How to Write a Poem: An Exercise

Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart.” 

―William Wordsworth

Poetry. It is a voice full of interpretation. It is your voice, whittled down to a story with just the necessary. Poetry is you. It is in you. Within your heart ready to break free; that is poetry. Poetry is a story nestled in your soul with the unnecessary words crossed out. It is in your “everyday” every day. Stop. Notice. Write. It isn’t poetry’s fault you are scared. What did it ever do to you? Well, maybe it did do something to you. Stand firm and show poetry what you have to say. Then say it!

I have an exercise for you that I read recently from a book called, Seeing the Blue Between compiled by Paul B. Janeczko. Poets write letters of advice and inspiration to young poets and then share some of their own poetry. One exercise, by Georgia Heard, struck me and I thought I would try it out. I think you should too.

She suggests a technique to see things in more detail and depth. She tries a two column exercise. Her example was the use of an ordinary word she sees in her mind or environment, like “green.” Then she places a more detailed description of what she is “seeing.” Is it a yellow green a pine green? What words best describe the word/phrase she is working with?

I tried this out when I was at the playground with my kids the other day. Here is a photo of what I noticed in my environment:

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Then I started my one or two ordinary word descriptions and in my second column tried to take it a little further. To me it was like shoveling off a layer to get to the core of what I wanted to say. Here are my two columns:

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Then I started my poem. I placed parts of the more descriptive lines with other words that I thought worked with the image.

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It was time to workshop the poem. I began with what I thought would be one of the stanzas of the poem, however, I had not completely decided if the poem would have stanzas. I played with the words, added new ones and moved them around.

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You can see here that I start to think stanzas were appropriate.

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I began to rewrite using stanzas. Then wanted to rewrite the lines to see/hear them again but decided to draw connecting lines. I was doing away with stanzas.

 photo 2 (13)

What I found interesting is I added several words that were not part of my columns but then landed back on some of the initial ideas I had when I started the poem. It whittled down to this:

 photo 1 (13)

Air weaves through

the lifeless whispering trees.

Cylindrical towering trunks

carrying broom like bristled tops

sweep the dark misted sky.

Translucent drops

drip, dry on my cheek.

As I typed the poem and read it over and over I continued to workshop the lines. I hope you will think about using this exercise with your students or even yourself. I really enjoy workshopping a poem right beside my students. Even though I may have more experience and my word choice may be different from a first grader, I think going through the same process at the same time can be inspiring.