Using Pop Music to Teach Classic Poetry

Looking for more fun ideas for National Poetry Month? Be sure to read to the end to snag a freebie!

I spent my first couple of years teaching middle school ELA in downtown Los Angeles. 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: The Script's "Hall of Fame"

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." The Script echoes this sentiment in describing his need to have himself remembered. He sings about how he is determined not to be forgotten no matter what. Through his chorus, he sings: "Standin' in the Hall of Fame, And the world's going to know your name, 'Cause you burned with the brightest flame, And the world's gonna know your name, And you'll be on the walls of the Hall of Fame." 

Poem: Shakespeare's Sonnet 130

Pop Song: "Just the Way You Are" by Bruno Mars

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." Bruno Mars begins his song with the same clichés that Shakespeare criticizes. Shakespeare says, "my mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun," while Mars says, "her eyes make the stars look like they're not shining." 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: "Heavy" by Linkin Park

Connection: The sonnet and the song focus on the need to find 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 "Heavy" by Linking Park, the singer searches for something to help carry the load of what is figuratively so heavy; he is searching for his solace. The speaker in Sonnet 39 calls to sleep because it will solve the heartbreak. In Contrast, Linkin Park calls to anything in general, which leads the listener to believe he is more desperate to find an answer. 

Poem: Spencer's Sonnet 35

Pop Song: "10,000 Hours" by Dan + Shay, Justin Bieber

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 "I'd spend 10,000 hours or the rest of my life, I'm gonna love you." Both Sonnet 35 and "10,000 Hours" use hyperboles to express their love. 

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

Pop Song: "No Scrubs" by TLC

Connection: Sir Walter Raleigh famously writes the nymph's rejection of the passionate shepherd, claiming the shepherd is full of empty, unrealistic promises. Similarly, TLC rejects the modern "scrub" who offers things that he simply cannot deliver.

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:

Hall of Fame by The Script 

Just the Way You Are by Bruno Mars 

Heavy by Linkin Park 

10,000 Hours by Dan + Shay, Justin Bieber 

No Scrubs by TLC 

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