Article for Teachers

Poems Are for Everybody

Inviting everyday life into your students' poems.

Poems happen every day and in the everyday. Poems are made of life. Frank O’Hara, one of the leading figures of the New York School poets, knew this and wrote poems on his lunch break. Those poems turned into a book called Lunch Poems, which City Lights Books published in 1964. It is a book full of love, life, and complicated emotions. Can’t everyone relate to that?

You and your students can write poems this morning or this afternoon. Maybe it’s early evening as you read this. A poem has already happened to you today. Speaking of today, perhaps you can start your class with “Today,” by Frank O’Hara, as a way to get your students excited about writing poems.

Today

Oh! kangaroos, sequins, chocolate sodas!
You really are beautiful! Pearls, 

harmonicas, jujubes, aspirins! all 
the stuff they’ve always talked about

still makes a poem a surprise! 

These things are with us every day

even on beachheads and biers. They

do have meaning. They’re strong as rocks.

THE PLAN

To begin, for homework, ask your students to make lists of five things that are meaningful to them in their everyday landscapes, such as objects in their bedrooms or things they see on the way home from school. Have them answer these five questions:

Who was the last person you thought of before going to bed last night?
Who was the first person you thought of when you woke up this morning?
What song lyric can’t you get out of your head right now?
What was the happiest day or moment of your life?
What was the saddest day or moment of your life?

When the class meets again, students will have made their lists and answered the questions. Organize them into pairs. Ask each pair of students to swap lists and answers so that everyone has a different person’s list and answers. Ask students to write five- to ten-line poems using three words, objects, or descriptions from their partner’s lists and three of their partner’s answers to the questions. Essentially, they’re making poems out of lived experiences and using their imaginations. Why not? But let’s not stop there.

When the students finish their poems, ask them to read the poems to each other in pairs. Next, each set of pairs will write one poem collaboratively. How will this happen? Each student should pick three or four favorite lines from his or her partner’s poem, which was written from his or her own list and answers. Then each pair should work together to put the six to eight chosen lines from both poems together into one poem or, as I like to call it, “remix” the lines into one poem.

Encourage the students to share their collaborative poems with the entire class by reading them aloud.

To take collaboration to the next level, set up a class Twitter page and let the students have fun coming up with a name for it. Some possible names are “Sixth-Grade English” or “Poets of the Future.”

Lines on Twitter are limited to 140 characters. The goal with the Twitter page is to create an Exquisite Corpse and incorporate one line from each pair’s remix poem into a class collaborative poem. If you don’t know what an Exquisite Corpse is, or for more information on the technique and its origins, check out the Wikipedia entry for it.

It may be fun and interactive to have one student from each pair go to the computer or laptop at which you will be tweeting and tweet one line while also seeing the lines that came before. In the end, the class poem will be available for the whole world to see and can be shared with anyone.

Poems happen every day and in the everyday. Poems are for everybody.

This essay was originally published in Open the Door: How to Excite Young People about Poetry (2013), a co-publication of the Poetry Foundation and McSweeney's Publishing, edited by Dorothea Lasky, Dominic Luxford, and Jesse Nathan.
Originally Published: December 14th, 2015

Alex Dimitrov is the author of Together and by Ourselves (Copper Canyon Press, 2017), Begging for It (Four Way Books, 2013), and the online chapbook American Boys (2012). He is the recipient of the Stanley Kunitz Prize from the American Poetry Review and a Pushcart Prize. Dimitrov has taught creative writing...