By Mark Jackett
Poetry can save us. We are better people if we read and write poetry regularly; the world would be a better place if everyone did. When we write poetry, we force ourselves to become more observant of the world around us: our own thoughts and feelings, the natural world, how humans interact with one another. Poetry is a way to make sense of it all in beautiful, concise language.
But, again, as we know, if we want to write in a particular genre, we need to read a lot in that genre as well. Here are my recommendations for some of the best poetry sites out there.
Academy of American Poets https://www.poets.org/
Poetry Foundation http://www.poetryfoundation.org/
Poetry Out Loud http://www.poetryoutloud.org/
Poetry 180 http://www.loc.gov/poetry/180/
Each of these sites has a massive collection of great poems, as well as lesson plans and other resources for teachers and students. The idea behind Poetry 180 is to read an accessible poem aloud each day, not “study” it, just read it; maybe you’d like to try this in your school or classroom. And, if you are a high school teacher, I strongly recommend getting your school involved in Poetry Out Loud. It’s too late for this year, but I’ve been working with students on this program for about eight years, and it really gets kids excited about poetry, as well as helps them understand it better. Even if you don’t participate in the program, there are still some excellent lesson plans on the site.
Writing Poetry: Groundwork
Once you and your students have begun immersing yourselves in reading poetry, it’s time to start writing some. You might have your kids maintain a notebook, or a section of their notebooks, in which they record different poetic techniques that they like and have seen in other writers’ work. The important thing is that they maintain a notebook of their own ideas; the necessity of this cannot be stressed enough. Many of us already have our students maintain writer’s notebooks. As Vicki reminded us a couple of months ago, we need to have our students doing a lot more writing than we can ever possibly respond to. In addition to any other requirements you might have for your students’ notebooks, encourage them to jot down brief thoughts and observations throughout their days. Occasionally, and over time, these observations will take the shape of poetic lines. Some of the best poems I’ve written have happened at the end of the day by simply working on little ideas I’d written down between breakfast and bedtime. By recording their thoughts and observations in a notebook, your students will become more reflective and observant, which will give them more material to write about, and so on. It’s a beautiful feedback loop.
I have my students submit twenty lines of poetry, either one poem or multiple, at the end of each quarter. This is very simple to “grade,” and not too challenging for the students, but still enough that they have to put on their poetry hats a bit. A wonderful effect of this assignment is that there are always a few students who tend to struggle with writing essays but who really shine when it comes to writing poetry. This allows those students to feel success, and maybe they look at ELA/English in a different light. I usually try to set aside at least one day each quarter as a poetry writing day, during which we do some of the below exercises, but I collect the assignment even if I don’t get to the writing day.
Writing Poetry: Exercises
There a number of different exercises I have used with students over the years, some of which can be found in the magnificent book Poetry Everywhere, by Jack Collom and Sheryl Noethe. I also like to provide the students with some basic “criteria” for poetry, reminding them to include in their poems a) concrete images, b) figurative language, c) sound devices (beyond just end rhyme!), and d) to make conscious choices about line and stanza breaks. I know that not all poems, for example, contain concrete images, but in my experience, students produce better work when provided with these basic guidelines.
One simple but powerful exercise is to simply have students write shadow poems. This can be done with any poem, though I generally demonstrate it with William Carlos Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow.” Where Williams writes that “so much depends / upon / a red wheel / barrow,” the students choose their own important object, and structure their poems after Williams’. Here is an example that appeared in English Journal a few years ago, written by a girl named Leslie from the village of Shishmaref, Alaska:
So much depends
beside the wrecked
While Leslie did not mimic Williams’ form exactly, the idea is still there, and we can see how Leslie was able to capture the significance of something from her own world.
Next I’ll describe a couple of other fun exercises that do not necessarily result in a completed poem, but do help students generate ideas, and also get into a more imaginative, playful mindset, out of the usual logical mindset we find ourselves in most of the time. I learned these two exercises many years ago at the Suffolk County Community College Creative Writing Festival from former Suffolk County Poet Laureate George Wallace.
The first exercise involves simply writing the alphabet down the side of a page. Alternatively, students may choose to write two columns, splitting the alphabet in the middle or alternating between each column (so that one column is “A, C, E, G,” etc., and the other is “B, D, F, H,” etc.). In the first option, each letter is the first letter of an adjective. Next to it, write a noun that has absolutely no logical business being with that adjective. The same applies with the two-column option, except that now the nouns start with each letter in the second column. So, for example, one might create the phrase “angry bananas” or “obvious potatoes,” concepts that make no rational sense and that one would not likely create by simply sitting down and saying, “I’m going to write a poem now.” After creating a complete list, a student may only have two or three phrases that she really likes, but she can take those phrases and then write one poem or several with the “alphabet phrases” as a starting point. The phrases may be used at the beginning, middle or end of the poem(s).
A final exercise also involves brainstorming silliness. Here, ask students to write the first simile that comes to mind. It can be basic and simple, and will likely be cliché, such as “The boy can run like a deer.” The next step is to write another simile, only this one starts with “The deer…” or some form thereof (“A deer..,” “Deer…,” etc.). The next simile may use “like” or “as,” and may include a verb that is being compared as in the original simile, or just a comparison of the deer as a whole. The students continue brainstorming similes, each beginning with the ending of the one previous, until they have a list of half a dozen or more. I find that sometimes I slip into straight metaphor rather than simile, and that’s OK, too. As in the alphabet exercise, several of the similes will be throwaways, but if one or two stands out, we now have the beginnings of a unique, imaginative poem.
The key with all of the above exercises is for students to breathe, to write freely and loosely, not trying to “think” too much or get it “right.” Poetry is language compressed, and that takes times and effort, but in initial drafting, students should just let it flow.
Don’t forget to give your students opportunities to share and publish their work, in class, in school, in the local community, and beyond. Here is an amazing website with a plethora of contests and publications seeking the work of high school writers: http://www.newpages.com/writers-resources/young-authors-guide
For writers of all ages, I strongly recommend the annual contest at our fabulous local poetry landmark, the Walt Whitman Birthplace: http://waltwhitman.org/young-poets-contest (Note that this is an old link; this year’s should be on the site in early 2016.)
A couple of final thoughts: as I mentioned above, students should have some type of independent writer’s notebook/journal in which they can write freely about whatever they choose. This is essential for growth as a writer. Writer’s notebooks are not the focus of this post, but without them, all other writing instruction is less effective.
Finally, let me respond to the possibility that you don’t think you have time to teach your students how to write poetry. My argument is that writing in any genre helps us become better writers in all genres, and that writing in a variety of genres keeps kids more engaged and interested. Also, when students work on a smaller piece of writing, like a poem, and really take the time to choose, for example, the most precise verb for what they want to say, they are better able to see the benefit of revision in producing more powerful writing of all kinds. Finally, we’ve all encountered students who seem to think the goal of academic essays is to sound as boring as possible. If you explicitly remind your students that many of the techniques they use in poetry (alliteration, metaphor, simile, repetition, etc.) can also be used in prose writing, their essays will gain life, will sound like they were actually written by a human being instead of a robot.
To quote Whitman, “I myself but write one or two indicative words…Expecting the main things from you.”
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