studying the works of American masters like Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, my American Literature classes staged a “March Madness” style tournament bracket, pitting different poetic techniques against one another in head-to-head showdowns, and asking students to make a case for which singular element of each poet’s craft was the most important to unlocking the meaning of their work.

For modernist poets like Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, we engaged in a heated debate on what constitutes a poem — down to the placement of a single period.

And for living poets like Daniel Beaty and Nikki Giovanni? We challenged students to make cases for redefining “the canon” to better reflect a myriad of contemporary voices, experiences, and perspectives that have far too often been ignored by the conventions of the craft.

But perhaps my all-time favorite approach to poetic close reading?

Blackout poetry.

If you’ve never played before, it’s a hoot. Setup is super easy, and this can be done with any work of poetry (or prose). The rules are simple:

1. Have each student identify “anchors” in each stanza that he or she feels is most important to the poem.

2. Circle those anchor words in pencil, and…

3. Use black Sharpies to color in over everything else around those words — using only the words remaining in the poem as a sort of miniature “found poem” within the larger work, designed to convey it’s most essential or striking image. And since we’re talking about creativity and self expression…

4. While blacking out the majority of the text of the original poem, students are likewise asked to use the same page to illustrate a visual representation of the poem’s most evocative image.

For my class, we took a look at Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy,” a masterpiece of confessional poetry — but the same activity can be done with any printed work of poetry or prose (which makes it a great fit for non ELA classrooms! Like The Declaration of Independence, or a page from Don Quixote, etc.). And to add a random element of chance to our blackout poems, I had each student use a few role playing game dice to determine how many total words from the original poem they were allowed to keep in their finished creation. If you’d like to adopt the same approach, we used:

d4: Maximum number of “anchor” words you were allowed to use in a row from a single stanza.

d8: Maximum number of words in total you were allowed to keep from a single stanza.

d12+d20: Total number of words in all that you were *REQUIRED* to use in your finished blackout poem.

But from there, the game was totally up to the students imaginations! Some poems started from the bottom and worked their way up the page and backwards. Others reduced this 16 stanza poem to a single heartbreaking sentence. And others still used their blackouts to provide fascinating windows into the life, biography, and trauma behind the broader work of Sylvia Plath — providing a stunning display of insight inside the mind and writing of this immensely talented but tortured master of the craft.

Happy National Poetry Month!

Author: John

John Meehan (@MeehanEDU) is an English teacher and school instructional coach at Bishop O’Connell High School in Arlington, Virginia. He began his teaching career in 2010 as a career switcher through The New Teacher Project, after spending five years working in social media and event marketing. He is a 2017 ASCD Emerging Leader, and an alumnus of the 2016-2018 Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Teacher Advisory Council. In 2016, he was named one of Arlington, Virginia’s “40 Under 40” by the Leadership Center for Excellence. He is a past presenter and regular attendee at educational conferences throughout the United States, including the annual conference for National Catholic Education Association, ASCD Empower19, and the Play Like a Champion Today: Character Education Through Sports summer conference at the University of Notre Dame. He’s an avid runner who’s completed more than three dozen marathons, half marathons, long-distance road relays, mud runs, and obstacle course races. John lives in Silver Spring, Maryland with his wife, Laura, a high school music teacher and fellow graduate of The Catholic University of America, and a giant-sized Maine Coon cat named Jack.

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