This morning was the second week of a six-week poetry workshop I am leading at an alternative public high in my town. I had two new students join us today, which was a pleasant indication of the way the first week had gone over with the kids.

Our topic this week was figurative language. We again used some wonderful explanation and examples from Frances Mayes’ book, The Discovery of Poetry. She notes that figurative language is embedded in our everyday speech — from using similes (albeit clichés) like “slow as molasses” in our conversations, and even in the names of things, like “legs” for the supports that hold up tables, “face” for the front of a clock or watch, etc. Someone in the mists of time made a conscious choice of these terms, describing new things in terms of known things. (Discovery of Poetry, pp. 82-83 and 97)

As we compared literal imagery (a snapshot in words) to figurative imagery (description of something in terms of another thing), I showed them what I meant by describing a tired person, first literally: drooping head, limp arms, eyes closing, slumped posture; then figuratively: a person who is “dog tired.” This, of course, is a cliché. I asked them to try to avoid cliché in their own poems, and asked if anyone could think of a fresh, figurative way to describe tiredness. Based on body language I observed, I hoped tiredness was a state these kids are so familiar with, they’d be full of new ideas. But this request for ideas came only a few minutes into the workshop, and I was faced with a wall of blank faces. So I gave them a couple of my own ideas: a person as tired as a spawning salmon, or tired like over-cooked spaghetti. Some smiles — they were listening, certainly, but weren’t quite ready to open up and share, yet.

To explain the difference in strength between similes and metaphors I explained that they come from different roots: simile from a Latin word for similar, and metaphor from Greek roots that mean “to transfer.” Again, this is beautiful explanation from Mayes. She tells readers that Shakespeare says Juliet is the sun. He doesn’t say “like the sun.” Using metaphor instead of simile, he emphasizes that Juliet’s nature is utterly unlike that of other women, as well as being sun-like. There is only one sun (well, in Shakespeare’s times, anyway, only one known), Mayes explains, and Juliet is the only woman who is the sun. (Discovery of Poetry, p. 83 & p. 86)

I briefly described a couple of other types of figurative language they could try to look for in poems and write in their own: personification, which I knew they’d heard about in English classes before; and synesthesia, which is the description of a sense in ways usually used to describe another sense. An example, by May Swenson:

“I know the seven fragrances of the rainbow.” (Discovery of Poetry, p. 92)

I asked the group to listen for figurative images that struck them as particularly powerful or interesting and note them in their journals as I read some poems aloud. This week I chose more poems, because I wanted to spend more time showing them good examples. Here are the poems I read aloud:

“Harlem” by Langston Hughes (

“The Magnificent Bull,” a Dinka poem found in Rose, Where Did You Get That Red? by Kenneth Koch, a book about teaching poetry which includes a small anthology (more on the Dinka here:

“Song” by Robert Pinsky, found in his collection Jersey Rain

“Sonnet 18” by Shakespeare (

“Indian Cooking” by Moniza Alvi from an anthology my brother got me in London, New Poems On the Underground 2006, which is a collection of work included in the public poetry project Poems On the Underground

“Separation” by W.S. Merwin, also from New Poems on the Underground 2006

“On Swimming” by Adam Zagajewski, from the anthology Poetry 180, edited by Billy Collins

“The Boy” by Ranier Marie Rilke, from Rose, Where Did You Get That Red?

I asked if anyone had an image that they particularly liked, and got a variety of responses. I was pleased to hear that they seemed to enjoy poems from different periods, not only the most contemporary. As I read, I also pointed out my favorite imagery in the poems.

We talked about training our eyes to see things differently, and I suggested an exercise Kenneth Koch uses in Wishes, Lies and Dreams, his book about teaching poetry writing. He asks kids to hold their hands up in front of their eyes and see things through their fingers (Wishes, Lies, and Dreams, p. 104). In this way they can see, as Koch describes, that the sky now seems as big as their hands. I asked the students to try that, looking out the windows of the room we were in, and suggested two other ways of trying to see things in new ways: cut a viewfinder of any size and shape out of a note card, and use it as a visual artist would, to frame the view. Describe things in the new way they appear. Or, trace a dime on a piece of paper and cut out that small hole. Describe what you see though this focused view.

Next I asked them to try some simile and metaphor brainstorming, using a handout from Discovery of Poetry (p. 96) and another, written by Linnea Johnson, from The Practice of Poetry, edited by Robin Behn and Chase Twichell. (pp.42-43). In both exercises, the poets wrote part of a figurative image and left the other part blank — the students are invited to fill in the other portion of the comparison. I told them they had just a few minutes and I wanted them to be as spontaneous as possible, suppressing the urge to think a comparison through too much, and instead just capturing the first thing that jumped into their minds. I asked that they turn the papers over when they finished, so they couldn’t go back and “rethink” — again, to capture their initial creativity, un-retouched.

I ended up giving them a few extra minutes inadvertently, because a teacher (my friend L. , who got me interested in volunteering) is filming the work of the alternative program with a student, and he asked me to speak spontaneously on camera about why I am doing poetry workshops. We did a few “takes” and then he asked if I had anything else to read to the group, because he had missed filming that.

I realized I’d intended to read them one of my own published poems — as I explained to my thirteen-year-old son, G., who teased that I was showing off, that I wanted to have some credibility with the students. I wasn’t sure they viewed me as a “real” poet, so I wanted to read a poem of mine from a journal. I chose “From Dust,” published a couple of years ago in Thirsty Magazine. You can see it here:

We moved into another imagery exercise, which I had to improvise a bit. I asked them to look at three objects without thinking about what they really are in a literal sense, and describe them figuratively. I had every intention of bringing three objects from my desk, all things I’ve found over the years in nature. But I forgot my found items, so I chose three things in the room: a tangerine from the principal’s desk; a glass candy dish lid with an interesting pattern; and a flat, piece of pottery, irregularly shaped, and fired in a light terra cotta colored glaze. I asked them to call out what the item I held up “looks like” — an exercise from Poemcrazy, by Susan Goldsmith Wooldridge. On a large, easel-sized tablet, I had written: “I see _________, It looks like _________,” and as they called things out, I jotted them down in the “It looks like” section. Then I wrote what the object really was in the “I see” part.

They came up with interesting things, like the tangerine looking like happiness, or a car crash; the glass lid looking like the top of a person’s head; and the flat piece of pottery looking like sand on a beach, or part of a map.

L. taped some of this group exercise too, and then I asked the group to turn to writing poems, using an image they loved as a jumping of point, either from one of the poems they heard, from one of the handouts they completed, or from our group imagery generating. I asked them to try not to rhyme this week, in order to concentrate more on the imagery and less on the rhyming words. I pointed out that I was going to walk around to be available, not to read over their shoulders, and that they should just call me over if they wanted to discuss anything.

Right away, a boy called me over. He was the first to read last week, and seemed to be not only enthusiastic about writing, but also about really applying what we had been discussing. Today, he asked if I’d look at a poem he’d worked on during the week. L. came over and taped us as we talked. He’d written a draft in his journal, and typed the later draft. His poem was really something — a prose poem, about his confusion, his attempts to figure out what’s true, what’s worth believing in, and how to live if you take on those beliefs. I read it silently, and then told him the story of Bono presenting lyrics to B.B. King (when U2 wrote a song for him, called “When Love Came to Town,”). B.B. King’s reaction was, “You’re kind of young to write such heavy lyrics.” (U2 by U2, p. 197). We talked a little bit about the Big Ideas, the heavy stuff, in the poem, about the form he chose, and about the imagery. I asked him how he felt about the poem, whether it helped him work through his confusion (he told me that was what inspired the poem — confusion), and how he’d worked on word choice in the subsequent draft. I encouraged him to continue editing and typing up his poems — he had written several in his journal during the week — and asked if there is a literary magazine in the school system. There isn’t . . .

All of the students seemed to be writing in their journals, so I was glad that everyone felt like participating. One girl, a new workshop participant (and, the principal told me, a new mother as well), asked me how to word something she was picturing – we talked through some possible ways of getting it down, and I asked everyone to consider writing what they see in their minds more than one way to choose the strongest imagery. Several kids had written poems during the week as well. When everyone was done writing drafts today, I talked to them about the possibilities for a final project at the end of six weeks — such as an anthology or a reading, or both. I also pointed out that they could start a literary journal, either in print or online, and solicit work from their peers in the school system. The principal gave them the url of a blog that another alternative high school program in Georgia uses to publish their writing.

Then I asked if anyone wanted to read, or wanted me to read (I offered to collect a variety of journals and read in such a way that no one would know who wrote which poem). A couple of the same kids who read last week chose to read again. I need to work on making sure that other kids also take a chance. I tried to jot down figurative images that I heard in the poems. I don’t always catch everything – my northern ears don’t always make the translation smoothly, and there is also some local “dialect” I don’t always catch. But here are some images that struck me:

One boy read a poem with the moon as a metaphor for his hopes, and carried it through the poem — a bit of moon, a full moon, etc. A girl who read her poem from today as well as a poem from during the week used some strong metaphors and similes: “my heart was the moon,” “broken like split ends,” “I was a bicyclist.” Another boy wrote an entire poem of comparisons to “rotten meat” – an image from “Harlem” by Langston Hughes. His images were more literal, but included last week’s tuna casserole from his grandma and a soiled diaper that had been around for a few days. Hmm . . .

We closed with a few more thoughts on editing, and the possibility of having a critique group, eventually. Next week, we’ll talk more about imagery, especially in terms of adding sensory detail to bring their poems alive.