The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame + Museum


Many students seem frustrated with poetry interpretation because oftentimes, their own suggestions are discounted by former teachers who have been solely in favor of what the textbook says is the “true interpretation”. Because of this, students are hesitant to speak out with their own explications on literature for fear of not being in complete cahoots with the classroom text’s interpretation. However, students usually have no qualms when asked to offer interpretations of popular musical lyrics. In fact, they seem quite eager to defend a lyrical explanation and will readily point out symbols, images, and allusions as ammunition to prove their points. Therefore, it benefits to use musical lyrics as a stepping stone into poetic interpretations. By analyzing the words in a song, as well as understanding the screen through which we develop our analysis, students will be able to have greater confidence in supporting their own interpretations of poetry.


The student will be able to: 

  1. apply historical/experiential, psychological, literary, and spiritual/religious screens when interpreting Samuel Coleridge’s poem “Kubla Khan”;
  2. analyze and interpret poetic and lyrical symbols;
  3. apply a specific screen to finishing a lyrical or poetic interpretation;
  4. connect personal and/or screened interpretations to canonical ones;
  5. offer interpretations of other poems and popular musical lyrics using interpretative screens;
  6. connect the interpretive screen to literary criticism.


12th grade English IV students (British literature/college writing)

Time Frame

10 days


British literature book (we use McDougalLittell Literature: English Literature), CD/tape player, CD’s, lyrics to selected songs, respective handouts, overhead projector and appropriate transparencies, and student access to the Internet


My students begin each class with a writing prompt which is always accompanied by music that relates to the theme of the writing. They also enjoy sharing their prompts with fellow classmates as we bridge prior knowledge to the day’s objectives.

Additionally, this lesson will come in the middle of a unit on Romanticism, so students will be familiar with that particular literary era’s political, socio-cultural, economic, and literary backdrop: Student will also have working knowledge of literary devices such as irregular rhyme, symbol, theme, alliteration, assonance, onomatopoeia, tone, theme, imagery’, and plot mapping, although a review of these may be called for. They also will be familiar with surfing the web for credible sources.


Day One 

  1. From the overhead (or the board), read the following prompt to students, asking them to respond in wnting while the music plays:


    Describe one of your most vivid dreams or nightmares, especially one that truly upset or perplexed you. Be sure to go into detail, using details to not only recreate this nocturnal vision, but also to explain your reaction to it.

  2. Play “Sweet Dreams” by the Eurythmics while students are writing. I usually ask students to write for the duration of the song only, quickly putting their thoughts on paper.
  3. Invite students to share their writings with the class.
  4. After students discuss their dreams and reactions, ask them to add to their prompts their own personal interpretations of what their dreams might mean. (For example, I would share my own dreams that reoccur every August since I was in high school. These usually involve my need to get an important piece of paper out of my locker but being unable to remember the combination, or about being handed a final exit exam for graduation and being unable to read any of the words on the paper. I would also offer my own interpretation of these dreams, focusing on the enormous anxiety that accompanies the anticipation of a new school year. I would share that I still have these dreams, even though I am in my forties and arn now in my fourth &ear of teaching! I interpret these dreams as being symbolic of the feelings of powerlessness and helplessness that come with starting anything new, as well as the uncertainty of its fliture.)
  5. Play Marilyn Manson’s version of “Sweet Dreams” while students respond to the prompt.
  6. Encourage students to share their dream interpretations with the class.
  7. Ask students to ponder which of the following issues or circumstances might have influenced their interpretations: 

historical/experiential--students may have heard about other dream interpretationsfrom the past, or may have figured out their interpretations due to their prior knowledge of the situations that sparked such dreams. These may also be influenced by culture;


    psychological--students have some background in dream interpretation through research or because they have taken Psychology classes;

    Literary--students have prior knowledge of literary symbols, therefore applying those to their dreams;

    spiritual/religious-students have certain principles that have influenced their exegesis.

  8. Explain how certain issues and experiences act as screens that influence our interpretations. For example, ask students to work with a partner for two minutes to offer interpretations of what the use of a river in a literary work might mean using all four screens.
  9. Invite volunteer pairs to share their responses. These should hopeftilly include the following:


    historica1/experiential--travel, discovery, escape, personal experiences (these may vary widely);

    psychological-exploration of the subconscious (as in repression or buried feeling)

    literary--rebirth, freedom

    spirituaI/religious-baptism, holiness (these may vary depending on the particular religious or spiritual persuasion)

  10. Explain how our interpretations of many things have been screened or filtered through these influences. We may indeed view the world, as well as literature and other media, through one or all of these screens, as well as others such as gender, race, socio-econontic conditions, etc.
  11. Ask students how the two versions of “Sweet Dreams” might have influenced their two prompt responses, especially noting the tone of the songs as the students’ prior knowledge and opinions of both musical groups (Eurhythrnics and Marilyn Manson).
  12. Following discussion, hand out lyrics for the song “Sweet Dreams”, asking students to pick one of the four screens to interpret the potential meaning of this song. Additionally, ask students to utihze the web as a resource if necessary. This interpretation should be at least one page long and specific examples should be used to prove the interpretation’s point. This activity should finish out the first class period of this lesson and will be due the following day.

Day Two 

  1. Ask students to respond in writing to the following prompt:


    What would be your idea of a dream come true? Be as specific as possible.

  2. Play “Sweet Dreams” by La Bouche while students write.
  3. Ask students to share their prompt responses.
  4. Ask for volunteers to share their screened interpretations of yesterday’s lyrics to “Sweet Dreams” (Eurythmics/Marilyn Manson versions), making sure two from each screen are shared. While students present, write down responses on the overhead or the board. When students have finished sharing, note similarities and difference in these. Invite students to speculate as to why there are both alike and dissimilar versions.
  5. Display the lyrics to Iron Butterfly’s song In-a Gadda-Da-Vida” on the overhead. Be sure to note that this song was first released in 1968. Ask students to read these while the song is playing and to think of what the song might be about. (There are several versions of this song, including a radio-edit of less than five minutes, as well as a live version that is over fifteen minutes long.)
  6. Following the song, ask students to get into groups of three and discuss potential interpretations. Remind them to ponder which screen might best work for this song (three mixiutes).
  7. Invite each group to share its findings.
  8. Discuss the story of the song, reading from the liner notes of the CD In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida (reissued in 1995) how the lead singer of Iron Butterfly had consumed nearly a gallon of wine before he finished this song, whose chorus was supposed to be “In the Garden of Eden.” When asked by his drummer what the title was, the drunken Doug Engle replied, “In-A-Gadda-Da Vida”. Point out how many students may have come close to this version simply by connecting the title with the historical screen (the stoner culture of the sixties). Note the religious allusions, as well as the literary and psychological symbols ("take my hand”, “please”, etc.) Also note that the song later took on the meaning of “in the garden of life”, which also can be discussed in terms of screened symbolism.
  9. From a plot mapping perspective, ask if students feel this song is complete. Why does it seem like a fragment? Lead students into a discussion of our Western notion of literary completion (from the introduction-body-conclusion style to the exposition-rising action-climax-falling action-resolution model). This linear way of thinking is not universal, as other cultures ascribe value to circular thinking. (For example, Native American culture values the circle or hoop as the symbol of life and unity, so oral or written literature may not have the beginning/end lineage that most students are used to.)
  10. Going back to the notion of dreams, ask students to reflect on how their dreams are not usually linear in that it is difficult to pinpoint an exact introduction/ body/conclusion to them. In fact, they may seem incomplete or fragmented, or even illogical in Western terms.
  11. Tie in the concept of imagination to dreams as a way of exploring the potentially illogical side of these nocturnal visions. Is imagination, as in dreams, the mind playing tricks on the logic? Or is it more than that? How does this relate to the concept of imagination in the Romantic era? Note what The Oxford Illustrated History of English Literature defines as Romantic imagination: “a faculty for reordering former sense impressions: the perceiving mind and the perceived object are separate” (290). How does that play against what we think of as dreams? Ask students to discuss this notion.
  12. Ask students to think about what fosters and promotes imagination. List responses on the board or overhead as students share. (If students haven’t listed “drugs” or alcohol, be sure to add those.) Point out how their examples connect to the four screens of interpretation.
  13. Segue into the homework assignment for the next class period--reading about Samuel Coleridge, the Romantic writer synonymous with imagination. Students should read the biographical information on Coleridge in their textbooks. (In McDougal, Littell Literature: English Literature, this is found on page 453.)

Day Three 

  1. Ask student to respond in writing to the following prompt:


    Write about the importance and/or size of your imagination. How has it changed since you were a kid? What has influenced it? Be sure to discuss things such as imaginary friends, monsters, superheroes, lying, etc.

  2. Play “Just My Imagination” by the Temptations while students write.
  3. Following writing, ask students to call out the five senses while you write them on the board or overhead: hearing, sight, touch, taste, and smell.
  4. In partner groups, ask students to write down examples of sensory images used while the partner reads his/her prompt. Repeat for the other partner. (two minutes).
  5. At the end of the two minutes, ask who found five, four, three, two, or one example of sensory images by the partner? Ask the partners how this affected the “picture” the writer created of his/her imagination. Be sure to note how these sensory perceptions create great imagery for the reader or listener, allowing him/her to vicariously relive the author’s/narrator’s experience.
  6. Put the lyrics to the Who’s “See Me, Feel Me, Touch Me” up on the overhead. Ask students to note examples of the senses while the song is being played.
  7. Invite volunteers to share their findings on sensory images in the Who’s song. Underline them on the overhead and identify the respective sense as students respond. Be sure to remind students of the mental pictures these images create.
  8. Now try this imagery hunt with “Xanadu” by Rush, a song inspired by Samuel Coleridge’s classic poem “Xanadu.” Rernind students what they read the previous night about Coleridge. Handing out a lyric sheet, ask students to work in groups of three to find sensory examples in this song as it is being played. They can underline and identify these in the manner that you did on the overhead for the Who song. (Give students no more than five minutes following the song’s end to do this.)
  9. Ask each group to share at least two different images with the class, noting the example phrase as well as which sense is represented. You could have an overhead of the song up and note each group’s examples on it.
  10. Ask students to comment on this song: What could it possibly mean? Why would a rock and roll band seek inspiration from such a dead, bald, white guy as Coleridge?
  11. Turn students’ attention to Coleridge’s famous work “Kubla Khan”. (You might note for fun that not only was Rush inspired by this poem, but so were the creators of South Park, who used an allusion to it in South Park: The Movie.) In McDougal, Littell Literature: English Literature, the editors provide an introduction to the poem that talks about the legend of this poem--how Coleridge, under the influence of opium as he was reading a travelogue about China, fell into a dream recreating images of the Mongolian emperor Kubla Khan. Upon awakening, Coleridge attempted to write down the dream in poetic form, only to be interrupted by a businessman from a nearby town. Later, he was unable to recreate the rest of the dream, instead leaving only a “fragment” of “a vision in a dream” (454).
  12. Before reading this poem aloud, ask student to give examples of other poets, musicians, and artists whose works were influenced by substances (for example, Kurt Cobain’s drug use influences the song “Lithium”, “Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds” was supposedly influenced by the Beatles’ use of LSD, etc.)
  13. Ask for a student volunteer to read the poem out loud. Without comment, ask students to re-read the poem to themselves at least three more times, then do the following for the next class period:
    • note specific examples and identify sensory imagery;
    • note sound devices Coleridge uses in this poem, including alliteration, assonance, and onomatopoeia;
    • write down any questions and comments about the poem.

Day Four 

  1. Ask students to reply to the following prompt:


    What is your idea of a pleasure dome? What would it be built of and what would it be filled with? 

  2. While students respond to the prompt, play the song “Welcome to the Pleasure Dome” by Frankie Goes to Hollywood.
  3. Encourage students to share their responses.
  4. Ask students to describe Coleridge’s idea of “Kubla Khan” and the pleasure-dome terms of imagery and sound devices (from their homework).
  5. Invite students to share the questions and comments about the poem that they were asked to note. Discuss these.
  6. How should we intetpret a poem like this? How does the notion of the interpretive screen work with this poem? How does the imagery affect our interpretation? Does one screen’s image become another’s symbol? The students’ task is to use at least one screen to offer an interpretation of “Kubla Khan”, constructing a NILA-formatted paper and a presentation with visual aids explaining how one particular screen would influence the interpretation (although students are free to offer multiple screens for interpretation, they must first use the screen they have been assigned).


    To do so, students will count off in a 1-2-3-4 manner. The numbers correspond with the following screens:

    Historical/experiential (Coleridge’s personal history, as well as world history, Chinese history, and events surrounding the Romantic era-students could begin by looking at the Coleridge timeline.

Psychological - perhaps from a Freudian/dream perspective-students may want to start with

    Literary (Benet’s Reader’s Encyclopedia, The Oxford Companion to English Literature, and Merriam Webster’s Encyclopedia of Literature are good starting places, as is

    Spiritual/religious (Kathleen Raine’s “Traditional Symbolism in Kubla Khan” in Sewanee Review 72 (1964), as well as the literary encyclopedia noted in #3 will be useful) 

  7. We will spend the next four days in the media center (combination library/computer lab) doing research on this assignment. This assignment (both the paper and the presentation) will then be due ninth day of this lesson. (See assignment/rubric for specific details.)

Days Five through Eight are research and writing days.

Day Nine 

  1. From their research, students will share an encapsulated version of their interpretations with each other as we jigsaw groups of four so there is one person representing each screen per group. While the papers are evaluated by the teacher, students will evaluate these presentations using specific rubrics for this task. Additionally, students can do peer editing at this time within the group. The final papers are then due, along with the papers that have been peer edited, on Day Ten.

Day Ten 

  1. Student papers on interpretations of “Kubla Khan” using interpretive screens are due today as are self-evaluations of the process of writing these (see handout).



  1. Homework from Day One (see #12).
  2. Homework from Day Three (see #12).
  3. Presentation of material to peers (student assessed--see Day Four #6 and attached rubric).
  4. MLA-formatted final draft and peer edited draft of screened and researched interpretation of “Kubla Khan” (see Day Four #6 and attached rubric).

Selected Recordings

“Sweet Dreams” recorded by The Eurythmics (Greatest Hits; Arista/BMG Records (UK) Ltd., 1991); lyrics and music by Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart. BMG Songs Inc.

“Sweet Dreams” recorded by Marilyn Manson (Smells Like Children, Interscope Records, 1995); lyrics and music by Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart. BMG Songs, Inc.

“Sweet Dreams” recorded by La Bouche (Sweet Dreams, RCA Records, 1996); lyrics and music by GA. Saray, M. Sonmez, M. Thornton, and R. Haynes, BMG Songs Inc.

“In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” recorded by Iron Butterfly (In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida[reissue], Rhino Records, 1995); lyrics and music by Doug Engle. Cotillion Music Inc., Iron Butterfly Music, Ten-East Music.

“Just My Imagination” recorded by The Temptations (Anthology/10 Anniversary Special, Motown, 1973); lyrics and music by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong. Stone Agate Music.

“See Me, Feel Me” recorded by The Who (Thirty Years of Maximum R & B, MCA, 1994); lyrics and music by Pete Townshend and Dennis Blandfo. ABKCO Music Inc., Songs of Windswept Pacific, Suolubaf Music, Tower Tunes Inc.

“Xanadu” recorded by Rush (A Farewell to Kings, Mercury Records, 1977); lyrics and music by Neil Peart, Gary Lee Weinrib, Alex Zivojinovich.

“Welcome to the Pleasure Dome” recorded by Frankie Goes to Hollywood (Welcome to the Pleasure Dome, Island Records/Atlantic Recording Corp., 1984); lyrics and music by Brian Nash, Mark O’Toole, Holly Johnson, and Peter Gill. SPZ Music Inc.



  1. Students may select any song we haven’t talked about and run it through any of the screens, offering an oral/visual presentation for the class.
  2. Students may analyze a poem not in our textbook, using an interpretive screen in an MLA-formatted and researched paper.
  3. Since Coleridge conceded that ‘CKubla Khan” is indeed fragmented, students may select a screen to finish the poem.

Contributed by

Lori Fulton
Mattawan, MI