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Found Poetry Lesson—Examining Modern Transcendentalism

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by Connie Booth, Mt. Lebanon High School, Pittsburgh, PA, 2009


Each year I teach a rather lengthy unit on transcendentalism. After some initial teacher-taught historical and literary background, the students begin with four nights of reading Ralph Waldo Emerson’s journal entries. Students must read ten specific required entries each evening, but because I give them dates and not page numbers, they find others that they like. I ask them to choose two entries each night and write at least a ten sentence response; the response should continue the statement, “This reminds me of a time when . . . . ” Each day we discuss their chosen entries and the way that the students make meaning from these entries. From there we read Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” and at least parts of “Nature.” Students will also read excerpts from Henry David Thoreau’s Walden and his essay “Civil Disobedience.”

As an outside reading, students will choose to read either Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek or John Steinbeck’s Log from the Sea of Cortez. These works were chosen because they seem to be modern-day responses and extensions of transcendental theory.

Actually, the found poem idea is one that I have used for several years, so I was thrilled to have it introduced in one of our institute’s sessions. I first came up with the idea when I was so struck by the poetry of Dillard’s language. When doing research in a local library, I came upon a book by her that includes a collection of found poetry, most based on the letters of Vincent Van Gogh to his brother Theo. How lucky!

Now I plan to introduce Steinbeck’s Log from the Sea of Cortez because his philosophies support and extend Emerson’s and Thoreau’s in a setting so different from that of New England and Dillard’s Virginia. Students beg for modern applications, so Steinbeck and Dillard at least move into the next century.

Before assigning the outside reading, I will introduce Dillard and Steinbeck with excerpts from a few chapters.

Grade Level: Honors American Literature—Grade 11


  • Students will examine the texts of four authors studied in this unit for common themes and language.
  • Students will create a poem that synthesizes language from the different texts in a meaningful way.


  1. Students must have copies of the four texts: ten Emerson journal entries, “Self Reliance”; Walden excerpts; and either Pilgrim at Tinker Creek or Log from the Sea of Cortez. As they complete the assigned and selected reading, they are to highlight or annotate passages that they see as similar to the ideas discussed in class or read in another of the assigned texts.
  2. Distribute copies of one of Dillard’s poems. I like one titled “I Am Trying to Get at Something Utterly Heartbroken” because it comes from a letter by Van Gogh to his brother. I include a copy of the actual letter. If time permits, I distribute the letter first and have the students highlight effective language that could be turned into poetry. Then I distribute Dillard’s poem.
  3. Distribute a teacher-written sample poem (or part of one) to demonstrate the expectations of the assignment. Discuss this poem in class.
  4. Distribute the assignment page attached here. Discuss the assignment with the students. Remind them that their poems should reflect a lot of thought, higher level thinking, and hard work, not just copying words onto a page. They will be required to analyze their poem based upon their stated purpose. The poem will be evaluated in the following areas: organization, content, style/creativity, conventions, and analysis.


This may be a difficult assignment for non-honors level students. I know that my honors students either love it or hate it, but they will all admit to working really hard on it. As a result, they review the texts and acquire new knowledge and meaning—never a bad thing.

I have done similar assignments with my academic level students, but I require the use of only one text. Kate Chopin’s The Awakening, particularly Chapter 6 works really well for this, but I will also use John Steinbeck’s descriptive language in Of Mice and Men. Here the objective will be more about appreciating and analyzing descriptive language and word choice. It is fun to do this early in a text because it forces the students to really study language. They are so excited when they see the style repeated.

I require two printed “clean” copies of the found poems; one copy is for my reading and evaluating and one copy is for me to cut around and publish on a bulletin board. The students like to study each other’s poems. The variations inevitably lead to still another discussion about how the writer-text-reader triangle dictates such different responses.


  • Mornings Like This: Found Poems by Annie Dillard
  • Selected Journals and Writings by Ralph Waldo Emerson
  • Log from the Sea of Cortez by John Steinbeck
  • Walden by Henry David Thoreau