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

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

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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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Comma Chameleon

Yes, the title is reminiscent of the only song by Culture Club that I can stand, but it fits the topic so….thank you Boy George?

Part of the beauty and frustration of the English language is that it is constantly changing. Not only does this relate to morphemes and phonemes but it applies to punctuation as well. Take the comma for instance. Back when I was slogging through grammar lessons there were some rigid rules as to how commas were used: Put a comma anywhere in a sentence where a natural pause occurs. Place a comma before conjunctions and and but when they occur in a compound sentence. And I recall dozens of little red circles throughout my essays indicating where I had broken these rules (and many others I am sure).

These days though it seems the whole idea of comma usage has become more flexible. Actually it seems that the rules have been tossed aside like so much used tissue. Many rules now state that the use of the comma can many times be a personal choice. Well, which times? Are you telling me that if I conveniently forget a comma before the conjunction and that all will be forgiven because it was my choice not to break out the comma? I don’t buy that for a second.

So, as an English teacher, these days I’ve got commas gathering like ants at a picnic. Students are throwing them into their essays as the panacea for all their grammatical ills leaving me to sort out where they can get away with such frivolity and where it just doesn’t work…for me…because I am the teacher….and it is my personal choice.

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy a good punctuation mutation every now and again. Some writers use it and the results are pure genius. Take for instance the remarkable poet e.e. cummings. Following is his poem “she Being Brand” where the poet experiments with the rules of capitalization and punctuation (and a few others as you will see):

she being Brand
-new;and you
know consequently a
little stiff i was
careful of her and(having
thoroughly oiled the universal
joint tested my gas felt of
her radiator made sure her springs were O.
K.)i went right to it flooded-the-carburetor cranked her
up,slipped the
clutch(and then somehow got into reverse she
kicked what
the hell)next
minute i was back in neutral tried and
again slo-wly;bare,ly nudg.  ing(my
lev-er Right-
oh and her gears being in
A 1 shape passed
from low through
second-in-to-high like
greasedlightning)just as we turned the corner of Divinity
avenue i touched the accelerator and give
her the juice,good
was the first ride and believe i we was
happy to see how nice she acted right up to
the last minute coming back down by the Public
Gardens i slammed on
brakes Bothatonce and
brought allofher tremB
to a:dead.
        e.e. cummings

This is an excellent example of how a writer can manipulate the way his or her text is read simply by playing with the rules. You are forced to experience this poem just as e.e. cummings had in mind and it makes for intense reading. Notice the way he surrounds the word “dead” with a colon and a period. These are two pieces of punctuation that when encountered, cause a reader to slow down or stop abruptly. So to write it this way “:dead.” Cummings is expressing the finality of the experience. It is a thing of beauty.

he absence of punctuation can be just as powerful. Open up any Cormac McCarthy novel and read a page and you will notice that the lack of punctuation also forces you to read the text a certain way. You must pay very close attention to understand a conversation between two or more characters when there are no quotation marks to guide you.

Many of us have read a sentence where someone forgot to use a period to end it or a comma to break it up and have found ourselves scratching our head and having to go back to reread it. This just goes to show you that punctuation in writing is an important element and one to be considered carefully. Ask yourself how you want your text to be read and then choose your punctuation accordingly.

Word of caution. There is a time and a place for such experimentation and during a formal writing assignment or in a cover letter is not the time. But don’t be afraid of punctuation. Use the fluidity and flexibility of the English language to your advantage…and read more e.e. cummings…..really…..he is brilliant.