Article for Teachers and Students

A Taste of Poetry

How to demystify and re-mystify poetry for your students.
Portion of watercolor illustration to Milton's Paradise Lost by William Blake

Nov. 30—Watching Galway drag his wet, smelly stuffed bear around the room. Heard his fierce hunting growl, all the way from other end of the house. He licks it, loves it, then bites it, kicks it.

Dec. 2—Nearly bald, this stuffed bear 
was/is meant for my (small?) niece to cuddle
against cancer, but now she’s well,
my fierce coon cat inherits.
Bear becomes prey and infant/kitten,
licked stroked, chewed, kicked, torn.
From the next room I hear the hunter’s
growl. Bear’s sparse fur is wet/soaked
with saliva, stinks of cat breath. His head/snout’s
a perfect fit for a cat’s jaw/mouth
and what a lovely/lively arc he makes/when Galway
when Galway lofts him/it into
unresisting air to catch it in his teeth.
Cancer loved my niece and me like this,
held us by the scruff of the neck to give
long, hot licks till we were bald
and limp as newborns, dragged us
from room to room till finally some new
toy offered it a better game.

Dec. 10—revising
Bear Game
Nearly bald, this stuffed bear
was meant for my small niece to cuddle
against cancer, but now she’s well
my fierce coon cat inherits.
Bear becomes prey and kitten—
licked, stroked, chewed, kicked, torn.
From the next room I hear the hunter’s
growl. Bear’s sparse fur is soaked
in saliva, stinks of cat’s breath. His snout’s
a perfect fit for a cat’s mouth,
and what a lively arc when Galway
lofts him into glittering air
to catch him in his teeth. Cancer
loved Heather and me like this,
seized us by the scruff of the neck
to give long, hot licks till we were
bald and limp as newborns,
dragged us from room to room till
finally some new toy offered it
a better game.

                                      From my notebook


I wrote this poem several years ago, starting from the little prose entry about my cat at play, which I’d jotted down with no specific expectations. It felt like snapping a casual picture. Seeing a poem take shape on the page a couple of days later took me by surprise, particularly its turn from cat to cancer. Not intentional. A little creepy, in fact, the cancer cat. And I would not have chosen to portray myself as a victim.

But the sequence—prose quickwrite into drafts of a poem—turned out to offer a helpful model for my students. I don’t show it to them until we’ve read some other poets’ work; I want mine to be just one more sample, not privileged by virtue of its being their teacher’s. I hasten to assure them that there is no single “right” way for a poem to take shape, any more than an essay or story has to start from an outline bristling with Roman numerals. I’ve had new poems grow line by line in my head while I was out jogging. When this happens, I have to say the lines again and again out loud, memorizing and revising till I can get back to the house and grab a pencil. I’ve written on napkins in cafés and while riding on a bus, surrounded by shrieking kids. The point is, students too often encounter finished poems, pristine on the pages of a textbook, looking as remote as crown jewels under glass and followed by study questions about the poet’s intended meaning. They need to see and to hear real, live people making poetry, crossing out words, messing with line breaks, discovering meaning but respecting mysteries, and, above all, surrendering to the unexpected. They need to find out for themselves the truth of Robert Frost’s “No surprise for the writer? No surprise for the reader.” The turns and leaps that a good poem usually takes on its journey as images morph from literal to figurative and one word leads to another through sound and association—not necessarily logic or conventional syntax—can help student writers trust their own imaginations, their own powers of associative thinking, and the discovery of idea through metaphor. Poet Billy Collins says in his introduction to 180 More: Extraordinary Poems for Every Day, “Each poem can be a ride from a place we recognize to a place beyond definition—from a glass ashtray on a table to the mountain of ashes that is the past” (xxi). But too often in a classroom the Meaning of this ride—the single correct meaning—becomes the only thing that matters.

Many high school students enter ninth grade having encountered no poetry since their grade school experiences with Dr. Seuss, haiku, or Shel Silverstein. I ask mine to write down whatever they can remember of their encounters with poetry. Some have struggled with writing assignments that are really decontextualized prompts directing them to dash off a spring poem or a poem with four colors in it. Some have dutifully memorized the definitions of simile and alliteration and labeled figures of speech in worksheets or engaged in analyses of “what the poet is trying to say.” Many have never heard—or have never read—a poem aloud.


Unfolding a Poem: As Reader and Writer

I want to demystify and re-mystify poetry for my ninth graders. We did share a poem out loud on the first day of class, Naomi Shihab Nye’s “Eye-to-Eye,” with each of us reading a line, building the poem together. Then we read it again, trying to follow the cues the poem offered us—the syntax, repetitions and contrasts, line breaks and punctuation. Now, introducing poetry as a genre for my students to experience as writers, I want them to hear and see a poem actually unfolding, rather than as a whole, completed piece. I also plan to invite them to consider how the ways in which a poem proceeds might be comparable—or not—to the operations of a profile, a description, and a story, the genres they’ve already written. I choose to begin with Mark Doty’s “Charlie Howard’s Descent”: partly because it unfolds its narrative and reflection gradually, its four-line stanzas sometimes continuing a sentence into the next stanza (enjambing), sometimes ending a sentence in mid-stanza; and partly because its subject, the forming of a gay man’s identity and his murder by teenage boys, not only offers another lens through which to view our year’s theme of the personal journey but also takes us back to an issue we hadn’t explored much in Catcher in the Rye—Holden’s view of “flits” and his fear that Mr. Antolini has made a pass at him when Holden was staying the night at his former teacher’s apartment.

I ask the students whether a poem can tell a story. Can it present different characters? Action? Sure, they tell me—“Green Eggs and Ham” or Sarah Stout who refuses to take the garbage out. Can a poem leave you wondering? Can it make you feel something? Can it make a point? Somebody mentions Langston Hughes—“that one with the raisin in the know, the dream that explodes. I guess it does all those things.” Someone else mentions Shel Silverstein’s “Homework” poem. Is there anything you couldn’t write a poem about, I ask them. Silence. And then, in spite of our accumulating evidence, the usual: “Oh, it’s mostly gotta be about spring. Or death.”

I hand out Mark Doty’s poem, face down and folded over so that when students turn it up, only the first stanza will be visible. “Okay, turn it over. I’m going to read you this poem, one stanza at a time, so we can see how Mark Doty paces the story and helps us make some guesses about where it’s going. One thing I’ll ask you to watch and listen for in particular, and that’s how certain objects—real, literal objects—take on new meanings, new weight, like a snowball gathering more snow. They become metaphors—figurative, not literal. [I know from past experience that many of my ninth graders will be familiar with figures of speech but not with the terms literal and figurative.] These objects, these metaphors, may affect how you feel about the events and characters.” Then I read the title aloud: “Charlie Howard’s Descent.”

“So, any expectations the title raises for you? Remember how you discussed the chapter titles you made up for Catcher? The kinds of titles you agreed you liked best? What about Mark Doty’s title?”

“So there’s this guy, Charlie. Like he’s the main character,” says Brooks. “And he descends. He has some kind of bad thing happen to him?”

“Some kind of fall?” suggests Peter. “Or like going down to the Underworld.”

“So maybe it’s going to be scary,” Garret says hopefully.

“Okay, see how a title can get you wondering? And also give you key facts you’ll need to know? Always start with the title—as a reader, that is. As a writer—well, I often can’t figure out my title till I’ve written a bunch of drafts. Now, let’s start the journey through this poem. Listen up.” And I read aloud:

Between the bridge and the river
he falls through
a huge portion of night;
it is not as if falling

“And then there’s a stanza break—a lot of white space. You might think of it as visual art, both the picture he’s making for you with words—in your mind—and the way the stanza actually looks on the page. Any questions you’re wondering about? Any predictions? Any particular feel to the piece so far?”

The students notice the feeling of height, the scariness of falling “through night,” the way the first line sets up a picture of the distance “between,” the gap, which seems scary, and how just those three words in the second line make you feel the “falling through,” make you really pay attention to it, slow down, like you’re falling in slow motion. One girl asks if he’s committing suicide. Why is the night a “huge portion” I wonder aloud, “like a portion of food he’s had handed out to him, like he can’t choose?” I want them to see me wonder, speculate, ask the poem questions. I try to avoid asking the students for “meaning” so that they can do their own wondering as the story gets told. But I do try to help them hear the poem in relation to other genres and to their own experience. For instance, I ask whether this opening is any different from the way a novel or short story—a prose piece—might describe a setting.

“Yeah,” Jess says. “It’s not, like, a whole big paragraph of details. But the ones he does put in make you feel things. It makes you slow way down. So it’s not just details about what a place looks like. It seems like more than just facts.”

Several people are nodding. I add, “And it also works for me kind of like a piece of music, with different instruments, different sounds. That word huge—that echoes the word through: it sounds and therefore feels HUGE. The long sound and the soft g and the effort to make the h—it takes a while to say it. It’s not just big or large, but huge.” I want to get students listening for patterns of sound and how these help create feeling. Since they can’t see more than four lines at a time, they have little choice but to focus in close—as they did when copying and responding to their passages from Catcher. But, unlike discussing something they’ve already read, here they’re curious to go on reading, to see what happens. I want them also to read as poets—to be curious about how, in the brief space of a poem, Mark Doty will find ways to make what happens matter.

“It’s like suspense is building,” Nick says cheerfully.

“It seems like he’s not going to rush the story,” Peter says. “He uses falling twice, and it seems like the next stanza’s going to kind of explain what the fall isn’t, before anything more happens.”

“So let’s see if Peter’s right. You can fold down the next stanza and pick up from the previous line—“it is not as if falling”

is something new. Over and over
he slipped into the gulf
between what he knew and how
he was known. What others wanted

“Ooh,” says Julia. “So he’s tried to kill himself before now. Over and over. Um...but I don’t get the last part.”

“Yes, that’s pretty interesting,” and I pick up my pencil. “I’m going to mark those lines so I can come back to think about them some more. Is there some gulf—some big space—between what you know and how other people know you? And is this maybe part of the story? What do you think the poem’s doing here?”

“It’s filling in the character. I mean, his past. And the last sentence that’s going into the next stanza—well, it seems like how other people see this guy or want him to be really matters,” James suggests. “So maybe he hasn’t tried to kill himself over and over but just had to live with people not liking him. Not accepting him.”

In the next few stanzas, we find out that people in stores and restaurants laughed at his “gestures,” his “limp wrists,” his earrings, but that because he can’t “live with one hand tied behind his back,” he “began to fall / into the star-faced section / of night between the trestle / and the water.” By this point, certain kids are saying maybe the “falling” isn’t a suicidal leap but more of a falling into deep depression “because people want him to be someone he’s not,” James says. Then the narrator shifts from third person to a reflective, interpretive “I,” who speculates:

I imagine he took the insults in
and made of them a place to live;
we learn to use the names
 because they are there,

familiar furniture: faggot
was the bed he slept in, hard
and white, but simple somehow,
queer something sharp

but finally useful, a tool,
all the jokes a chair,
stiff-backed to keep the spine straight,
a table, a lamp....

The students don’t comment on the shift from “he” to “I” until I wonder out loud about it, but once I do, Julia says that it’s not just “I”—there’s a “we.” And that the “we” makes us all part of the prejudice, the name-calling.

“That’s interesting. I hadn’t thought about it, but now I’m wondering—do you think shifting to the “I” makes it easier to move on to the ‘we’? I mean, if the narrator’s staying in the background, saying ‘he’ and ‘they’ and then suddenly saying ‘we all use insults this way,’ it might seem like a pretty sudden shift and maybe preachy, but with the ‘I’ first, he sounds like he’s trying to figure something out for himself about Charlie—’I imagine’—and that reflection leads him on to the ‘we,’ including himself.”

I’ve lost some of them, but that’s okay. Others are nodding, and at least they all see I’m figuring things out along with them—I’m not the answer key. Also, they want to go on to the next stanza. They’re hooked. Ayana points us to the way the insults become Charlie’s “home,” his “furniture.” “Is that what you meant,” she asks, “about how the objects—the chairs and the bed and the lamp—get more important, because they’re the insults he lives with? They mean more than just furniture?”

Before I can agree, Jessica, who wrote a piece about standing up for gay rights, shoots her hand up. “So it’s really bad, because the insults are making him see himself as no good, but the poem says those words, like queer, are ‘useful tools.’ And that’s why he’s falling, over and over.”

“Yeah!” Jenna agrees. “That’s the gap between the bridge and the water, maybe. That line you said you were marking, back, where is it? Oh, here—the gap between what he knows ‘and how he was known.’”

We finish reading the poem. The kids had pictured Charlie as a teenage boy but then discover he’s “fallen for twenty-three years.” It’s the three boys who push him off the bridge who are teenagers, “really boys now, afraid, / their fathers’ cars shivering behind them, headlights on.” Some of the students are baffled that Charlie, after his death, “climbs back” out of the river and tells the boys:

it’s all right, that he knows
 they didn’t believe him
when he said he couldn’t swim,
and blesses his killers

in the way that only the dead
can afford to forgive.

“I wouldn’t forgive those jerks,” says Nick.

“Well, you aren’t dead,” Connor retorts. “It says that nobody living ‘can afford to forgive.”

“I wonder why they pushed him off?” I ask.

“Because there were three of them,” says Jess. “They probably were drinking or something. And bored. And really dumb.”

“Uh, maybe they’re kind of scared of older gay men—like Holden was,” Matt suggests.

“It’s the name-calling where it all starts,” Jessica asserts. “It makes them forget he’s a real person. He’s just a label.”

“What name did Holden use? What was the term back in the 1940s and ‘50s?” I remind them. I want to give them some background information on homosexuality that might help them think about how Matt is connecting the poem to the novel.

“Oh, flit,” Jordan says, laughing a little.

“Yes. Do you remember how nervous he is about flits—because he says guys have come on to him at various boarding schools? And how he argues with himself after he leaves Mr. Antolini’s apartment that night because he really respects and likes his teacher and doesn’t want to think that he was making a pass at him if he really wasn’t? Back then, homosexuality was classified as a neurosis by psychiatrists, and if you were gay you were supposed to get psychiatric help so you could become ‘normal.’ So Holden also uses the word pervert about gays. The medical classification of homosexuality as a perversion wasn’t dropped till the early 1960s, and the movement for gay rights didn’t really get going till the ‘70s. One of the stereotypes about gay men was that they were dangerous—that they ‘preyed on’ boys. Do you think what happens to Charlie Howard is fictional? Or a true story? And would that make a difference in how you react to it?

The students argue a bit. For most, it “feels real” (someone mentions “that guy in Wyoming,” Matt Shepard), except for the part about Charlie blessing his killers after he’s dead. “That’s not something a writer could know about a dead person. You’d have to make it up,” says Ayana, “But I don’t think it matters to me if it really happened or not. As long as it feels real in the poem.”

“Actually, it’s a true story,” I tell them, “but I didn’t know that the first time I read it. There’s a footnote at the end, saying the killing took place in Bangor, Maine, in 1984. If you were to read it in a newspaper, would it be told this way?

“Nope,” says James. “It would start by identifying him and giving dates and places—all the facts. And no fancy description, like the huge night, or whatever it was. And no stanzas. Oh yeah, and no metaphors, like the furniture.”

“I think a news story could have metaphors,” says Connor, my other newsman, “especially an editorial. But maybe the ‘I’ that imagines what the name-calling was like for Charlie would be from interviews—the way news stories quote people’s opinions.”

“Oh, the way you used quotes in your profiles?” I ask. “So something like: ‘Mark Doty, a close friend of the deceased, says...’”

“I can’t imagine those lines about, you know, the slurs being like the furniture of Charlie’s mind, being in a newspaper,” says Ayana. “Anyway, I like it better as a poem. I can really see those scared boys and the headlights and what their parents will say.”

The bell has rung and students are cramming binders into backpacks, but Julia stays behind to tell me, “That was a totally amazing poem!”


Visiting Poet

While it’s important to help students see and hear and wonder at a poem unfolding on the page as they read or listen, it may be even more crucial for them to experience discovery and surprise as a poem of their own takes shape. For some, the prospect of writing a poem can feel overwhelming—what to write about, how to start, how to decide whether to rhyme, where to break stanzas and lines if they’re not using rhyme or meter, how to “put in” figures of speech. I may show them my “Bear Game” poem at this point so they can see one way of starting—from a notebook entry and a specific object and situation. I may talk about some options I perceived and discarded as I drafted—why I rejected using stanzas, for instance, or trying out a traditional form such as a sonnet. (“Bear Game” has a sonnet-like “turn” about two-thirds of the way through but none of the conventional rhyme schemes or iambic pentameter.) I might discuss why I used certain words and phrases from the original notebook entry and how I kept reading aloud as I drafted the poem because that not only helped me hear where to break lines and change words for better sounds but also seemed to keep ideas and feeling flowing.

But the kids need to meet a live poet who’s not their daily teacher. So I like to bring in a visiting poet early in the writing process, preferably someone of a different age, gender, or race than mine. This person needn’t be from outside the school, though when we have the money, I do invite an established poet to spend several days working in all the ninth- and tenth-grade classes. One can find poets through a state arts council, or through writers-in-the-schools programs; I’ve invited poets I meet when I give or take workshops and attend writing conferences. But another teacher, or a student’s parent, or one of our alumni—or even a talented twelfth grader—can be an effective guest artist, depending on the strength and accessibility of their work and their ability to connect with teenagers. This year we have a new poet in our department, a young woman who’s studied in Oregon with Dorianne Laux and whose sample class, a poetry workshop, impressed me when she came to interview. I invite her to give this workshop to my students.

Kate Westhaver talks to the kids about why she writes poetry: that it’s a love-hate relationship because it makes her think but also confuses and scares her. She says she reads a lot of poems—in books, magazines, online—and hears them at live readings and slams, but sometimes these poems baffle her. “And I think that’s okay,” she says. “I can still enjoy a poem even when it confuses me. It’s okay to not understand, not ‘get’ every line. Sometimes I just enjoy the sounds, or maybe certain lines speak to me.” For her, writing a poem has an element of play. “If I let go of making sense, I can enjoy making sound. The music of the poem can inspire random beauty and surprising connections for me. Things I didn’t know I knew. Lines that make me wonder, ‘gee, how did I come up with this?’”

Kate hands out copies of E.E. Cumming’s “anyone lived in a pretty how town.” I’m happy that we have another “story poem” here—another life “journey,” though a somewhat different one from “Charlie Howard’s Descent”—and one that offers both mystery and music. Definitely, as Kate said about her own writing, it contains lines that will make us wonder, “How did he come up with that?” She asks us to listen with pencils in hand as we take turns reading the stanzas aloud. “Mark lines that you like and moments you find surprising, including rhymes, capitalization, and punctuation.” And a student begins:

anyone lived in a pretty how town
(with up so floating many bells down)
spring summer autumn winter
he sang his didn’t he danced his did

When the reading ends, students have discovered some new options for their own poems: varying refrains, off-rhymes mixed with true rhymes, four beat lines, the absence of punctuation and capitalization, and a whole new take on language—or, to use a word most of them don’t know—syntax.  The poem shakes up a lot of their assumptions about writing, let alone writing poetry. But they seem to agree with Kate that one can enjoy a poem even—or especially?—when it confuses them. And they love the refrains: the varied order of the four seasons and of the “sun moon stars rain.” Kids pick out their favorite lines—“how children are apt to forget to remember” and the whole idea of “no one” being in love with “anyone.” They wonder what a “how town” is, what it means to sow your isn’t or dance your did, and they agree that “up so floating many bells down” may not make sense but it’s got “a feeling.”

Garret’s looking worried. “I like it, but it doesn’t mean anything, does it?”

“I like it because it seems like this sad love poem,” Jen says. “‘No one’ loves ‘anyone’ so much that she ‘laughed his joy and cried his grief,’ and then when he dies she kisses his face. And they’re buried side by side. That’s true love.”

“Yeah, but,” says Peter, “if you put capital letters on them, they’d be characters, but with lowercase, it could be that nobody loves this guy—I mean, like in the second stanza it says women and men ‘cared for anyone not at all.’ So that makes it really sad. Like a love poem with no love in it?”

Kate avoids doing what Billy Collins describes as “tying a poem to a chair and beating it with a rubber hose.” She invites us to go thinking about the poem on our own, and moves us into her writing exercise. First, she invites us to get up, stretch, and find new seats. Then she has us divide a sheet of paper into quarters, number them, and listen to four excerpts from four pieces of music that she has on her iPod. She tells us that listening to music often gets her started writing a poem. “Do any of you do homework to music? What music fosters creativity for you?” she asks them. As we begin to listen, we’re to write whatever comes into our pencil, no censoring, just keep the pencil moving—“whatever words the music brings to you. Don’t worry about writing sentences or making sense. Don’t consciously try to write about the music, to describe it or analyze it. Just let the words come while the music plays. Just let go of making sense. Stay silent even between the excerpts, and shake out your hand if you need to at those breaks.”

I write along with the class, but I also jot reminders to myself of what kinds of music Kate has chosen—just my impressions, though I do want to get titles from her later on: “1. very soft strings, grave, formal music; 2. pipe flute breath very Eastern; 3. percussive log drum; 4. a mix of vocal and instrumental, soprano hum on the ah vowel with jazzy scat style.”

Kate invites students up to the board to record favorite words or word combinations from their writing. The board fills up fast:

            quicksilver                             chaos
            electric                                    gravestones
            enormous                               magical
            toy store                                 Audrey Hepburn
            stomp                                      smoking cigarettes
            choke                                      up
            ambience                                down 
            electrocute                             tribal drums
            Arabian market                    sirens 
            African jungle                       mall muzak 
            bongos                                    nurse’s office
            boom box                               music 
            sparkles                                  elevator music
            drown out                               sleepy
            clowns                                     ticktock.

Then we get an assignment: “Steal any four words or phrases you like from the board along with material from your own writing and create at least ten lines of poetry. You can change, manipulate, any of this material and also add new things.” The kids are excited. Some are already starting before Kate has finished giving directions.

We haven’t established any criteria for assessing these poems. I don’t plan to grade them or even write comments at this stage. But the next day volunteers read their pieces aloud, and after applause or finger snapping, I ask readers to say at least one thing they like about their own piece. At times, I expand on these comments: “Yes, Sarah, the way you used that refrain made the feeling of the speaker go deeper, for me, anyway. And it gave the poem a structure—like a song. That’s a technique others of you might want to try.” As we go around the circle and hear each writer’s comment, I ask for volunteers who can remind us of anything else from that particular poem. I want the students to realize they don’t need a copy of the poem in front of them to respond to hearing it. The kind and manner of response may be different when we work from memory—more spontaneous, more tentative, more visceral and less analytical. It could be as simple as “Could you read that first part over again? It had some words I really liked the sounds of.” Gradually, if we listen to enough poems together this way, the students will find they can experience a poem more fully—notice and remember, feel more.

James’s poem starts out with all the distractions that were keeping him from responding to the music as he wrote: the teacher interrupting with more directions, the ticking clock, his hand getting tired. He asks, “how to escape this aggravating ambience?” And then in answering his question, he finds language and line breaks that put us in the moment:

I turn on the boom box of my mind
And turn up the volume until it can’t go any
Higher. The music sparkles in, drowning her out
My thoughts  clear  up

James says he especially likes these last four lines because of the boom box image for his mind and the phrase “music sparkles in,” which he says is just the way it felt. He also likes the way he used spacing in the last line to slow it down, to show that’s the way it happened. Julia tells him that it makes a good ending.

In her own poem, Julia likes the way she combined words from a recent science lesson on the structure of the ear with some of the images she “heard” in the music. Other kids enjoy the surprise of this combination, too, and several tell her that the b alliteration makes the ending image “really cool.” She’s asked to read the poem again:

Shards of quicksilver
Magically showering through
The ear canal
Electrocuting each labyrinth
With mesmerizing waves
Arabian nights

And dense African jungles
Sprouting for the cartilage
Spreading lushl
Into the auditory canal

Ear drums keeping the beat
Of the bongos.

“Julia, any idea what led you to think of using words from your science book?”

“Well, . . .” She thinks for a moment. “Maybe because I’d just spent a lot of time listening to Ms. Westhaver’s music, so that made me think about listening in general, and ears and so on.”

“And that led to your pun on eardrums! Which makes a wonderful ending. The whole poem sounds like someone having fun, doesn’t it? So many of the words are fun to say. Any of you remember specific words from the poem? Or some of those verbs that are so full of energy you can almost feel them in your own body?” Kids mention electrocute, labyrinth, mesmerize, sprout, lushly, keep the beat. Julia’s beaming. It’s fun to hear your own poem given back to you—fun to know you made an impression on your listeners.

Garret wrote about listening to his hungry stomach’s music “rambling and growling” along with a radio’s jungle drums as he doodled on paper. Kids tell him they like having the three things rambling along together—the growls, the drums, and the doodles. Sarah writes about three different kinds of music, including “elevator music / that takes me down / but never up” and country music “yawling and drawling / ‘bout hillbilly horses.” She gets applause for the rhyme and for the idea of elevator music as a “downer.” Jessica, often so matter-of-fact, finds herself writing of “clowns walking to their gravestones” and a mountain that “invites me to join him / trembling in the dark.” Ayana is shy about reading hers, but finally we coax it out of her, and the class is already applauding halfway through. Something inside Ayana has let loose!

Not that cheesy mall muzik
But tribal drum beats
Cries for a revolution 
War paint
Ring of sirens.
Red and blue lites
Pulsed through my frame
Eyes bloodshot
Brain goin’    

Smokin Hepburn cigs in
Smokin’ Marlboros in
Neon jumpsuits

Rising from that
Xtasy koma.
An animal in the morning.
That rave. . .
Fresh in my mind
Party at 7th?
It’ll be krazy.
I’ll be an animal in the morning.

We discuss what writing these poems felt like. Students volunteer that at first it was hard because they were “trying to fit these words together that didn’t make sense.” But then they remembered that Ms. Westhaver had said it didn’t have to make sense—that they should “let go of trying to make sense and just have fun.” And that helped.

“So might there be different kinds of sense—and different ways our minds can make them?” I ask.

“Maybe. Yeah, I think so,” Peter agrees. “I think some of these poems do make sense—like Ayana’s. Really, all of them do, maybe. They’re just not things we’d normally write. They kind of show ways our minds can behave when we let them break rules.”

So can any of you come up with some rules you broke?” I ask. Gradually the students mention writing without whole sentences, using no punctuation or caps, making a line with just one word in it or leaving lots of spaces between words. What made them break these “rules”? Most said, “Because it felt right. Because it made the poem better.” A few allowed as how they hadn’t even noticed they were breaking rules. No one mentions putting words together to make unusual or “impossible” images and situations, but I think that’s what they meant when they said they worried about not making sense, so I bring it up. I remind them of Jessica’s clowns walking to their gravestones and a mountain inviting her “to join him trembling in the dark.” And Julia’s ear cartilage made of sprouting African jungles. “If you let words have their way with you, maybe under the influence of music, or of strong feelings or memories, or even under the influence of reading other people’s poems (like “anyone lived in a pretty how town”), you may discover things you didn’t know you knew. Like how clowns can seem both funny and sad, or that a mountain at night can stir your feelings in a strange way and can seem human—can become a ‘he’—or that music can seem to come alive in the ways it enters and spreads through your body. When you write poetry, you may find yourself making a different kind of sense. And often it will be the sense that is made through metaphors—through leading your listeners to connect to things that they normally wouldn’t, to visualize, for instance, the mind of a gay man as a room furnished with derogatory names.”


Family Sayings: Writing a Second Poem

In establishing some ways in which poetry is different from prose, I don’t want the students to conclude that the two have nothing in common—that a story or essay won’t benefit from an effective metaphor, that patterns of sound are irrelevant to prose, or that, conversely, a poem can’t portray a chain of actions or develop a character. I don’t want my journalists, my storytellers, and my lyric poets to stake out one territory and hunker down. Looking ahead to the free-choice project, I decide that we all could benefit from writing a poem that grows from a personal experience, just as we’ve drawn on “real life” for our profiles, “in the zone” descriptions, the story in Holden’s voice, and our writing about a belief we’d stand up for. Even the great poems of fantasy such as Poe’s, Coleridge’s, and the dream-work of the Surrealists draw inspiration from their authors’ feelings—from recognizably human fears, griefs, and dreams. While some of my students will certainly choose to write stories or poems that spring from fantasy, I want them also to discover their own inner journeying. Perhaps they’ll discover how personal experience can give color and power to even their wildest inventions. I also want the students to create poems that work with structure, but a structure they could use in a variety of genres, not involving meter or rhyme—no sonnets or villanelles. So I search for a poem we can read together as inspiration for a writing assignment that meets these goals. And I choose Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem “Blood.”

This moving poem, like “Charlie Howard’s Descent” and most of our other reading in the course, explores an aspect of personal identity—in this case, the “blood” that Nye inherited from her Palestinian father. It repeats variants on the refrain “a true Arab,” a phrase her father used during Nye’s childhood, and it moves chronologically through her life until as an adult she confronts the front-page headlines on a typical day of violence in the Middle East—headlines that “clot” in her blood as she wonders, “Where can the crying heart graze? / What does a true Arab do now?” Like Fugard’s play, “Master Harold,” the poem implicitly makes the case that the personal is also the political. My students don’t have to know much about the Middle East to grasp the poem, but those who have been brought up to sympathize with the Israelis or who have, like many Americans after 9/11, come to view all Arabs as terrorists, will need to open themselves to Nye’s emotional truth and let the poem’s language “have its way with them.”

Therefore, to help prepare students to connect with the poem, I start by asking whether anyone can recall any family sayings, perhaps ones that have become irritants from overuse or oness for which they feel some pride or affection. Jordan tells us that when his mom is mad at him or doesn’t want to let him do something he wants to do, she’ll say, “Don’t you look at me in that tone of voice”—even though he hasn’t said anything yet. Ayana recalls, “Whenever my big sister and I get into a fight, or she hurts my feelings, my parents will tell me, “ ‘Your sister’s all you got.’” Jen mentions how her mom has always said “Sweet dreams: to her at bedtime, “but now I’m grown up she sometimes texts it to me.” Matt tells us that whenever he’s nervous or scared to take a risk, especially in sports, his dad says, “Just do it.” Julia tries to explain, through her giggles, how she and her mom still sing the Almond Joy jingle back and forth to cheer each other up. I tell them how when I was growing up, if any of use five kids complained about anything—and I mean anything—my father would remind us, “Suffering builds character.” He made it sound as though character was the be-all and end-all—worth everything. Nonnegotiable. He never discussed what it was. My brothers and I would groan in unison. As we grew up, it became a sort of dark family joke among us, a line to quote to one another in response to any kind of crisis, great or small.

“Do you think these are things you’ll say to your own kids?” I ask them. “Have you internalized them so they’re part of you, part of what you remember when you think ‘family’? You might also think about family stories that get told regularly on particular occasions, with certain turns of phrase that are always the same. Let’s brainstorm for a few minutes in our notebooks and see what lines you can remember that are part of the way you’ve been brought up.”

After more sharing, we discover that some families’ sayings and stories have to do with taking pride in, or defending, their heritage. Jordan mentions his family’s stories about standing up to racial discrimination and participating in the Civil Rights Movement. Ayana says her father tells her of his experiences with discrimination. Jess cites her family’s sayings in Italian and Spanish that show pride in both their Italian and their Cuban heritage. Then I hand out copies of “Blood,” again with all but the first stanza folded down, and we take turns reading aloud, as we did with “Charlie Howard’s Descent,” pausing to hear one another’s comments and questions. We notice that each time the phrase “true Arab” returns, we learn something new about Nye’s heritage and we see her at a different stage in her life. A true Arab “knows how to catch a fly in his hands”; true Arabs “believed watermelon could heal fifty ways”; and Naomi’s question when she learns that her father’s name, Shihab, means shooting star—“a good name, borrowed from the sky”—is precisely, her father tells her, “what a true Arab would say”: “When we die, we give it back?”

Three of the five stanzas begin with an indication of time: “In the spring our palms peeled like snakes,” “Years before, a girl knocked,” and “Today the headlines clot in my blood.” The last stanza stays with “today” but also looks ahead to ask, “What does a true Arab do now?” The opening lines of the third stanza seem to be the most striking for many students:

Years before, a girl knocked,
Wanted to see the Arab,
I said we didn’t have one.
After that, my father told me who he was,
“Shihab”—“shooting star....”

I ask the students how they picture this scene, and Nick says he sees Naomi as a little girl, maybe five or six, too little to know that she’s part Arab, opening the door and wondering who this other little girl is. He imagines the other girl having been told “That’s the house where the Arab lives.” Nick wonders if this happened after 9/11. I explain that the book in which this poem was published, Words under the Words, was published in 1980. “Wow, way back then?” he exclaims. Julia, who wrote about anti-Semitism as the thing she’d “stand up against,” says that the lines she likes best are about the picture in the headlines—of the little Palestinian who dangles a truck, whom Nye describes as a “homeless fig.” She says it’s such a touching image, the child so small and helpless like fruit off a tree, and even though she’s proud to be Jewish this poem makes her so sad. “I like how Naomi doesn’t seem to takes sides,” Julia says. “It’s like she says, and it’s true for everybody—the tragedy ‘with a terrible root / is too big for us.’’

“Do you see how she’s structured the poem around her father’s repeated explanations to his daughter about ‘what a true Arab is,’ and how she moves the poem through different stages of her life as she grows up—into that final question that moves beyond those stages to look into the future?” I ask them. “I think you could do that, and my guess is that you’d find yourself having some interesting memories, maybe making some discoveries, too, about yourself and about writing poetry. Your poem doesn’t have to be political, in the way that hers is, though it might end up looking at an issue involving power within a family—and power can be an aspect of the political. Take a look at this sheet with me [see Figure 1 below], and see if you have questions.”

I give the students two days to work on their poems and ask them to turn in at least two drafts, their favorite one stapled on top. The next day I ask them for progress reports, as a means of arriving together at some assessment criteria. Jen loves her “Sweet Dreams” poem because “it’s only two words but it was such a big part of my childhood. It has such a big impact on me. But I’m having trouble with the line breaks.” Jordan says he likes how “vocal and exciting” his poem is. He wasn’t sure what he’d write until he got home and heard his mom and sister having a “Don’t look at me in that tone of voice” exchange, and then “a whole lot of moments came back, times when she said that to me. I still don’t know for sure how I’m going to split it up in stanzas, though.” Connor has chosen the word Goodbye and is trying to go through a boy’s entire life cycle up until his death, but he says it’s hard because “I haven’t gone through many of these things, so I have to imagine and still make it realistic.” And Ayana, who says she thinks “Blood” may be one of her “favorite poems ever,” tells us that using stanzas gave her the idea to make each stanza a grouping of different negatives about her relationship with her sister but end each with a positive, and then break for the refrain, “Your sister’s all you got.” The class seems eager to hear these poems, so tomorrow we’ll have a reading.

“What criteria might be helpful, do you think, not just for assessing tomorrow’s draft but to use when you work on it tonight?” I ask them. “Recall what people have been saying about their present drafts, and also what you think made the three poems we’ve read together memorable—‘Charlie Howard’s Descent’, ‘anyone lived in a pretty how town,’ and ‘Blood.’” Gradually, as I help the students clarify and combine their ideas, we get a short list on the board. I try not to burden them with a lot of technical language; some kids, I know, are still a little vague about image and metaphor, and they’re feeling their way into what makes effective line and stanza breaks. However, I want them to discover for themselves that poems, like any kind of writing, can be assessed, revised, reassessed, though as with stories, journalism, plays, argument—or music, dance, or painting, for that matter—there’s a certain amount of subjectivity involved in the process. “One of my best poetry teachers says that each reader or writer has a different threshold or tolerance for disorder and for order,” I tell them. For tonight’s poem, based on these students’ recent experience with poetry, we arrive at the criteria in Figure 2.

Next day, because I sense their interest in hearing one another’s poems, I set up a lectern in front of the room and explain that it’s easier to enjoy a poetry reading when readers have given some thought to pacing, eye contact, and volume. When readers make us feel that they really want us to enjoy their poems, they’ve usually done some planning on how to bring this thing on the page to life. I model, reading one of my own poems aloud at the lectern. Then I put students in groups of three to practice, with a checklist for the groups to use in giving each other feedback. Finally, each person goes up to the lectern to read. Before we start, I mention that when I read a new poem of mine to an audience, I sometimes her words, line breaks, even punctuation that I realize I want to change. So when they go back to their seats, some of them may want to cross out and write in changes.

Conner, who focused his poem on the word Goodbye, has helped us imagine how that word might register in a person’s throat: as the young boy says goodbye over his great-grandmother’s coffin, “he finds it difficult to form the horrible / word in his throat, / the word that will put a lock on her coffin and send her / away on the salty ocean breeze.” In another stanza, the boy’s father sends him off to college: “Even his father, calm and reserved, can barely utter / the pointed phrase.” At the end, the boy, now a dying old man, feels “the last guttural word / lodged in his throat” as he says goodbye to his wife. In each stanza, Connor has used an image of water—the ocean in the first three and a tear in the last. I ask the class whether they are hearing this poem primarily as a story, as episodes in a man’s life, and Jess says, “Well, sort of, but it’s different from a story. It’s more about feelings, and it’s cool how he used the ocean for almost every key moment. It kind of makes you feel change, like waves. And it—uh—it makes you see how change is always there, like the ocean.”

Julia has used the Almond Joy jingle she’d told us about earlier: “Sometimes you feel like a nut, sometimes you don’t. Almond Joy’s got nuts! Mounds don’t.” Her poem is fun to listen to, partly because she’s brave enough to sing the lines each time they appear. In one stanza, “our jingle” turns up in a muggy summer in the city, plastered against the Hershey Factory: “...Right there, / on cue in the middle of the Big Apple, I began / singing, moving my arms and hips to that unusual beat, Sometimes you feel like a nut....” The poem ends at Julia’s bat mitzvah, where her mother’s speech concludes with a smile and

as she reached the last sentence,
 “Sometimes you feel like a nut...”

 We were the only ones who got it.
We were the only nuts.

As we finish hearing the poems, I ask, “Are there any of you who might want to write more poems?” Almost every hand goes up.

So Far/What Next?

Through this combination of reading and writing poems—approximately a week and a half’s worth of class time and homework, including the day for our visiting artist—most of the students seem to have developed a new openness toward poetry. They’ve rediscovered the fun of wordplay, of unfolding stories, of nonsense and beyond-sense, that many remember experiencing in their elementary school exposure to poems. But they’ve also started to think about ways in which writing poetry is related to writing various kinds of prose. They’ve seen Mark Doty unfold a story that is both suspenseful and reflective, that shifts pace and point of view, that through image and metaphor can both stir our feelings, and challenge our assumptions. They’ve realized from their work with E. E. Cummings’s poem of strange syntax, puzzling images, and haunting refrains; from their own automatic or stream of consciousness writing to music; and from their reliance on seemingly random word combinations, that fresh language isn’t necessarily accessed through logic and dictionaries. They’ve learned that the personal can be political—that a poem like Nye’s “Blood” can draw inspiration from memories of family and from current headlines and photos in the newspaper. And they’ve found that the process of creating a poem may invite them to challenge the conventions of English usage, if doing so “makes the poem better.”

As the students move toward their free-choice project, for which I plan to allot the next three weeks, they should be able to look back over a variety of genres they’ve explored both as readers and as writers to consider which one they most enjoyed—or perhaps, if they already have material in mind that they want to write about, which genre is best suited to that material. So I ask them to think about this project tonight and jot down some ideas in their notebooks.

Next day I ask hopefully, “So last night did any of you discover that as a writer you’re finding out you have a favorite genre? Or maybe that you’re starting to know what kind of material you want to write about for the free-choice project?” Gradually, about two-thirds of the hands go up. I call on Peter, who’s looking eager. Peter says he thinks he knows what we wants to write but he’s not sure there’s a name for it. It’s going to be funny like Mark Twain and have some Greek gods in it and maybe a sort of utopia with this huge disaster—like a, what’s it called, uh, a big apocalypse—at the end.

Garret gives a long whistle, which I guess means “Deep!” And I suggest we may have a new genre here.

Figure 1

Draft a poem—shoot for at least 15-20 lines, and start with a freewrite, if you want to—that is, structured around (based on) repetitions of a  phrase or sentence or question that you’ve heard repeatedly over the years in your family or extended family, maybe from a parent, or grandparent, or sibling, or other relative. This phrase will be repeated in your poem, maybe in each stanza, and maybe in variant forms, as the spine or frame of the poem, marking different points in your life. (Note how Nye varies her phrase: “A true Arab knows...,” “A true Arab believes....,” “That’s what a true Arab would say,” “What does a true Arab do now?”

The second requirement, besides this refrain, is that the poem must be in stanzas (though they can be any number and of different lengths.) Listen and watch for what the poem “wants,” what shaping and spacing will best serve its ideas and feelings, its images and rhythms. Where might you need some silence, some pauses? Where can skipping a line for a new stanza help signal this silence?

And third, different parts of the poem must occur at different times in the speaker’s life, signaled by some time indicators where needed for clarity. See Nye’s indicators: “My father would say” (shows action continuing over time); “In the spring”; “Years before”; “After that”; “Once”; “Today”; and “Now.”

Figure 2

Overall, a memorable poem that holds our attention

Good images and metaphors that make us feel and think

Line breaks and stanza breaks that serve the poem

Words and word combinations that make clear pictures

Good use of sounds, especially of the refrain

Punctuation and caps (or lowercase) that serve the poem

All three requirements from the direction sheet present



  • Judith Rowe Michaels, from Catching Tigers in Red Weather. Copyright © 2011 by Judith Rowe Michaels.  Reprinted by permission of National Council of Teachers of English.
  • Originally Published: April 10th, 2012
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  • Dr. Judy Rowe Michaels is poet in residence and English teacher at Princeton Day School in Princeton, New Jersey, as well as a poet in the schools for the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.The author of two books on teaching poetry and writing, both published by NCTE (Risking Intensity and Dancing...

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A Taste of Poetry

How to demystify and re-mystify poetry for your students.
  • Dr. Judy Rowe Michaels is poet in residence and English teacher at Princeton Day School in Princeton, New Jersey, as well as a poet in the schools for the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.The author of two books on teaching poetry and writing, both published by NCTE (Risking Intensity and Dancing...

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