The repetition of grammatical structures, known as parallelism, works especially well for poets because it establishes rhythm and momentum in a piece of writing. Any writer is concerned with the "flow" of a piece, how it moves, and parallelism is a key skill to acquire for our students as writers.
Joy Harjo's poem "Remember" employs parallelism on two levels. The repetition of the word "remember" to introduce new ideas couples with the similar structure in the clauses that follow give this poem its remarkable sense of music.
After our first reading of the poem, I ask students to hypothesize the cultural background of the poet from the imagery in the poem. Most classes are able to conclude the poet is writing from a Native American background using the personification of earth, moon, and stars and the reference to dance in the closing lines as their primary clues. We briefly discuss how Native American cultures view man's relationship with the earth and how this differs from other cultures.
Just before the second read, I introduce the concept of parallelism, relating it to the simpler term repetition. How does repetition/parallel structure enhance this poem? After a second read, kids are quick to pick out that the structure adds to the rhythm, giving the poem a songlike quality.
As an extension, it can also be rewarding to write together as a class based on this poem. I have kids write their own "Remember . . . " lines on sentence strips. On my magnetized board, we attach them and work them into our own collaborative "Remember" poem reorganizing for greater music and momentum as we go. In writing this poem, we have used, listened to, and revised parallel structure.
Two other poems that work well as alternates for a similar mini-lesson: "The Delight Song of Tsoai-talee" by N. Scott Momaday or "Famous" by Naomi Shihab Nye.
Brett Vogelsinger teaches freshman English students at Holicong Middle School in Doylestown, PA where he starts class with a poem each day. Follow his work on Twitter @theVogelman.