Nonetheless, we started out, as always, by reading poems. Today I had various students read each piece aloud line by line, and then I read it again. First up was Nikki Giovanni's "Winter Poem," a deceptively simple children's poem. I say "deceptively simple" because when I asked students to number the chronological events of the poem, one girl immediately said, "Doesn't that just mean numbering the lines?" Not quite. It didn't take long for the class to realize that the this happened and then that happened and then that happened events are interspersed with moments of stasis, when nothing but feelings seem to exist.
So we talked a bit about how Giovanni used the time-passing structure as a way to organize not only the events themselves but also reactions to those events. And then I tossed out the word image and asked them to find a few. The students struggled with this task, and no wonder. Even though the poem does include a number of nouns, none is particularly vivid. The most complex image--"web of snow"--is in fact quite difficult to picture. So the poem's appeal seems to come not from a visual evocation of winter but from the way in which the lines move the reader from one place to another place in both time and space.
Now we moved on to our second poem, Jane Kenyon's translation of Anna Akhmatova's "Along the Hard Crest of the Snowdrift." After we finished reading it aloud, I jumped straight into image: "Find some images in this poem," I said, and of course the students immediately capitulated, tossing out one gorgeous phrase after another. For this is a poem whose sensibility is almost entirely image-driven; and when I asked the class to do what they'd done with the Giovanni poem--that is, to number the events as they took place--they also realized that hardly anything happens in this poem: a bit of walking, some trembling branches, the ringing of spurs. Akhmatova's poem stays in the same time and place throughout, but we vividly experience the intensity of that moment.
All of this chat about the two poems took, at most, 15 minutes. Then I gave the class a writing prompt, which took the form of the following diagram on the board:
Then I explained:
2. Your poem is going to either start at the sky and work down to the ground or start at the ground and work up to the sky: your choice.
3. You can also define your own limits of sky and ground: e.g., sky can be outer space or the top of a tree; ground can be a soccer field or a cavern of magma.
4. Before the end of this class period, write a 20-line poem that moves all the way from top to bottom or from bottom to top.
"Twenty lines!" Naturally they were aghast. But after some initial jabbering, they fell into deep silence, and they wrote and wrote and wrote. The teachers and I pressed them to keep cranking out lines: "Don't stop and think; this is a first draft; you'll do the thinking later." Fortunately, they had that stunning Akhmatova poem in their heads, and the Giovanni poem had allowed them to quickly absorb the idea of how one might attach images to a preexisting beginning-to-end framework. Still, in terms of production, this was by far the biggest demand I'd made of them, and I bet they were tired afterward.
With five minutes left in the class, three students (all juniors! remember how silent those juniors were on day 1?) decided to read their work aloud. Each was a poem about an autumn morning in Dover-Foxcroft, Maine, yet all were distinctive. We had one in which the wind functioned as a continuous image from top to bottom. We had another in which the movement from top to bottom was intersected beautifully by the side-to-side interruption of a loaded log truck moving down the road. We had another that eschewed the omniscient eye and instead created a first-person narrator who speculates about what she is seeing around her.
For homework, I asked them to reduce their 20-line poem to 10 lines, but without damaging the top-down or bottom-up structure. In other words, they can't just chop off 10 lines and call it done but have to actually pick and choose and cut and paste and refine and delete to get the poem down to 10 lines.
For more about this project, follow the links: