The Myth of the Poetry Prompt

After last year’s challenging Q1, where students found themselves faced with a most unusual juggler, students seemed much more confident with this year’s poem, Rachel M. Harper’s “The Myth of Music.” This beautiful poem is brief and seems easy to read but offers students an opportunity for in-depth analysis. Spending a week with this poem and the student responses to it has given me new insights and some simple tips to help students write more effectively about poetry. It also reminded me that accessible poetry does not equal easy poetry.

The first thing I noticed is what I like to call “Title Oversight.” Harper’s poem is entitled “The Myth of Music” with the subtitle “for my father.” This “myth” is mentioned directly in the poem, yet the vast majority of students paid no attention to how this connected. While analyzing this portion of the title is not a requirement for an upper-level essay, considering the title is always a good idea.

Probably the most important element of the title, however, is the dedication “for my father.” Unfortunately, most of the essays I scored also paid little or no attention to this subtitle. This led to a myriad of misinterpretations of the poem, especially the second and third stanzas. The prompt asked students to write a well-organized essay analyzing “the relationship between music and the speaker’s complex memories of her family” using elements such as imagery, tone, and form. Because the dedication is for her father, this elevates its importance to the prompt because of the familial connection, yet many students did not mention the father at all. The speaker mentions her brother in the first stanza and her mother at the beginning of the second stanza, but in order to find the father in the poem itself, the student would have to be aware of the dedication, as the father is referenced only by the pronoun “you” in the second and third stanzas. This “you” became quite the enigma over the course of the week. The majority of students considered “you” the mother, while many others wrote that “you” was “the reader” of the poem. Several others referenced “you” as the entity of music itself. Much of this misinterpretation could have been avoided by simply paying attention to the full title of the poem.

Aside from the title, students struggled with clearly articulating how Harper’s imagery revealed the relationship between music and the complex memories of family. The phrase “the author paints a picture” (or some variation of it) was used ad nauseum in student responses. Students described these pictures and sounds and feelings, but for many, the “so what?” question was never answered, leaving the analysis thin or superficial. Explaining how Harper’s use of imagery reveals the prompted relationship goes further than simply explaining the imagery itself. Students must go explicitly deeper.

Students did a better job with tone than with imagery. Most at least mentioned a shift in tone from stanza to stanza, and they often intertwined the discussion of tone with other elements such as diction and imagery. The disconnect was evident when students did not use their discussion to explain how tone, as revealed through diction or imagery, revealed the relationship between music and family. Often, the discussion was one-sided, with a focus on either music or family. The two should be examined as one, focusing on the relationship between them.

Several of the students’ discussion of form were promising. Some of the essays used their discussion of form to highlight their musical knowledge, and there were some lovely connections between the structure of the poem and the structure of jazz music. While not many effectively made the connection between form and the relationship, there were some extremely well-written pieces from these essays. Some students were also quite creative when making connections between the structure and other elements. Students should remember that creativity also needs persuasive support from the text.

The prompt mentions using elements like imagery, form, and tone to analyze the poem. I focus on these because these were the most common elements used, but the general ideas apply to any element used. Many students did not deviate from the suggested elements and would have benefited from organizing their essays according to insight rather than device.

Those students who scored well clearly discussed the relationship between music and the speaker’s familial memories, especially when referring to the father. Generally, their essays were organized by either stanzaic shifts or general ideas that were then supported with elemental support. Most students could find something to say about “The Myth of Music,” which is a positive take-away: there were fewer blanks and scores of 0 (zero) because students felt confident in their reading and attempted a response.

Moving forward, teachers need to continue to expose students to a variety of poetry from various time periods. Students would be well-served to spend time considering, discussing, and writing about a poem dealing with insights rather than merely discussing the appearance of devices within a text.

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Jill Massey teaches AP Literature at East Wake Academy outside of Raleigh, NC. In addition to being a lover of all things British literature, Jill enjoys directing her church choir, cheering for NC State, and updating her dog Titus’ Instagram account. 

At six-years-old Adrian Nester’s oldest son was asked to describe what she likes to do for a Mother’s Day project. His response: drink water and grade papers and both of these things are true. Adrian has just completed her 16th year as an educator, but instead of doing the “same-old-thing”, she is ready to throw out the playbook. While Adrian is not drinking water and grading papers, she enjoys traveling, spending time with her family, reading, and playing sports. Read more about Adrian’s journey on her blog The Learning Curve.

Image credits: Photo by Jens Thekkeveettil on Unsplash

One thought on “The Myth of the Poetry Prompt

  1. Hi! Thank you for this response! I was just wondering your take on this reflection. So obviously the poem asked about the relationship between the author and her family, which I tended to focus on. Basically, I stated that music was important to her father, etc., and how that relationship was between her and her father, juxtaposed to that of her mother, which left. I went into detail about this mother-daughter relationship that seemingly vanished when her mother left. I think she said something along the lines of “I will not remember her warm embrace…etc.” That was essentially the translation I had. The father and daughter loved each other deeply and connected through music. The opposite was true of that of her mother, who left. Thoughts please? I definitely used the poem for supporting this claim. Thank you so much.

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