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January 4, 2023

Teaching the Four Temperaments of Poetry

A philosophy articulated by the writer Gregory Orr, the four temperaments of poetry include story, music, imagination, and form. In K–12 pedagogy, these pillars provide a framework for students to understand, appreciate, celebrate, critique, and otherwise learn from a particular poem or collection.

The Four Temperaments of Poetry Explained

In his illuminating essay covering the four temperaments of poetry, Orr shows us how each personality takes root in verse. In composition, whomever wields the pen gravitates toward one strength as a rhetorical default setting but, with practice, can learn to sprinkle the other three elements throughout.

At this point, you may remember that infamous moment in Dead Poets Society, when Robin Williams’ character demands his pupils rip out textbook pages that suggest a rigid template for finding joy in language. But rest assured that the four temperaments of poetry open pathways to discovery, allowing readers to form a personal relationship with the text.

Whether you’re teaching poetry through a historical lens, to celebrate the contributions of a particular group, or simply because it’s a beautiful art that belongs to the masses, you can ask your students to identify whether a piece contains or lacks the following:

  • Story (or narrative): Is there conflict? What about character development? Will readers care about the subject? Can readers apply the tale to their own lives? Is there any story whatsoever, or is the poem strictly lyrical?
  • Music (or sound): How does the poem sound when spoken? Can you describe the rhythm? Does it have a gloomy feeling with a lot of long “o” sounds? Or do you hear high-frequency sounds with short “a” and “e” vowels? Is it loud or soft? What’s the mood and how can you compare that feeling to a piece of music? Is there assonance, consonance, and alliteration?
  • Imagination (or images): Does the poetry eschew the mundane? Or does it make humdrum occurrences seem fascinating? Do the lines take unexpected turns, or otherwise imprint incredible images upon the reader’s brain?
  • Form (or structure): Is the poem a sonnet or a stichic? Is the poem a villanelle or a sestina? How many syllables per line, and has the writer made a conscious choice in this endeavor?

Teaching Poems with Stories

Even though readers can recite the poem below in a couple of breaths, it showcases exemplary storytelling. Brevity means nothing here, especially with a writer as talented as the late, great Robert Hayden.

“Those Winter Sundays”

By Robert Hayden

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?

Really, this beautiful poem contains all four temperaments. In terms of form, it’s a sonnet (14 lines). The poem not only colorizes a temperature, but it also invents a new word (“blueblack”) to describe it, and with that, you have imagination incarnate. Phrases like “banked fires blaze” and “weekday weather” create alliterative music.

But the story element shines brightest. Here we have a father, a hard laborer whose work has taken a toll on his body, who rises on his day off to ensure his child wakes in the comfort of a warm house. The speaker, an adult looking back on his boyhood, never thanks his dad for the act of kindness, and in that regard, feels indifferent, which adds a layer of internal conflict.

Of course, if you dig into Robert Hayden’s biography, you discover the paternal subject of this poem did not always treat his son with love and dignity, a fact alluded to in the line regarding “chronic angers.” This layer of complexity, in the simplest terms, represents the chaos of human existence. And if that isn’t an integral tenet of storytelling, what else is?

Teaching Poems with Music

This poem below provides a keen example of the musicality one hears when reading poetry. Ada Limón is writing a song here, no doubt about it. Though the poem reveals pertinent information, the intended joy stems predominantly from sound.

“Instructions on Not Giving Up”

By Ada Limón

More than the fuchsia funnels breaking out
of the crabapple tree, more than the neighbor’s
almost obscene display of cherry limbs shoving
their cotton candy-colored blossoms to the slate
sky of Spring rains, it’s the greening of the trees
that really gets to me. When all the shock of white
and taffy, the world’s baubles and trinkets, leave
the pavement strewn with the confetti of aftermath,
the leaves come. Patient, plodding, a green skin
growing over whatever winter did to us, a return
to the strange idea of continuous living despite
the mess of us, the hurt, the empty. Fine then,
I’ll take it, the tree seems to say, a new slick leaf
unfurling like a fist to an open palm, I’ll take it all.

The title alone tells us a story, revealing that the lines will move us from one point to another. It even promises a resolution of sorts. But the piece contains no single character, only a universal “us.”

The story in these lines bubbles under the surface, suggestions that allow readers to broadcast their own strife and triumphs onto the page. While the poem is about struggle and muscling through adversity, the reading experience hinges on the music of the language.

The alliteration alone creates the symphony (e.g., “patient, plodding,” “green skin growing,” and “fuchsia funnels”). But then you look at the assonance and consonance sounds, like “greening of the trees,” and “slick leaf,” and the music begins to swell and rise like an overture.

Teaching Poems with Imagination

The imagination temperament shows readers what’s possible when reading poetry. In short, we can go to other worlds, gives voices to animals, and chit-chat with myths and icons. And when poets reach these heights riding the vessel of metaphor, they also reveal profound truths about the real world.

“Late Afternoon Stroll on the Cliffs”

By Laure-Anne Bosselaar

As usual, Death sweetly slips her arm in mine—
& we take a deep breath from the eucalyptus breeze.
We both worked honestly at our jobs: all day Death
destroyed traffic with wailing ambulances while I killed
hours & lines on eight-&-a-half by eleven inch pages.
We’re fast friends by now, Death much older of course,
but there’s no hierarchy between us: we’re both taking
a break from it all, glad to watch waves collapse on rocks
& pelicans dive-bomb fish. I try to be sensitive to Death’s
guilt: that whole pandemic disaster she can no longer
control. She’ll soon betray me too—like she will you. 
I know. But today the gulls are silver angels etching
great cursive blessings in a perfect sky—so Death & I
make believe we believe that, & amble on.

What would this poem be without the inclusion of death personified? A woman watching birds swallow fish? That could be lovely in and of itself, but when the arbiter of our demises becomes the chief character, that’s when the story becomes interesting. What’s more, the Angel of Death seems downright pleasant, if not sensitive to the aches and pains of the world around her.

Laure-Anne Bosselaar helps us tackle our own anxieties about the end of this life. In fact, even though she speaks to none other than the Grim Reaper, she nevertheless notices the beauty of the world around her. While the speaker never dismisses the strife hardwired in human existence, she makes a sincere effort to see light where there is otherwise darkness.

Really, the imagination element turns the mundane into something flat-out ethereal. If you’re giving a writing assignment, this storytelling device might provide a quality prompt. What would it be like to go waterskiing with a dinosaur? How would a café date with Mother Nature turn out?

Teaching Poems with Form

Here’s the thing about imagination — the possibilities are endless. But form? That’s more rigid by definition. However, do rules, parameters, or principles mean we toss creativity out the window? This poem proves that isn’t the case.

“River Sonnet”

Tacey M. Atsitty

Water levels have bled out,
like it had just bitten its lip
& was about to swell— then rip:
had I paid better attention to drought,
listened more to the stars and stayed
with mountain clouds, I’d have let go
of the knot swing hanging above the slow
life flow beneath my legs, I’d have prayed

to forget all the times he came to me
but not wanted me: how fast it rises,
carrying plumes of pang in undercurrent:
swirls of sediment & silt around my knees—
the dragging stalks and leaves of irises,
how pathetic they look breaking in torrent—

The old adage about playing tennis without a net comes to mind. In composing this poem, Tacey M. Atsitty gave herself parameters. In this case, her poem follows an ABBA, or enclosed rhyme scheme.

Does the poem have music? Of course. Does it have outstanding imagery? Indubitably. Are there hints of a narrative strewn throughout the bucolic descriptions? Yes indeed. But this piece relies on its form as a backbone. In constriction, this poem seems to say, there is freedom.

We’d be remiss not to say that all of the above poems had some element of form. After all, all four of them are sonnets of 14 lines. But in “River Sonnet,” the form stands above all other temperaments.

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