19 The Poem Breakdown – Close Reading Activity

Authors: allia abdullah-matta, Angel C. Dye, Shauna Morgan, Dave Wooley

Target Audience: Advanced Undergraduate

Poets Sonia Sanchez and Tony Medina discuss the power and the significance of poetry as they situate the existence of a text like Bum Rush the Page. Sanchez references the importance of “a politics” of being/of being Black/being history/unearthing history. Medina asserts, “any poet worth his or her weight in syllables and words uses poetry for certain reasons, be it to define one’s self, to defend one’s self or to describe one’s environment with accuracy, communicating a clear understanding of what is going on in the world” (xx). Medina further says of poetry, “there is a music that takes place, filled with metaphors and memories, madness and messages” (xxi). 

 – Medina, Tony, and Louis R. Rivera, editors. Bum Rush the Page: A Def Poetry Jam. Crown, 2001.

Break it Down

This exercise can be applied to any of the poems in the Furious Flower anthologies (1999, 2004, 2019).

  • Read the poem aloud.
  • Where do you enter (connect to and/or understand) the poem?
  • Annotate and locate key words in the poem.
  • Use your poem notes or annotations to:
    • Break apart the poem (stanzas/lines) and list key words/concepts in/about the poem;
    • Associate the words to identify significant ideas/themes/symbolism/imagery that serve as entry points to explicate the poem:
      • a) Theme assessment based on key words/concepts–what is the story of the poem?
      • b) Who/what is the poem about (character, place, community, culture, politics…)
  • Construct an analytical statement that builds on what you have done in a) and b).
  • How does your statement tell us something about the poem?

Note: This is a useful exercise to get you to think about how to read poems, connect themes, and construct analytical statements that could then direct an analytical discussion. You can even use this as a process for constructing your poem notes.

Other breakdown entry points:

  • Consider and discuss the context(s) (cultural, historical, political, social etc.) of the text.
  • Consider and discuss the subtext (the larger implications of the text—what else the piece could mean, perhaps represents or symbolizes).
  • Must be supported by your interpretation(s) of the text.

Discussion Questions

  • How do [Black] poets make poems, and what is that they strive to say and ultimately do?
  • How does [Black] poetry reflect the cultural, historical, and societal contexts in which it was written and also reflect “a sign of the times?”
  • How does the verse represent the story/message of the poem?
  • Locate the specific cultural, historical, defining moment events that spawn:
    • literary and artistic movements
    • public attitude, outcry, and defiance
    • how the poets respond (what they do/say in their work)
  • How does an understanding of these catalysts help you to better understand:
    • form;
    • aesthetic;
    • message; and
    • how to approach analyzing the work?

Note: These questions and notes can help you to create more thorough poem notes and discussion responses/critical essays.


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The Furious Flower Syllabus Project: Opening the World of Black Poetry Copyright © 2024 by Anastacia-Reneé; allia abdullah-matta; Ariana Benson; Mary Beth Cancienne; Teri Ellen Cross Davis; Shameka Cunningham; Hayes Davis; Tyree Daye; Angel C. Dye; Brian Hannon; T.J. Hendrix; DaMaris B. Hill; Meta DuEwa Jones; Shauna M. Morgan; Adrienne Danyelle Oliver; Leona Sevick; James Smethurst; Dana A. Williams; L. Lamar Wilson; Carmin Wong; Dave Wooley; and Joanne V. Gabbin (preface) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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