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January 17, 2006

Poems In The English Writing Classroom: Take Frost, For Example

Playing With Robert Frost's "Fire & Ice"

What are your experiences using poetry in the writing classroom? Do you prefer the easier-to-comprehend-type model for poems so that more time can be spent on the actual craft of response-writing, for instance, or do you like the headier examples that will probably take an entire class period of discussion before students "get it" enough to even have an academic reaction?

Recently, I asked the students in my English language class . . .

. . . to examine Frost's famous "Fire and Ice" piece before class began as an in-class writing prompt. Since this was one of the early days in the semester and about 75% of the students are fresh out of high school, I had no idea beforehand how much previous exposure to poetry they had already gotten.

If you've forgotten the poem, I've reprinted it in full here (note: student's didn't have access to a "photo" like I've added here; that's just an afterthought!):

Fire and Ice2.jpg


Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favour fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.

--Robert Frost (1874-1963)

My intentions/hopes were to [1.] begin a regular use of "canonical" poetry with applicable subject matter as "jumping-off" points to the various types of formal, academic essays that will be assigned throughout the class and [2.] provide exposure to substantial examples of literature. My reasoning is that, for many, this class is simply a core-requirement for all manner of assorted academic majors - they are not English language majors (business, nursing, and psychology seem to prevail). This very well could be the "only" time in their university experience that they will ever have "contact" with classical literature of any kind - sad, but true.

Frost, I've found, has works short enough to put up on one my infamous "PowerPoint" screens [see my earlier discussion on this topic HERE] and seems much less threatening than other examples I've seen used in my colleagues' classes. I've certainly nothing against complex or surreal poetry, but I feel like the total-immersion thing, at first, will only put them off for a period of time longer than I am prepared to deal with. The point to this class is to write, naturally, and I'd like these early textual examples to fall within their range of comprehension ability. Last semester, for example, I used quotations from famous persons and personages as in-class writing prompts. With all respect to Emeril the television chef, this semester I wanted to "kick-it-up-a-notch."

In many ways, this assignment was actually the "preparatory" assignment for the one I'm doing over HERE. I'll have the details for that one spelled out after it's been completed.

In a nutshell, that assignment will start off in a similar fashion as this one did, that being, an in-class writing prompt. I will use Frost's "Road Not Taken" as a jumping-off point for a follow-up in-class activity about bildungsromans [coming-of-age] issues and adolescent to adult transitional decision-making.

After writing a second short entry in their composition journals about an early "adult" decision, they will then pair-up in class and "interview" one another on the who-where-when-hows and whats of the case in point. Afterwards, each "interviewer" will give the "interviewed" his or her "write-up," and each student will be asked to fuse the information from this event with their personal response to the "Road Not Taken" poem as a descriptive-narrative essay.

At this stage, the students only have to come up with a topic for the upcoming paper since the entire essay-writing process (freewriting, organizing, drafting, proofreading, peer-reviewing, editing, formatting and revising) will take place throughout the following week.

So, as you can see, I was hoping that this first poetry response would give me some indication of their abilities. A homework reading assignment before this class meeting was to read an academic article on my university electronic-reserve space on "how to write a response in a college level class." Cheesy, I realize, but I wanted to be sure all my bases were covered. It seems that there are always a few who will come up with "I didn't know what you wanted me to do."

However, after getting the opportunity to examine their remarks on "Fire and Ice" (a volunteer sampling of excerpts from a few of them are in the comment section below) I think that they are indeed up-to-speed for what I'd like them to do. Now that they are a little big more familiar both with Frost and what I am "expecting" from them, so to speak, from a poetry response, I feel that I have little to worry about with their ability to perform the essay assignment previously described.

I took excerpted clips from some of the more insightful ones and shared them with the class in the following meeting - via PowerPoint again - for what I thought were helpful to the discourse. I also gave a short talk on "reader-response" theoretical issues, e.g. in my opinion, there are no absolutely "right" or "wrong" answers for a response or reaction to a literary reading. There are only more or less honest or informative responses. I always try to introduce an alternative to total dichotomies and dualistic thinking in my courses where I can.

If I continue to use poetry, I will go off the Frost kick now though, as he's been run into the ground now, I fear. This activity was only supposed to be "dip-your-feet-in-the-shallow-water" type of experience to start off with. Maybe I'll move on to Emily Dickinson examples next. Any suggestions or good examples that have worked for you?

With that said, what advice, techniques or tips can you share on using poetry in a writing-intensive learning environment? I'd love to hear your ideas!

Please feel free to add your own responses to theirs for this short, but dynamic, example of poetry in the comment box underneath this text.

Best wishes,

Lee Hobbs

Posted by lhobbs at January 17, 2006 01:28 PM

Readers' Comments:

After reading this poem, I didn't have much of a response simply because I was confused. But after thinking about it for a while I began to realize that it was a very complex yet interesting piece of writing. Im not sure if I have interpreted Frost's writing the wrong way but this is what I've taken from it.
At first Frost was in agreement with those who believe that the world will be destroyed with fire. But after thinking twice he realized that he has suffered enough here on earth with the existence of hate so if he had the choice to choose fire or ice, ice would win. "Haven't we been punished enough?" Implies Frost. Alright then, ice should do the trick this time.

Posted by: Adrianne E at January 25, 2006 09:23 PM

What Robert Frost is saying in his poem Fire and Ice is that the world will end in two ways, which are in his opinion the same. We will be the cause of our own destruction.
He describes Fire as desire. Saying that our desires will be the down fall of us all and our greed and lust for self indulgence will inevitably lead to our demise. That’s in a metaphorical sense where as literally some people think Fire will come from the sun and burn up the earth.
He describes Ice as hate. Hate that separates and isolates us tell all we have is ourselves and we are destroyed. In the end he says that however we perish weather it be Fire or Ice, Desire or Hate, the effect will be the same regardless of the cause. We will destroy ourselves because of our nature, our power, and our incompetence.

Posted by: Sam H. at January 26, 2006 02:54 PM

This poem entitled “Fire and Ice” written by Robert Frost is a poem that is discussing different peoples views and opinions on the way the world would end. Whether the world will end up ending in fire or it will end up ending in ice. This poem went on discussing the different points of views of the way the world will end. Would you rather end up dieing by burning to death or would you rather die by freezing to death?
This is what I got from this poem. That the end of the world is a very touchy subject. That many people have there own opinion on how they think the world would end. Whether it is through a huge ice storm or a huge fire.

Posted by: Jennifer G at January 26, 2006 04:20 PM

Robert Frost’s poem “Fire and Ice” refers to the end of the world and the apocalypse. He uses desire when he refers to fire due to the fact that both fire and desire grow stronger with time. He sides with the side of fire at first, though later he shows that one way for the world to end is just as good as the other.
When referring to the world ending in ice, Frost uses ice to describe it. He says that ice and hate are the same thing, and they remain the same throughout time. Frost would rather the world end in fire and desire rather than ice and hate, could lead to the belief that desire is favored over hate. Even though he favors fire, he believes that ice is just as acceptable.

Posted by: Ali L. at January 26, 2006 04:40 PM

Robert Frost is saying in this poem that the world os perceived to end in two different ways, through fire or ice. Some fo the people think that the world will fall through fire, but the other part think that the world will end through ice.
Robert Frost thinks that the world will end in fire because of so much hate that is throughout the world. Although he also states that if the world would happen to end a second time he would have it end through ice. If it would end in ice he would be hoping that there would not be as much hate.
During the last two poetic lines Robert Frost says that either way the world will end, whether it be fire or ice, it will be beautiful and great. Frost would be satisfied either way.

Posted by: Liz L. at January 26, 2006 05:46 PM

I believe what he is trying to say here is that the world will end in mass destruction. He also says he knows enough hate in the poem. Here I think he is talking about our world and how much people have hate for each other. This is where all of the cold, hard hate comes from, that he says will freeze like ice. So if the world does not end by mass destruction, it will end in some way by people's hate for each other.
After reading the poem several more times, I think it could be about love also. The fire would symbolize love and passion. The ice would represent hate or depression. This poem could have a couple different meanings but this is what I thought of it.

Posted by: Thoryn S. at January 26, 2006 06:10 PM

This poem has a tone that is, to me, somewhat unable to be described. Oddly enough, I feel that it is said, due to the talk of the world ending, yet it is somewhat relieving. He speaks of the two ways the world will supposedly end; fire and ice.
Frost seems to favor the fire assumption due to his "taste of desire". To me, fire might almost mean a hell-like fashion. Almost as if a great fire will consume the earth and claim all of its inhabitants. From what he says of his taste of desire and favoring an end in fire, I see this as almost accepting his sins and knowing that fire would suit his "world-ending death" best. Yet, at the end of his poem he says, "But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice." To me, this means that he still wishes to taste desires and give into temptations regarding experiencing both destructions; fire and ice. This aids to the fact that he has dipped his toe in desire his fill of times, so he knows that he should have the world end in fire for himself, yet he still wants to "taste" desire one last time if he has the chance to witness the world ending in "ice".

Posted by: Missy Z at January 26, 2006 06:15 PM

I feel that the tone of this poem is dark. Frost speaks of how he presumes the world will end. Unfortunately, the world’s ending is a very sad subject.
The author favors the thought of fire resulting in ending the world today. The fire in the poem somewhat parallels the thought of “hell taking over.” Although most poetry can have multiple meanings, I strongly believe that this poem has an extremely sad tone and seems to be very depressing

Posted by: Angela H. at January 26, 2006 08:38 PM

After looking at the Robert Frost poem "Fire And Ice" I finally understood the concept that he had in mind. What I understood from the poem was that the world was coming to an end because of emotions of hatred. He was saying that no matter how it ended there would still be hatred.
After spending several hours trying to figure out this poem I came to the understanding. What Robert Frost had in mind for the concept of this poem, I believe to be true.

Posted by: Kelly J. at January 26, 2006 10:48 PM

I feel that the poem “Fire and Ice” by Robert Frost is a poem that makes you think. In particular, it made me think about how many millions of ways the world could come to an end. It’s not something I would like to be here to experience, however if I did have to experience it, I would have to agree with Mr. Frost and say that fire would be my destructive element of choice.
I despise being cold and it would be much more torturous for me, personally, if the world were to end in some sort of ice rather than fire. However, as I stated previously, I hope to not be around to experience the end of the world.

Posted by: Kelsey L. at January 26, 2006 11:29 PM


I teach English to university students in Japan and was surprised to find that the vast majority of students had never been asked to complete creative writing of any sort during their grade school years.

The very thought astounded me.

So when it came time to teach a writing class to English Literature and Language majors, I was thrilled by the array of themes and activities I could explore.

What was most amazing was how my students responded to their poetry unit. The Majority of my 100 or so students reported that it was their favorite part of the writing course, mostly because of the freedom with which they could express themselves. Whereas essays and standard paragraph exercises have rather strict formats, poetry (depending on the style, of course) allowed students to spread their creative wings and play with words, phrases and ideas.

The most popular exercise was group picture speculation where students take turns creating a sentence in reflection of an image, and then work together to rearrange the sentences and imagine a title. The process results in not just a poem but rapport building, with stronger students helping weaker ones, and ample opportunities for oral communication practice.


Posted by: Marlen at January 27, 2006 04:45 AM

In this poem the speaker attempts to point out the evils in the world and how they might contribute to the way the world shall end. He speaks of two ends. That of fire and that of Ice. He agrees with other people that the world will end in fire because of the malicious desire that is among us. However he also mentions that if the world were to end a second time, it would also end in ice because of the hate that is now encoding into mankind.

The tone in this poem seems very pessimistic towards the worlds' outcome and the people that thrive upon it. The world might end because of hate or it might be self destructive due to the hate in people. The poet is able to use sybolism in order to compare two evils with two natural forces in nature. In doing so he is able to draw the conclusion that the two types of forces are like one and that one could not be here without that other, just like there could not be fire without ice.

Posted by: Emily S. at January 27, 2006 09:30 AM

“To say that for destruction ice/ Is also great/ And would suffice.” (Robert Frost, “Fire and Ice,” Lines 7-9) After reading the poem, I found that the poem is dark and violent. Words like destruction, fire, perish and hate create a negative connotation. “But to perish twice,/ I think I know enough of hate/.” (Lines 5 and 6)
But what is Frost trying to say? I believe that is the world were to be destroyed, it could be fire or ice. The desire in relation to fire, and the hate in relation to cold. Frost knows passion, he knows hate, both would destructions would be satisfied.

Posted by: Samantha V. at January 27, 2006 11:02 AM

Fire and Ice, by Robert Frost, is an interesting poem about how the world is going to end. He says he would favour fire but ice would also be suffice. I think this is a good poem because its different. He talks about how he wishes the world to end, which is unlike what most people write about.
Thinking about it, I feel fire and ice could be symbolic or metaphors. Fire could represent the destruction because of hate. The world would end with people killing eachother and destroying themselves.
Ice could represent the slow drying of the earth over time. People would use up all the resources till the earth is dry, like ice. It would be a slow, dragged out end of the world.

Posted by: Brendan at January 27, 2006 12:34 PM

What comes to mind is that what he's trying to convey is that there are two view points. WhatI'm getting out of this is there are always two view points to something. Or there is always going to be two sides of a story or ending to everything.

I think Robert Frost is going with everyone isn't going to be on the same side with every subject. There's always going to be a divide in culture nomatter what the subject is.

Posted by: David R. at January 27, 2006 01:20 PM

The poem Fire and Ice, by Robert Frost is about how the world will end up coming to an end. He says it will end in either fire or ice. I think Frost is comparing fire and ice to desire and hate. He is saying that both of these human feelings are destructive by saying that they could end the world.
I agree with Frost that desire and hate can be destructive feelings. Desire can turn in to greed. People with greed in them will do anything to get what they want. Greed can put evil into a person. This is why I think Frost chose desire as one way that the world will end.
Hate is also a very strong emotion. I do not like to say I hate a person. Hate has lead to war and death in this world. It will continue to do so. Frost said he has seen enough hate in his lifetime. I am sure he has seen what can result from hate. I think this is why he compares hate to desire as the other possibility for the end of the world.

Posted by: Cathy at January 27, 2006 01:23 PM

While I wouldn't call myself a poetry expert, I will admit that that Robert Frost's poem "Fire and Ice" did have me thinking for a while. In the poem, Frost implys that fire represents love (desire), while ice represents hatred. Frost also mentions that he would prefer the world to end in fire rather than ice. I find myself in agreement with Frost in that I also would take fire over ice. I've never been a fan of cold weather, and I'll take heat over cold any day (also it's weird that he likes fire when his last name is Frost).

When it comes to the whole issue of fire, i feel that fire represents love, as I said earlier. When two love really like/love each other, they are said to have a burning desire for one another. I'm a romantic person, so I tend to like fire (though I'd rather not die by it). But ice is cold and harsh, and represents hatred. I'm not a hateful person, so why would I take the side of ice? The whole world is cold when you think about it. There aren't many nice people around anymore, and everyone always gives everyone else the cold shoulder, so to speak. That's why Frost says that ice would be suitable for destruction, because ice does represent a destruction of a friendship, a relationship, or any type of emotional connection.

Posted by: Terrell W. at January 27, 2006 02:06 PM

In the poem "Fire and Ice" by Robert Frost, it can be taken with several different meanings. The author is writing about two different things that great contrast each other such as fire and ice. He obviously prefers one over the other, because he discusses how he hates ice and how he would not care if it was no longer existent. However, Frosts writes that he finds desire in fire, and favor those who likes it also.

Such things that contrasts so differently that are similar to fire and ice, could also be seen as heaven and hell. Frost may have been going through a rough time when he wrote this poem, and could be saying that he would rather much choose hell over heaven, which is quite odd. He probably did something that he felt guilty about and felt that his punishment should be served in hell.

Posted by: Linda M. at January 27, 2006 02:43 PM

I'm not really sure of the meaning of this poem. The lillte bit that I gather is that it is possibly about opposites and that the one of them will be the end of the earth. Frost believes that the world will end in fire, but the part about him perishing twice I dont undersatnd. I think that he is saying that when he dies the second time the world will end ice. I hope the earth ends in fire I hate the cold.

Posted by: P. Beckles at January 27, 2006 05:12 PM


I would say these students don't quite know enough yet of desire, or of how it feels to be frozen out of people's lives.


Posted by: Donna at January 28, 2006 12:53 PM


For one, I have taught Level 1 - 3 ESL students and most would have NO clue what this complicated (for them) poem might mean - but I would READ it to them for rhythm and the sheer beauty of the words. Seems like somewhere I read that when asked what he truly meant in one of his poems (Fences), Frost said, "I mean nothing more than what I said - that and nothing more."

Being an English major, I have had countless professors tout what they said was the "true" meaning of the poem - I feel that's changed (or hope it has) and now each poem may have a different meaning for each of us - of course, there will be those who are not on this planet when they answer).

I love to teach poetry because it has few rules -doesn't have to rhyme, can have no capitals (ee cummings), and little punctuation - just painting with words!

One of the easiest ones I have used with middle school ESL students is I REJOICE; I CRY. I have had some beautiful poems come alive from mouths of wonderful young people. If interested in some of them, please let me know and I'll drag out the ole' literary magazines and print a few!


Dr. Vye

Note from Lee:

Dr. Vye I agree; this would definitely NOT be a suitable activity for beginning or even intermediate level ESL students. This is something for advanced-placement ESL instruction programs (that have a literary component built-in, i.e. not a business-English setup) or university level philology curriculums. I could also see it working well on a one-to-one basis for ESL private-student tutors (if the student is willing). Thanks for your suggestions. With regards to your journals, I may have to take you up on that offer someday!

Posted by: Dr. Vye at January 28, 2006 10:10 PM

In Robert Frost’s poem, “Fire and Ice,” Frost is trying to explain how the world will be when it’s all over. When he refers to fire, he is talking about everyone hating each other. When Frost refers to ice, he is implying that we will all die not loving each other, but not hating each other either. Ice represents neutrality. Frost agrees with those who feel that the world will end in hatred. He claims that he knows enough about hatred to say this. I guess he can take his personal experiences and say that war will tear us apart.

I feel that the world will end with everyone disliking each other also. I think that everyone will blame everyone else for the ending of the world. Let’s take the issue of global warming for example. Some say that the cause of global warming is the sun growing in size and energy. Others blame humans for global warming. They say that we humans do things to break down the ozone, like drive cars that let off harmful fumes and smoke cigarettes. I feel that it is a combination of both. No matter what the cause of the world ending may be, I feel that in the end, we will all despise each other.

Kashiff M.

Posted by: Kashiff M. at February 21, 2006 06:58 PM

I have a essay on comparing Fire and Ice to There WIll come Soft Rains, i need help on summarizing their poems

Posted by: jeff sher at March 26, 2007 10:41 PM

Robert Frost, author of “Fire and Ice” explains how the world is perceived to end in two different ways, either in fire or ice, desire or despise. In the poem, Ice symbolizes hate, despise, anger, and sorrow. Fire represents desire; He uses desire when he refers to fire due to the fact that both fire and desire grow stronger with time. He sides with the side of fire at first, though later he shows that one way for the world to end is just as good as the other. He says that ice and hate is the same thing, and they remain the same throughout time. Frost prefers the world end in fire and desire rather than ice and hate. Even though he favors fire, he believes that ice is just as acceptable.
“To say that for destruction ice/ is also great/ and would suffice.” The poem is dark and violent. Words like destruction, fire, perish and hate creates a negative connotation. “But to perish twice/ I think I know enough of hate/.” Frost uses repetition in this poem to to add rhythm and emphasize certain parts of his poem such as: “Some say”, he’s trying to say that people have different views of how the world is going to end, fire or ice, which is another of his repetition example: “Fire/Ice”, this poem is about the world ending in fire or ice, so fire and ice were stressfully repeated throughout the poem. Robert Frost also adds to rhythm to his poem by providing some rhymes such as “fire/desire”, and “Ice/Suffice/Twice”. The 2 imageries of this poem were Earth collapsing and exploding with fire spitting everywhere uncontrollably, and Earth freezing up with no plant life in sight. (more to come from essay)

Posted by: Jeff Sher at March 28, 2007 01:37 AM

Thanks Jeff, very nice insights.


Posted by: Lee at March 28, 2007 09:13 AM

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