From: Lind Williams 
Subject: Re: [ncte-talk] How I Do Poetry (long)

Knowing that I was going to want to say more about the teaching of poetry
than anybody would want to listen to, I hesitated to join the discussion
about how to do a poetry unit.  Please know that when I describe my own
practice, I am not saying that everyone else should do it my way, but here
is some of what I do.

First of all, I don't do a poetry "unit."  I do poetry all year long.  
Every day when students come to my class there is a different poem on the
board for them to read.  If the poem I choose for a particular day is a
little too long for the board, then I may put it on a handout or do a
transparency for the overhead projector.  Don't jump to conclusions,
though, and assume that poetry is my whole curriculum.  The poem of the
day takes only a minute or two.  Sometimes we read it aloud with little if
any comment.  Sometimes, if I'm pressed for time, I don't read the poem at
all.  It's just there.  Sometimes students volunteer to read the poem
aloud and I let them.  Sometimes the poem is the focus of the day or it
leads thematically to something else we are reading or writing.  
Sometimes the lesson of the day is writing a poem and the poem of the day
is one of the models.  Anyhow, doing poetry frequently (but briefly) is my
first suggestion rather than cramming it into a two or three week unit.  
It's also important to note that the vast majority of my daily poems are
by contemporary poets.

My next suggestions are structured around a progression of stages taken
from a workshop given by poet Georgia Heard though the commentary of how I
take my students through her stages is my own.  Ms Heard says that there
are three stages teachers should keep in mind if we want our students to
willingly "come to poetry."

The first stage is to begin by reading poems that are accessible.  Even
though those of us who are practiced readers of poetry derive our greatest
pleasure from wrestling with the meaning of hard-to-get poems, this is not
always a good starting place for our students.  In stage one we want them
to see poetry as a performance art. Like music, it's just fun to do (both
as performers and as audience).  Without being overly concerned about
meaning we can get into the mere pleasure of performance.  Get students up
off their feet and "doing" poetry.  Though meaning is an important part of
poetry, don't get hung up on meaning here.  Remember American Bandstand?  
"It's got a good beat and I can dance to it. I'd give it about a 75."  
Here's what Dylan Thomas said about how he came to poetry:  "I wanted to
write poetry in the beginning because I had fallen in love with words.  
The first poems I knew were nursery rhymes, and before I could read them
for myself I had come to love just the words of them, the words alone.  
What the words stood for, symbolized, or meant, was of very secondary
importance; what mattered was the sound of them as I heard them for the
first time. . . ."

The second stage is to deeply connect to poems in a personal way.  In this
stage we try to get students to make personal connections to the poetry
they read, to articulate why they are drawn to a poem or repelled away
from it.  As a teacher it is important to allow students to dislike a
poem.  I don't like every poem that I read.  Why should I expect them to.  
It is important, though, to be self reflective about what it is that I
like or don't like.  At this stage it is good to use poems as lead-ins to
other kinds of personal writing or reading.  Connect to the themes.  Make
personal connections. This could also be the stage where you have students
find or select poems that appeal to them-- maybe make their own
mini-anthology-- could even be annotated with their personal comments
about each poem they select.  Students can reflect on this question: "Why
does this poem speak to you?"

The third stage is to open up a poem like a puzzle.  This is my favorite
stage.  I tell students something John Ciardi said in his book _How a Poem
Means_:  "Every game ever invented by mankind is a way of making things
hard for the fun of it."  I help them see that poetry is just such a game.  
Part of the fun of poetry, all literature of depth for that matter, is the
figuring it out.  As our former NCTE president Sheridan Blau once said,
"Reading problems are not to be avoided; they are to be embraced."  
Literature of depth creates questions in the mind of the reader, questions
without easy answers.  It is the figuring out, the guessing about it, the
inferring, the interpreting that makes the act of reading so interesting.  
The text is never the whole story.  This is where we practice all of the
reading comprehension strategies.  This could also be where we introduce
certain literary elements, not for their own sake, but for the purpose of
figuring out the text or admiration of the craft.

Now, there is just one more thing I need to mention.  Students are better
readers of poetry when they become writers of poetry, and vice versa.  
So, the teaching of poetry has to involve both to be successful.  
Occasionally, you can do poetic forms, but the best starting place is free
verse.  Use professional poems as models (along with student poems if you
have them and your own attempts if you make them).  When using models the
idea is not to imitate, but to pick up an idea from the model that you can
take off from, that lets you do your own thing.  Something in the model
propels you to take your own path.  I wish I could remember the poet who
said, "The effect of studying a masterpiece is to make me admire, and do

The poet Erica Jong once said, "You learn to write poetry by reading the
poets you love over and over again, and asking yourself, what are they
doing, and why are they doing it."

So, here is just one example of how I would use models as a springboard to
writing poetry. I have a few poems I've collected by contemporary writers
in which they create a brief scene, but the scene has two conflicting
aspects.  The narrator of the poem (and the reader) literally turns away
from the one part of the scene to the other.  There is a literal shift of
focus.  The meaning of the poem lies in the tension between the two
different aspects of the scene.  So first you have to notice what the poet
is doing.  Then you take a look at how he does it.

Here is one example by William Stafford:


One scene as I bow to pour her coffee:--

  Three Indians in the scouring drouth
  huddle at a grave scooped in the gravel,
  lean to the wind as our train goes by.
  Someone is gone.
  There is dust on everything in Nevada.

I pour the cream.
                                   --William Stafford

Here is another example of a poem that does the same thing:


Always we'll turn from the sagging man
In tennis shoes, between sister and wife,
Barely able to mount the curb,

To smile at the watchful face of the girl
Whose lover dodges cars, arms high
With dripping ice cream cones.

                       --Barry Spacks

>From these models students are then asked to think up their own scene
which could contain conflicting elements, and they write a poem in which
the speaker in the poem (and the reader) are looking at something, but
they turn away (shift the focus) to something else in the same scene. In
order to do this, especially to carry off the difficult transition between
the two elements of the scene without losing the reader, we then analyze
how the poets in the professional models take the reader through the
transition.  How does the form (line arrangement, line breaks, stanza
breaks) help with the transition?  What words does the poet use to help
the reader follow the transition, the shift of focus?  How do they use
punctuation to help with the shift of focus?  Now, it is important that
the students know that they don't need to do it the same way as the poets
in the models did, but they can learn from their techniques.  We talk
about other ways to shift the focus, the use of an ellipsis (. . .), for
example, which neither of our professional poets used, is another
effective use of punctuation for making such a shift.

So, that's how I come up with poetry exercises or prompts.  Notice what
certain poets are doing, figure out how and why they are doing it, then do
it myself, or have students do it.  I can do the same thing with a
particular poetic form, but I often prefer to deal with themes or ideas or
purposes rather than forms.  _Getting the Knack_ by Stafford and Dunning,
which has been suggested by other members of this list, is a good starting
place for doing just this.  I also like _Starting With Little Things_ by
Ingrid Wendt (Oregon Arts Foundation) which takes a similar approach.  
But, I often just come up with my own ideas just from reading poems I like
and asking the Erica Jong questions:  What is this poet doing?  How is he
doing it?

When it comes to forms and other poetic elements and tools.  It is far
easier and effective to teach them as writing than as reading.  So, for
example, when we are reading Romeo and Juliet, we pretty much have to talk
about iambic pentameter.  So rather than just teaching them to recognize
it, we try to write some.  If they can do it, then they will recognize it.  
I just have them write a little rhymed couplet of iambic pentameter rather
than a whole sonnet.  It's funny how even when they think they get it,
they often don't.  Too many of the kids think it's just a matter of
writing ten syllables.  They don't pay any attention to the natural
stresses on syllables.  But after they've tried to write it, that's
something we can talk about when we go back to reading the play.

Hope some of this is useful.