on teaching poetry

Gimmicks

The word “gimmick” has derogatory connotations. It often suggests something cheap, tricky, fast, without substance, even immoral. There are intelligent people who attack the use of gimmicks or devices in teaching imaginative writing, on the grounds that such devices encourage kids to be thoughtless smart alecks, witty at the expense of substance, satisfied with a glib surface but insensitive to depth of feeling. Such critics usually emphasize the importance of meaning.

Were there a School of Gimmicks, its members might retort that the Defenders of Meaningfulness tend to be boring creeps who confuse self-expression with value, that the most sincere statement of feeling is no better than any other sincere statement, that what makes the difference in creative expression is style. In other words, concern yourself with style, and everything else will take care of itself.

These are two extreme points of view, of course. They sound like rehashings of the old conflict between those who favor Form and those who favor Content in literature. Or those who claim that sex should consist of emotion and those who say it should be pure animal instinct.

The fact is that there is no appreciable difference between a teacher who uses gimmicks with intelligence and one who emphasizes meaning with intelligence. A heartless use of gimmicks will produce worn-out surrealist imitation; a narrow insistence on self-expression will produce baloney.

Self-expression is therapeutic and flashy technique is entertaining, but neither is necessarily good writing. So don‘t let anyone hornswoggle you into thinking you should teach one to the exclusion or detriment of the other!

Found Poems

The “found poem” or “found object” has thrown some intellectual monkey wrenches into modern literature and few people seem to want to deal with their implications. It is okay to bring a piece of driftwood into a high school art class and declare it a “found sculpture," and it is okay for a Pop artist to paint a Campbell‘s soup can or incorporate everyday objects into assemblages, but it is not yet acceptable to appropriate, say, a New York Yankees baseball game as an art event or conceptual art work. The notion of originality in art, which became so attractive with the Romantic poets and artists, needs to be reexamined, to see exactly what is meant. Poets such as John Giorno, who has written all his poetry for the past ten or so years using nothing but “found” words, might argue that almost all words are “found” anyway. The subject is too large and probably too boring to be dealt with here.

So, how to proceed in the classroom? Have each kid select a passage from a book, newspaper or conversation, write it down as if it were a poem, give it a title (which they might also find) and read it aloud. If you have a lot of different materials available to the kids, the range of poems will be wider and more interesting. Some will seem quite good, others will flop. You might ask the kids why some “found” poems work better than others.

You might also discuss how context changes words. A paragraph in a news story will change if it is removed from the story and read separate from it. The words are the same, but the different context makes the tone different. Something very sad in a story might be very funny when removed from the story and read to someone who did not know the origin of the piece.

You might feel sorry for a blind person making his way down the street, but if you saw the same person standing before a sunset over the Grand Canyon, you would be astonished and, perhaps, filled with curiosity about this intriguing individual. His context (street, Grand Canyon) has changed with way you feel about him.

Here are two examples of “found” poems by two modern masters of the genre, John Giorno and Charles Reznikoff.

An unemployed
machinist
An unemployed machinist
who travelled
here
who travelled here
from Georgia
from Georgia 10 days ago
10 days ago
and could not find
a job
and could not find a job
walked
into a police station
walking into a police station
yesterday and said
yesterday
and said:

“I‘m tired
of being scared
I‘m tired of being scared."
     —John Giorno      from Balling Buddha (Kulchur Foundation)

Giorno‘s poem which is probably taken from a newspaper report, gains power by a skillful use of repetition. In the following poem, Charles Reznikoff has also drawn on public documents, in this case from court records of the period 1885-1890, for his long poem Testimony (published in paperback by New Directions):

[Due to copyright restrictions, we are unable to include the poem “Property” by Charles Reznikoff. We apologize for the inconvenience.]

“Property” by Charles Reznikoff from Testimony: The United States 1885-1890 (New Directions, 1965).

Marcel Duchamp, who was probably the first to raise this art form above the level of the joke, also legitimized the doctoring of the “found” object. He would make small but powerful alterations of the original material. Here, for instance, is a doctored “found” poem (though not by Duchamp):

One of the victims
of that terrible accident
last August 17
was a Bronx woman
whose right leg was
made entirely of diamonds

where the last line is a substitute for the word “severed."

An interesting variation, one which Giorno has explored, is to bring together found material from different sources, placing them one after the other, sometimes in a sort of weave which makes the disparate pieces relate to one another, and to create a new context which has little to do with their original one.

Challenge Verse

A Penguin book called Poems from the Sanskrit (translated with an introduction by John Brough, Baltimore, 1968) tells us how Indian writers would sometimes challenge each other in writing by providing each other with the last line of a poem, asking the friend to write the poem to go before it. The challenge consisted in making the last line so outrageous that it would require mental gymnastics to figure out what might come before. The procedure is more interesting than the one that suggests a given opening line (such as “One day when I was walking home from school . . ."). I gave my sixth graders at P.S. 61 in New York the final line (“And the hippos were boiled in their tanks.") and had them write poems which ended with it. The particular class had a lot of experience in writing poetry, so they had no trouble leading up to this ridiculous conclusion. Examples:

And the elephants turned pink like strawberries.
And the stars came falling by thousands.
And the hippos were boiled in their tanks.

—Vivien Tuft

The hippos were there,
just minding their own business,
when suddenly they were boiling.
They felt like a teabag in a teapot.
They tried very hard to get out but failed,
and the hippos were boiled in their tanks.

—Jeannie Turner

I then asked kids to make up their own outrageous final line, or to make up one and trade it with a friend, then fill in the poem before. Examples:

There was a fire and my dream caught on fire and
then the hippos were boiled in my dreams. There
was a fire and my dream caught on fire and then
the hippos were boiled in my dream.

—Guy Peters

I had a race with a centipede
and it was very fast
but when I won the race
the centipede‘s feet flew off.

—Oscar Marcilla

The square rabbits lay sitting
in the hay (that was burning)

The round salamanders lay changing
to a dim black

And the hippos were boiled
in their tanks.

And the pizza was stuck in the cave
forever.

The spaghetti was steaming hot

the sauce burned my tongue

and the pizza was stuck in the cave
forever.

—Tracy Roberts

I dreamed a beautiful dream
that the hippos were drowned in whipped cream.

—Miklos Lengyel

The inky paper stinked
and I started to play the violin
My big purple-orange feet hurt in my shoes
and I put my name in a pot of nuts

—Lisa Smalley & Tracy Roberts

Explosions

Kids seem to like it when things are decimated. A child will patiently build an entire town of blocks for the ultimate pleasure of demolishing it in a single devastating attack. Everyone has lined up dominoes only to watch them topple in chain reaction. Hence, it‘s a natural to have your kids write about what happens when various things explode. Be sure that they pick some unconventional things for explosions, not just bombs. Examples:

THE NOW EXPLOSIONS

Popcorn explodes like an earthquake
Coffee explodes and smells like firecrackers
Gunpowder explodes and smells like a match
When an oilwell explodes
Whoever got hit by it explodes
An oil tank explodes like a stove
A rocket explodes like a balloon
A garbage can explodes when there‘s too much garbage in it
A notebook explodes when there‘s too much paper in it
A black board explodes when there‘s too many words on it
A classroom explodes
When there are too many kids in it

—Lorraine Fedison

When we go into the music room
instruments explode

When we hear Rock & Roll
We explode and can‘t control ourselves

—Jorge Robles

Mistakes

An entertaining way to teach correct language is to have kids indulge themselves in error, using as many incorrect grammatical forms as they can. The following example, fromThe Old Farmer‘s 1975 Almanac by Robert B. Thomas, is a little anthology of mistakes:

Each pronoun agrees with their antecedent. Just between you and I, case is important. Verbs has to agree with their subjects. Watch out for irregular verbs which has cropped into our language. Don‘t use no double negatives. A writer mustn‘t shift your point of view. When dangling, don‘t use participles. Join clauses good, like a conjunction should. don‘t use a run-on sentence you got to punctuate it. About sentence fragments. In letters themes reports articles and stuff like that we use commas to keep a string of items apart. Don‘t use commas, which aren‘t necessary. It‘s important to use apostrophe‘s right. Don‘t abbrev. Check to see if you any words out. In my opinion I think that an author when he is writing shouldn‘t get into the habit of making use of too many unnecessary words that he does not really need. And, of course, there‘s that old one: Never use a preposition to end a sentence with. Last but not least, lay off cliches.

You should point out to your kids that mistakes can lead to interesting new discoveries, as with the case of Kenneth Koch‘s student who wrote “swan of bees” instead of “swarm of bees."

The Blackboard

It is often surprising for a poet to realize that kids in many classrooms feel that the blackboard is off-limits to them unless they are supposed to be there. The old idea of the grumpy teacher entering the classroom only to find the drawing of an ugly person on the board, with the word “techur” next to it, suggests that this is a widespread situation: guerrilla attacks on the board must be furtive, and they are almost always political or social, involving control of the media and commentary on social behavior (X loves Y). Sometimes the graffiti are naughty or pornographic. In these cases the board is a reserved precinct which contains “enemy” information (homework assignments, “school” stuff, the date, lesson plans), the enemy being the Teacher as Power Figure, and the weaker person‘s response is often to strike back when he has the chance. This attempt at self-expression is healthy, although childish. A more civilized and direct form of exchange might take place if the kids were given an area of the board, or given the entire board part of the day (or week). It is not suggested here that students and teacher become indistinguishable, but that the useless exercise of prerogative be abandoned because it is destructive to a healthy relationship.

Question Marks and Exclamation Points

An interesting experiment you might try with your kids involves changing declarative sentences into questions and exclamations.

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth!

Do I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America?

Is April the cruellest month?

Did she sing beyond the genius of the sea?

Have I eaten the plums that were in the icebox?

And so on!

I‘ll Never Tell You

Have the kids write a poem beginning “I‘ll never tell you . . ." It‘s interesting to see how different kids take this idea. Some will actually tell you things that previously they were shy about saying. Others will toy with you, giving hints of some secret. Some will feel they have some secret that is untellable, even anonymously. This kind of poem will at least introduce the idea that writers withhold as much or more than they say, and that what is left out is often as important as what is put in.

Examples:

I‘ll never tell you.
I just can‘t tell you.
I just can‘t, but can‘t tell you.
That I hate writing this.

There I just told you.

Ain‘t I stupid, I just told you.

But then, I can‘t tell you.
I just can‘t.
I really can‘t.

I‘ll never tell anybody that almost all of
the kids in the class think I‘m their friend
but I‘m not.

I‘ll never tell you that you are a duck.

I know a secret!
I know a secret!

Ha, Ha, Ha
I‘ll never tell you . . . . . .
that . . . . .

I‘ll never tell you that I have a date
with? 6-1 He He Heh Ha Ha Haw How Ha

Miss Pitts gives me dirty assignments
in muddy classroom. Ha Ha Hee Hee
Haa Ha Ha Ha Haw
That I died in a coma
That I will get married in church
with?

That my new name is?

That I have an excellent personality
And Do Not Read This Letter If you Do

I‘ll get Hercules and tear gas
bombs.

Pronoun-Who Poems

This is a poem that derives purely from an interest in a particular grammatical form. Have the kids write lines beginning with pronouns (I, you, he, she, it, we, they) and with the word “who” in the middle of the sentence. For instance, “I am the man who wrote this sentence. You are the person who reads it. He is the one who saw you reading it. She is the one who asked what you were doing. It was the sentence who said just one thing. We are the morons who didn‘t understand. They are the geniuses who explained it to us." (Obviously the poem takes a funny jump in the “it” line.) Some examples from sixth graders:

I am the monster who owns mice.
You are the mouse who is owned by the monster.
He is the chick who is owned by the monster.
She is the mother who owns the monster.
It is the brother who sees the monster often.
We are the family who is full of monsters.
They are the family who owns mice and a chicken.

—Oscar Marcilla

I WHO KNOW

They who call me Vivien don‘t know my real name.
He, she, me and myself really know.
I who never tell hide behind a black magic curtain
And say to everybody,
“My name is a weird one
And it lies ahead in the never never land in Holland
On a big mountain hidden in the snow."

—Vivien Tuft

Why & Because

Have each kid fold his paper across the middle. On the top half have him write a question beginning with “Why” and on the bottom half an answer beginning with “Because."

Any question is okay, but the thing works better if the kids are encouraged to ask interesting or amazing questions or questions they‘ve always wondered about. Naturally many of these questions will be unanswerable (“why are there two sexes instead of three or four?"). In such cases tell the kids that their Because answers can be guesses, that they needn‘t worry about giving the “right” answer to their Why question.

When everyone‘s finished, have the kids tear their papers along the fold, separating Why and Because, and hand in their Whys first, then their Becauses. Make a stack of Why questions and another stack of Because answers. Shuffle each stack separately. Now, with the stacks side by side, read the question on top of the Whys and the answer on top of the Becauses. Continue to read off the new pairs of questions and answers.

In some cases the results will be utter duds, but others will make a weird or poetic sense. Ask the kids how the answers could be considered good ones. Even the most irrelevant answer can be related to a questions.

A variation is for you to think of a Because answer. Remember it. Ask a kid to ask you a Why questions, and when he does, give your preconceived answer.

Any kind of compound linguistic structure can be adapted to this process. As much fun as Why & Because is If You/Be Sure. In the latter the kids give advice, such as “If you come to school / Be sure to bring your brain," or If you are a girl / Be sure to stand up for your right." Now, just mixing these two examples, we get, “If you come to school, be sure to stand up for your rights” and “If you are a girl, be sure to bring your brain."

Besides strengthening the students’ sense of compound sentences and conditional clauses, the If You/Be Sure form alerts them to didacticism in writing. They will be more aware of advice as a form (moral of the story, sermon, etc.).

Both Why & Because and If You/Be Sure are also good for introducing ideas on non sequitur and logical paragraph structuring in expository prose. They are also useful for talking about how some things work and others don‘t, and to show how we don‘t have to understand something to have it strike us as funny.

Telepathic Poems

One teacher suggested a writing idea which we find interesting, though perhaps too bizarre for others. It consists of a sort of experiment in mental telepathy. Here is one way to do it:

Each child chooses or is given a partner. One of them is the “sender," the other is the “receiver." The sender thinks of an image, a line or a sentence and writes it on his paper, so that his partner cannot see it. The sender then concentrates very hard on the thing he has written, either looking into the receiver‘s eyes, or with eyes closed. The receiver keeps his mind open to receiving the transmission. If something “pops” into his mind, he writes it down, so that the sender can‘t see it. Then the sender comes up with a second thing to transmit, preferably something that goes with the first thing he sent, and the receiver writes down what he thinks the second message is, again preferably something to do with the first thing he received. And so on until the participants feel the poem has ended.

Apparently some interesting situations develop: some kids are amazed at how well they receive messages, other find themselves staring into the eyes of one of their classmates for the first time. The situation can extend to discussions which normally do not take place in school. An interested science teacher might coordinate his curriculum to include a study of J. B. Rhine‘s work (e.g. The Reach of the Mind, Morrow, N.Y.) or Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird‘s work (The Secret Life of Plants, Avon).

It goes without saying that this type of study is not intended to encourage occultism for its own sake, but rather to alert the children to a wider range of possibilities in thinking and writing than they might have hitherto imagined.

I Remember

Many kids who would be thrilled to take a ride in a time machine will also be surprised to learn that they can do just that in one direction, at least. They can take a ride on their memory back into the past. Remembering (or forgetting) is something we do naturally; we just do it. We feel that some people have good memories and others don‘t, and we leave it at that. The fact is, our memories can be brought to light better if we learn how to do it. I‘m not talking about memory systems which teach you to recite the New York phone book. I mean learning to concentrate and keep your attention on things that happened to you. There are books which deal with this subject with far greater authority and intelligence than I can muster, but I forget their titles. Just kidding! One is The Art of Memory by Frances Yates (University of Chicago press paperback).

But whether or not you‘re an expert on the subject of memory, you‘ll find that by simply training your attention on places, events, people, etc. of the past, your memory will begin to give you more of its dim and hidden treasures, sometimes with such detail, clarity and power that you momentarily have the impression that you have revisited the past.

The artist Joe Brainard invented a new poetic form with his “I Remember” books. He began each thing with “I remember . . ." and wrote down anything that seemed interesting or important, in no particular chronological order. Gradually his memory opened wider. His first book, I Remember, was followed by I Remember More, and then More I Remember More. Here are some examples of his work:

I remember painting “I HATE TED BERRIGAN”
in big black letter all over my white wall.

I remember throwing my eyeglasses into the ocean off the
Staten Island Ferry one black night in a fit of drama
and depression.

I remember once when I made scratches on
my face with my fingernails so people would ask
me what happened, and I would say a cat did it,
and, of course, they would know that a cat did
not do it.

I remember the linoleum floors of my Dayton,
Ohio room. A white puffy floral design on
dark red.
I remember sack dresses.

I remember when a fish-tail dress I designed
was published in “Katy Keene” comics.