Poetry 1-2-3, Easy as Writing About a Tree!

Weeping Willow, shot in Auckland, New Zealand ...

Image via Wikipedia

There is really no “rhyme or reason” on how to write a good poem. Most people think of poetry as short creative pieces with rhythm, stanzas or some musical flow. However, many strong poems are written that do not rhyme at all. The Haiku poem is a great example of this.

My love of poetry started at an early age. My father would recite poems to us often and would use them as a way to bring about humor in serious situations, much to the chagrin, of my conservative mother. For example a favorite dinner blessing of his for his family of 10 on a limited budget was:

“Lord have mercy on us, keep our neighbors from us, and if they should happen to stumble upon us, please ensure they don’t eat all the food from us.” This was his standard grace and it drove my mother nuts.  At the same time, it intensified my love for poetry.

Through elementary and high school, we competed in church speaking events.   We’d memorize poems, compete locally in our church and the winner would compete for top prize at a convention in front of a big crowd of  people. This was quite an exercise, researching for that perfect poem to take the top honor.  Soon, poetry soon became a significant and fun part of me. To write a really good poem, it’s always a safe bet to write about something that you observe about life, something that inspires you or perplexes you in some meaningful way. The more honest and transparent you are, the higher the probability that we will be able to connect with the poem.

Today,  I’ve chosen an example of a poem to highlight that poetry can really be about anything. Any topic that brings about an emotion or make you stop to think differently.  This poem was inspired by seeing the sagging limbs of a weeping willow out of my neighbor’s kitchen in South Carolina. Yes, a poem about a tree. Enjoy it.

Weeping Willow
Weeping Willow, why are you down?
Hold your head up.
You have no reason to frown.
Look at Your Arms.
So long and lean,
Provides an abundance of shade,
And you’re always green.
You keep us cool.
On a hot summer day,
We hide under your bosom.
And I’m glad you’re that way.
Weeping Willow, Weeping Willow
Stand up tall.
We all have a purpose.
Despite our shortfalls.

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Poetic Pain: Teaching Poetry to High Schoolers

Los angeles colegiales
Image by Micheo via Flickr

During the holidays, I met up with a longtime friend who, like me, teaches high school English. He told me that he was going to be teaching a semester-long poetry class at his school, and he asked if I had any suggestions. Here’s what I said:

Pick poems that you like. I you think a poem is good, chances are it will show in the way you teach it. Granted, there are times as an educator when you have to teach material you don’t personally enjoy, but it’s hard to fake enthusiasm for a poem you don’t like. If you like the poem, the kids will sense this, and if you’re lucky, they may find themselves enjoying it too.

Use songs to teach poetry. Music is a natural bridge between the students’ own experiences with poetic ideas and the more sophisticated forms of language you would like to introduce them to. I suggest picking some songs you personally enjoy. If you are old like me, the chances are pretty good that they’ve probably never heard the song, thus making it a fresh experience for them. You could also select songs you know they listen to, or better yet, have the students select a song and present it to the class as a poem.

Go from simple to complex. Or as C.S. Lewis phrased it, “The highest cannot stand without the lowest.” Start with engaging and accessible poems to get the students used to thinking about poetry from a variety of perspectives before moving on to more complex discussions of form and structure. Find poems that center on the notions of “life and living” rather than the more erudite topics most of us had to digest in school. Granted, a dense poem like Donne’s “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning” is a superb work of art, but unless you want to bleed the life out of your students, I wouldn’t begin there.

Use a variety of poems. Students will probably never like every poem they read (who does?), but the more poets and styles they encounter, the more likely they will find some material they connect with and enjoy.

Use imitation. Have the students create lots of different poems in several different forms. For example, if students are asked to create a parody of a famous poem, it forces them to know the features of the original very well. In the process, they will build their understanding of poetic forms and structure, and at the very least, they will come away with a much more thorough understanding of that work than they ever would have achieved by simply reading the poem.

As an English teacher, I would love it if my students enjoyed poetry as much as I do. The reality is that most don’t, and if we are honest, it is schools that are partially to blame for this. I know I can’t change every student’s attitude about poetry, but my hope is that by adopting some of the strategies listed above, perhaps I can help the kids who really hate poetry to hate it just a little bit less.

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Lazy Susan: A Poem For Losers

Lazy Susan

I am the hare/the one that never gets there.

The beast that toils the least.

A million beginnings.

A zero for endings.

Spinning around/twirling in place.

It’s like running a treadmill race.

Even this verse/it pays the price.

Treading old ground/covering everything twice.

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