Placing images next to each other is a common poetic technique that invites the reader to infer what their differences and similarities suggest about the characters in the poem, or about the ideas these characters have. In Billy Collins's "The Lanyard," a speaker remembers a small gift he made for his mother in summer camp. To the adult speaker, the lanyard seems a puny gift in comparison to the love he received from her. However, through a series of clever, humorous comparisons—Collins is known for his funny, ironic poems—the reader realizes that giving his gift was indeed a heartfelt gesture, however inadequate, much like the writing of a poem that commemorates a mother's love.
When exploring this poem, first help your students understand its basic plot—the characters, the situation, the series of ideas it records, then the irony of its ending, and, finally, how comparison, humor, and irony are used to keep the poet's message of love from lapsing into a cliché (or, in the poem's words, a "worn truth") about childhood or parental love.
- To break the poem down into sections and summarize what is going on in each
- To unpack poetic imagery to gain an understanding of the speaker's ideas and tone
- To unpack language that evokes the five senses
- To compare images and draw conclusions about the speaker's feelings about his mother and himself
- To work through the ironic final lines of the poem to understand how the poem turns and becomes more serious
- To identify humorous moments—through reading and watching a video segment of Billy Collins reading the poem—and explore how humor contributes to the poem
Grade Level: 7-12
- One to two class periods
- The Lanyard, by Billy Collins QuickTime Video
- Exploring Contrasts Worksheet PDF Document
Before the Lesson
- Ask students to describe gifts they have given or made for parents or guardians, especially for a significant occasion.
- What inspired the choice of gift?
- How were these gifts received?
- Are there any gifts, especially ones from their childhood, that seem a little silly or embarrassing now? (Many parents hold on to handprints, goofy self-portraits, and other presents from kindergarten or preschool that might set the stage for this poem's gift of a lanyard.)
- Ask students to think of other gestures that say "Thank you" or "I love you" to a friend or parent. Are they always sincerely meant? Are they always well received?
Part I: First Reading
1. Explain that the class is about to read a poem about someone remembering a gift he made for his mother, and that like most poems, this one is going to feature a series of different moods and ideas as the memory unfolds. Play up the poem's humor by explaining what it is about (define the terms lanyard and ricochet) and hold up or show a picture of a lanyard. Read the poem aloud or ask a volunteer to read the poem aloud and show the lanyard when it is first mentioned in the poem. As students hear the poem, they should try to follow its story and get a sense of the speaker's shifting feelings.
Part II: Developing Ideas About the Poem
2. As the poem is read, note whether students respond with appropriate laughter. If so, ask what inspired their laughter. (The speaker's feeling that his gift was silly? The descriptions of making the lanyard?) (Note: These observations may alert students to the idea that his gift is meager in comparison to his mother's gifts.) Think about how the poem is read in relation to Collins's reading in the video segment. When and why does each audience laugh?
3. Clarify any questions about vocabulary or the basic narrative of the poem.
4. Begin a more detailed analysis by explaining, "One way to understand a poem better is to break it down into its various parts or sections, so let's do that." Then, to help them see the three sections of the poem—the speaker as an adult looking for inspiration, the speaker as a child making the lanyard, the speaker as an adult again thinking about the significance of the lanyard—ask these questions:
- Where is the speaker at the beginning of the poem?
- What happens to the speaker when he sees the word "lanyard" in the dictionary?
- Does the poem return to the present? When?
5. Now students have identified the basic structure of the poem. Point out that each section of the poem does different things, and that they're going to look more closely to get a better understanding of what each one is doing, and what they all add up to.
6. Distribute "The Lanyard" worksheet. (Note: This worksheet can be completed individually, in pairs, in groups, and in groups by section of the poem.) Explain that students will be examining the sections of the poem more closely and comparing images and ideas within these sections in order to get a better understanding of how the poem shifts and develops from beginning to middle to end.
Part III: Testing Out the Ideas
7. As students share answers, they should be able to ground their conclusions in images and ideas that are readily observable in the poem. Test these conclusions by asking them to identify the specific lines or phrases that demonstrate their points.
8. See if students were able to identify any tone shifts within the sections they examined closely. (If needed, explain that tone helps one understand the speaker's, as well as the poet's, point of view, but shifts in tone are especially useful to note when working to understand how the poem's ideas develop. Note that there is a useful tone-vocabulary list, "Terms for Tones," available for download at the Poetry Foundation.
9. As students share ideas, create or have students create compare/contrast charts for each section. These should compare/contrast each section with the ones before or after it, and also look within the individual sections. (For example, section I mentions "blue walls" and moving "as if underwater," while section II mentions "a deep Adirondack lake," which repeats and varies those images; section I mentions the word "lanyard" and in section II we get the thing itself. Within sections, section I subtly compares the typewriter and piano, bookshelf and envelope, and dictionary; section II compares the lanyard to the mother's gift; and section III compares the lanyard to the poem now being written.) These comparisons and contrasts should help students develop their understanding of the speaker's feelings about himself, his mother, and the making of the lanyard (and the poem!). They will also train students to pay attention to repetition and variation, which is a crucial structural device used by poems, novels, plays, and even many essays.
Part IV: Watching the Video
10. Prior to watching the video, ask students to identify moments that the audience might react to in the poem. (The repetition of the word "lanyard," etc.)
11. After watching, ask students if the reading "fit" their interpretation of the speaker’s tones and character? Did they hear the three sections of the poem? How did the reader's presentation make each section distinct, if it did?
12. Were they surprised by when or how loudly the audience laughed? How did the audience seem to respond to the end of the poem? How did Collins use humor, earlier, to set up their final response?
13. Were students surprised by the large audience watching Collins read? Did this affect the feel of the reading?
14. How did Collins deliver the ironic moments in his poem? How did his reading of the (humorous) ironic moments in the middle section contrast with the (more serious) irony of the final lines?
15. Ask students if they have ever made a lanyard. Has it been saved? Why or why not? Which of their gifts have been saved? Why?
Part V: Further Activities/Assessments
- Look at some other "gift" poems—that is, poems that are themselves a "gift" to someone, or that thank someone for a "gift." Two famous examples are Pablo Neruda's "Ode to My Socks" and William Carlos Williams's "This Is Just to Say." Have students write a poem about a gift they have received, a poem as a gift to a person, or a poem as a thank-you note in praise of a gift they have been given. (If your students are familiar with haiku, you may want to explore Selected Haiku by Issa for ideas of short poems that are often given as gifts).
- Have students write a response to Collins's "The Lanyard" from the parent's point of view. Encourage them to avoid clichés by using contrast and humor, as Collins did, and to imagine a fresh, unexpected emotion on the part of the parent.
- To reinforce the idea that poems treat familiar ideas or scenarios but avoid clichés about them, have students write a "bad first draft" of Collins's poem, substituting sentimental or emotionally heavy-handed material for his fresher, more unexpected, or more ambiguous lines and phrases. Discuss which sections were easier, and which harder, to rewrite.
- Have students write about an object that inspires a vivid memory.
- To reinforce the techniques taught in this lesson, look at some other "nostalgia" poems. One of the greatest is Robert Hayden's "Those Winter Sundays," a poem about a son and his father. Have students infer what can be learned about each character from the images and the juxtapositions in each of the poem's three stanzas, using the same section-by-section comparison and contrast approach they did with "The Lanyard." Point out that Hayden does not avoid clichés through humor, but he does avoid them. How?