Using Pop Music to Teach Classic Poetry

Are you looking for more fun ideas for National Poetry Month? Check out our 20 Fun Poem Types You've Never Heard Of Blog  & read to the end to snag a freebie!

I spent my first couple of years teaching middle school ELA in downtown Los Angles. Those years were ripe with the creativity and energy of my own youth. One of my fondest memories of that time was a hip-hop poetry unit from authors Sitomer and Cirelli. The unit taught poetic devices like imagery, figurative language, and hyperbole with music selections from Tupac, Run DMC, Eminem, and poems by Frost, Hughes, and Kipling. My young students identified with the themes and appreciated the cultural relevance of the curriculum.

Fast forward over a decade. I left LA, and now I am teaching American and British literature to juniors and seniors in college prep and advanced high school levels. I've gotten older and decidedly less energetic (gasp!), and I've started to lose that age connection enjoyed by many young teachers. There are some definite advantages to the experience and maturity, but there are also some definite drawbacks to losing the connection with youth culture.

To bring back some of that connection, I recently decided to add music selections to my renaissance poetry unit for my 12th-grade British literature students. For each poem, we walked through content, scansion, poetic devices, and historical context. Then, I played a song with some relationship to the poem. We then discussed the connections between the poem and the song. I really enjoyed teaching this unit because it motivated critical thought around universal themes, and it was fun to experience pop music with my students in a meaningful way. As an added bonus, students were totally into the lectures because they were trying to guess which song I would play at the end.

My unit had several renaissance poems, and I've picked out a couple examples to share with you below. I'd love to hear your thoughts on my ideas and your additions in the comment section!


Poem: Shakespeare's Sonnet 29

Pop Song: "Surface Pressure" by Jessica Darrow

Connection: Shakespeare begins by describing the pressure he feels to succeed and concludes his sonnet with the couplet, "For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings/ That then I scorn to change my state with kings." Jessica Darrow echoes this sentiment in describing how she feels worthless if she cannot be of service. She is determined to be useful to everyone because otherwise, she does not know who she is. Through the chorus, she sings, "Pressure like a drip, drip, drip that'll never stop, whoa. Pressure that'll tip, tip, tip 'til you just go pop, whoa-oh-oh. Give it to your sister; it doesn't hurt, and see if she can handle every family burden; watch as she buckles and bends but never breaks. No mistakes." Both Shakespeare and Darrow show how both feel the pressure to be successful and valuable to those around them. 


Poem: Shakespeare's Sonnet 130

Pop Song: "Flowers" by Miley Cyrus 

Connection: Shakespeare uses Sonnet 130 to criticize the cliché, idealized woman other sonnet writers croon over. He describes the real imperfections of his love and ends by saying, "And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare as any she belied with false compare." Miley Cyrus is here to criticize the same cliches as Shakespeare. Shakespeare says, "my mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun," while Cyrus doesn't use a simile but she uses other forms of figurative language when she says: "I can buy myself flowers; Write my name in the sand; Talk to myself for hours; Say things you don't understand; I can take myself dancing; And I can hold my own hand; Yeah, I can love me better than you can" This leads us to discuss clichés used in love poems and songs. Then we launch into the discussion of the congruities of the chorus with the main idea of the sonnet. It is interesting to talk with students about where the feelings of inadequacy come from (partner vs. self).


Poem: Sidney's Sonnet 39

Pop Song: "Thought You Should Know" by Morgan Wallen

Connection: The sonnet and the song focus on finding peace in hard times. In Sidney's Sonnet 39, the speaker invites sleep to come for him to gain solace in his own heartbreak. Similarly, in "Thought You Should Know" by Morgan Wallen, he writes to his mother to help find peace. He realizes how busy he has been with his career and making questionable choices, but he is reaching out to his mom to let her know everything will be okay. The speaker in Sonnet 39 calls to sleep because it will solve the heartbreak. In contrast, Morgan Wallen calls to his mother, which leads the listener to believe he is in a better mental space compared to the speaker in Sonnet 39. a

Poem: Spencer's Sonnet 35

Pop Song: "Hold My Hand" by Lady Gaga

Connection: The Spencerian sonnet claims that his eyes cannot be satisfied with anything less than beholding his love, which is echoed in more modern language, in this cute little ditty, from this soundtrack where the artists sing, "So cry tonight; But don't you let go of my hand; You can cry every last tear; I won't leave 'til I understand; Promise me, just hold my hand" Both Sonnet 35 and "Hold My Hand" use hyperboles to express their love and desire. 


Poem: "The Passionate Shepherd to His Love" by Christopher Marlowe and "The Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd" by Sir Walter Raleigh

Pop Song: "Victoria's Secret" by Jax

Connection: Sir Walter Raleigh famously writes the nymph's rejection of the passionate shepherd, claiming the shepherd is full of empty, unrealistic promises. Similarly, Jax rejects the idea of how younger girls feel the need to fit into all the same boring mold. Instead, she tells the listener how silly it is we are listening to the beauty standards created by a simple man, who is also filled with empty, unrealistic ideas. 

What songs are you using to connect with your students? I'd love to hear them!

&& Share with us any success stories you have had!

Need some help getting started with your Poetry Unit? Check out the Poetry Glossary Handout on the Simply Novel store! Get your copy HERE! 

Want to listen to the songs? Here are links to the songs listed above:

Surface Pressure by Jessica Darrow

 Flowers by Miley Cyrus

Thought You Should Know by Morgan Wallen
Hold My Hand by Lady Gaga

Victoria's Secret by Jax



1 comment

  • I love it. I too use music and poetry but a bit differently. I will definitely use this next spring for my poetry unit! Thanks

    Stephanie Carideo

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