It’s not necessary for everyone to love, or even like, poetry. The famous poet Marianne Moore began her poem, entitled “Poetry”: “I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond all this fiddle.”
Agreed! But I think poetry can sometimes be very useful, and Moore actually thought so too, which she explains in later lines. We see that people reach for poetry when they are very sad, for instance. They look for consolation from the words others have found to express grief, and often people try to compose their own poems as well during hard times.
Or, conversely, when we are in the presence of something grand or utterly beautiful, we appreciate those who have somehow found the words to express awe or even simple contentment. Poetry seems a conduit for feelings. It can also be funny, playful, even liberating. Poetry is a place where the writer makes the rules or breaks them.
When children are too young to be embarrassed by unconventional thinking (the work of the imagination), it’s often exciting for them to be invited to create “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.” That, too, is Marianne Moore’s phrase.
I’m not here to promote or defend poetry, obviously, but if you’d like to use poetry to begin the school year, I have a couple of ideas, and I’ll share one that students have found fun and engaging.
Younger children often can’t write more than a few words, so the goal would be to encourage them to write a phrase or sentence and then draw a picture. For older kids, it’s often more interesting to write stories, something with a narrative element.
One idea to get started is this:
Let’s imagine, this past summer, you finally met your identical twin. How is it you never knew you had one?
There’ll be ways this person is exactly like you, and ways she or he is different. Kids can talk more freely about who they are and how they feel, sometimes, by ascribing these things to a twin, an “other.”
If your class is older, you can combine this with one of the most fundamental elements of good writing, which is the use of the senses. Perhaps this twin doesn’t dress the same (sight), and she has a different accent because she was raised in Canada (by wolves?). That’s sound. Maybe all she does is howl! And taste: she doesn’t like strawberries, if you can believe it. What’s that smell? Onions? Oh, and something else. Your twin smells like the forest, like wild mushrooms and like a waterfall. You reach out to touch her hand, maybe to lead her over to the playground, and she takes your hand and squeezes hard. Look, a tear. You didn’t know about her, but she knew about you, and she has long dreamed of the moment you would meet. “It’s you at last.”
I think at many different ages it’s useful to think about oneself, what one is or isn’t, what one wishes to be. There is no wrong answer in poetry—the practice of poetry is a quest.
Another path into the forest of poetry is reflected in the book that Ted Kooser and I recently wrote together, called Marshmallow Clouds (Candlewick Press). This book is arranged in four sections corresponding to the four elements: fire, air, water, and earth. Each of these elements is deeply suggestive, I find, and can be used individually as in: “Today we are going to write something about fire.” Think about a story that has fire in it (personally, my mind is instantly directed to the time my brother accidentally set the barn on fire). Perhaps you have a dog that is very small, but very excitable, maybe even a red dog that sits next to you on the couch and keeps you warm. Maybe the fire is in the dog’s eyes. Maybe you have a fire pit in the yard, and it draws the family together. And in the presence of fire, someone begins to tell a story.
Four elements; four poems, perhaps.
A last thought: poetry and prose…what’s the difference? My belief is that there’s great overlap, but the chief difference is the obvious one. Poems are shorter. Almost always. I don’t like to type, so that’s very appealing.
Last summer I met my identical twin at last. We just stared at each other. She was very surprised to find me so old. White hair, quavering voice. I stepped on her toe accidentally, and she winced, and I knew exactly how she felt. What struck me is how similar our hands were as we shared an ice cream cone, handing it back and forth, plain vanilla, though I prefer chocolate mint, but I was being nicer than I usually am. Honestly, I felt a little sorry for her. Was she also sorry for me?
Connie Wanek has written six books of poetry. She and US Poet Laureate Ted Kooser co-created the poems in the Candlewick Press 2022 book Marshmallow Clouds. She worked at the Duluth Public Library for many years and also taught poetry units in elementary schools in both paid and volunteer capacities.
- This giveaway is for a copy of Marshmallow Clouds: Two Poets at Play Among Figures of Speech by Ted Kooser, Connie Wanek, and Richard Jones. Many thanks to Candlewick Press for donating a copy of the book to one of our commenters.
- For a chance to win this copy of Marshmallow Clouds, please leave a comment about this post by Tuesday, August 23rd at 11:59 p.m. EDT. Stacey Shubitz will use a random number generator to pick the winner, whose name she will announce at the bottom of this post, by Friday, August 26th. You must have a U.S. mailing address to enter the giveaway.
- Please be sure to leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment, so Stacey can contact you to obtain your mailing address if you win.
- If you are the winner of the book, Stacey will email you with the subject line of TWO WRITING TEACHERS – WANEK. Please respond to Stacey’s e-mail with your mailing address within five days of receipt. A new winner will be chosen if a response isn’t received within five days of the giveaway announcement.
Comments are now closed.
Congratulations to osherksfusdedu, whose commenter number came up. They’ll receive a free copy of Marshmallow Clouds.