I’m a poetry nerd. I love reading it, writing it and teaching it. But I know it can be a difficult art to appreciate (just ask my husband, who tells me at least once a month that poetry makes no sense). What’s a good way to approach it, then, when the mere thought gives you the willies?
To help my children learn about poetry analysis and composition, I use a technique I refer to as family photo poetry. I start with the first two stanzas of a favorite poem by Emily Dickinson:
A narrow Fellow in the Grass
Occasionally rides –
You may have met him? Did you not
His notice instant is –
The Grass divides as with a Comb,
A spotted Shaft is seen,
And then it closes at your Feet
And opens further on –
If you’ve read this before, you know the poem is about a snake: “a narrow fellow” slithering through tall grass.
If you haven’t read it before, it might take a few readings to figure out. The poet doesn’t just state the obvious, otherwise it would look something like this (with heartfelt apologies to Ms. Dickinson): “There’s a snake. It’s moving through the grass. I hate snakes.”
So why not state it simply? The beauty of poetry (Ms. Dickinson’s especially) is the imagery used to create pictures in the mind of the reader. Poets paint pictures with words. Without imagery, the poet would simply be telling us about an object or idea’s existence.
Now at this point, you might be saying, “That’s all well and good, friend, but how in the world do I get my kids to write like that?” It’s actually pretty easy, and one of my favorite ways is to pull out a family photo representing an important moment in the family’s life.
Talk about the photo for a few minutes. Where was it taken? When? Why?
Grab a sheet of paper and write for five minutes. Let your mind wander to the moment in the photo and record any thoughts or images that come to mind. Include as many concrete details as you can:
What did you hear?
What did you see?
What did you smell?
Who are the people in the photo, and what were they like at that moment? What are they like now?
What were you feeling? Why?
Compare notes with your family members, adding to your own list as the conversation warrants.
Highlight any words or phrases that stand out to you. Use those words and phrases to begin your poem, employing language that appeals to the senses (instead of “the sunshine made me happy,” think more along the lines of “sunshine on my face/my heart is warm. Focus instead on using images and concrete details to share the experience with your reader.
Write until you are satisfied with the images you have created. When you are ready, trade poems with one another and talk about how each family member remembers the event. Revise your poems if desired, then type and display them next to the family photo. You’ll not only have great poems to show from the exercise – you’ll have had a family bonding experience as well.