With its fiery leaves, crisp temperatures, and falling apples, in autumn the time is ripe for poetry. It’s also a great time to bring poetry into the classroom, offering students examples of the way language can capture the images, mood, and ethos of the environment around them.
Each of the poems below can function as a stand-alone lesson or as part of a larger unit that examines diction, literary devices, or theme. More advanced students can play with characterizing the speaker, tone, and structure.
1.) “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost
The Gist: Stopped in a “yellow wood,” the speaker ponders which path to take. While admitting there is no difference between the two, the speaker anticipates the nostalgia that will come later in life when reflecting on the experience and wondering how his life could be different if he chose the other path.
Why It’s a Win: “The Road Not Taken” is one of the best-known and oft-quoted poems in the English language, and it’s relevant for students preparing to make their own big life decisions.
Key Inquiry: Compare and contrast the two paths the speaker considers. What is the difference between the two choices? Does the speaker’s choice really matter in the end?
2.) “The End of Summer” by Stanley Kunitz
The Gist: The speaker observes the surrounding environment, remembering the blue of summer and anticipating the cruel wind of winter.
Why It’s a Win: While fall is the setting, the speaker also describes the feelings that come in the autumnal stage of life, remembering the joys of youth and summer, while anticipating the bitterness often associated with winter and old age.
Key Inquiry: Ask students to explore the connotations of the diction in the poem. What do they associate with words such as “agitation,” “perturbation,” and “marrow-bones?” How does this diction develop mood or themes in the poem?
3.) “Sonnet 73” by William Shakespeare
The Gist: The speaker describes the beauty and brutalities of fall, such as the fading sunset and glowing fire, as they illuminate the ashes of youth.
Why It’s a Win: Sonnets can be a fun, bite-sized introduction to the Bard, as they help students develop the same close reading skills they’ll need when reading plays.
Key Inquiry: Introduce the structure of the Shakespearean sonnet, three quatrains followed by a couplet. What conflict, problem, or puzzle is developed in the quatrains? How is it resolved in the couplet?
4.) “November Night” by Adelaide Crapsey
The Gist: In activating the senses, the speaker invites readers to experience the sensations of fall.
Why It’s a Win: In an American answer to the haiku, Crapsey invented the cinquain—a five line poem that captures the experience and the zeitgeist of an event.
Key Inquiry: What literary elements does the poem utilize, even in its brevity? Is it successful in communicating both a theme and an experience? Challenge students to write their own cinquain.
5.) “l(a” by E. E. Cummings
The Gist: An iconic modernist poem, the speaker captures the experience of loneliness by entwining a description of a leaf falling with the word “loneliness” itself.
Why It’s a Win: Always garnering a strong, opinionated response, students will either love or hate Cummings’s playful take on structure and meaning.
Key Inquiry: Describe the use of line breaks in the poem. Is the poem successful in creating the sensation of loneliness in the reader? Why or why not?
Whether these poems are part of a last-minute Monday lesson or a well-developed unit, use them to make your classroom a space for exploring the brilliance and creative energy of autumn through poetry.