I am a writer. For the most part, I write prose about issues and ideas which engage me in some way. And there are times when I choose to write poetry. The first poem I wrote as an adult was about the end of a friendship which had been a major part of my life. I wrote about what it was like growing up in my family. I wrote a poem about Bear, our cocker spaniel. And I wrote a poem when one of my students died unexpectedly. There are just times when I know that poetry is the form for me to express my thoughts and emotions most effectively – when I will get to the heart of what is moving in me.
I had endured poetry when I was in high school. Then, my teachers insisted that there was only one way to interpret a poem. If I responded to the poem differently, then I was told in no uncertain terms that I had got it wrong.
And then there was the requirement to write a poem – what I came to call a ‘recipe poem’. “Thou shall write a poem of at least 14 lines which must have a consistent rhyming scheme and rhythm. It must have at least one metaphor, one simile, one example of onomatopoeia, and one instance of alliteration.” Here I was trying to find the words to say what was important to me and I had to manipulate them to fit into the prescribed mould. Writing poetry was never fun – it was an inauthentic chore. And I came to dislike poetry. It felt artificial.
I really enjoyed teaching poetry with my English students. For that, I give thanks to a workshop which I attended on ways to teach poetry. At that workshop, I came to see poetry in such a different light. I could read a poem and wonder what the hell the poet was trying to say – sort of, “What was he or she thinking? They must be out of their mind!” Or I could read it and think, “That’s nice. So what? Doesn’t change anything for me.” Or I could read the poem and be moved by the words and what they drew forth in me. The only response that mattered was mine. As I told my students, if they could explain their response to the poem then who was I to tell them that they were wrong? My response might not be theirs and that was absolutely okay.
And I discovered several ways to approach writing poetry. What these were designed to do was to demystify it so that writing poems did not have to be difficult or daunting and it could even be fun. I hoped that the various poetry writing exercises would help my students learn to play with words and create words which had meaning for them. They could consider the potential impact of the word order. And they learned to play with punctuation. Poetry is meant to be heard more than read silently so the impact of punctuation and word choice and word order were things that might be considered in a poem’s creation. Writing poetry meant that they could hide in plain sight – their poem could have deeply personal meaning and I might get it or not or I might get something totally different from it. And that was exactly how things should be.
So what types of poems did I ask my students to write?
In one example, I would divide the class in half and would give each group the same starting line which they were not told. The line I usually chose was ‘On a withered branch’ [with thanks to James Clavell]. The task was for a student to write one line without reading anything that had already been written, and then fold over the paper to cover the line they had created and pass the paper on. One half of the class was asked to write a line about ‘love’ and the other half was asked to write a line about ‘hate’. Once everyone had contributed a line, I’d collect the papers and read the poems to the class. And they were usually pretty good.
I loved asking my students to create what I called ‘a good BAD poem’. [Think about cards which are full of rhymes with flowery language and hyperbole like a sort of verbal diabetic attack.] I’d read my students poems written by Sarah Binks, the Sweet Songstress of Saskatchewan. And boy, were they bad! I remember some of the poems which my students created – ‘Ode to Belly Button Lint’, ‘Elf Hunt’, ‘Elegy to My Pet Worm (whom I ate)’. They were a blast.
My students also tried their hands at limericks and haiku and ballads.
The toughest poetry writing exercise [for them and for me, too] was called an ‘Exquisite Cadaver’. That’s the name I was given for this exercise at that poetry workshop which I attended.
In this exercise, the students were asked to choose a strong set of opposites i.e. love/hate, good/bad, light/dark. [It’s a lot easier to accomplish the creation of a body of words if the opposites are very strong.] One word was placed on the top left of a sheet of paper and the other on the top right. Then the students were asked to look at the word at the top left and write down the first word that come to mind when they did that. Then they were asked to look only at the second word in the left-hand list and do the same thing. And on it would go so that each word only had a connection with the word immediately preceding it. Counting the first word on the list, the task was to create a word list of 17 words on the left-hand column. Then the students were asked to do the same sort of thing with the word at the top of the right-hand column until there were 14 words in the right-hand column. That gave the students their ‘word bank’. The students were to create a poem using only those words. Words could be combined or the form of the word could be changed i.e. ‘form’ might become ‘formless’. Words could only be used more than once if they appeared more than once in the student’s 31 word ‘word bank’. No other words could be added – no ‘of’ or ‘to’ or ‘the’. If the word was not in the word bank, it was not in the poem. The challenge was to look for words which would be put together to create a completed image or thought.
In writing their poem, students were asked to use at least 24 of their original 31 words to create a lyric style poem about something which was important to them – love or death or fear or loss or growing up. Once they had done that, I would ask them to go back to the poem they had just created and remove 2 words. Once they had done that, I would ask them to remove 2 more. And then I would ask them to do that again.
Eventually, someone would say that they could not remove any more words and have the poem make any sense to them. And that was the point – asking students to create a poem that had some meaning for them by looking for ways to connect words and change words and use punctuation to emphasize words and alter the speed of how the poem would be read. And then asking them to crystallize their thoughts by honing and culling the words they chose to use.
In the end, each student created an anthology of a ballad, at least one limerick, a haiku [or two], a good ‘bad’ poem, and at least one lyric poem. They had fun creating and writing and I truly enjoyed reading what they had written.
And, for all of us, reading poetry was no longer an academic exercise and writing poetry was no longer difficult or inauthentic.
There are just times when only a poem will do.