Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Writing Poetry - a Family Affair

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Writing Poetry - a Family Affair

Article excerpt

RECENTLY when I pulled into the driveway, my landlady's children were building an igloo. Snowflakes were large and bright against the sky. Brother and sister wore thick red hats as they stacked snow bricks and whistled. My first impression was that here was a poem. My second thought was that they should be the ones to write it.

As I stood on my doorstep fumbling for keys, I pictured myself as a child making up word games, something that the snow-builders often do themselves. Almost from birth, children find it natural to create their own language, to gibber, babble, and see how many sounds they can make. Children learn the adult tongue by repeating words, yet often they add their own music and rhythm. They're natural poets.

As I closed the door behind me, I thought about some of my former college students - the ones who thought poetry was difficult, a secret language. Some students recalled high school teachers making them read poetry as a punishment. When these same pupils had to write poetry for my class, they often tried to make their work sound "adult and intellectual," yet really what they needed was to play with imagery and sound.

As poet John Frederick Nims points out, poetry is part of our cultural heritage. It appeared before prose in the literature of every country. Early poetry was an expression of joy; it was play, so wonderful that people thought it was magic. As Nims writes in the beginning of "Western Wind, an Introduction to Poetry," poetry is "more natural: more primitive, more basic, a more total expression of the muscular, sensuous, emotional, rhythmical nature of the human animal."

When I was teaching, one of the first things I did with my students was write a group poem. A student would suggest a word like "cat," and people would take turns adding color, movement, setting, etc. Our cat might become a long-haired black-and-white tom who is stalking a dizzy skunk that has just rolled out of a blue trash can. The yellow cat from the red house down the street might stalk them both from behind a rickety picket fence.

Once we had decided on an image, we would use that as the basis for our poem. Each student would go to the blackboard and write a line. The only rule was that each line had to continue the momentum of the poem. When a rough draft was completed, we'd look for places where the language could be made more colorful or more concise. Sometimes we'd rewrite completely.

This type of game can be played with older children, but even very young ones can begin to develop a poet's eye. Imagery is, after all, a poet's most basic tool, and children notice the way things look. They ask questions and often make very subtle and intuitive connections. A few years ago, I invited a friend's nine-year-old niece over for tea. She didn't spend much time at the table, but she did notice all the things on my floor. …

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