In this week’s workshop, we focused on the sound of poetry. I began with a quote from Poemcrazy:

“Many poems are written for the ear and fall somewhere between music and talk.” (Poemcrazy,p. 164)

and then went on to read another passage from Poemcrazy in which Wooldridge asserts that all of us have a natural rhythm, and that even poetry without an obvious form contains this rhythm as the author has made a conscious decision about line breaks, etc.

We then did a whirlwind tour of poetic devices which add to the sound of poetry – alliteration, which Frances Mayes tells us is older than rhyme (The Discovery of Poetry, p. 34), consonance and assonance, onomatopoeia, euphony, cacophony, repetition (including refrains and anaphora), and meter.

I did some scansion on the easel paper, using a couple of lines from Shakespeare’s sonnet 18, which we read a few weeks ago when we discussed comparison. I clapped out the iambic pentameter and asked them to tell me what the beat sounds like – one possible answer is a heartbeat, which was their immediate response. I enjoy the look of recognition on the students’ faces when we can relate what they previously thought of as rather old fashioned or stuffy to something they know, something very human and real. It’s as if the “stuff” on the page comes alive for them, and the looks on their faces is much like the look a toddler has when she first discovers something new.

We talked about consciously using sound to create atmosphere, to illuminate the subject of their poems the same way that music or sound effects deepen, enlarge, or otherwise enhance a scene in a film or a play. Again, it was lovely, as we covered the somewhat dry, textbook terminology, to see them light up as we made a connection to something they know – these writing techniques help make the “soundtrack” of a poem.

We also talked about the obvious musical connections – a refrain is like the chorus of a song, meter is like the beat, a foot in metrical poetry is like a measure or bar of music, and a change or variation in meter is like syncopation or counterpoint in music.

Before I read some examples of poems that amplified (couldn’t resist the pun) these sound techniques, I asked them to listen to the sound of the poems. And this week, I deliberately chose some poems I suspected they have read before, so that the focus could be on the sound. Of course, I also chose some of my own favorites, in order to expand their poetry “life lists” – there is so much good poetry that never reaches students, but that they really relate to and respond to enthusiastically!

This week’s poems:

“A Very Valentine” by Gertrude Stein

“Samurai Song” by Robert Pinsky

“My People” by Langston Hughes

“The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost

“Ditty of First Desire” by Federico Garcia Lorca

“The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe

“We Real Cool” by Gwendolyn Brooks

“Let Evening Come” by Jane Kenyon

“Pied Beauty” by Gerard Manley Hopkins

and I read one of my own poems, “The Nearness of You,” published in Spire in spring 2005:

The Nearness of You

I wake up with
trees wet on one side,
the small sound
of your breath on
my pillow before
anyone else gets up.

In this lightness,
I imagine there is
no world, shocked,
stunned, crying.

There is only oak,
pine, mossy boulder,
wren-song singing
the nearness of you.

As we read, I asked what they heard and pointed out things I heard. The superintendent happened to be at the school today, and he came in toward the end of “Ditty of First Desire” and stayed for a few minutes, leaving as I was launching into “The Raven.” The kids seemed not to mind the disruption, although one of them asked the principal before we started if the superintendent could “close us down” if he didn’t like what he saw. She said no . . .

Most of the students had heard “We Real Cool” before and several mentioned what a “cool” poem it is. I pointed out the way the form and the sound of the poem create an atmosphere and a tension, and suggested they try to write a poem in their journals some time in which they limit themselves to short lines in two line stanzas, so see what they come up with. We also talked about the sort of reverse anaphora in the poem – usually in poetry, anaphora refers to the first word in the line repeating, but Brooks repeats the last word in the all but one line.

The other poems that garnered the most response were “Samurai Song,” which everyone liked – it’s a powerful, mantra-like piece that is perfect for a teenager facing the world – and “The Raven,” which elicited giggles and questions about whether it was Lenore at the door. I told them they’d have to read the whole thing to find out (I’d only read the first three stanzas). We talked about how once again, here was an old fashioned poem, but it dealt with a subject we could all imagine – you’re in your room reading and there’s a sound, and you scare yourself out of your wits imagining who or what is out there.

So, with our ears full of poems, we set about making a sound wordpool. I suggested we could pick a theme and call out words that “sound” like the theme or we could just write down words that they like the sound of. They opted for the second idea.

Here is a partial list of their sound wordpool:

cranberry click oat
bubble compadre dictum
butterfat pacem crumb
kiss dolphin dazzle
chocolate gelatinous whirlpool
beat fille droop
waddle cheese foil

After we began, one student asked if she could use a dictionary to get ideas, which is where “dictum” came from. Someone suggested “hola” and I asked for more foreign words – we had several suggestions, from Japanese, Spanish, German, Latin, and French.

I asked that they try to write poems using the wordpool. Only two of the students (the two who read their work every week and seem to take themselves most seriously as poets) wrote poems that were serious and meant to make sense. The others all played with the words and made more nonsense-like poems. I told them that they reminded me of “Jabberwocky” and read a little snippet:

and I also suggested they read some Edward Lear

Here is my nine-year-old daughter’s poem:

Mud bubbles and trois
on toast
in the sand
on a baseball bat
on a boat
in a pit
in the sand.

Before we wrapped up I asked the group to begin thinking seriously about an end of workshop project. The first suggestion, which the others all enthusiastically cheered, was to have a party. I suggested a poetry reading, and they took off with that idea for a few minutes. There was some talk of inviting “everyone,” so I think I’ll suggest they put an announcement in the community events section of the newspaper. I also suggested an anthology of student work.

I proposed that next week they be ready to vote on their decision – anthology, reading, some other project, or a combination of these. I also mentioned that they should plan to take a couple of weeks after our last workshop to get their poems revised, rehearse, etc. We also talked about their choosing an editor to organize and set deadlines. So I am hopeful that next week their brainstorming will gel into a plan. I emphasized that I will be happy to serve as an advisor, but the project is theirs to plan and carry out.

There were several people absent again. Some were out sick, but a few were working on what the principal called “remedial graduation testing practice.” Sounds nasty, doesn’t it? But that phrase has great cacophony, anyway. So I asked them to share what we’d discussed with anyone who was not in the workshop today, which they have been doing all along. I admire that about this alternative school – the teachers and principal encourage the students to support each other’s efforts, and the principal said she has definitely overheard kids telling each other about past workshops.

The principal asked me to consider repeating the workshops for another group of kids. I’m glad that she wants me to come back, and I’d love the chance to continue sharing poetry, and to meet more of the students. She also told me that T., who you can read more about in the Week 2 workshop post, went with his mentor to the Rotary Club this week. As part of his presentation, he read one of his poems. He then spoke about attaining goals. She told me he had no confidence before, and said the poetry workshops have transformed him. How could I not go back and reach even more kids, with that kind of feedback?

I told my current group to consider whether they’d like to continue working on poetry after the workshops end, and I’m thinking I’ll ask the principal to announce that I have “office hours” after the workshops for those continuing students who want to come and talk with me about their work. Another idea would be to schedule a critique group, but I think some of the kids in my current group are more likely to discuss their writing with me rather than read it in front of the group.

Next week’s workshop is called “Wishes, Lies, and Dreams,” which is also the title of a book by Kenneth Koch on teaching young people poetry writing.