NOTE: This is the first in a series of posts about using song lyrics to teach poetry. Where possible, I’ve included links so you can pull the music and lyrics to use with your classes.
About 10 years ago, I had an intern who visited my class once a week to lead a book club for my sophomores. As we approached state testing, she asked what she could do to help the kids prepare. I suggested she come up with an activity to let them practice identifying literary terms.
She came in the next week with an iPod and copies of the lyrics to several songs. She played a few songs and had the kids find examples of literary devices in the lyrics.
The kids loved it. I haven’t taught poetry the same way since.
One minor problem I’ve run into over the years is kids’ confusion over the terms “song lyrics” and “lyric poetry.” To correct this, I start my poetry unit with a lesson on narrative poetry featuring nothing but song lyrics.
We start with some vocabulary:
- Lyric poetry: Verse that expresses an emotion
- Narrative poetry: Verse that tells a story
- Tone: The writer’s feelings toward a subject
- Inference: Using what is said to figure out what isn’t being said
- Imagery: Language that makes you think of your senses
- Onomatopoeia: Words that imitate sounds
- Situational irony: A circumstance in which someone’s actions cause the opposite of the expected outcome
- Ambiguity: The condition of being indefinite or open to more than one interpretation
- Setting: When and where a story happens
- Dialect: Dialogue that imitates accents
I start the first song — “Baby’s Got the Car Keys,” by Trout Fishing in America — and distribute copies of the lyrics. When the song ends, we discuss whether the words are lyric or narrative poetry, draw inferences about what’s happening, and I ask the kids to identify the tone and examples of imagery, onomatopoeia, and situational irony.
Next, we hear Jim White’s “The Wound That Never Heals” (lyrics here) and discuss tone, imagery, simile, ambiguity, and inferences, speculating on how “Lee Charles” was wounded.
Finally, we study Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe” and its mysterious lyrics, which invite a discussion about tone, imagery, ambiguity, setting, dialect, and inference. I wrap up the lesson by asking the kids to write a paragraph about what they think was thrown off the Tallahatchie Bridge.