Writing Poetry - a Family Affair

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. She found my white mouse, who was sleeping in a ball in his cage. She noticed that my cat had left a whisker on my sofa.

A good way to teach kids what poetry sounds like is to show them poems that were written by children. ``The Wind and the Rain,'' by Joan Hollander and Harold Bloom, is an excellent example. The poems in this book are very perceptive and rich. The book helps readers see that language is a visual experience by pairing evocative photographs along with the poems.

A 10-year-old observes that:

Raindrops shimmer down

dirty glass

And measle the window-


The raindrops glide -

leaving a motionless


Raindrops fall, breaking

themselves to tiny china

An 11-year-old writes:

The wind is like the yeast

in bread.

It makes the clouds fluffy

white, not red.

It bakes them in the oven

of the sky,

Then sets them loose. I

wonder why?

The authors' word choice is impressive. In the first poem, the verbs create a picture of what is literally happening, yet also create a mood. The poem works on one's eye, ear, and sense of touch. The second poem is a good example of how poetry uses unusual language and comparisons to describe and make new an experience that is rather common. But in the course of describing what he saw, the poet raises an interesting question.

Children who are encouraged to write poetry have the benefit of learning to be aware of what goes on around them, but they may also learn how to put their world into perspective. There's a certain amount of freedom that comes from writing an experience down on the page.

Perhaps that's one reason why my students often said that writing helped them deal with their most difficult experiences. Yet there is also a kind of freedom to be found in reading other people's poetry. My friend and her niece once hiked up a mountain. When they reached the top, they found a large wooden cross. A plaque below explained that it had been erected in memory of a child who had fallen to her death while chasing a hat. My friend settled her thoughts about the image by turning it into poetry. Years later, her niece still remembers how that poem seemed to provide some sense of closure.

Introducing children to poetry can be a natural part of daily living. There are many fun books to read together. Just make sure to look at both free verse and rhymed poems, so kids don't get the idea that all poems have to rhyme. And the next time it snows, go outside with your children. Ask them what the snow feels like, and what the dog looks like when she's rolling around with a ball. Ask what the neighborhood sounds like when it's covered with white. Ask them what wind is. They might create a poem right on the spot.

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