Wednesday, April 29, 2015

NPM Project: Jumping Into Form - Michael J. Rosen on Form

While Michael Rosen and I connected over a possible interview, we had a series of interesting conversations about this project and my interest in form. I was thrilled when he offered to write a piece on form, so I gladly accepted. That is what I am sharing today.

I had to resist the temptation to highlight the points that struck a chord as I read, but I realized they may not be the same points that stand out for you. This is an important piece and part of a larger conversation. I hope teachers, writers, and poetry lovers alike will take these wise words to heart.
The Problem with Poetic Forms? Not Thinking of Them as Solutions
—Michael J. Rosen
(You can learn more about Michael at his web site.)

After 35 years of teaching kids poetry (this would be some series classes and many visiting author workshops), I can report that writing poetry is way too easy for kids. And way too hard. Rhyme is too easy; and too hard. So are syllabics such as haiku. Dare I say that poetic form—any one—is both too easy and too hard. And these troubles (and there are many) stem from a fundamental absence of the very opportunities that poetry is supposed to provide for a writer: the rewards of challenging work, the gratification of a new perspective or appreciation, the stumbling upon breakthroughs and surprises. 

Consider these fragments that follow “corrective measures.” Consider them notes—to myself, to my colleagues, to young writers—that aim to reframe the way we offer forms of poetry to children. 

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Form is structure. It’s support. It’s solidity. It’s what words and lines and sentences and narrative and images and ideas are build upon or within. Form keeps writers (kids and adults) from just saying the first words that come to mind, from being okay with (done!) whatever sentiment, observation, word choice, etc., hits the page first. We all need a challenge to our thoughts. Indeed, the poet W. B. Yeats said that poetry was a writer arguing with himself. 

We need to let poetic form be the ring in which young writers can wrestle with their thoughts. 

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Think of the role that gravity plays in dance. It’s what makes lightness remarkable. Just how thrilling would a lift be in ballet, say, if gravity weren’t an issue? If a dancer could float across the stage in a leap. Dance would be an entirely different art if weightlessness were a factor.

Poetic form is gravity. It’s what adds weight to our words. It’s what adds bravura, boldness, and originality to our ordinary expressions.

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Even if a poetic form—sonnet, tanka, ballad, limerick—possesses, by some definitions, a standard pattern or a required structure, it can’t be an ice-cube tray into which words are merely poured, frozen, and dumped out. That form has to be an ice sculpture in which the writing reveals something remarkable. 

If we simply describe the structure of a form and agree that anything that “fits” it, is, indeed, a successful use of the form, that’s like saying that reading the progression of letters in a series of words is the same as comprehending what that sentence means. 

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Instead, poetic forms uncover possibilities. They don’t take “what we know” and simply add rhymes or break up lines. They take “what we don’t know,” and inch us, revision by revision, toward knowing. They take impressions and memories and general topics and things we’re curious about, and put them under pressure so that all the words begin interacting—banging into one another, ricocheting off the “walls” of the form—and, thereby, create heat and light. Yes, too often, we never give kids a chance to feel that illumination, that charge of power! 

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Another trouble: Ideas. In my book, we shouldn’t expect that what a kid writes about is going to be…wow! brilliant! truly inspired! utterly remarkable! And we shouldn’t set them up with that expectation. (That’s why the library isn’t filled with the work of kids, right?) So what’s our job as teachers? To help them master the forms? Oh, sure, to some degree. But more importantly, it’s to create exhilarating experiences, to afford enormous and unexpected pleasures, to make the writing of poetry a practice that nourishes and enlivens. A kid who loves the act…will continue it. Will get better at it. Will eventually master forms. And, eventually, will write poems of substance and significance. The great 20th century poet W. H. Auden believed that “hanging around with words,” was more crucial for a young person’s development as a writer than having something to say.

Give kids a chance to feel the rewards that come from concentration and struggle, the fulfillment that comes from puzzling, repeated attempts, and invention. See if you can’t remove the pleasure (that’s mostly just “relief”) from that initial coming up with something. And remove it from the “relief” of quickly turning in something, with its coincident pleasure of getting to go on to whatever’s next. 

Sustain the pleasure of right now…for as long as possible. 

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For a reader or listener, rhyme can lift a poem into music, insinuate lines into memory, and afford the intrinsic pleasure of repetition. But for the writer, the role of rhyme is to challenge and, therein, elevate the language of the poem. Rhyme’s role is to be unrelenting, so that the writer must search for that just right word, adjust the line breaks or description or content or phrasing, in order satisfy the rhyme scheme…in a pleasing way. 

Rhymes confer an aural emphasis on certain words—typically, end words, which are already cued up in that important terminal position. Ideally, rhyming words are important ones…that produce more than just a repetition of a syllable or vowel sound. And to that end: It’s key to remember that the first word in a rhymed pair doesn’t rhyme. It sets up the second word, so that  I T   R I N G S  O U T…and, most often, we let kids work in a way that allows them to force a match to the first word in a rhyming pair with an unimportant second word. So the second word merely sounds—and sounds lame or illogical—rather than reveals something as it echoes. 

So changing the whole way of composing rhymes is vital. Pry loose words that offer hackneyed or obtuse rhymes. Use a rhyming dictionary. Generate a pool of possible rhymes. Use a thesaurus to try a different word that might generate a whole new set of options. 

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Likewise, counting syllables, as in haiku or tanka or other forms, creates a similar trouble: That process should involve uncertainty, not certainty. It’s so easy to let kids feel the contentment of being quick and being done…rather than the genuine contentment with the work itself. Counting syllables should happen LAST. It, too should be part of the argument with the content itself. It should create tension. (Ah! Think of a line of poetry as a string on a violin or guitar. In order to resonate, that line has to be taut, not simply stretched out.) Syllabics causes compression and expansion that should initiate a new flow of words, options, and subject matter. The way kids are typically given the form, they stuff words into a syllabic form like tepid leftovers into a Styrofoam clamshell (that is typically left at the restaurant or in the car or in the back of the fridge…forgotten because, well, it really wasn’t that good in the first place!). [You must block that metaphor, and yet that goofy overextension does hint at why students  lack motivation to revise or illustrate or read aloud something they drum up so easily and execute so hastily.] 

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One other trouble. When it comes to poetry, we don’t give kids enough time to dive in, come up for air, dive in again. And then we typically give them one chance. Try this form. Great! Now, let’s move onto some other form. And even writing poetry of any sort is typically confined to one unit or just a once-in-a-while treat (or torture). And this survey approach—one form after another—doesn’t let any familiarity or efficiency or experimentation kick in. So it’s like doing a preliminary sketch, and then adding the finishing touches and the frame…even before the perspective, the composition, the details, or the colors have been thought through. 

Think of anything you’ve learned to do well—casting a fly-fishing rod, crimping the edges of a perfect pie crust, floating up into a yoga head stand. If you only had one chance to try these “forms,” your success is going to be limited. As will be the pleasure in the…frustrating? slapdash? improving?...accomplishment. How do we improve except by repetition? 

Let me leave you with this: Practice doesn’t only make perfect. Along the way, practice makes for possibilities, including the possibility of enjoying the craft enough to…one day…master it. 

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Thank you, thank you, a million thank you's to Michael J. Rosen for providing us with such rich food for thought on form.


  1. Thank you, Michael Rosen and Tricia! Wow. Rich food for thought, indeed. I love the way he has put into succinct form many of my feelings about poetry and how we teach kids to write it. Have bookmarked this, shared it, and will be sending teachers to it!

  2. Amen. Thanks to both of you for thoughtfully tackling this topic. Love the idea that "practice makes for possibilities...".

  3. I liked this so much because I kind of thought backwards to all of my striving with form this year and found out Mr. Rosen is right in many ways! The idea of heat and light, from slapping our words against each other, against the form -- such energy from that exercise!

    I love it.

  4. This is amazing! Yes, Tricia, almost every phrase is highlightable! This is a keeper. Thank you Michael & Tricia!

  5. "Practice makes for possibilities." Truer words were never spoken. Thank you so much for this! I will be returning to Michael's brilliant insights again and again.

  6. Thank you so much for posting this, Tricia! As a newbie to forms, this was enlightening and encouraging in many ways. Wish I had read this before we started this year, but I am sure I was not ready at that point. I feel the tension between the form and what is spilling on to the page all the time. When one side begins to win the poem tilts too far in one direction and I have to re-balance. So much to learn!

  7. Appreciations to Tricia and Michael Rosen. It's a goost inl helping me think about working with young readers & writers.

    I especially want to thank M.R. for his poetry & books thru the years.
    Having polished off an entire delictable that should have been shared,(maybe more than once) I do love the poem "Chocolate Cake."

    One other connection & I'll scoot - Prof. Morag Styles introduced M.R.'s work to my class & I've been a fan ever since.