Using Semisonic and The Lumineers to Teach High School Poetry

Whenever I introduce a poetry unit to my high school students, I always begin by reviewing a list of literary terms, with an example song (usually “Colorblind” by Counting Crows) that uses many devices. I then have them identify as many literary terms as they can in a song they select on their own. I trick them into admitting that they like poetry…as long as it’s mostly rhyme and rhythm accompanied by music.

This semester I tried an additional activity in order to teach how we approach interpretation of poetry to my CP English class. The activity is presented in two parts:

Closing Time” by Semisonic

The story recently recirculated about the true meaning of the song, from a video of Dan Wilson

So I spend a portion of class handing the lyrics to my students, letting them read the lyrics, and asking them what the song is about. They all tell me, in some form or another, “it’s about having too many drinks and going home for the night.”

Then I tell them the real story. Then we look back over the lyrics, and their eyes light up.

“I get it! I know who I want to take me home!”
“Every boy and every girl!”
“Open up the doors! Wait a minute! Gross!”
“One last call for alcohol is like the baby feeding on milk!”

They see that the true meaning of the song, about being “bounced” from the womb, was hidden inside the apparent meaning of the song, being bounced from a bar. Both meanings are valid. One is more valid, but you must dig deeper to find it. In this case, there is a deliberate reason for an author to hide meaning: His bandmates might’ve rejected his song if he didn’t.

The Big Parade” by The Lumineers

In another session with my Honors English group, I break out the Lumineers song lyrics and begin by asking them to tell me what is happening in the poem. Their answers are similar: There’s a big parade of people, and the observer is also in love with a girl.

But then, after introducing the literary concept of ambiguity, we explore the tone of the poem. The big question is this:
What is the relationship between the parade and the romance?

In one of the variable choruses, the speaker speaks of “marching bands” and “barricades,” telling everyone to “make way for the big parade.” Of all the elements of a parade to mention in a line, barricades aren’t what stand out to a joyful observant. Barricades are walls. They divide. They force out. They occupy. And the band is one that marches, like a military. In combination these two items can subtly mark a discomforted undertone. We are told to “make way” for this parade, which could sound like a threat.

I submit one of two theories for them to debate:
1) The girl has arrived in the speaker’s life, and he is therefore able to “see” the “parade” of life in all its beauty.
2) The speaker sees the parade for what it is, and now that the girl has arrived, he is saved from being sick from what he sees.

I remind them that they must site from the text. Certain clues hint at one meaning or another:

In the stanza about the beauty queens, for example, the girls being “sick from the nightclubs” contrasts with the superficial beauty.

In the stanza about the candidate, the armored cars “like berettas” are ironic images, making us questioning who is really safe when the candidate drives by.

The priest is in love with a woman. Is this the “lovely girl” from the beginning and end?

Putting It In Practice
My assignment for the students is to let them find a poem (or song) and analyze it, identifying the poetic techniques and explaining how they contribute to the meaning of the poem. Most of them chose songs. One student chose “Lake Isle of Innisfree” by Yeats, a typical “school” poem for study, and could tell that the speaker was old and tired. There was Matchbox 20, Adele, and even song from the soundtrack to 50 Shades of Grey. One student even chose Dylan’s “Girl From the North Country,” grasping the way in which the speaker wishes a past lover well, rather than spite her.

Every student succeeded at citing lyrics in order to explain the meaning of the poem, as well as identifying poetic techniques. What they all struggled with was explaining how the poetic devices actually contributed to the message and tone—how the alliteration of certain sounds set the mood, how a certain metaphor conjured a certain connotation. These are more advanced skills, and I could have spent more time teaching them. But my students were able to identify these devices in song and poetry, and were able to compose an analysis.

In the future, I want to focus more on the effect of these techniques, how they’re not just for show, how they distinguish the form as an art.

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