Today I came up against the “Trouble With School,” in a couple of ways. First, when I arrived for my 10am workshop about ten minutes early, I started copying my handouts and the principal said I’d need fewer copies because it was “senior skip day.” This student-organized event was causing much strategizing among the staff. When I arrived, the place was abuzz with talk of who had skipped; as I left the building over an hour later, the principal and some staff were finalizing their stance: any student who hadn’t shown up to school by lunch would not be allowed to come on Monday, either. My thirteen year old, G., thought that sounded like a good deal, but I explained that I was pretty sure kids with more than the allowable number of absences couldn’t advance to the next grade or graduate, or were otherwise penalized.

Anyway, we got the workshop underway a few minutes late today, due to the general confusion over how many kids were actually planning to be there. Today’s topic was imagery. Last week we focused entirely on figurative imagery, and today we worked with literal imagery as well, and the way the two can work together in a poem.

To start everyone thinking about imagery, I shared some thoughts from The Discovery of Poetry, by Frances Mayes, and Poemcrazy, by Susan Goldsmith Wooldridge:

“The Spanish writer Juan Ramon Jimenez said, ‘I want my word to be the thing itself, created by my soul a second time.’” (The Discovery of Poetry p. 72)


“Through images we enter the imagination, a doorway to the divine.” (Poemcrazy p. 149)

We also discussed the difference between “showing” and “telling.” I read some examples from The Discovery of Poetry, where Mayes wrote a plain sentence (tell) beside an image that showed the same thing in richer detail (show). After I’d read a few, I asked them to close their eyes and picture a “show” example by Mona Van Duyn:

“You stood at the dresser, put your
teeth away,
washed your face, smoothed on
Oil of Olay.” (The Discovery of Poetry p. 65)

When I asked what the “tell” version of this might be, several students called out that it’s a description of an old woman getting ready for bed. I asked them to keep the ideas we’d discussed about “showing versus telling” in mind as I read some poems that have wonderful imagery, both figurative and literal:

“Nantucket” by William Carlos Williams

“In the Evening,” by Billy Collins (from The Trouble With Poetry)

“Trees in the Garden,” by D.H. Lawrence

“This Is Just to Say,” and “Between Walls” by William Carlos Williams

“WINTER:TONIGHT:SUNSET” by David Budbill (scroll down to Jan 3)

“Preludes” by T.S. Eliot

“The Runner” by Walt Whitman

“What the Dog Perhaps Hears” by Lisel Mueller

and one of my own poems, “A Prayer to See With Clarity”

Between poems, I pointed out imagery and tried to encourage the group to chat with me about what struck them. As in past weeks, I found that people were slow to get started, or perhaps just reluctant to comment, so I moved on quickly to some collaborative exercises, which they seem to enjoy.

I wrote a few “tell” statements on the easel paper, and asked them to toss out “show” examples for those same statements. My “tell” sentences were: “The boy ran.” “It was raining.” “It was a noisy night.” and “A woman crossed the street.” They came up with ways to show the same things with imagery. For crossing the street, the group suggested something like, “The old lady moved anxiously into traffic in her slow wheelchair, hoping to avoid a direct collision.” Their description of the noisy night was along the lines of, “The old lady stood at her window and saw the police finally arrive to respond to her complaint about the noise across the street.” Old ladies, accidents or violence, and conflict seem to come up during every workshop.

Next I asked them to look at any of a number of objects I brought and put on a table in the middle of the room. I suggested they choose an object, write figurative imagery first, and then literal descriptions of the same object. Here’s what they could choose from: a satin embroidered bag from Chinatown in NYC; a small piece of driftwood; an unusually large lump of beach glass I found in Greece; a very strange piece of shell, which I found on Hilton Head Island, that is covered in small holes and is worn smooth all over; a piece of unprocessed cotton from a living history museum in Lumpkin, Georgia; a couple of rocks with holes all the way through; and a woven rattan ball my husband got in Thailand, which is used for a type of volleyball game that’s played with the feet instead of hands. I invited them to come up and take an object and really look at it, touch it, etc.

Only about half the kids seemed to get into this exercise; although most of them appeared to be writing in their journals, only one or two touched any of the objects and only one took something back to her desk (the rattan ball). After a few minutes I asked if anyone wanted to know more about any of the objects. Someone asked whether the large lump of beach glass was from a lightening strike in the sand – which I thought was an interesting hypothesis. They all wanted to know more about the ball. One girl asked me about the strange shell fragment, and why I picked it up. I explained that I often look for things like that when I travel, to take home and put in a bowl on my writing desk. She said, “I wish you were my mom.”

Everyone returned to writing for a few more minutes. As soon as I could see that most people had finished, I asked them to write a poem inspired by one of their images. In a fairly short time, I could see most people were chatting instead of writing.

The principal had already been through to ask that they read their poems aloud, and I wanted to be sure to encourage them without making anyone feel forced to read. I suggested that if they weren’t prepared to read a first draft of a poem, they could share some of their images. The girl who wrote about the rattan ball read her imagery. She read too quickly for me to note every image, but I especially liked something she wrote about the sky slipping through the spaces in the weave. She did ask me if the imagery was “right” and I told the group that there is no right answer to any of the exercises or writing prompts. This seems intuitively obvious to me but I am reminded every week that this freedom of expression is new to the students.

All of the poems that students read aloud today were about things going on in their lives. I am delighted that the kids are writing throughout the week, and I’m glad they are not feeling constrained in any way by the concepts I’m introducing – no one feels obliged to write about a lump of beach glass if what’s on their minds is an abusive stepmother.

Honestly, I thought the poem someone read about her stepmother was about a boyfriend; I lamented later to my friend L. that most of the poems, once again, were “I loved and I was wronged,” types of work, whereas last week I felt like I’d made progress in helping them to see other poetic subjects besides themselves. The principal told me that the poem I was thinking of was about the girl’s terrible home life. She and L. said they are thankful that the writing workshops provide a forum for sharing these experiences, because the kids at this school are so overwhelmed by their lives that they need to purge their feelings via their writing.

I’m not sure how I feel about the workshops serving that purpose. It’s not that I don’t want the kids to find emotional comfort in poetry, and I am happy they feel comfortable enough with each other and me to share some really “heavy” stuff. L. told me before the workshops began how badly these students need to express the frustrations and hurts they are dealing with, but I realized today that I wasn’t really prepared to respond to this, and I’m not sure I’ll ever be. I think I saw a chance to give them something else to write about, something else to think about, an alternative outlet in which they could perhaps channel their pain but not just by purging it in raw form on the page.

And I think they are building up a store of writing techniques and poetic devices. It’s good to hear some of the things we’ve discussed in their work – figurative imagery, literal imagery, less rhyme, etc. So, while I am glad that poetry offers a therapeutic outlet, I’m there to encourage good writing, and I feel like that’s what I have to offer – suggestions, examples, exercises for improving their poetry craft. As they read today, the principal kept commenting on the way the poems were shedding light on their lives, but I tried to make specific note of the writing, the imagery, the sound of the poem, or some other aesthetic aspect of the work, rather than the subject matter.

Which brings me to today’s second “Trouble With School:” I have repeatedly said that the kids can decide individually whether to read or not read, sit or stand when they read, and that no one should feel pressured to read in the workshop. At the end of today’s session, the principal came back in and repeated that she “need(s) everyone to read for my gratification.” She went on to say they had to stand up because there is a state standard. I interrupted at this point and reiterated that no one had to read, especially not a first draft, and that it was ok to work on poems until you were really satisfied with them before reading aloud to the group. I also asked if the state standards writers had ever seen a congressional hearing, where all the speakers are seated. She defended the standard by saying it’s about performance, and about students having confidence to perform in front of a group. We were both good natured, but I had no intention of backing down. When she left the room I told the students that I am a volunteer, not working for the state, and that I am not comfortable asking people to perform, when our work together is about writing.

The students seemed mostly amused by the different views. I am pretty sure I crossed some kind of line, in terms of showing them that I am not interested in the school way of doing things. Earlier in the workshop, I mentioned haiku very briefly as an example of a type of poetry that is created with literal imagery. I said we’d get into haiku in more detail in a later workshop, but that I wanted them to forget what they’ve learned about counting syllables. They were all dismayed that the old 5-7-5 might be unnecessary, and one girl went so far as to say, “I feel so ignorant that I didn’t know that.” I said, almost without thinking, that it wasn’t her fault; it was just one example of a lie their teachers told them. My son noted later that they really perked up at this. There was, in fact, an audible buzz for several moments. I need to make clear next time that teachers are victims of the lie too, because someone told them to teach haiku that way, or they were taught the syllable counting themselves when they were young.

After the workshop, I did speak with the principal about the reading aloud issue; I emphasized that I am there to encourage writing, not to force people to get up and read, and that some of the work is still in progress during the workshop. Some kids are very willing to read – in fact, one girl asked me before we began if we’d be making time for that again today, because she brought something to share – but others are clearly uncomfortable. I told her I wasn’t trying to contradict her in front of the group, but that I really didn’t want anyone feeling pressured or deciding not to come back to the workshop for fear of being put on the spot, because I’d rather they concentrate on writing.

We had an amiable exchange about this, but she didn’t really get it, because she said she thought it was a “good cop, bad cop” kind of thing and that she was entirely on “my side.” I was relieved there were no bad feelings, but I hope she could see that there is no “my side” in this situation, but the kids’ side – I told her before I began that I was volunteering in order to share what I know and love about poetry, and to nurture creativity, not to test or measure the kids, and she agreed to my running the workshop in whatever way I thought best. I understand she is coming at this from an entirely different perspective, one of “What kind of credit can I give for this? How can we meet state mandated standards? How can I measure progress?” But I wanted to be clear with her that those things are not of any interest to me, especially if they impede any of the students from participating in the workshops, and that I would prefer that her application of these external controls occur outside of the workshops.

Next week – the sound of poetry. And perhaps more culture clashes . . .