Excavating Poetry 

Jennifer Dignan

Jennifer Dignan

Tools in hand, I'm ready to begin my next poetry excavation!


Back in high school, my English teacher assigned us a paper analyzing Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.” I was looking at the poem one morning when my homeroom teacher, Mr. Miller—who was also my French teacher—appeared at my desk with a box of colored pencils.

“Let me show you something, Mademoiselle Dignan,” he said. (Just for the record: My last name is not French, but Mr. Miller had a way of saying it that made it sound that way—deen-YAWn—that I very much enjoyed.) The next thing I knew, I was underlining references to light in one color, references to darkness in another, and drawing arrows and circles all over the place. Marking the poem this way pulled me deeply into it and illuminated much that I hadn’t previously noticed. I found the experience rather thrilling—it was almost as though Mr. Miller had shown me a magic trick.

I would describe what Mr. Miller showed me as a way of excavating a poem—a way of digging in and discovering what might not be visible on a poem’s “surface,” of examining both what the poet did and how he or she did it. A successful excavation may lead to insights about the poet’s use of imagery and allusion, of sound and rhythm—but its true reward is a deeper and more profound experience of the poem.

It is to that kind of meaningful experience with poetry that today, as the creator of Scope’s poetry activities, I aim to lead your students. You will notice that in the activity sheet that supports John Townsend Trowbridge’s delightful “Darius Green and His Flying Machine,” students are asked to circle and bracket sections of the poem as a way of seeing the poem’s basic structure.

Students then move on to a series of questions that will help with comprehension and also lead to a greater appreciation of the poet’s craft—how his word choices affect the sound and meaning of the poem, for example.



Want to take your class’s excavation of “Darius Green” even further? Here are three ideas:

  1. Have students clap the poem’s rhythm and discuss their experience. You might ask: Was it easy to clap the rhythm? Were there any challenging parts? (Personally, I had a little trouble finding the right rhythm from line 6 to line 7—but I did find something that works.) How would you describe the rhythm? How does it change in the last line? How do poets create rhythm? Why does it matter?
  2. Have students read the full-length version of the poem. (You can find it here.) Divide the poem into sections and assign each section to a group who will then prepare a short presentation about it for the class. Students can summarize what it says, point out anything that they noticed or found particularly interesting, and share any questions that came up.
  3. Have students write their own poems using “Darius Green” as a model. Students’ poems, like Trowbridge’s, should be structured as conditional statements (this is explained in question 1 of the poetry activity) and should end with the phrase “never would do for a hero of mine."

I’d love to hear your feedback on the “Darius Green” activity or any other Scope poetry activity—or simply hear how you approach poetry in your classroom. I’ll look for your comments below!







Jenny Dignan is originally from Cleveland, Ohio, and spent nearly 20 years living in New York City working as an editor at Scholastic, a dancer, and a yoga teacher. She now lives in Portland, Maine, where she works on Scope with a view of the ocean.

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