National Writing Project

Place-Based Poetry, One Step at a Time

By: Ann Gardner
Publication: The Quarterly, Vol. 27, No. 2
Date: 2005

Summary: Gardner's student, who had never seen a free-form poem, writes successfully in free-form style when he is exposed to works in this mode and led through a revision one step at a time.

 

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Intimate writing, writing from the heart, does not come easily to most adolescents. This is even true when they write poems, because, although poetry appeals to the heart, these young writers have often been taught to engage with poetry, if at all, using the left side of their brains—seeking words that rhyme, examining the number of syllables, concentrating on meaning. I want my students to use, as well, the part of their brains that allows them to crawl into deep recesses of memory, shake hidden treasures awake, and write from their souls.

My students' free-form poetry speaks of place, their voices echo from towering blue mesas, shouting out from our high desert plateau where silence rings. They sing of life, of herding sheep, of being Navajo, and of doing what "my father did, my grandfather did, and all of my family before me," when they water the corn. But it has taken them some time to reach the point where their song is effectively heard.

*****

Colin, like other of my eighth-graders, stares at his paper as the blue lines stretch into eternity. "Write a poem," I say. Colin looks pleadingly at the paper, willing words that don't come to burst from the stark lines. As a teacher, where do I start? Colin is not the only budding author with writer's block. I know my students have not been much exposed to poetry, so we read and discuss poems, creating mental pictures as we read. I want them to understand that poetry is about constructing images. As they read the poems of others, I ask them to think about a moment in their lives that could serve as the subject of a poem. They draw on the journal entries and life maps they have created, looking for an appropriate subject.

Meanwhile, I model my own writing process. I search for an idea from my life map. "I would like to write about the time I got bucked off of my horse, but that seems like a pretty complicated experience to be conveyed in a poem. That memory might be better for a story. My poem needs to capture a moment in time. It has to be caught like a photograph. . . . I think I will write about my grandmother's house—but wait, that idea is enormous; I need to narrow it down. . . . I know, I'll write about waking up at grandmother's house." I draw a picture of my moment in time as I chatter about the details in my illustration (see page 15), listing sense words I can see, hear, smell, taste, and touch, and that I feel in my heart.

My students follow my modeled example one step at a time, as I work from the whole to the parts, from the abstract to the concrete. They collaborate with peers to decide which idea from journals or life maps will work for writing a poem. Cassandra decides to write about her sister braiding her hair. Sierra chooses standing on the 100-yard-dash starting line. Colin, from the Navajo reservation, chooses lying in his bed as he listens to the coyote in the darkness. He wonders what mischief coyote is up to. Each of us creates a picture from memory. We are ready to begin.

With my sensory list next to my illustration, I begin to write, modeling the process for my class. "I loved my grandmother's house, but I don't want to say `I love it.' That does not mean anything. I need to present my audience with a sense of place. How can I do that?" We discuss the importance of a powerful first line and how that line sets the tone and mood for the piece. I write on chart paper, modeling what I might expect from a student's first draft.

Grandma's is wonderful
A house of peace and fun
Where wind moves curtains.
The home made quilt has stories
Of Jimmy's new shirt, my Easter dress, my aunt's graduation    dress and more . . .

My students begin their pieces, writing a single thought per line. Even though we have talked about form and the difference between the way stories and poems look and sound, the one-thought-per-line concept guides students out of a "story" mentality. Colin creates a memorable moment from the darkness outside his window as he listens to the broken stillness.

Coyotes howling at night
All is quiet
But not for to long
The trickster is not easily fooled
He searches the night waiting for food
Hoping, hoping, hoping
Howling at the moon

Students capture their illustrated moment using the images and words from their sensory list, referring to their illustrations to generate an idea for another line. The class has conquered the painful moment, the greatest challenge: the first words on the blank paper. As they complete their drafts, it is time for the pleasure to begin. I start to teach students how to revisit and improve these first efforts.

Flow

First I focus on one of the six traits of writing: sentence fluency. I read my poem aloud and discuss the reading's ease and rhythm. If the reader stumbles over words, there are too many words in the line or the words do not read fluidly together. Rhythm is an essential element of poetry and unintentional choppiness is to be avoided. I decide aloud that is wonderful in my first line is awkward to read and does not add imagery. The word fun also creates a choppy line. The list of details at the end now sounds clunky.

Grandma's is wonderful
A house of peace and fun
Where wind moves curtains.
The home made quilt has stories
Of Jimmy's new shirt, my Easter dress, my aunt's graduation    dress and more. . .

After I model expectations for the first revision, students apply the lesson. I do not correct Colin's misuse of to. Conventions come later in the writing process, and I do not want to block a creativity that has been hard to germinate. Colin evaluates his poem and reads it aloud to hear the rhythm and flow. As it turns out, he eliminates to in the third line, improving the fluency. He is not satisfied with the three hopings, but decides to keep the line and work with his peer revisers.

Coyotes howling at night
All is quiet
But not for to long
The trickster is not easily fooled
He searches the night waiting for food
Hoping, hoping, hoping
Howling at the moon

Word Choice

Next, I revise my poem for word choice. I want to pack my poem with images and descriptive words. I decide moves is not a descriptively rich word. In keeping with the tone of the poem I want a soothing word. With student input, I begin to seek synonyms: teases, dances with, plays in, flows. Flows is voted the best choice.

Grandma's
A house of peace
Where wind moves flows through curtains.
The home made quilt has stories

Colin investigates his choice of words. Hoping gives the feeling he wants to portray, but he dislikes the series. He studies the thesaurus seeking words that reflect the mood and tone he wants to create, his personification of the coyote hoping. Colin believes he can make more of the coyote's feelings by adding the phrase begging for food.

Coyotes howling at night
All is quiet
But not for long
The trickster is not easily fooled
He searches the night waiting for food
Hoping, hoping, hoping waiting, silently
Howling at the moon
Begging for food

I look again at my poem, this time evaluating my use of nouns and verbs. I replace vague nouns and verbs with specific ones. I work through my poem aloud, seeking student input.

Grandma's
A house home of peace tranquility
Where wind breezes moves flow through dance with curtains.
The homemade quilt has stories

Colin evaluates his nouns and verbs. Even though he has just added begging, he decides this word makes coyote sound weak, so he makes a wise choice, which is more in the spirit of the poem, substituting the word praying. Colin is coming to understand that the writing process is not linear. (I find that with many of my native students' learning and thinking styles, the process often is uniquely spiral.) Colin evaluates the mood and tone of the poem and reflects on the sensation he wants to create. He revises by adding new ideas to the first two lines to create a more effective image. He creates more tension with the added darkness and abyss to replace the overused and imageless night.

Coyotes howling into the deep, black abyss
All is quiet in the deep night
But not for long
The trickster is not easily fooled
He searches the night darkness waiting for food
Hoping, waiting, silently
Howling at the moon
Begging Praying for food

In our next revision session, we look specifically at changing or eliminating adverbs and adjectives. Often a noun change follows suit, but my intention in all these changes is to demonstrate how these alterations can move a poem to more precise and imagistic language.

Grandma's
A home of tranquility
Where wind soft breezes dance with sheer curtains.
Grandma's colorful home made quilt has untold stories

Colin uses adjectives to create a richer image of a night on the reservation. The black abyss does not give him the rich image he wants, so he selects another adjective, dark, as well as changing the noun to the more precise canyon walls.

Coyotes howling into the deep, black abyss dark canyon walls
All is quiet in the deep night
But not for long
The trickster is not easily fooled
He searches the night darkness waiting for food
Hoping, waiting, silently
Howling at the moon
Begging Praying for food

Adding Phrases and Clauses

While we do not want to clutter our poems with excessive verbiage, sometimes the addition of a phrase or clause makes for greater specificity. I demonstrate how phrases and clauses can both create imagery and explain ideas.

Grandma's
Protected by towering pecan trees,
A home of tranquility
Where soft breezes dance with sheer curtains.
A delicious hint of fresh alfalfa drifts in the open window
Grandma's colorful home made quilt has untold stories of    bright squares. . .

Colin reviews his poem and evaluates whether or not additional phrases or clauses will add to the poem's imagery while maintaining its rhythm and fluency. He often reflects and revises later. The modeling of the revision process makes students aware of revision possibilities, but students know they do not need to use all of the revision techniques we discuss. Each is just another tool in a writer's toolbox.

Coyotes howling into the deep, dark canyon walls
All is quiet in the deep night
But not for long
The trickster is not easily fooled
He searches the night darkness waiting for food
Hoping, waiting, silently
Howling at the moon
Begging Praying for food
Running through the night

Figurative Language

We had not yet considered simile and metaphor, key ingredients of poetry, so after a discussion of these elements, we look at my poem. I find a way to compare myself to a butterfly.

Grandma's
Protected by towering pecan trees,
A home of tranquility
Where soft breezes dance with sheer curtains.
A delicious hint of fresh alfalfa drifts in the open window
I dream snuggled under
Grandma's colorful home made quilt has untold stories of    bright squares.
A chrysalis unborn
Wrapped tight in love
Soon to blossom into a butterfly
. . .

Colin studies his work and decides not to use this revision technique.

Repetition

Next, I model deliberate repetition. One valuable repetitive technique is to repeat the first line of a poem again as the last. If a student has problems ending his work, this revision technique can give him successful closure other than The End.

Grandma's
Protected by towering pecan trees,
A home of tranquility
Where soft breezes dance with sheer curtains.
A delicious hint of fresh alfalfa drifts in the open window
I dream snuggled under
Grandma's colorful home made quilt has untold stories of    bright squares.
A chrysalis unborn
Wrapped tight in love
Soon to blossom into a magnificent butterfly
at Grandma's

Colin experiments with using the first line as his last line, since he is still not satisfied with the ending of the poem. He does not think the new last line flows with the poem, but he places it there anyway, leaving it for peer revision.

Coyotes howling into the deep, dark canyon walls
All is quiet in the deep night
But not for long
The trickster is not easily fooled
He searches the darkness waiting for food
Hoping, waiting, silently
Howling at the moon
Praying for food
Running through the night
Coyotes howling into the deep, dark canyon walls

White Space

The white space around the poem often determines how the author intends the writing to be read. When space is left between lines, it draws attention to the subsequent line. Short lines create tension, especially if used in a series. I read my poem, and add white space as I process my thinking aloud and talk about mental pictures I want to create in the reader's mind.

Grandma's
Protected
by towering pecan trees,
A home of tranquility
Where soft breezes dance with sheer curtains.
A delicious hint of fresh alfalfa drifts in the open window
I dream
snuggled
Under Grandma's colorful home made quilt has untold stories    of bright squares.
A chrysalis unborn
Wrapped tight in love
Soon to blossom into a magnificent butterfly,
At Grandma's

Colin reads his poem repeatedly, seeking the pauses and pacing. He wants to draw attention to the but not for long line, so he adds white space. He also wants to create tension and knows that short phrases provide that effect, so he evaluates the hoping, waiting, silently line and adds white space.

Coyotes howling into the deep, dark canyon walls
All is quiet in the deep night
But,
not for long
The trickster is not easily fooled
He searches the darkness waiting for food
Hoping,
Waiting,
Silently,
Howling at the moon
Praying for food
Running through the night
Coyotes howling into the deep, dark canyon walls

Beginning and Endings

Since a poem should start and end strongly, I wonder if there is a line within the poem that would make for a stronger beginning or ending. I evaluate the power of the first and last lines. I consider moving A chrysalis unborn to the first line of my poem. I talk about the choice, as it is a strong line that I feel truly speaks to the heart of why I like my grandmother's house and liked growing up there. After moving the line and adjusting the poem for meaning and flow, I search my work for my least effective line. Working with student input, I eliminate the alfalfa line, which contributes little to the meaning.

A chrysalis unborn
Wrapped tight in love
Soon to blossom into a magnificent butterfly,
At Grandma's
A home of tranquility
Protected
by towering pecan trees,
Where soft breezes dance with sheer curtains.
A delicious hint of fresh alfalfa drifts in the open window
I dream
snuggled
Under a warm home made quilt
At Grandma's

I watch Colin study his poem seeking his favorite and most powerful line. He tries several revisions and determines his strongest line, the one which puts the reader in the setting and creates the mood, is still his first line.

After working with his peer group, he still does not like the end line, so makes a considered choice and revises. I visit with him and we talk about how the new line ends the poem with high impact and an ominous tone. A quick smile flashes across his face, and Colin is satisfied with his creation.

Coyotes howling into the deep, dark canyon walls
All is quiet in the deep night
But,
not for long
The trickster is not easily fooled
He searches the darkness waiting for food
Hoping,
Waiting,
Silently
Howling at the moon
Praying for food
Running through the night
Chasing, stalking his prey
He hungers no more

Conclusion

Colin has progressed from staring at a blank sheet of paper to the creation of a rich and striking poem. But Colin needed support and systematic bite-sized pieces to develop skills so that he would be able to organize concepts into larger and more complex ideas. He was successful in using the tools I gave him to create a fine piece of work. The ideas are Colin's. The choices are ultimately Colin's, even though I guided him through a variety of revision techniques, and he worked collaboratively with his peer group.

Later, he created a "cheat sheet" describing each of the revision techniques we had discussed. He now keeps his notes in his writing notebook as a reference. I cannot tell you that Colin has gained the magic solution to writing from this limited series of revision minilessons, but he does have the beginnings of a skills-and-knowledge base to create powerful poetry and other forms of writing. The writing he creates is dynamic and alive as Colin validates his life and culture. His classroom engagement has grown from disconnected silence to an engaged and polite quietness. Now his brown eyes sparkle as he writes, and a grin splashes across his face. All he needed was the writer's tools and the confidence that he, too, is a writer.

About the Author Ann Gardner is technology director of the Holbrook (Arizona) Unified School District and teaches eighth grade at the Holbrook Middle School. She is a teacher-consultant with the Southern Arizona Writing Project and developed these strategies for helping students make poems while participating in NWP's Rural Voices, Country Schools project.

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