A Sketch in Time: Poets Painting the Moment

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

-a sparrow

-white chairs

-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—

amber, peach—

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.

The sparrow

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

7 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Tanya Baker  |  April 4th, 2017 at 6:09 pm

    What a way to kick off National Poetry Month! Thank you, Shirley McPhillips, for the invitation to sketch in order to stretch our powers of observation. I’m loving the scaffolded examples from first noticings, to stepping into those noticings “like a painting” to using the images to convey a story. I’m setting myself the goal of a quick sketch (in words or images) every day this month to help me pay closer attention, and to open myself up to the potential poetry all around. And also, PS, blog readers, if you don’t already own Poem Central, buy it today. It will make your month (life) in poetry so much richer.

  • 2. Linda Van Orden  |  April 5th, 2017 at 12:52 am

    Shirley has given another wonderful presentation that reminds us of how personal poetry is, and that guides us in the process of how to improve our skills.She inspires us to believe that our own words and experiences can be worthy, an “unconditional” approach. There is no “one way”, but many ways to welcome more poetry in our lives and thereby share who we are.

  • 3. Patrick Westcott  |  April 5th, 2017 at 2:38 pm

    Thank you, Shirley for reminding me of the poetry that surrounds me every minute of the day. I do need to slow down, turn off the bombarding noise, and simply look, listen, feel. You provide a practical method of capturing what can be a fleeting image or thought: a notebook. I have one. Time to put it to use! As always, you write beautifully!

  • 4. Drew  |  April 5th, 2017 at 5:03 pm

    Great idea!
    Happy Poetry Month.

  • 5. Carol Kellogg  |  April 6th, 2017 at 4:53 pm

    Another great idea from Shirley McPhillips! I decided to try word sketches out with a bouquet of mixed flowers. I began by running my eye along the contours of a lily, noting the rapturous abandon of its outstretched petals.
    The purity of the lily reminded me of the way the flower has been painted into Annunciation scenes over the centuries, and I thought it might be fun to try to look at the bouquet as the great artists might have: the light, as Vermeer might have seen it, glancing off the transparent glass of the vase, sheening the table, and mirroring the stems and leaves of the bouquet above it; the solidity of form of the unopened lily buds, as lusty as the pink flesh of a Rubens nude.
    Squinting, the bouquet became an impressionistic fantasia, as mutable as the melting façade of Monet’s Rouen Cathedral. Concentrating on the stems in the water, as seen through the cranberry glass of the vase, I remembered the bold rays and hues in a John Marin sunset.
    The exercise was as relaxing as it was inspiring and I felt that, after mentally drawing its elements, I had acquired an intimacy with the bouquet I would not otherwise have had. Now for the poem!

  • 6. Shirl  |  April 27th, 2017 at 2:10 pm

    To each of you above who have responded to “A Sketch in Time” and have shared what you take away for your own life, I thank you so much. You bring to reality what writers imagine and hope for, that folks are reading and bringing inside something that moves them. That they are affirmed, reaffirmed, rearranged as we travel along.

    Today, April 27, 2017, I wish you HAPPY POEM IN YOUR POCKET DAY.


  • 7. Shirl  |  April 27th, 2017 at 3:58 pm

    Thanks to everyone who has responded to “A Sketch in Time.” Your words give me the pleasure of interconnectedness, of lives moving along in human rhythms. I am inspired by you.

    Blessings, Shirl

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