143 – The Poetry of Taylor Swift

What does the world’s biggest pop star have to do with Lord Byron? Quite a lot actually, at least in terms of her poetry. Taylor Swift writes catchy songs about dramatic, volatile relationships — the kind that aren’t a good idea in real life but are awfully fun to sing about. And her song “Blank Space” is a great way to introduce poetic analysis to children.

By starting out with pop songs instead of unfamiliar classics of poetry, kids will be to understand that people in the past felt the same way about trendy poetry as modern kids feel about popular music. Children will also be much more eager to analyze rhyme, meter, and imagery when they are studying the lyrics of a song they already love. Having learned how to do poetic analysis in a fun, familiar setting, students will later be more able and willing to analyze great works of poetry from the past.

Rhyming in “Blank Space” by Taylor Swift

Overall, these lyrics feature very few traditional or perfect rhymes. Meters and sounds only occasionally match up. Thematically, this reflects the story being told in the song: that the man and woman are an imperfect match. They will link up perfectly only for a short time, and then quickly fall out of step with one another.

Perfect Rhymes

There are perfect rhymes sprinkled through the song, such as “friends” and “ends”, “far” and “scar”, and “who is she” and “jealousy”. But these pairings are only occasional and don’t follow a real structure, just like the personal relationships being described.

The first and third lines of the song match in rhythm and rhyme and are organized into three iambs (a poetic unit with two syllables) and a single rhyming syllable at the end. The rhyme only works if it is presented in a standard American dialect. For many other dialects of English “been” and “sin” will not rhyme:

Nice to / meet you, / where you / been?
Magic / madness / heaven / sin

This pattern is repeated a few lines later with a similar pairing, although the syllables don’t match perfectly. The word “new” has only one syllable, where “ain’t it” has two, but the internal words “money” and “funny” rhyme perfectly, as well as the words “tie” and “fly” at the end of the lines:

New / money / suit and / tie
Ain’t it / funny / rumors / fly

The pattern is repeated one more time, again with one syllable mismatch, although the lines are bound together twice; once with the thematic linking of “lips and kisses” as well as the perfect rhyme “skies” and “lies.”

Cherry / lips / crystal / skies
Stolen / kisses / pretty / lies

This rhythmic pattern is repeated one more time, but with a slant rhyme.

Slant Rhymes

The percussive pattern from earlier verses is used one last time, but instead of a perfect rhyme it uses a slant rhyme, where the general sound of the rhyming words is similar, but in this case the nasal sound M is followed by the nasal sound N:

Screaming / crying / perfect / storms
Rose / garden / filled with / thorns

Flipping back and forth between N and M sounds happens again in the chorus, along with the use of a long A sound for a bit of assonance. These words don’t rhyme perfectly, but their sounds are similar enough to tie the chorus together:


These rhymes aren’t perfect but they are good enough, which reflects the song’s theme of an unstable relationship. This is seen in pairings such as “my hand” and “weekend,” which also pairs the opposite words “bad” and “good” to describe the same people:

Grab your passport and my hand
I can make the bad guys good for a weekend

Activity: Analyze the Lyrics of Your Favorite Song

Ask students to select a song lyrics for analysis. Print or write out the lyrics line by line, then use a highlighter to identify rhyming words. Identify different sorts of rhymes as well as the ways opposite ideas are tied together in the the lyrics to heighten the volatile and extreme relationship that forms the subject of the song.

131 – “Bingen on the Rhine” in Anne of Green Gables

Anne of Green Gables features a LOT of poetry. The book is set in the 1880’s, and back then teenagers would carefully select poems to recite to one another in the way that teenagers a few decades ago used to select songs to include in a mix tape.

“Bingen on the Rhine” is a beautiful poem by Caroline Norton, a writer and women’s rights campaigner who is so fascinating in her own right that her story could fill a hundred books. Gilbert Blythe chose to recite her poem in front of Anne Shirley – and every other kid at school – because it was one of the only ways he had to express to her his deep regret at having offended her, and his deep hope that she might one day forgive him.

Activity: Caroline Norton

Caroline Norton was a very important figure in the early battle for women’s legal rights. She was trapped in an unhappy marriage to a cruel and controlling man, who confiscated the money she earned from her writing and kept her own children away from her. She worked hard to raise this issue with the British parliament, which eventually passed laws that granted women the same legal rights as men when it came to property ownership, divorce, and child custody.

Students can research Caroline Norton’s life and the important social and legal reforms she worked so hard to achieve. It’s especially important for them to understand how these early efforts made the later campaign for women’s suffrage possible.

Activity: Memorize and Recite a Poem

Students can select a poem to research, memorize, and perform for others. The poem could be serious or humorous. It could tell a story or be more abstract. Poems should be selected to convey a special meaning to the audience. After the performance, have students ask audience members if they can guess the reason the poem was selected.

125 – Chanticleer and the Fox

Chanticleer and the Fox is a Caldecott Medal winning book by Barbara Cooney. It was published in 1958, but it has a long family tree stretching back all the way to Aesop’s Fables. Adapted from “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale” from The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, this story tells of how the rooster Chanticleer managed to outwit a hungry fox and literally save his own neck. The book is also an excellent example of how illustrations can serve as historical fiction.


Every image in the book is rich with depictions of everyday life in Chaucer’s day — 14th century England — and Cooney carefully avoided including any anachronistic items that would confuse children’s understanding of what the past looked like.

You can use Chanticleer and the Fox to teach children of all ages about the 14th century. The construction of houses and outdoor structures, gardening and farming, cooking and eating, and even clothing are all depicted accurately.

Activity: Introduce Anachronisms

Teach children about the word “anachronism.” It comes from Ancient Greek and is made up of the parts “ana,” meaning “against,” and “kronos,” meaning “time.” So words like “anachronous” or “anachronistic” refer to something that doesn’t belong in the time period being depicted. Chanticleer and the Fox does an excellent job of avoiding anachronisms, but children can create a list of items that would be out of place had they been included in any of the pictures. This activity will help them begin to be more observant of works of literature and art that portray the past, analyzing them for their accuracy.

115 – Robert Burns

This week Robert Burns turns 265! Each year on January 25, Scotland’s beloved national poet is celebrated in style with song, recitation, and of course, a haggis. It’s all a lot of good fun, but it’s also an important celebration of Scotland’s ability to maintain its own distinct cultural and linguistic traditions in the face of quite a lot of pressure from the more politically dominant forces coming from England.

Helping me this week with delightful poetry readings are Kate, who is a native of Angus on the east coast, and Eileen MacLean, who comes from the western highlands. It’s pleasant and interesting to hear the differences in their dialects, and they give wonderful readings of “Address to a Haggis,” “Afton Water,” and “To a Mouse.”

Robert Burns defied tradition. He came from a humble background, without the advantages of high education or a family name that signaled power. But by fully embracing his culture, and the minority dialect he spoke, he created a body of work that is more loved with every passing year.

If you celebrate Robert Burns this week, let me know! I’d love to see how you honor his life and work.

Activity: Have a Burns Supper!

You and your kids can replicate part or all of a Burns Supper, a traditional Scottish party that celebrates the life of Robert Burns, Scotland’s national poet. Usual events of a Burns Supper include:

  • Playing traditional Scottish tunes on the bagpipes or with a fiddle
  • Beginning the meal by reciting the “Selkirk Grace,” a funny short poem of gratitude for the food
  • Soup
  • Standing as the haggis is brought in, followed by a reading of “Address to a Haggis.”
  • Main course, followed by dessert.
  • Guests may toast one another during or after the meal.

Teachers can use recorded music and recorded recitations of the poems if needed, as it is difficult for those unfamiliar with Scottish dialects to perform them.

When listening to the poem “Address to a Haggis,” provide a printed copy and a pencil to the children so they can circle unfamiliar words. After listening to the poem, identify and discuss these words.  Then listen to the poem again. As students to describe what it was like to hear the poem again after getting a little more familiar with the Scots dialect.

84 – Casey at the Bat

“Casey at the Bat” by Ernest Thayer is the most beloved poem in American Literature. It’s mock-heroic epic about . . . a baseball game. It’s very funny and makes a great selection for children to recite. It’s also a great way to introduce students to common poetic devices as well as themes from classic literature that are often referenced by modern writers.

Activity: Poetic Device Hunt

Give students a printed copy of “Casey at the Bat.” Have students circle and label examples of the following poetic devices in the poem:

  • Hyperbole
  • Alliteration
  • Enjambment
  • Personification
  • Metaphor
  • Simile
  • Caesura

Additionally, students can research the references in this poem to great works of myth and literature, such as the source of the phrase “hope springs eternal” and the story of Echo from Greek mythology. Students can also research the poetic meter used in this poem (iambic heptameter, also called a “fourteener”), which was commonly used in Renaissance-era poetry.

Activity: Write Your Own Epic Sports Poem

Ask students to write a poem in the style of “Casey at the Bat” based on their own favorite sports moments. Poems should describe a heartbreaking moment in sports and make use of language that is pretentious, florid, and overly grandiose. Students can then contrast this language with fairly common everyday language. If possible, poems should reference people or events from mythology or come from famous poems or stories about gods, royalty, and legendary people.

Activity: The Rules of Baseball

In a PE or baseball team setting, ask students to explain the scenario described in “Casey at the Bat” using the rules of baseball. Students should explain why Casey is in a critical position, as it is the ninth inning, the team is behind by two points, and two players are on base with two outs already on the board. Students should be able to explain that there are four possible outcomes:

  1. Casey is able to hit a single and get on base, sending Flynn home for a run and leaving Blake on base. The score would then be Mudville 3, Visitors 4. The Mudville Nine would then send its next batter up, and the game would depend on him.
  2. Casey is able to hit a double or triple and get on base, sending Flynn and Blake home. This would leave the score tied 4-4, sending the game into extra innings even if the next player gets out.
  3. Casey hits a home run, batting in Flynn and Blake ahead of him. Mudville wins the game 5-4.
  4. Casey strikes out, and Mudville loses 4-2.

Ask students how they would have batted if they found themselves in Casey’s position. With players on second and third, what kind of hit would they attempt? Not getting out is the highest priority, so how would they have tried to manage the situation?

78 – Spring Writing Challenge Party

Special guests Tom the Tale Teller Phillips and his daughter Emmy join in to read the funniest reader submissions sent in to the Spring Writing Challenge. Tom was featured as the show’s Leicestershire Children’s Writer for the month of March.

During my interview with Tom the Tale Teller over Zoom, I couldn’t help but admire the excellent painting of a cow hanging on the wall behind him. I asked what the cow’s story was, and it didn’t have one, so Tom and I decided that needed to change. I asked for silly stories, and boy did you listeners deliver! In this episode you will hear a lullaby, a haiku, the best poem ever written about cow flatulence, a short story, and a surprisingly touching story about a cow who finds out she is wonderful just as she is.

Featured in this episode are the following delightful works:

“Lydia the Dancing Cow” by Tillie, read by Emmy Phillips
“Moo Haiku” by Edie, read by Chloë Townsend
“Bovine Lullaby” by Chris, sung by T.Q. Townsend
“Cow Power” by B.C. Byron, read by T.Q. Townsend
“Lisa the Cow and Her Missing Spots” by Olivia Lee, read by Tom the Tale Teller Phillips

Many thanks to all of you who contributed. Children’s literature is not just something that belongs to the past, and it would seem that the current generation of writers is a healthy one!

36 – Elven Songs in The Hobbit

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien has the lyrics for many songs, but no official melodies. What might these songs sound like if we follow clues in the text? In the first of three episodes about the music in The Hobbit, we explore the rhythmic structure, instrumentation, and performance style of the book’s five elven songs. The elves of Rivendell sing lilting jigs and waltzes, and dockworkers from Mirkwood sing sturdier songs with a 4/4 beat. Most songs are performed a capella, and the only instrument mentioned is the harp.

Tolkien once wrote a letter to a composer saying that he was “honoured” when a musician was inspired by his writing, as he was very fond of music although did not know how to create it himself. Readers of all musical abilities can have fun writing their own melodies to sing to go along with the elven lyrics in The Hobbit.

Because music is so professionalized these days, amateur artists can often feel that they shouldn’t even try writing a song. But this shouldn’t be the case! Anyone can sing, and anyone can come up with a simple melody. To prove it, I submit my own little composition. I gave myself just one evening to write and record the melody, although I did come back later to arrange the sheet music. I’d be honored if you gave my version a try, and I would love to hear what you come up with! These arrangements may be freely used for non-profit enjoyment.

Here is the audio of my arrangement of “Sing All Ye Joyful” lifted out from the episode, as well as a link to the song on YouTube.

Sheet Music for “Sing All Ye Joyful”
words by J.R.R. Tolkien and music by T.Q. Townsend

Arranged for SATB choirArranged for solo singer with chords for guitar or ukulele

Activity: Write a Melody for an Elven Song

Choose one of the five elven songs written out in The Hobbit. The traits of each song as described in the book are written below. Songwriters may choose to follow these traits closely or follow their inspiration in a different direction. This activity would work well as a songwriting exercise in a music class but should only be offered for extra credit in a literature class. New songwriters may find it useful to recite the lyrics out loud with the desired rhythm, then begin singing out notes that seem to fit.

Chapter 3: “O! What Are You Doing?”
Group singing: Elves of Rivendell
Poetic meter: dactylic dimeter
Musical time signature: 6/8 Jig
Instrumentation: Many male and female voices singing a capella

Chapter 9: “Roll, Roll!”
Group singing: Worker elves of Mirkwood
Poetic meter: spondaic dimeter
Musical time signature: 4/4 March
Instrumentation: Small male choir singing a capella

Chapter 9: “Down the Swift Dark Stream You Go”
Group singing: Worker elves of Mirkwood
Poetic meter: trochaic dimeter
Musical time signature: 4/4 March
Instrumentation: Small male choir singing a capella

Chapter 19: “The Dragon is Withered”
Group singing: Elves of Rivendell
Poetic meter: dactylic dimeter
Musical time signature: 6/8 Jig
Instrumentation: Many male and female voices singing a capella

Chapter 19: “Sing All Ye Joyful”
Group singing: Elves of Rivendell
Poetic meter: dactylic tetrameter
Musical time signature: 3/4 Waltz
Instrumentation: Many male and female voices singing a capella