Poetry and Plays

Most groups concentrate on prose – novels, memoirs, biographies, historical accounts or topical debates. But reading plays and poems can add variety and challenge.


There are lots of poetry anthologies around, organised by period or theme – love, war, comic verse, the nation’s favourites etc.

The idea of poetry can be a bit intimidating, for group members and facilitators. But it needn’t be. Get some suggestions from the group to start with or browse through the anthologies and choose a few poems that seem easy on the eye and ear. Photocopy them and get the group to choose one for the last few minutes of the session, either reading it round or getting a volunteer to read the whole thing. Invite comments but emphasise that it’s fine just to listen and enjoy the sounds and images. Then if there’s time, perhaps read it again just before you finish For some groups, the poem at the end has become the highlight of the meeting.

A few individual poems that have gone down well:

  • ‘How to Triumph Like a Girl’ by Ada Limon
  • ‘Stopping by Woods’ by Robert Frost
  • ‘The Road Not Taken’ by Robert Frost
  • ‘First Memory’ by Louise Gluck
  • ‘Hope is the Thing with Feathers’ by Emily Dickinson
  • ‘Those Winter Sundays’ by Robert Hayden
  • ‘Thaw’ by Edward Thomas
  • ‘This be the Verse’ by Philip Larkin
  • ‘This be the Worst’ by Adrien Mitchell
  • ‘Everything is going to be All Right’ by Derek Mahon
  • ‘The Politics Of’ by Sean O’Brien
  • ‘Bulletin from the Daily Mail’ by Alan Gillis

The Eagle
Alfred Lord Tennyson

He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ring’d with the azure world, he stands.

The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls.

Carl Sandburg

The single clenched fist lifted and ready,
Or the open asking hand held out and waiting.
For we meet by one or the other.

Poems can catch the attention of newer readers and help them discover the pleasures of uncertainty.


Plays may feel like unfamiliar territory but they can be stimulating and good fun to read and explore with a group. A few tips:

  • Encourage everyone to take part in the reading, sharing out the characters and taking turns
  • Make sure someone reads out any stage directions, information about setting, character descriptions etc – these are often very important but are sometimes overlooked
  • Read the first scene or two and then perhaps stop to discuss first impressions
    • characters: how do people visualise them – age, clothes, posture, how would they move?  what actor might play each one?
    • setting: where is the action taking place? What props should the characters have?
    • how might the initial situation develop?

There are lots of websites with short one-act plays to download free. And you can browse some of them by theme, playwright, cast size etc. See for example: One Act Plays

For modern plays Methuen has a good contemporary dramatists series that’s well worth a look.

A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams

The play dramatises the experiences of Blanche DuBois a former Southern belle who, after encountering a series of personal losses, leaves her once-prosperous situation to move into a shabby apartment in New Orleans rented by her younger sister and brother-in-law.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by Edward Albee

The play is about the dysfunctional and self-destructive marriage between a history professor and his wife, witnessed over the course of one night (or, technically, one very early morning) following a party.

Twelve Angry Men by Reginald Rose

A behind-closed-doors look at the American legal system that is as riveting as it is spare. A jury of white men are ready to pass judgment on a Puerto Rican teenager charged with murdering his father. The result is a saga of epic proportions that plays out over a tense afternoon in one sweltering room. 

A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen

The play concerns the fate of a married woman, who at the time in Norway lacked reasonable opportunities for fulfilment in a male-dominated world, despite the fact that Ibsen denied it was his intent to write a feminist play. It was a great sensation at the time, and caused a “storm of outraged controversy” that went beyond the theatre to the world of newspapers and society.

For groups that want to give Shakespeare a go, the No Fear Shakespeare series is a good parallel text edition, with the original and a modern version on facing pages.

There is also a published series called Classical Comics which are graphic adaptations of classic works of literature, including Shakespeare plays. They are available in three different versions: original text, modernised text and abridged text.