Lesson plan; Teaching three types of literary devices

This is a lesson plan on the use of Alliteration, Anaphora and Epistrophe in Poetry from The New York Times Magazine’s Poem column.  By

Poets adore alliteration, the repetition of consonant sounds in adjacent, nearby or connected words. See how Carolina Ebeid grabs the reader’s attention by repeating the “b” sound in the first few lines of the poem “Albeit”:

Because I have wanted
to make you something

beautiful, I borrowed
book on how to keep

bee-hive made of glass.

And how Jane Wong emphasizes her conclusion with the repetition of the “w” sound in “Lessons on Lessening”:

I must return to my younger self. To wearing my life
like heavy woolweaved in my own weight.

Kamilah Aisha Moon’s “Cataracts” contains many examples of alliteration. The poem begins:

When life scuffs & finally scars the eyes
they become turtles — withdraw inside themselves,

dive inside private marshes, dragging under
the once-girl they belong to, the dewy woman

(Notice in the second stanza how even though “dive,” “dragging” and “dewy” all start with “d,” only “dive” and “dewy” are considered alliterative. Why? Because alliteration is all about sound, and the “dr” in “dragging” makes a different sound than the “d” in “dive” and “dewy.”)

Students, read the rest of Moon’s poem. How many more instances of alliteration can you find?

Going Further

Where do you see alliteration in your everyday life? Try to collect at least two examples from any kind of written or spoken text. Here are some places you might look:

  • Song lyrics
  • Titles of books, movies, TV shows or podcasts
  • Advertising, such as in product names or slogans
  • News headlines

Then, consider the following questions:

  • How does the alliteration contribute to the meaning of the piece?
  • How does the alliteration make the message memorable?

Finally, you might try your hand at alliteration. Write a poem, lyrics to a song or a short passage that repeats the beginning sound of a word. What is it like to use this literary device? What does it add to your piece?

Poets love anaphora, the repetition of a word or phrase at the start of a sentence or clause.

Poets love anaphora because the device creates coherence and makes poems memorable.

Poets love anaphora because it helps drive their point home.

In “We Feel Now a Largeness Coming On,” Tracy K. Smith ends with back-to-back anaphora:

Every day steeling ourselves against it.
Every day coaxing it back into coils.
And all the while feeding it.
And all the while loving it.

Read the entire poem and consider the following questions:

  • How does the anaphora contribute to the poem’s sound and rhythm?
  • How does the anaphora contribute to the poem’s meaning?

Laura Kolbe’s prose poem “Buried Abcedary for Intensive Care” is entirely anaphoric. The poet repeats the initial phrase “It’s called” and then the word “called” throughout the piece.

Read the poem and consider the following questions:

  • How does the anaphora contribute to the poem’s sound and rhythm?
  • How does the anaphora contribute to the poem’s meaning?
  • How does the anaphora complement the poem’s abcedarian form, in which every sentence contains a word that begins with a letter of the alphabet in sequence (awakening, bucking, clubbing … xeroform, you, zeroing)?

Going Further

Find at least two examples of anaphora in the world around you. Here are some suggestions of places to look:

  • Song lyrics
  • Dialogue in TV or movies
  • Advertising
  • Speeches (a famous example is Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech)
  • Short stories and novels

Then, reflect on the following questions:

  • How does the anaphora contribute to the meaning of the piece?
  • How does the anaphora make the message memorable?

Finally, try writing some anaphora of your own, either in a poem, a short speech or a passage of text. Pay special attention to how it can enhance the meaning or message of your piece.

Another poetic device is epistrophe. Ending successive sentences or clauses with the same word (or phrase) is called epistrophe. The opposite of anaphora is epistrophe.

Here is an example in the poem “Tonight” by Agha Shahid Ali:

Where are you now? Who lies beneath your spell tonight?
Whom else from rapture’s road will you expel tonight?

This poem is a ghazal, a poetic form in which both lines of the first couplet end with the same word, and then the second line of each successive couplet ends on that word. Here is how it looks in the next two stanzas of Ali’s poem:

Those “Fabrics of Cashmere — ” “to make Me beautiful — ”
“Trinket” — to gem — “Me to adorn — How tell” — tonight?

I beg for haven: Prisons, let open your gates —
A refugee from Belief seeks a cell tonight.

Students, read the rest of the poem, and answer the question: How does the repetition of the word “tonight” add to the poem’s meaning?

Going Further

Now, see if you can find at least two examples of epistrophe elsewhere and consider how the device adds to the piece’s meaning. Try searching in:

  • Song lyrics
  • Advertising
  • Speeches (a famous example is Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address)
  • Short stories and novels

You might also read other ghazal poems. Then, try writing one of your own, or try using epistrophe in another way. How does this poetic device enhance your writing?

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