April 4th, 2017
We are excited to again celebrate National Poetry Month with the help of poet Shirley McPhillips, author of Poem Central. She introduces us to “word sketches” as a way of slowing down, noticing details, finding the wonder if everyday details. She offers some ideas for trying out word sketches in the classroom.
A Sketch in Time: Poets Painting the Moment
By Shirley McPhillips
The poet, in the novelty of his images, is always the origin of language.
—Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space
One morning this fall, I found myself walking in circles—this time by design. A teen’s Boy Scout project resulted in fashioning a labyrinth on the lush green lawn of his church. A labyrinth—not a maze intended to confuse, but a circular pathway for thoughtful or meditative walking, intended to soothe and heal. At first it was hard to quiet my mind. Walking the labyrinth over time, however, my feet found a rhythm. My mind centered as if following a heartbeat.
Yet still, the rattling times we live in can knock attention, rapid fire, from one matter to the next. Even nature seems to join in with erratic weather patterns—disorienting record heat in February followed by epic arctic blasts. But the lesson of the labyrinth becomes a touchstone: allow the quiet voice inside you to speak; put your attention to the mysteries of a moment, find the surprise, feel the wonder.
Writing “word sketches” is one way teacher-writers and their students can practice finding the wonder in moments of their daily lives. Anyone can train the eye by frequent sketching—slowing the gaze to follow the lines of an object. A simple sketch a day (a coffee cup, a candle, a pear, a chair), even done quickly, can result over time in “seeing” of a different kind—noticing the drama of light and dark, the intricacy of detail and design, the subtle vigor of white space. Writing short word sketches holds the same promise.
The sophistication of the word sketches will, of course, depend upon the experience of the writers and will vary one from another. But, we can start with paying attention: jotting in our notebooks, making lists of what we see—on a walk to school, driving to work, looking out the window.
-a wet street
-an old plate
As we go, we find our “noticings” becoming more particular and nuanced, especially if we share them, chart them, join others in finding things intriguing.
Next, we’ll want to get some language around what we notice. What else? Where? Doing what? Make a picture.
-the wet street streaked with colors
-a sparrow peeking out of a drainpipe
-two white chairs at the beach
-a plate with cracks in it
Zoom in closer. Enter the moment as if it were a painting. Look around with all your senses. Find the uniqueness. Get out the paints. Don’t be afraid to find unusual words to paint with.
Jack pictures himself walking along a wet side street in his boots. Colors from the buildings are reflected in the rain. His elaborated sketch has the tone and brevity of haiku.
On a narrow street
rain paints a watercolor—
boots brush a slick design.
Shuyi imagines the sparrow working tirelessly to make a home in such an ignoble place. We know, without any mention of a nest. A true poet.
has built its palace
in a drainpipe.
Mr. Vitturi writes a pure image. Then, like Shuyi, pushes himself to imagine something surprising.
Two white chairs, sunwashed,
sit side by side at the beachfront—
a seat for seagulls.
Sometimes word sketches can be the start of a longer image. Or they can find their way into an elaborated poem. Often, looking back through my notebook, I find lines that seem right in a new poem. Lila pushes past the “cracked plate” observation to find the heart of a longer poem based on a personal story. She sticks very close to the image, revealing “the poem within the poem.” We can see how her practice with observation and detail, her sense of image, sticks with her as she composes “The Cracked Plate.”
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