Article for Teachers

Letters, Inventions, and Questions

Help students find the poetry in everyday language.
Illustrations of the letter J in various styles.
“Poems exist to create a space for the possibilities of language as material.”
                                            —Matthew Zapruder, Why Poetry

I was asked once to lead two poetry writing workshops in the same day: one in a graduate education class, the other—even more daunting—in my son’s second-grade class. I didn’t have time to plan two lessons, so I decided to create one I could use with both classes. The second-grade teacher advised that I keep the activity text short. The grad school professor told me his students were terrified at the idea of writing a poem, saying it was too deep, inaccessible, containing too much coded language, too much trickery.

School did that to them, I thought. As Kwame Alexander put it in a recent interview with NPR, who wasn’t afraid of poetry in high school? His antidote was clear: “[we’ve] got to sort of remember the fun, the whimsy, the joy, the passion in poetry.” I wanted to keep the text very short and keep the premium on fun and imagination, so I decided to use the smallest unit of language: a single letter.          

Part 1: Letters
In each class, I asked a volunteer to name a letter, and I wrote that letter—for example, J—on the board. Then I asked students to forget that what I drew is a letter—which is a harder leap for the graduate students to make—and to call out other things that look like that shape. I told the class ahead of time that everyone must participate. A slow trickle of responses—an earring, a meat hook, a soup ladle, a hangman’s noose—turned into a steady stream. I wrote them all down, making sure that as many people as possible joined in. When the responses dried up, I drew the letter upside down and asked the same question. I repeated the directions when I turned the letter on its side, right and left. Often, everyone had already contributed to the list on the board. Just in case a few students had not yet joined in, I asked for the five coolest words that start with the letter on the board. For finality’s sake, I have come to insist that the last word be a one-syllable word. Then I read the words on the board aloud so students could hear the poem they had invented: J is a candy cane, a yoga pose, a cobra in a basket. They (and I) have always been amazed by language.

You can write the letter in block script or cursive, in upper or lower case. That turns out not to matter. In fact, one smart-alecky student called out O as a new letter to try. Very funny, I thought: orient the letter in different directions, and you get the same shape. But then I decided to take the suggestion seriously. Incredibly, “turning it upside down and on its sides” actually produced different responses. Once again, the class filled the board.

This exercise allows students to use their unique knowledge and experiences to select something ordinary and familiar and make it new and exciting. As a class activity, this exercise builds community and helps students see that each of their classmates has important contributions to make. The simplicity of this assignment makes it nonthreatening and ensures success for all students.

When we have a finished poem on the board, I ask students to accept two key principles: (1) none of us could have written the poem we created as a class—we each might have written equally cool and imaginative responses, but we wouldn’t have come up with those exact images, and (2) sometimes we need to see things in new ways to see them fully.

As a follow-up, I often ask students to write such a poem on their own, using a different letter. Students have written poems about letters, numbers, and characters from other languages. Here are a couple of student models:

W kinda looks like two mountains or two bunny ears.
Upside down it looks like two u’s.
It kinda looks like a smiley face—when you use your imagination.
If there were little holes between them they’d be little caves.
If you turn it upside down and give it two little dots and lines, it looks like a nice teacher peering down from his glasses.
If you draw a little line between the two ends and some little Martians and Maat-Mons (a volcano),
it kind of looks like you’re on Venus.
If you add a guy and his henchmen it looks like they’re getting the chest of Davy Jones,
and it looks like they’re on the deck of the Flying Dutchman.
          —Ted, grade 2

The letter “W,” the first letter
Of my last name looks like two V’s
Holding hands or kissing if flipped
Upside down. “W” is a pair
Of beautiful mountains with snow
Covered hills. The letter “W” turned on its side is a 3
Or a crazy-looking E, or maybe
Big black cats flying in the night sky.
“W” has a lot of power, but it goes
Unnoticed by people; it feels neglected
And alone. The sound of “W” is the wind
Whistling past city buildings. “W” is
A young yellow flower blossoming.
          —Becca, grade 12

“All poets start from love of words and of wordplay,” Donald Hall wrote. This exercise is all about play and imagination. As I always tell my classes at the end of the assignment, if you found so many incredible images in a single letter, imagine what you might invent when you consider entire words.

Part 2: Inventions
Another classroom exercise I have used with a wide range of ages is what I call Invention Poems. I got the idea from poems such as Cole Swenson’s “The Invention of Streetlight” and Billy Collins’s poem “The Invention of the Saxophone.” The poet explores the historical origin of the instrument, conducting research that he incorporates into the poem. Collins opens his poem this way:

It was Adolphe Sax, remember,
not Saxo Grammaticus, who gets the ovation.
And by the time he had brought all the components
together–the serpentine shape, the single reed,
the fit of the fingers,
the upward tilt of the golden bell–
it was already 1842, and one gets the feeling
that it was also very late at night.

Many poets use research: Robert Pinsky’s “Shirtconcerns, among other things, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire; Natasha Trethewey’s “Elegy for the Native Guards” refers to a park ranger’s words, a plaque placed by the Daughters of the Confederacy, and, implicitly of course, her own wide reading of Civil War–era history and letters. In these cases, the authors clearly undertook research and even incorporated words and ideas from that research into their poems. Pinsky quotes a journalist’s response to the fire that appeared in the paper the following day. Research is vital to many poems. Though some poems are rooted in history, poets do not merely transcribe historical writing. Poets transform the information with imaginative leaps into the subjective life of the participants and/or the speaker observing the events.

In the case of Collins’s poem, for example, the narrator presses beyond the historical dates and imagines the particular details that lie beyond the reach of, say, a Wikipedia entry. Once readers hit the line “one gets the feeling / that it was also very late at night,” they know they’ve entered a different realm of language—one of supposition and imagination and not empirical fact. The narrator is no longer using history to understand the invention; instead, the narrator signals that he or she is inventing history.

The following stanza makes a similar move: “There is something nocturnal about the sound, / something literally horny, as some may have noticed on that historic date.” Here the narrator imagines what people heard—as they surely must have—and the poem leaves the realm of factual history and enters the world of subjectivity.

My students have had fun writing these poems, and in doing some actual research (even if we start with a simple Wikipedia search), but more by using their imaginations to fill in the historical gaps. Young readers may like The Kids’ Invention Book (National Geographic) or Girls Think of Everything: Ingenious Inventions by Women (HMH Books). Librarians love helping on such projects as well.

A pair of sophomore students named Rachel and Kristina wrote this:
In 1903, the first tea bag was being stuffed and hand sewn
bobbing in a porcelain cup
dyeing the water caramel black.
Before then leaves always swam like a school of fish hiding
beneath the surface of the water.
If they were fortunate, they never got drunk.
Maybe that’s why my grandmother prefers the old ways,
reading loose tea leaves like zodiac fortunes,
scanning the leaves at the bottom of the teacup as if they were scanning the stars.

Here is an excerpt of a response from a college student named Anne:

Lazy Bones 

The first remote control 
Intended to control a television set 
Was christened Lazy Bones 

An extension of the television set itself  An extra appendage, somehow dormant
A lifeless limb from what the name implies 

Technically Tesla creates the first remote 
Unveiled in 1898 and called 
Tele-automaton and it was used 
On miniature boats and it was decided 
This technology was too flimsy for war 
So said the U.S. Navy 

War is a flimsy thing in general …

The invention poems—real and imagined—are especially fun to read aloud because the poets’ classmates are astonished and entertained by the histories. Listening to the poems, audience members are often full of new questions about the same or other inventions—which often sounds to me like an invitation to write some new poems!

Part 3: Questions
Richard Jones’s collection 48 Questions offers an interesting variation. Each poem (found in The Blessing: New and Selected Poems) features a question readers asked Jones and answers that are either real or invented. Some of the questions are ordinary: What is your favorite color? What do you collect? When did you start writing poems? A favorite of mine has always been “How did you meet your wife?” His answer:

Swimming the English Channel,
struggling to make it to Calais,
I swam into Laura halfway across …
Treading water,
I asked in French if she spoke English,
and she said, ‘Yes, I’m an American.’
I said, ‘Hey, me, too,’ then asked her out for coffee.’

My students have had fun asking one another questions and answering them, either by conducting research or by inventing their own histories. The last time I tried this with a class, some fascinating questions emerged: Why are you a Cubs fan? If you could have any superpower, what would you choose? What is your spirit animal and why? What will you be doing in ten years?

A student named Max responded to the favorite color question like this:

I don’t know my favorite color
but my least favorite color is brown,
not like my dog’s eyes
and not like campfire logs
and not like melted chocolate.
Hey, wait a minute, brown is my favorite color.

The idea behind all these ideas is to make poetry less intimidating, less scary. As Jean Cocteau said, “Poetry, merely whispering its name scares most people away.” One way I try to achieve this is by emphasizing the social aspects of writing: we often write with and for the people around us. By starting with ordinary objects that surround them every day, I want reassure my students that poetry is less foreign than they might think and that they already possess everything they need to write and read poems: language, imagination, and one another.

Originally Published: September 5th, 2018

John S. O'Connor's poems have appeared in places such as Poetry East and RHINO. He has written two books on teaching: This Time It's Personal: Teaching Academic Writing through Creative Nonfiction (2011) and Wordplaygrounds: Reading, Writing, and Performing Poetry in the English Classroom (2004). He earned his BA and MAT from the University of Chicago and his PhD from...