Coming into a world of poetry

April 2nd, 2012

To celebrate National Poetry Month, we asked poet and author Shirley McPhillips (A Note Slipped Under the Door) to share some of her ideas about bringing poetry into the classroom and making it accessible for teachers and students alike. Check back with us every week in April to get more of her practical, classroom-ready ideas. And get writing!

Coming into a world of Poetry

The best way to learn the art of writing poetry is to read as much of it as possible. . . .  All art is learned by imitation and unless poets are reading poetry, they don’t have all the tools assembled. I’ve told my students I think they ought to be reading twenty or thirty poems for every one they try to write.

—Ted Kooser, U.S. Poet Laureate (2004–2006)

Poems are short. A blessing for time-strapped teachers and students. It doesn’t take much time to read a poem and think about it. And that’s what our students who hope to write poems need to do. Hear poems. Read poems. Often.

Reading poems, we teach ourselves to write the kinds of poems we like, to see possibilities for different kinds. Reading poems, we can look through the other end of the author’s kaleidoscope for a fresh look at the world.

Ideas for Hanging Poems in the Air

  • Rituals for poetry: e.g., Give poems for birthdays, occasions; to begin the day, to end the day; Friday afternoon poem share, poem slam, presentation time.
  • A poem a day, read aloud by teacher or student. Go for variety so students can experience style, sound, surprise, tone, shape. Just hang it in the air. We don’t have to “do something” with every poem we hear. We want to build intrigue and delight at different kinds of poems, to fill up the well for student poems to come.
  • Folders for building one’s own collection of poems, including copies the teacher shares with everyone and those from online sites. Students revisit poems, share in discussion with others, prepare to read aloud. Students might, later on, select poems and create their own anthology.
  • Frequent independent time for students to read a variety of poems of their choice for enjoyment and exploration, or time to revisit poems. No other expectations.
  • Writer’s notebooks at hand when reading poems, for thinking, reactions. Perhaps copying out or typing and pasting whole poems in the notebook. This can help in understanding how poems can be constructed.
  • Poetry Pairs or Poetry Clubs where students can meet to reread, respond, discuss poems, prepare for presentation.
  • A poetry blog where teacher and students can come around a poem together (I’ll describe how that works for one teacher and his class next time).
  • Request-A-Poem time when students can request favorites to be reread aloud together.
  • Present-A-Poem time when student pairs or groups who’ve signed up can “give voice” by presenting a poem they’ve arranged chorally (maybe also with gesture/movement/simple sound effects) to the class. Class could talk about interpretation, choices readers made and why, effect the reading had on listeners.

Writing What We See

Poems are grounded in the actual world. What we see, hear, what comes to us. Writers can practice paying attention in their notebooks over time:

Write three things you saw this morning (or on our walk today, or after school, or…).

Start with “This morning I saw” and make a list: a spruce bough, two white chairs on a hill, a cracked plate. Just get used to noticing things, and jotting. Not being fancy. When students share, they can become more aware and marvel at what there is to notice.

Later, students can pick an observation and “stretch it.” Say “What else?” Say “Where?” Say “Doing what?” The wing of a spruce dipped with rain; two white chairs sit on a hill, sunwashed; a cracked plate, spotted with bits of pepper and corn. These lines can be the start of a longer image or find their way into poems. When the teacher jots some on a chart from time to time for all to see, awareness builds.

Looking Long, Working Things Out in the Notebook

Look long enough so that the thing gazes back.

—John Berger

A Red Maple Leaf

This afternoon I saw:

a red maple leaf, 5 lobes, tough, veins, cracks, rain spots

I keep looking, and write it again:

stretching out into air, away from clusters of others, 5 lobes of skin like leather, streaked with cracks, veins carrying a red juice, spattered with freckles of rain. Underside, rough bones, raised.

I look longer (perhaps at another time), write it again, up closer, thinking detail, with my poet’s glasses more focused:

like a flat hand, stretching itself out into damp morning air, leathered with the rough work of pointing and fending off. Hangs on by one vibrant cord pulsing with a red kindness through green pathways. Small bones of cell strengthen each lobe, hold them apart, yet keep them together. Spits of rain streak the face, a deep smudge, like a bloodstain.

In the notebook, over time, I start making more poem-like lines, deepening the image. I cross out and substitute words. Make stanzas. I’m starting to think about surprising words—maybe a simile, metaphor—how to say what I see in more “poetic” ways.

Red Maple Leaf

stretches out into the morning air,
a flat hand, leathered with the rough work
of pointing, of fending off.

One vibrant line pulses a red kindness
through green pathways to the tips.
Small bones of cell strengthen

each lobe, keep them together,
hold them apart. Specks of rain
streak its face, deepen into a quiet
stain, like old blood.

Pushing Past the Image

I could stop here and feel I had written a pretty good image. That I had shared my observation fairly well with a reader. That a reader might see a leaf, or something else, a little differently the next time. That my ability to see and construct is strengthened. And these are all good things.

But I’m challenged by something a mentor said to me: What if this were not just an image standing alone? As you write, bring into your heart someone you love deeply: father, mother, child, friend. Write it with that person in mind. Bring us into the experience. Start by writing the person at the top of the page.

I chose my father, a beloved man who died violently. Right away I could feel the image shift. That startling leaf, struggling to hold on. Daddy, desperate, no longer trusting in what he had believed for so long. The giving up and letting go.

Teachers may have a few students who would want to take this more personal step (see Lila’s at the end). And their connections wouldn’t need to be terribly dramatic. But, needless to say, new drafting begins. New surprises. Space here will not allow me to show all that. But so you can see how it came, here’s the final . . . so far. It’s a whole different poem.

Waiting for My Father

A maple leaf stretches out
into the autumn air,
flat, leathered with the rough work
of taking in and fending off.

Small bones of cellular sinew
strengthen the lobes—keep them
together, hold them apart.
One stemline pulses a red kindness
to the tips—curled, dewslick.
Specks of rain stain its face
and deepen into blotches of rust
like blood from an old wound.

And still it waits.

My father, when he tires of clinging
to what’s left of what he has loved;
and when he no longer trusts
in the wisdom of his holy roots,

he will welcome the ruthless
rush of windfall.

The Cracked Plate
by Lila (Grade 6)

Afternoon tea, with tea things spread out
on a lace scarf she made when she
was an English girl, thin now like the skin
of her hands lifting the delicate pot to pour.

We sit and talk about different things,
like the cookies on the cracked plate
with the castle scene and the gold rim,
some of this and some of that.

The way we lift our cups and our cookies
to our lips. The way she says, “Do have another,
my dear,” lifting up the cracked plate that holds
so much of what we love.

Entry Filed under: Writing

6 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Linda Van Orden  |  April 4th, 2012 at 3:50 pm

    Shirley McPhillips has a gift for making the enigmatic form of writing that is poetry become personal and accessible.
    I can imagine that every student that has had the good fortune of working within her sphere has a come away with a greater understanding and appreciation of this special way of dealing with ourselves and the world.

  • 2. Carol Kellogg  |  April 5th, 2012 at 11:45 am

    Thank you – these are all great ideas!

    I remember reading that Winston Churchill (as painter, not military strategist), always felt anxiety facing a blank canvas. To overcome his anxiety, he began by simply daubing some paint on the canvas. After that, he once remarked, the rest was relatively easy.

    For the student who faces the blank canvas of a sheet of paper, I also like your idea of the cento, a poem composed entirely of the quotations of others, which you wrote about elsewhere. You remarked, “Poets have always taken phrases and lines from other poets and reworked them into their own. Lest we get excited about “stealing” lines, we can remember T. S. Eliot’s statement: Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.”

    Every student has favorite songs, and favorite lines from those songs. The process of collaging some of these lines together could begin as random brushstrokes that end in a work of meaning and merit.

  • 3. Blogging about Poetry - T&hellip  |  April 10th, 2012 at 10:33 am

    […] Poets Blogging In last week’s post, I quoted former poet laureate Ted Kooser who said, “The best way to learn the art of writing […]

  • 4. Margaret  |  April 14th, 2012 at 10:14 am

    Poetry is my favorite form to write with students. In the month of April, I am doing a different form for each letter of the alphabet beginning with acrostic, then bio-poems, etc. I’ll do this exercise with the letter O, “Observing your world.” Thanks for the idea to add to our daily poetry writing.

  • 5. A Collage Poem: The Cento&hellip  |  April 18th, 2012 at 11:09 am

    […] series this week with a post about collage poems. Make sure to check out her previous posts on bringing students into the world of poetry and blogging about poetry. Share your own cento in the comments […]

  • 6. Poem Talk - The Stenhouse&hellip  |  April 25th, 2012 at 9:20 am

    […] Month. Be sure to check out Shirley’s book A Note Slipped Under the Door, as well as her previous Poetry Month […]

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