Saturday, March 23, 2019

2019 Post #9 -- Structure in a Free Verse Poem

by Jason Stephenson

With great sadness I learned of Mary Oliver’s passing earlier this year. A thoughtful and insightful American poet, she plumbed nature for great truths. I shared her famous poem “Wild Geese” with my Creative Writing 2 students last school year. On the Brain Pickings website, Mary Oliver reads the full text of her beloved poem. (I always play a poem for my students if I can find an audio file of the poet reading their work.)

After a first reading / listening, my students know to number the lines of the poem to make our discussion and analysis of it easier. We keep things pretty simple. Two questions guide my students as they annotate hard copies of the poem:

What do you notice?
What do you wonder?

Once students have had enough time on their own to ponder the poem, they debrief with a partner and then the whole class. I mark up the poem on my SmartBoard with their comments and keep a running list on the marker board of the different writing craft moves they point out: poetic terms (free verse, metaphor) and invented terms (mysterious title, noun pairs).

Even though the poem is free verse, “Wild Geese” still contains some patterns that hold it together. Free verse poetry is sometimes unfairly characterized as being disorganized, but a closer look usually reveals some form of structure. Mary Oliver’s use of repetition, anaphora, and point of view breaks up “Wild Geese” into natural sections.

  • Section 1, lines 1-5: The first three sentences all begin with You. Moreover, the first two sentences begin with the same phrase: “You do not have to…” This section is in second person point of view. 
  • Section 2, lines 6-13: Three sentences in the middle of the poem all begin with the word Meanwhile. The middle section of the poem also contains multiple pairs of nouns: “the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain” (line 8), “the prairies and the deep trees” (line 10), and “the mountains and the rivers” (line 11). The noun pairs create a sense of unity. This section changes to third person point of view. 
  • Section 3, lines 14-18: While there is no repetition in this section, there is a shift. The poem moves back to second person point of view: you and your are mentioned four times, but it is not exactly clear if this you is the same you from Section 1. 

Once my students have finished their discussion, I invite my students to pick a few of the craft moves from Oliver in “Wild Geese” to try in their own piece of writing in their notebooks, no matter the genre.

Further Reading:


Jason Stephenson taught high school English and creative writing for eleven years and now serves as the Director of Secondary English Language Arts at the Oklahoma State Department of Education.

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