The focal point of the school, organizationally and mood-wise, is the
principal. School principals, I find, may be helpful or not particularly, or may
delegate helpfulness, but seldom trouble the poetry program as long as
one is on time and seems confident. There's little, however, the
visiting poet can do about the mood of the whole school. One operates
class by class, where the teachers are supremely important. The teacher
is the bellwether of the class, of its developed attention. When the
teacher writes along with the student, or simply listens alertly, this
participation catalyzes the whole room.
On a more practical note, the teacher can exert authority, which the
visiting poet doesn't have, when it's needed for the proper
degree of order. For me, quietness is important when poems are being
read aloud, and it's an eternal little battle to bring classes "down"
after the hurly-burly of creation. Essentials are learned in each state,
the listening state and the composing state, that can't be fully
absorbed in the other. When the students are writing, however, it's
amazing how a fair to great degree of noisiness, when it's mostly
about the matter at hand, can not only fail to dim the concentration but
actually enhance it, act as a matrix of energy.
My first visit I jump right into things by telling the kids what we're
going to do: talk about poems (not much) and read poems aloud (adults',
children's), all building up to the main thing--having them
write (using a different basic idea each class session, explained, with
plenty of examples). Then I'll collect pieces, read them aloud
(anonymously) with top-of-the-head comments, take home and type some
("Don't feel bad if yours isn't chosen--one or more'll
probably show up along the way"), hand out copies next time I come
if the rexo machines are working, and put together an anthology at the
end. Any questions? At this point I read two poems aloud, often using "Too
Blue" by Langston Hughes and "Crossing" by Philip Booth, discuss them briefly in down-to-earth ways, which
these works by their nature encourage. Then, as first exercise, I
prescribe I Remember poems, reading aloud one of mine first, then a
bunch from kids, and emphasizing detail ("Don't just write 'I
remember going to the movies with my friend Yvonne,' period, end of
memory; tell whatever there was about it that made it stick in your
mind; make a picture of the scene out of words"). The students
write for fourteen minutes or so; I walk around, answering questions,
talking or not talking as seems appropriate. Then I collect the papers
and read them aloud, praising the "hits" I perceive in each
poem, timing this feedback for the last ten minutes of class. Then out.
Next free period I mark the ones I'm going to type. Later at home I
type them up, which honors the kids, makes palpable what they've
done, and preserves it. Then bring 'em back alive.
In subsequent sessions I try to keep a balance going between
content-oriented exercises (writing about places, for example) and
devices, such as acrostics and lunes that tend to give the students a
technical lead from line to line and to leave content free.
The acrostic is an admirable form for student use. There's only
one letter of requirement per line, which gives enough to go on (kids
are often at sea without something leading on) but doesn't
over-dictate. The form's lightness tends to stimulate surreal
juxtapositions and other originalities. Also, the requirement comes at
the line beginning (not at the end, as with rhyme), so once the letter
is worded the rhythm is free. Acrostics encourage interesting
line-breaks, show the kids that lines are not just sentences, or
thought, but also sound units and fragmentation devises. The form abets
the development of subtle, surprising, "off" connections
between spine word and text, as well as the economy of lists and
near-lists (elimination of connectives). In presenting the acrostic, I
tell the students something like the following.
Write a word vertically, down the paper, and use its letters to begin
the lines of a poem that you then make up. The poem should have something
to do with the spine word, but it can be some weird or hard-to-see
connection; don't make it just an explanation of the word. You don't
have to rhyme. Lines can be as long or short as you like, and you can
break your lines right in the middle of a thought or phrase. This
sometimes makes the words stand out in a new and interesting way, like
cracking open a rock and finding a little blue cave in it. Skip a line
going down for each letter of your spine word in case you come up with a
long poem-line that won't fit on one line of paper. Use your
imaginations; don't be afraid to sound crazy; it often means you've
come up with new ideas; try things out.
I show them a good acrostic (by a student) on the board, then write
the spine words for about twelve or fifteen more and read off the poems,
pointing to the beginning letters as I go. Naturally I choose an
assortment that will display a big range of acrostic possibilities.
Sometimes I begin by showing the students "Nantucket" by
William Carlos Williams, and point out how all the
physical things mentioned add up to a light-colored, quiet mood. I say
that one way to express the feeling of a place is to pick out one thing
or one little view, one part of the place, express it, and let it stand
for the whole.
I talk up places, how we have such strong feelings for them early on
(even Mother's cradling arm is a "place" to a new baby)
and ask them to write about a place they know well, could be their room,
the block they walk and play on every day, etc., or a place they've
seen once or rarely but that made a vivid impression. I read them a
bunch of kids' pieces on place, drawing attention to the
epiphanies, good parts, accumulations. I urge them to write with the
effort of recalling detail, maybe close their eyes and picture the place
first. Think of it as a one-minute travelogue in words, don't leave
out anything that may help recreate the live scene. I ask for "poems"
(line-breaks, metaphors, possible swift changes of image, going by
feel); often the pieces come out prose anyway, which can also be fine.
The lune is a simplification of formal haiku. Instead of counting
syllables in the three lines, which might make kids overly concerned
with the mere mechanics, one counts words: three/five/three, and
subject, any mood. With lots of good examples given and discussed, the
students do abundantly demonstrate a fine apprehension of the power of
tiny, non-expositional, word-by-word effects, plus the necessity of
balanced rhythm, which looms large in a short piece. Thus there's a
push toward the knowledge that ideas do not exist without their
expressive articulations, and the importance of language "per se"
is brought home.
When the sun's
rays hit the shades, it
lights up lines.
This piece (dashed off by a Nebraska 5th grader years ago) excellently
illustrates the possibility of poetry being plain talk of the immediate
environment (sun striking venetian blinds on classroom window). It is
also a deceptively complex maze of sound correspondences and play:
simple rhythms in lines one and three contrasting with syncopation of
line two (differing syllable lengths, comma pause, consonantal
percussion), n's around soft "the" in line 1 forming a
sound-swing, "rays-shades" assonance and "hit-it"
rhyme, soft central "the" repeated, five terminal s's, "lights-lines,"
"sun's-up," n again in "lines," t in "lights"--until
"lights up lines" carries more import that the physical window
pattern alone. The lines of the poem are lit up too. I advise students
that the author probably didn't calculate all this but that a
careful, though nonspecific, concentration can let the musical phrases
Surprise in the short, third line (especially) is a common vivifier of
lunes. A change of "voice" and/or rhythm can help the change
of meaning snap to, or be the change in meaning.
Go to Heaven.
If it's nice, call me.
I'll be there.
Rhyme can sometimes work well in lunes, but it's like loading a
heavy rock into a small boat. I tell them lunes are like Crackerjacks,
the more you. . ., etc. That I once wrote 100 in an evening and by the
end of everything I saw or thought registered in my brain
three/five/three, and that I told a junior high class this and a girl
came back the next day with 120, and solid little word-pieces from what
was around her, especially at home. Sometimes I tell them lunes are like
looking through a crack; even the plainest sight may look interesting,
due to the focus.
Again, reading aloud many good examples by kids--with admonitions
not to copy their wordings or ideas--helps the students see their
own possibilities. It is amazing what variety may evolve and what
compression is possible in these eleven-word poems.
WILLIAM CARLOS WILLIAMS IMITATIONS
On the black board I show the kids the poems "This Is Just to Say" and "The Red Wheelbarrow" by Dr.
I ask them first to write a poem apologizing for something "bad"
they have done, imaginary or real. I point out how the s sounds in the
last three lines of the first poem help bring out the mouth-watering
goodness of the plums, making the poem a sorry-not-sorry balancing act.
I urge them not to "copy" too closely.
Then I discuss the second poem, how it gently spotlights neglected
thing of everyday life, and ask then to write a similar piece out of
their own experience, like a snapshot in words.
In both cases I read them a variety of children's poems along
these lines. The "apologies" tend to be funny, and the "wheelbarrow"
pieces tend to be delicate. The kids usually divide things into short
lines without prompting (or I'll tell them it helps display the
rhythms of speech.). Both exercises can be done in a single class
I talk up the wonders of common but relatively unnoticed objects--hand,
egg, floor, sky, hair, river, piece of bread--and ask them to write
in prose or poetry about one of them. I urge them to get beyond the
expectable sentiments that gather about familiar things ("Don't
write, 'The beautiful egg contains growing life'").
Sometimes I read then Gary Snyder's "Hay for the Horses"
or Denise Levertov's "Pleasures"--and
always some examples by kids--to build up a thingy mood.
I ask the students to think of some event, big or small ("It
could be about a floating speck of dust"), that they saw, did, or
had happen to them lately enough that they remember a lot of details,
and to write about it. I try for something more like a snapshot than a
narrative, in the sense that it's a moment with many details of the
scene visible. I advise them to recreate a little world/instant in words
and, when they have made it real and solid, to, as it were, float it off
via simile or metaphor, throw out line or lines to the rest of reality.
Something like "When the blue car bumped into the brown bakery
truck on 181st St., the car doors flew open like the wings of a gull
trying to take off from the harbor waters." As always, I read them
plenty of examples first and, in this case, I make up spontaneously an
example of "painting a scene" (rather than just mentioning the
salient action), with use of specific terms, colors, names, weather,
corner-of-the-eye stuff, etc.
The results often violate my prescription but work anyway, when
empathy has been activated.
Reserved for the last day. I ask them to write about poetry or about
the process of writing, not in general terms ("poetry is nice," "poetry is boring"), but something palpable, something that moves, or to make a
little myth of it, experiment, show not tell, find wild thoughts somehow
felt even if the mind can't explain the connection, try anything out. I
invite them to include negative thoughts, difficulties: poetry is not
peaches and cream, can be frustrating, tiresome, disturbing, whatever.
The pieces can be in a variety of forms. This exercise has resulted in a
great number of the most amazing catches, thought, and images I've seen.
Poetry is a
because it comes
to you piece by
I think of my general approach as organic, inductive, building from
the children's familiars up, rather than teaching them intricate forms to
master, or attempting to initiate them into a sophisticated sensibility.
Time enough for that, and to avoid its pitfalls, when and if they have
written personally for some while, and of course writing personally in
some strong sense is what the most developed poetry still is. Heavy
programming from me at this point would draw out less of their
This part of the school curriculum is different from most of the rest,
in that it is more a matter of learning from the inside out. On the
other hand, ask a kid to write something expressing his soul and he'll be
lost. People this young need a guide, albeit a light guide. So I use
devices, even gimmicks, which tend to balance between requesting and
allowing poems, between spontaneity and concentration, until the two
I try to get things across to the students by example, not by
concept. On the other hand, the simple exhortation "be original" can slam
things open. I tell them papers can be messy, this is a workshop, no
time to rewrite for beauty's sake, scratchouts show you're thinking. Well
make 'em pretty later. I also find that down-to-earth explanation, in
detail, or sound nuances and, within the kids' experience, other fine
points as well go over readily with them. Matters such as the vowel
progressions in the "Red Wheelbarrow" piece, or say, the connotative
values in Denise Levertov's poem of things found on the beach.
Being in a class is a peculiar combination, for me, of formal and
informal. Given the formal situation of standing in the front of a
classroom with a specific, quasi-teacher role, I "try" to be quite
informal and natural (and still get things done fast). I always stand or
walk around rather than sit. I toss bits of chalk, stutter, scratch,
cross my feet, glance out the window, talk as I would talk to a trusted
friend (but limiting vocabulary and referential scope), never smile
unless it pops up, use humor freely, don't pretend to be hip but let my
colloquial self come out, don't praise falsely (they "know"), try to be
aware of the room energy. Each workshop leader will find his or her most
workable way of being there.
In this very human, though structured, situation known as the
classroom, energy counts for more than ideas. And the energy must be
transferable. It can be low-key as long as it's felt. Speechifying about
one's passions for and even concepts of poetry is self-indulgence.
Isolated opinions vaporize, the loftier the quicker. One is a
communicator in this situation, not pushing things and convictions into
the students' faces but getting workable ideas within reach, or into the
fuzzy area just outside normal reach, which is also "reach," in the right
In longer residencies and/or with older kids I may ask for
out-of-class poems. Especially when the assignment's left open, they
usually turn out poorly. The kids, with leisure and without the hot
hullabaloo of the classroom common endeavor, tend to revert to
sentimental cloudiness specific only in being derivative. Post-puberty
is a time of overblown soul (and its flip side, cynicism). Here,
however, with older kids, revision may enter (in my "Pied Piper" residency
experience, elementary school kids have little patience for perspective
for extensive revision). Gently, one can ask for particulars. Gently,
one can focus on rhythm and sound, consistency of thought (if
appropriate), even on originality of expression.
The purpose of having a poet in a given class is not to produce thirty
full-blown lifelong poets but to touch the kids with poetry, with a
feeling for art that may grow from specifics outward for many years and
affect many of their responses to daily things, that their lives may be
open a touch more to inner and outer vividness. I ask them at the end
simply to keep writing--journals, poems, anything. I ask them to do it
sometimes, when they can, when they feel like it, for the rest of their
lives, as they might, sometimes, dance.
No one person includes all viewpoints. That is, we each have taste. My
taste is in part only personal, and I'm sure this affects the way the
kids I visit write. And how I like what they write. This is true of
every writing teacher. The solution is not to devitalize one's
presentation in a vain urge for perfect objectivity but simply to
examine rigorously one's preferences in poetry and, if they still seem
worthy, to act on them without apology (and still close no doors).