Friday, April 11, 2008

Poetry in the Classroom - Writing Poetry

I write poetry regularly and often turn to books for children and young adults to help me think about form and process. When I was in school, I wrote free verse. While I recall writing the occasional haiku as a English assignment, I was never instructed in how to write poetry. Oh how I wish I had been. Poetry can be so much fun. Trying to make your ideas and favorite words fit into a structured form can be a daunting task, but one that gives much satisfaction upon its completion.

Three books I often open for inspiration are A Kick in the Head: An Everyday Guide to Poetic Forms, compiled by Paul B. Janeczko and illustrated by Chris Raschka, R is For Rhyme: A Poetry Alphabet, written by Judy Young and illustrated by Victor Juhasz, and Immersed in Verse: An Informative, Slightly Irreverent & Totally Tremendous Guide to Living the Poet's Life, written by Allan Wolf and illustrated by Tuesday Morning.

A Kick in the Head begins with an introduction about poetic forms. It reads:
Why, you may ask, do poems have rules? Why 17 syllables in a haiku? Why 14 lines in a sonnet? The answer is: rules make the writing of a poem more challenging, more exciting. Think of a game you enjoy, like baseball. Imagine how much less intriguing the game would be if there were no foul line or limit to the number of outs in an inning. The rules often ask, "Can you do a good job within these limits?" Knowing the rules makes poetry--like sports--more fun, for players and spectators alike.
What follows are 29 poetics forms. Each form is accompanied by some kind of visual clue in the top corner of the page. For example, the page for couplet shows two birds on a wire, epitaph shows a headstone, and ode shows a Grecian urn. Once the form has been identified, readers find a short informational description and poetic example. Here's an example. On the page for acrostic, the visual clue is the letter A. An acrostic is described as a poem in which" the first letter of each line spells out the subject of the poem." The left page contains a picture of a cat on a table and a broken potted plant. The right page contains a picture of a dog sweeping. The poems read:

This volume not only contains many familiar forms, such as haiku, cinquain, acrostic and limerick, but also forms such as aubade, pantoum, villanelle, and double dactyl. At the end of the book readers will find a bit more background information on each of the 29 forms.

R is For Rhyme also looks at poetic forms, as well as some of the "tools" that poets use, such as onomatopoeia, metaphor, end rhyme and more. Some forms included here that do not appear in A Kick in the Head include ghazal, kyrielle, tanka, and ubi sunt. Each alphabet letter begins with what the letter is for and includes a poem written in that form. The "sidebar" on each page contains informational text that describes the form or tool and includes some tips for reading and writing poems. Here's an example.
C is for Cinquain.

Attached to me,
This black transparency.
I can't escape the shape of my

A cinquain (sing-Kane) is any poem or stanza that has five lines. A poet named Adelaide Crapsey developed a type of cinquain poem based on Japanese poetry styles. A Crapsey cinquain has a syllable count of 2-4-6-8-2 syllables per line.
There are two big differences between this book and A Kick in the Head. First, R is for Rhyme contains poems written by the author, while the selections in A Kick in the Head tend to be by well-known poets. Second, R is for Rhyme contains a great deal more information about each of the forms.

While the first two books are picture books that can be used with elementary school (and older) students, Immersed in Verse, is a how-to guide for middle grades and young adults on becoming a poet. The book begins this way.
Have you noticed how rhythm makes you move? How heave bass vibrates the door panels of passing cars? Have you noticed the colors of a rainbow? How the stench of fireworks burns your eyes? How you cold winter hands sting under warm water? To be a poet is to notice.
Poems are all around us, waiting to be written. The world teems with words, images, ideas, sights, sounds, colors, anecdotes, notions, and emotions. Just as water is the stuff of life to a fish, the world is the stuff of life to be a poet. all you need to do is dive in.
The book is divided into several sections, each color-coded for ease of use. Poetry & You offers readers a quick guided tour of poetry, nine habits of successful poets (such as get gonzo over words, write every day and play), a writing pledge and more you. Your Poetry Toolbox explains the tools of the trade, such as poetic devices and the anatomy of a poem. The Poet's Decisions delves deep into the process of writing, providing lessons on point of view, tense, form, playing with structure, revising and much more. Always Something to Write About provides ideas for journaling and writing prompts. The last major section, Ta Da!: Presenting Your Work is about reading, performing and publishing poetry. Liberally sprinkled throughout the text are examples and lots of poems from a range of poets.

One of my favorite sections is entitled Your Best Revising Tools. Having just spent a significant amount of time revising a poem, I can tell you how much these ring true. Here they are in abbreviated form.
  1. Time - It's very difficult to read a poem objectively on the day you wrote it. It's best to let it age--a day, a week, a month.
  2. An Audition - With poetry, there's no room for words that aren't pulling their weight. Make those words work for you. Make them prove they belong where they are.
  3. A Sense of Fearless Tinkering - Don't be afraid to take apart what you've done. . . . Take your poem apart and put it back together. Don't worry about the extra parts still on the floor.
  4. Highlighting the Poem's Golden Moments - Use a yellow highlighter to designate your poem's top three golden moments (be they a single work, a partial phrase, or an entire line) that are vital to the poem's life. . . . Once you've highlighted the poem's golden moments, examine the remaining words with a critical eye.
  5. Vivacious Vocal Cords - Poetry is ultimately a spoken art. . . . but it's also a great revision tool. It helps flag a poem's awkward phrases, blips, bleeps, and blemishes.
The book ends with appendices of selected poems and poets, as well as publishing resources for young writers.

All three of these books can serve as useful jumping off points for writing poetry in your classroom. While there are many great poetry teaching resources written expressly for teachers, these are some of my favorite books for kids.

If you are looking for additional resources on poetry writing, try these sites.


  1. I loved writing poetry when I was in elementary school, but ast adult, despite (or perhaps because) of many years of studying and teaching literature, I got away from writing more of my own. These books look so wonderful (I always preferred writing formal poerty), they might inspire me as well as my kids! Thanks for the recommendations, Tricia.

  2. Wow! This post is a wealth of information. Thanks!