The tone and style of any written work varies with the purpose of the writer, and her intended audience.   The purpose of a news article, for example, is to deliver facts without bias to a general audience.  A poem, however, appeals to the reader’s emotions:  it attempts to establish an intimate relationship with the reader so the reader can “walk in the shoes” of the poem’s persona.   In this exercise, I ask students to take an objective description of a disease and then imagine this disease from the point of view of someone close to the patient, or of the patient himself.

Here is an excerpt from a news article, “Genetic key to rare disease found”, that was published in the Honolulu Advertiser on April 24, 2006.
“Researchers have discovered the gene that causes one of the rarest congenital disorders, a disease called FOP that turns muscle into bone, forming a second skeleton that eventually renders the patient immobile like a statue.”

The article goes on to describe the symptoms of FOP in clinical terms:  immobility, difficulty breathing, swellings on the arm, neck or shoulders, accompanied by severe pain.  It is evident at birth and is indicated by unusually short toes that point outward, but frequently is misdiagnosed and inappropriately treated.

Fascinating stuff.   Here is my thought process as I mull over this disease:

1.    What stories have I heard that remind me of this disease?  Medusa from Greek myths and the basilisk from European legends (and from Harry Potter) turn their victims into stone with a single glance.  When Lot’s wife disobeys God and looks back, she turns into a pillar of salt, and King Midas accidentally turns his daughter into gold.  These stories may be alluded to in your poem.
2.    Imagine this disease as a human enemy, or imagine the cells of your body as your infantry.  What is happening in this battlefield?  You might want to personify the disease, or describe it as a metaphor.
3.    What was the patient like before this illness?  Juxtaposing scenes of the patient now with scenes from when he was healthy heightens the poignancy of the illness.
4.    Imagine this disease with all of your senses.  Describe not only what you see, but what you might hear, smell, feel, or even taste.
5.    Most importantly, how would I feel if I were a live witness to this disease?  As a mother myself, it would be easy to imagine the pain of a mother watching her child suffer—particularly if the parent felt in some way responsible for the disease.  Since this disease is inherited genetically, the mother is—in a twisted way (and poetry is all about twisted ways)—guilty.  Here we can make a connection to King Midas and the agony he felt when he realized his greed, his human failings, took the life of his daughter.
I want to point out that even though you are moving the point of view     from an objective observer to someone involved in the drama of the illness,     the poem does not have to be in first person.   Students often find that first person is the easiest and most natural voice to write in, but a poem can be in second or third person and still be rich in pathos.  I choose to write in second person and address the child as the “you” in the poem.

Here is my poem about FOP, from the mother’s point of view:

Medusa’s Child

It began innocently enough
a small swelling bruise, an ache
childhood scrapes and growing pains–
we didn’t think your limbs, limber
as strands of honey, would crystallize,
cloud and darken and age,
but even as you lay
curled in my lap, your tender
baby fingers probing my mouth,
your soft cells mutinied, one by one,
sold themselves into bondage,
mustered into a monolithic mass of bone.
You had a dowager’s hump at age 5.
Still, my young ancient,
your silver laughter bubbled over
your wizened lips,
the high chime of your voice
scattered into the reaches of our home.

Now silence weighs on us
it sits and smothers
even the labored wheeze
of your faint breath.
Your tongue lays listless
dull like the wooden clapper
of a cast iron bell.
My sweetheart,
you were frozen into a pillar of salt,
when I, startled by your cry,
looked back and watched
the lights drain from your face
your thin arms raise and stiffen just
as you were about to
catch me in a tight embrace.

As a side note, allusions in a creative work do not have to be absolutely historically accurate for the reader to make the connection.  For example, Lot’s wife turned into a pillar of salt when she herself looked back, but in my poem the child freezes when the mother looks back.   In both instances, the woman is punished for “looking backwards”—perhaps for sentimentalizing past memories.

After we discuss this example, students pull cards with a disease written on it.  Alternately, if students are familiar with a particular disease and want to write about it, they can elect to do so.  Here is a short list of diseases and disorders from Roget’s Thesaurus:

anemia
goiter
cystic fibrosis
color blindness
bubonic plague
mumps
malaria
Lyme disease
cadmium poisoning
tetanus or lockjaw
smallpox
Down’s syndrome
radiation sickness
leprosy
sickle-cell anemia
muscular dystrophy
cancer
albinism
frostbite
schizophrenia

Once students have selected a disease, they look for a clinical description of it on the Internet.  This web article should include a description of the symptoms, the causes, who it affects—as much information that they can find about it that is written in an objective voice.  From here they go through the thought process as described above, and then they write their poem.
Here are two student samples.  Students were allowed to choose the form of their response to this assignment.  It could be a poem, a prose piece like a diary entry or a prose poem.  David’s piece is in prose, but makes use of poetic devices such as metaphor.

“Alzheimer’s” by David Rassmussen

The glass is half full, or is it half empty?  Those past events that are inscribed into one’s mind, what are they…memories, yes memories.  I can’t recall when it started anymore.  But the how.  I can still recall the how.

It started out like a scratch on the glass.  The scratch you see when you pull a glass from the dishwasher or when you clink two glasses together.  Either way, it started like a scratch on the surface.  Missed appointments, slip-ups on a person’s name, and only slight recollections of events that were clear to everyone else.  These were the first few scratches on my glass.

Over time they grew larger and larger.  The missed appointments became missed anniversaries, the names escaped my lips whenever someone came up to me, and the fuzzy events became so distant that I no longer have any memory of the ones I actually experienced or the ones I forgot.

On the day the glass cracked, I woke up in a strange room next to a strange woman.  I got into a car that I thought belonged to me and started it up.  Driving on my way to somewhere, my body seemed to forget how to drive and I ended up at a 7-11, more accurately in 7-11, through a set of glass doors, shelves and magazine stands.

And now I’m drifting from pure awareness to unknowing uncertainty.  Like a goldfish, I don’t remember any of my friends or even when I ate.  Sometimes my muscles themselves forget how to move.  Permanently stuck in this world of constant resets which at any moment I might reset to try to figure out…what was that word called again…memories yes that’s it memories.

“America’s Toll” by Colin Hirai

It all began in the doctor’s office.
Hiroshima, Japan.
Another day for the check up,
so many sick people around me,
coughing, breathing, sleeping,
all of them with problems but me—
the lucky one.
I prance into the doctor’s room and fly
onto the warm counter.
Look at me!  I’m healthy! I said.
The doctor’s smile radiated toward my eyes.
She is fine, good news has come,
although there appears to be a black dot,
no need to worry—it’s a present
a present of good fortune.

I awake next morning as the sun rises up,
the dot is still there smiling at me.
The dot makes me feel elegant like a swan in the lake,
dancing through the streets as the frogs watch with glee,
boys look at me at the beauty spot draws them near.
I am happy very very happy.

Weeks go by, the sun and moon dance their ballad,
mom sees my dot on my skin,
she drags me to the same black house again,
the same haven the doctor is working in,
his expression is bleak, sweat rolls down his face,
he calls my dot something I don’t know.
But I know.  It is the Trojan Horse,
the one that surprises with happiness
then strikes with sorrow,
taking away my bliss,
the same ominous cloud that sends everyone in Japan away
into that dark mist where I will never see again.
What is wrong mom?  What is wrong?
I am going to be just fine.  Don’t worry.

This lesson was part of a unit on tone and style in my writing class, but possibly a unit exploring disease and illness could be developed in collaboration with the biology teacher.  There certainly has been a long list of writers whose illness has colored their work:  Samuel Johnson, Albert Camus, Eugene O’Neill, D.H. Lawrence, and Edgar Allan Poe.  Injury and illness afflict many fictional characters and are central to their psychology.  Susan Sontag writes about being “exiled” from the country of wellness in her book, Illness as Metaphor.  Indeed, what is the line between “good health” and illness, and how does one live with the sickness we call “life”?

* * *

Susan currently teaches English in the high school at Mid-Pacific Institute.  She received her M.F.A. in fiction and poetry writing from the University of Oregon, where she also received her B.A. in general science and English.  She has published stories and poems in Bamboo Ridge, Calyx, and the anthology Honolulu Stories, and has had short plays produced by Honolulu Theatre for Youth.

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As I searched through poetry lesson plans to share, I realized that the most important thing I think helps students write good poetry is reading good poetry.  Often poetry is taught in a “poetry unit” – a few weeks in which we cover figurative language, rhyme, rhythm, types of poems, etc.  However, I believe students need ongoing exposure to a variety of poems in order to really internalize the importance of both reading and writing good poetry.

At least two to three times a week, I put aside the first ten minutes of class to read a poem.  Usually, the reading follows this format:

•    Students are given a poem to first read silently on their own.  As they read, they annotate the poem by –

–Underlining words and phrases that they find particularly interesting, moving, humorous, or poetic

–Circling words and phrases that they find confusing

–Writing notes in the margins about their reactions, connections, inferences, or questions

–Writing notes about things they notice – the author’s use of the five senses, figurative language, line and stanza breaks, rhythm, or flow

•    I then read the poem aloud to the class.  Hearing a poem read fluently assists students’ understanding; reading it aloud also makes the poem a shared experience.

•    Students share some of their annotated notes.  When discussing poetry, it’s helpful for students to have something written down that they can refer to during the discussion.

•    We then discuss what the poem is “about” – what the author is trying to communicate to us.  This leads into further examination of style and form – it’s not just what the author is communicating, but also how it’s being communicated.  At first students need encouragement to participate, but as the year progresses they are able to carry out very spirited discussions about theme, style, and use of language.

•    Students glue the poems and annotations into their writing notebooks so they can go back and reference a poem at any time during the year.  This is especially helpful when students are writing their own poetry.  They can turn to their collections of poems if they need a reminder about what an ode is or if they want to re-read an e.e. cummings poem because they are searching for an example of someone who experiments with punctuation in poetry.

•    At least once a week, I ask students to select a handful of words from the week’s poems to add to our word lists.  We have ever-expanding lists of nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs that are posted up on the wall.  These lists quickly become a resource for students during the writing process.  Stuck trying to come up with a strong verb for your poem or narrative?  Check out the “vivid verbs” poster on the wall!

•    FREQUENT FOLLOW-UP ACTIVITIES – I don’t do a poetry follow up every time we read a poem in class.  However, if it’s a writing workshop day, we will often do a freewrite or poem imitation after the poetry reading:

Freewrites
–I’ll pick a topic or two related to the poem we just read and ask students to freewrite for five minutes.  This helps them to draw connections between poetry and their own lives, and helps them to understand that poetry can be about absolutely anything.
–Sometimes we’ll pick several words from our word posters and try to integrate those words into the freewrite.  It adds a layer of challenge and students enjoy sharing their freewrites and seeing the different ways classmates mixed together similar ideas and words.
–Usually once per quarter I’ll ask students to go back into their freewrites, pick one, revise it, and turn it into a published poem of their own.

Poem imitations
–Students must mimic an author’s style, form, or use of figurative language.  We all get inspiration from other writers, and this exercise gives them permission to “copy” and also gives them a structure within to write.  At the same time, having to think of their own similes when imitating Langston Hughes’ “Dream Deferred” helps them become more complex thinkers and writers.  This exercise gives students a sense of what it’s like to write like an accomplished author – and eventually gives them the tools to start composing more complex poetry of their own.

I truly believe that exposure to great poetry throughout the year is critical if we want students to love poetry and come to view it as an effective way to communicate thoughts and ideas.  At the beginning of the school year, there is always a great deal of discomfort among students when we start reading and writing poetry.  By the end of the year, students have no problem picking up a poem on their own, analyzing it, discussing it, and writing something inspired by it.  They discover that poetry is a meaningful way to share about themselves and their lives, and that poems can be funny, sad, silly, or important – just like life itself.

Meredith’s Top Ten Poems for Students:

“The Death of Santa Claus” by Charles Webb

“Defining the Magic” by Charles Bukowski

“On Turning Ten” by Billy Collins

“The Dream Keeper” by Langston Hughes

“Ode to Subway” by Hayley Bright

“First Love” by Carl Linder

“Maybe Dats Youwr Pwoblem Too” by Jim Hall

“Medicine” by Alice Walker

“Winter Poem” by Nikki Giovanni

“Falling in love is like owning a dog” by Taylor Mali

* * *

Meredith Ing teaches seventh and eighth grade English at Hilo Intermediate School – her alma mater!  She attended Grinnell College in Iowa where she received a Bachelor’s in English and Gender Studies, and then went on to get her Master’s in Education from UH Manoa.  She loves teaching, ultimate frisbee, reading, knitting, and playing with her two puppies.

The Collaborative Sentence Game

OR

Stop Making Sense!

INTRODUCTION

This is an exercise for students of any age who say they can’t (or don’t, or won’t) write poetry. It would work well, too, for more advanced writers. I presented it to my class of blind and visually impaired high school students—bright, funny kids who can be deeply reluctant writers—as a grammar game. They groaned but were willing to play. By the time they had finished their first strange and beautiful sentence, they were so tickled by what they had done I was able to tell them “You guys are writing the language of poetry,” and they were having so much fun they didn’t care. They just wanted to keep making sentences.

HOW TO PLAY

1. Make long lists of good, colorful nouns and verbs, with plenty of prepositions and articles and modifiers: steal lamp I penny startle orange breathe when for tree is you the have to tiger if because sleep Lucinda nervous mountain with want and a sweater, etc. Steal from a novel or newspaper or dictionary if you like. Try to use words that appeal to the senses. Steer clear of abstract, jargony words like goal and inspire. Keep all verbs in the same tense. Use some small words twice, so there is more than one the and that and and and is and with and to and so.

2. Turn these lists into flashcards (index cards are a good size), one word to a card. (For teachers of the visually impaired, it’s nice to have large print and Braille on each card.) You want a big deck, dozens and dozens of cards.

3. Tell the students they are playing a card game. The teacher is the dealer. Students sit around a table. Deal everyone a hand of seven cards. Then turn over a card from the deck in the middle of the table. Student to the left of the dealer has to play a card that would help the first card build toward a grammatical sentence. (If a student can’t play a card, she has to draw another from the deck.) Emphasize to the students that they need not worry about “making sense.” Emphasize that a sentence can be grammatically correct without making sense.

Thus, if the starting word is When, the student could play a card that says you, leading the next student to try to play a card like sleep. When you sleep… what happens? The next student might play cheeseburgers, and the next fall, and the next in, and the next my, and the next heart.

When you sleep, cheeseburgers fall in my heart is an odd thing to say. It gives us a feeling, an idea, that we haven’t had before. It might even be part of a poem.

4. Read each growing sentence aloud as they build it. “When you sleepWhen you sleep… What happens when you sleep?” Help them try to imagine what might come next; give doubtful kids possible words to play. “Prepositions would work well here. You could play the word in if you’ve got it. Or what about on? When you sleep on what? A bridge? When you sleep on a bridge, what happens? Do the wombats cry? Does Megan’s tooth tremble?”

5. The apparent object of the game is to be the first to play every card in your hand and “win.” The real object of the game, of course, has nothing to do with winning. Adjust or make up any rules to keep them playing long enough that they start to have fun.

6. Let students know that each word can be modified as needed. If the sentence says Lunch is, and the student wants to play drill, of course the sentence can be read as Lunch is drilling…. If the sentence begins with I and the student wants to play is, of course the sentence can be read as I am…. And let them know they can decide together what punctuation they need.

7. Declare the sentence finished when they have written an interesting sentence. It will probably be long and have great subordinate clauses. Write it on the board. Read it aloud in all its weird majesty. Listen to the kids giggle.

8. (Optional) Break up the group. Let the students vote on their favorite sentence. Have them write it out in prose. Then give them a few minutes to break it into lines. Let everyone read her version aloud, pausing noticeably at each line break. Discuss the difference between, for example,

When you
sleep, cheese-
burgers fall in my
heart.

and

When you sleep,
cheeseburgers fall
in my heart.

BACKGROUND

The exercise is loosely derived from linguist Noam Chomsky. Colorless green ideas sleep furiously, Chomsky says, is a nonsensical sentence that nevertheless makes grammatical sense. (As opposed to Furiously sleep ideas green colorless, which does not work at either the level of sense or grammar.) I told my students about this sentence one day, and they were intrigued by it. I tried to take advantage of their interest by giving them the chance to imitate it.

The game works for several reasons. One, it frees kids from the burden of needing an idea. No one has to have “something to say.” Two, it frees them from being judged. With no single author responsible, they are able to simply read, and revel in, what has been written. Three, having a finite number of cards to play (some of which—e.g., When you sleep—sound immediately better than others—e.g., When you the) allows them to work quickly, intuitively, and without anxiety. The stakes are low, the pleasure is high. Their question is What’s going to happen next? rather than What am I going to do?

A NOTE ON SENSE

Among the many meanings of “sense” in my dictionary are these: the ability to think or reason soundly; normal intelligence and judgment, often as reflected in behavior, and soundness of judgment or reasoning; evidence of normal intelligence or understanding, and something wise, sound, or reasonable. Note the emphasis on normalcy, soundness (i.e. not-weakness), and reason.

What kid was ever normal? What kid isn’t in some way weak? What do such weird, wounded, lovely people—powerless, as they are, to prevent the difficult things that happen to them and their families—know about being reasonable?

In my classroom I ask my students to sit up straight and speak in a loud, clear voice. I ask them to take words seriously, to take their own lives seriously. I ask them to take good notes and refrain from poking each other with pencils. It is desperately important for me to teach them that these things are not incompatible with their own singular, strange selves. Poetry is, among other things, a way of uncovering that singularity and strangeness. Poems are places where sense can be abandoned in favor of weakness and silliness and a funky, piebald beauty. Where language can be detached from the everyday, rational, communicative, useful purposes to which we put it, and it can simply be, shiny and alive, without rhyme or reason, just like kids themselves.

* * *

About the author: Nico Alvarado is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where he was a Teaching-Writing Fellow. He teaches English and Social Studies to visually impaired teenagers in Colorado.