Academic journal article Language Arts

Poems That Move: Children Writing Poetry beyond Popularized Poetic Forms

Academic journal article Language Arts

Poems That Move: Children Writing Poetry beyond Popularized Poetic Forms

Article excerpt

A mind that is lively and inquiring, compassionate, curious, angry, full of music, full of feeling, is a mind full of possible poetry.

(Mary Oliver, 1994, p. 122)

When I first read Oliver's quote, I immediately thought of the children I have worked with in elementary schools- young poets who delight in playing with language in ways I find enjoyable as a reader, inspiring as a poet, and educative as a teacher. In Best Words, Best Order, poet and critic Stephen Dobyns (2003) described poetry as "a verbal box that conveys feeling" (p. xiv), and he argued that "by making us more conscious of our feelings, poetry increases the emotional territory in which we live" (p. 206). In an interview, US Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrera described his own sentidos, or feelings, that he remembered from his childhood in California. Son of migrant farmers, he explained how home to him was not so much a dwelling with walls, but a landscape of images and sounds that triggered an emotion or a memory. He recalled "stars at night, the howling of coyotes, dew on the grass in the morning" (Griswold, 2009).

For children, too, writing poetry is a space for them to explore and express their cultural lived experiences (Cahnmann, 2006; Certo, 2015; Flint & Laman, 2012; Hanauer, 2012; Van Sluys & Reinier, 2006). In fact, because of the freedom and flexibility associated with the genre, it may be one of the most generative kinds of writing for children to express such deeply felt thoughts and lived experiences-what Hanauer (2012) termed "meaningful literacy." However, as a teacher educator and visiting poet the past 10 years, I have noticed that the common instructional narrative for teaching poetry writing in elementary school is a form-based approach-that is, one where students are asked to write various forms, such as an acrostic, cinquain, diamante, limerick, or haiku. The purpose of this article is not to dismiss a form-based approach. Form is part and parcel of understanding how poets draw on poetic language to convey meaning. Furthermore, contemporary poets may gravitate to form when a topic is very emotional for them or when a particular form can convey a precise mood, pacing, or musicality that honors the subject matter. When a form-based approach is used exclusively, however, it does not do justice to the whole field and process of poetry writing.

My concern is with helping young writers realize the breadth of the field of poetry. More specifically, my interest is in helping young poets understand that they can draw from a wide range of topics, structures, and features to move the meaning and mood of their poems forward. Teachers have often asked me, "Without the crutch of form, won't students be lost at sea with how the poem should look on the page?" Virtually every poet I know has argued that to write poetry, one must first read a wide variety of poetry. After all, in terms of classroom practice, we know that reading poetry offers opportunities for children to focus closely on the beauty, play, and emotive power of lang"°"e (Elster & Hanauer, 2002). In this article, I advocate for immersing children in diverse mentor texts and giving them open-composing time to write poetry.

As demonstration, I offer a literary analysis of the poetry of two fifth graders, Long and Colleen (all names are pseudonyms), to illustrate two points. First, when fifth graders are given diverse mentor texts and open-composing time, their poems have emotive material from their own lives-their cultures, families, and histories. Second, when children are free from a form-based approach, their poems can still have an intuitive sophistication of craft. That sophistication largely comes from poetic structure-that is, how a poem moves, how it travels from beginning to end.

Beginning with Structure and Mentor Texts

Poetic Structure: How Poems Move

The language of poetry is distilled, containing words, lines, and stanzas charged with feeling, with their utmost meaning. …

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