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Taking your first steps into higher education
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2.2 Poetry is powerful

The purpose of Activity 1 was to get you to start thinking about why you react to a specific text in a particular way. In doing so, you are considering the effects the text has on you and trying to think about why the text affects you in that way. Any text you have chosen here is memorable to you for some reason and has created a response in you. That response, be it positive or negative, is produced by the effects of techniques used in the text.

Of course, different people will like different texts; we will not all respond in the same way to the same poem, song or advertising jingle. The techniques used will affect us all in different ways, otherwise we would all have the same opinions. What you are encouraged to think about when studying poetry is why you like or dislike a text. With practice, you will be able to give answers to this question in relation to any poem you study. You will be able to spot a particular poetic technique or a poetic use of language, whether or not you like the result it achieves. You will be analysing poetry.

Whatever your thoughts about poetry, there is no shortage of poetic writing around in everyday life. A glance inside many greetings cards will reveal a rhyming verse intended to capture feelings in a compressed way.

Often these can be funny or sentimental, but they are seeking to do what poetry aspires to – evoking an emotion through words organised into some kind of coherent structure. Take a look for yourself at some of the lyrics found in popular music.

Often simple images are being evoked, but the most memorable can capture a feeling which can stay with a listener for a lifetime. Poetry is powerful, often because it is concise, it can make us feel differently about something in a way in which a government report or even a piece of journalism cannot – which makes it an important topic of study in literature.

Activity 2 Impact of poetry

Timing: Allow approximately 10 minutes

Here's a short clip from YouTube.

Listen to the poet Robert Frost reading his own short poem Fire and Ice recorded in the 1920s.

('Fire and Ice' Recited by the Poet himself! Robert Frost Poem Taught in SFHS's Literature Classes, 2013)
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).

Having listened to the poem, what is your initial reaction? Jot down some thoughts addressing the following prompts:

  • Consider the impact on you as a reader/listener – did you like it?
  • What do you think the poem might mean?
  • What effect did the poet's own readings have on you? Did it help you to understand the poem?
  • Did you notice the tone change at any point?
  • To what extent might the poet deliberately not be using language literally?


My response to those prompts might be:

  • I think I like the poem, but I am intrigued and need to consider it a few times. This seems to be a deceptively simple nine line poem, written in plain, everyday language.
  • The first four lines appear to discuss the end of the world, whether through a return of a Great Ice Age, or a fiery holocaust.
  • The speed at which the poem was delivered, and the different emphases put on certain words and phrases, does make me think slightly differently about the meaning. I find myself reflecting that the poet’s reading helps me make more sense of the poem – perhaps because his voice grabs my attention.

  • But there is a subtle ‘turn’ in the middle – the word desire seems to shift the discussion to human emotions, in which passion (hot) is potentially destructive, but indifference (coldness) has an even greater destructive quality.
  • So the language is not as simple as it first appears.

Already, I hope you are starting to find it exciting, forming your own personal response to literature, in this case a poem. This is a key aspect of learning across the arts. You will now be able to understand the challenge of engaging in critical reading when studying poetry – providing detailed analysis to justify your response.