Poetry writing: A walk-through lesson

Reading Time: 7 minutes

In the lesson before this, I’d read On the Sidewalk Bleeding with my Year 8 class, as part of a narrative/short-story unit (some EXCELLENT black lives matters and identity conversation came from it too). The standard has been a couple of analytical lessons followed by creative writing. It’s been an AGE since I taught poetry, and I’ve recently read @funkypedagogy‘s book which reminded me of how much I enjoy it – and I was heartened to see her methods basically mirrored my own. (Always lovely when someone you respect can reaffirm you’re doing the right thing!) Some of the below has incorporated her ideas as well. The examples in this lesson started with the description of an old lady in the story, and went on to create a poem about her.

Getting started: a description

I started by asking them to list some characters, and then to choose one of them to free-write about for ten minutes, thinking about physical description, objects associated with them, how they moved, and so on, but not to worry too much about their word choices.

Example:  
An old lady stopped garbage cans stacked   there, beating noisily in the rain. The old lady carried an umbrella with broken ribs, carried it like a queen. She stepped into the mouth of the alley, shopping bag over one arm. She lifted the lids of the garbage cans. She did not hear Andy grunt because she was a little deaf and because the rain was beating on the cans. She collected her string and her newspapers, and an old hat with a feather on it from one of the garbage cans, and a broken footstool from another of the cans. And then she replaced the lids and lifted her umbrella high and walked out of the alley mouth. She had worked quickly and soundlessly, and now she was gone.

Cutting it down. 

They highlighted or rewrote out key phrases, just in a list order from their paragraph, removing any grammatical ‘glue’ words and keeping only the detail they liked. 

  • CUT: Look carefully at what you have written and highlight some key phrases. You can get rid of anything that’s grammatically holding the sentences together – just keep the specific details. Take out any full stops, commas etc.
Example:
old lady stopped
garbage cans stacked
beating noisily in rain
umbrella with broken ribs
like a queen
mouth of the alley
shopping bag one arm  
a little deaf
collected string and newspapers
old hat with a feather
broken footstool
lifted umbrella high
walked out worked
quickly and soundlessly
now she was gone

 

Third, they moved it around. I discussed some of the bullet points below, and then looked at my version including the reasons that I’d changed the things I had. Having the two side by side was really helpful as I could show them what I’d moved, why, and discuss the effect I was trying to have. 

Move these lines around. Think about some of the following ideas:

  • Putting similar or contrasting words next to each other (or the end of one line/start of the next) to link them together in your reader’s interpretation.
  • Beginning and ending – is there a story to your poem? Does it feel like it ‘travels’ in some way? Does it have a sense of movement? Even in a ‘snapshot in time’ poem, there should be some small progression between the beginning and the end.
  • Do you want to introduce stanza breaks to move onto new thoughts/images?
  • Which images do you want to be the most important? How are you doing that? Do you need to add description? (Remember: the most powerful description is often the simplest. George Orwell said, “Never use a long word where a short one will do.”)
  • You might (but don’t have to) put back some grammatical words to create sentences or additional phrases to link ideas together. 
Example:
old lady stopped
garbage cans stacked
beating noisily in rain
umbrella with broken ribs
like a queen
mouth of the alley
shopping bag one arm  
a little deaf
collected string and newspapers
old hat with a feather
broken footstool
lifted umbrella high
walked out worked
quickly and soundlessly
now she was gone

Example:
At the mouth of the alleyway
the old lady stopped, peering in.
Stacked garbage cans
beat noisily,
rain thumping
and pounding the steel
as she raises the
broken-ribbed umbrella,
shopping bag in the crook
of her elbow
and steps out
like a queen
collecting her treasures.
String, and newspapers,
an old hat with a feather,
a broken legged footstool 
a cracked leather purse.
Quickly and soundlessly
she gathers her jewels
takes a quick look around.
Now she is gone.

Then, the final edit. We discussed these as what ‘polishes’ a poem – because I didn’t want them to start with anything like thyme or rhythm, but to have them in mind at this stage. 

  • Word choices: Think about your word choices; are there any you want to strengthen or change? Check your adjectives and verbs – are they the best choices?
  • Line breaks:
    • Do you want sentences to stop at the end of a line, or flow into the next one?
    • Where are your stanza breaks?
    • Do you want any single words on a line?
    • Are your lines (roughly) the same length? If there’s one that’s very different, is it definitely an important one – because these get noticed more.
  • Rhyme / rhythm.
    This one’s really difficult. If you have rhymed words – is it deliberate? Does it link those words together to make them more important and connected?
    Read it aloud as naturally as possible. Are there some words you would like more emphasis on, for example because they are the main adjective or verb in the image? Can you swap the phrases around to make that happen?

 

Example:
At the mouth of the alleyway
the old lady stopped, peering in.
Stacked garbage cans
beat noisily,
rain thumping
and pounding the steel
as she raises the
broken-ribbed umbrella,
shopping bag in the crook
of her elbow
and steps out
like a queen collecting her treasures.
String, and newspapers,
an old hat with a feather,
a broken legged-footstool.
Quickly and soundlessly
she gathers her jewels
takes a quick look around.
Now she is gone.

Example:

At the mouth of the alleyway
the old lady peers in.
Stacked trash cans
beat loud in the rain.  

She raises a
broken-ribbed umbrella,
the shopping bag at her elbow
and steps out
like a queen collecting her treasure.  

String and newspaper,
an old hat with a feather,
a broken legged footstool
a cracked leather purse.  

Silently, swiftly,
she gathers her jewels,
looks around,
and is gone.

This was undoubtedly a very quick way of writing a poem, I think – the lesson was about an hour from start to finish. But they all had something that would classify as a poem, that they’d edited, refined, and redrafted. They weren’t all happy with their final product – but I’m ok with that! Some will go away and redraft some more, some will leave it – but they all now know that they can write poetry, and have a method we can return to again. I’m going to do this much more often, with several of our themes and ideas, especially the ones related to character and place which lend themselves so well to quick descriptive writing. 

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