A Lesson on Voice and Tone with "Captions"



In this lesson students will:

  • Describe the voice of a poem
  • Identify tonal shifts within a poem
  • Practice writing in different tones and voices



Voice and tone are terms commonly discussed in writing classrooms, but it can be challenging for students to keep them straight. It doesn't help that outside of writing classrooms, these terms are commonly used together in the phrase "tone of voice." These terms are closely connected. Both voice and tone are associated with the sound of speech and both are revealed to readers by writers' language choices—diction, formality, syntax, turns of phrase, etc. There's no big secret to distinguishing these terms within the context of poetry, and students should be encouraged to apply what they already know about these words to their use in the writing classroom.

A voice is something individual. We each have a voice, and no two people have the same voice. There are certain poets whose distinctive voices you might be able to pull up in your mind's ear—Sylvia Plath, E. E. Cummings, Gertrude Stein, Robert Frost—but poets also employ different voices over the course of their careers or poem to poem. This is why we talk about the speaker of a poem, who has a voice distinct from the author. Tone conveys a feeling or attitude. We can each speak, or write a poem, using a skeptical or optimistic or celebratory tone, but it will sound slightly different in your voice or mine. The tone of a poem can change within the poem, but usually the voice of the speaker is constant throughout.


Encountering the Poem

  1. Have the students read the poem aloud, going around the room and changing readers every time they encounter a period, em dash, or colon.
  2. The syntax of this poem is irregular, and students may find it challenging.
    1. Take a few minutes to ask students about what happens in the poem.
    2. Assess whether they have understood the essential facts of the poem: the speaker is talking us through a series of photographs and goes into detail about one image in particular, which was taken around the moment when she cut her foot on a sharp rock.
    3. Allow students a few minutes to read the poem to themselves again.
    4. Ask what new information they are able to gather from a second reading.
    5. Allow students to ask questions they have about the poem and discuss as a group, encouraging them to refer to the poem itself for answers. Where multiple interpretations seem possible, encourage students to consider both interpretations as coexisting and interacting rather than attempting to reach a single correct interpretation.
  3. Ask students how they would describe the speaker's voice. What characteristics of language in the poem help to create that voice? Responses might include:
    1. Contractions such as "United States've"
    2. Interjections such as "oh my gosh"
    3. Em dashes to continue a train of thought
    4. Scare quotes around words such as "tropical" "flavors"
    5. Closed-space spellings such as "googlyeyed"
  4. Ask students to consider who the speaker is talking to in this poem. Again, encourage students to consider how multiple interpretations could coexist.
  5. Ask students how they would describe the tone of the poem. What tonal shifts happen within the poem?
    1. Compare the two moments when the speaker offers a series of instructions: "Take this waterbottle . . ." vs "Please take my body indulging . . ."


Writing Prompt

Have students make a grid with four squares. They will label the horizontal rows with two voices. They could use "myself," "the speaker of 'Captions,'" "Shakespeare," "my little sister"—any two distinct voices they can reliably call to mind. They will label the vertical rows with two tones—polite, confrontational, hopeful, frustrated, etc. Have students choose an injury or other intense physical experience they have had. Ask them to describe the experience in each of the four squares, altering the description based on the quadrant labels.


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