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First of all, if you’re following along with the workshops, you might have noticed that this is only the 3rd time I’ve met with this second group, but I’m on the 4th week’s topic. Due to the delays from the March 1 tornado and Spring Break, I condensed workshops 2 & 3, both on imagery, into one session last time. So for quotes, an overview of what I covered, and a list of poems I handed out or read in the workshop, visit the poembound entry called “Fourth week of workshops: the sound of poetry,” which you can find here:

I had eleven teens in the workshop today, and two were from the first group but had missed this session and wanted to make it up. So only 9 of the 15 kids from the second workshop group were there, and some have missed two weeks in a row. As I worried in the last poembound entry, I’m not connecting as well with this group, and they’re not as connected with each other.

Actually, I’m dealing with the classic school dynamic – there’s a small group of students who seem to be a group within the group, and then a lot of kids who come in alone and sit alone. In the last workshop series, the whole group seemed to interact together better. For a workshop that’s important, but I don’t really think it’s something I can influence very much, beyond laying the basic ground rules of civility and kindness.

When I tried to get everyone’s attention and get started today, the “group within a group” didn’t quiet down. I just plowed ahead and in a few moments they settled down. Not a terrific way to start.

I explained that while the entire range of sound tools a poet has at her disposal to shape the sound of a poem is not going to come into play in every poem, they should still know all the tools available. So we went over sound patterns, like alliteration, euphony, and assonance; rhyme and near rhyme; repetition, including refrains and anaphora; and rhythm (whether part of a pattern or not) and meter. I had to move pretty quickly to get through all of these concepts and still have time to read example poems aloud and leave plenty of writing time, so I asked them to call out questions if they had any.

Several times as I explained something or read a short excerpt of a poem as an example, someone laughed. I never figured out if it was something in my presentation, something the group within a group was talking about beneath the current of the workshop, or something my kids were doing that was funny (they sat behind me today). Whatever the cause, it was discouraging.

To discuss the importance of sound in poetry, I reminded them that this is an ancient tradition that was sung or chanted in its earliest forms. I asked if anyone knew of a contemporary example of an art form that is comparable to early oral poetry. As I’d hoped, one boy brought up rap. I agreed and said that any popular song types do some of the same things for our modern culture that oral poetry did for its time (like it or not) – they tell a culture’s stories, deal with universal human experiences and emotions, etc. – and that the tools of rhythm and rhyme are clear to see in these art forms.

To explain poetic meter and introduce the idea of rhyme scheme, I used good old “Sonnet 18” by William Shakespeare, which begins, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” Since I’d read it in our last session before Spring Break, I knew it was familiar. Before the workshop, I wrote it out on easel paper and marked the scansion (metrical pattern) for the first two lines, and then noted the rhyme scheme in the margin.

When I told the class about iambic pentameter, and we clapped or tapped it out, they quickly noted the sound of a human heartbeat. It’s a cool connection to make — I like seeing the looks on their faces when they realize what they hear. Gregory associates it with the coconuts in Monty Python that are supposed to sound like hoof beats. To each his own!

I briefly discussed rhyme scheme, because I learned in the first round of workshops that at least in my alternative high school sample, students today don’t seem familiar with this idea, and when we talk about forms, I need them to at least know what I’m talking about, or the villanelle won’t make any sense.

I also cautioned them that outside of formal poetry, more contemporary poetry than not is unrhymed, or uses more subtle sound patterns, like near rhyme, alliteration, etc. So far I hadn’t noticed the tendency to arrange all their stanzas in song lyric form that occurred so often with the first group, so I wanted to head that off.

After our whirlwind tour of sound patterns and tools, I read examples. I added one poem this time, “Night Song,” by Lisel Mueller. There doesn’t seem to be a copy online that doesn’t have a typo. It’s a very lovely poem, and seemed to me one that would resonate with teenagers. Even better, Mueller very effectively uses anaphora and many of the other sound tools we’d been discussing.

The other poems I read aloud were “Samurai Song,” by Robert Pinsky; “The Road Not Taken,” by Robert Frost; an excerpt from “The Raven,” by Edgar Allen Poe; “We Real Cool,” by Gwendolyn Brooks; “My People,” by Langston Hughes; and “Let Evening Come,” by Jane Kenyon. For links, see the earlier sound of poetry workshop entry (at the link above).

With the sounds of these masterful poems swirling in our brains, I asked the group to collaborate on a sound wordpool. The only criteria was that any word they suggested had to be one they liked the sound of. Here’s their wordpool:

insane depressing whump rat
ring idiot nose feelings
chain love hatred peace
more care bears tie dye rock star
sex (gender) hallelujah skip fear
fold ok yeah

I asked them to copy the wordpool into their journals and add any of their own sound words, and spend the remaining time working on a poem.

A college professor friend of mine told me after my first workshop that if every kid wrote something, I was a success. So by that measure, I had a good workshop, because they did settle down and every person wrote something. Five read aloud today, which was a record for this group. I copied down some lines that struck me:

“A ring in my nose, a hole in my heart.”
From a poem by a girl from the first workshop group who sat in today, who has a new nose ring and was taking a lot of ribbing about it earlier in the workshop.

“When I’m sad, I’m strong. When I’m happy, I’m strong.”
Written by a girl who is pregnant.

“Does my gender offend you?”
This poem went on to use the wordpool to address one of the oldest human issues: how women are viewed and treated by the culture at large. It’s by the same girl who wrote the poem “Visions of Earth” in the last workshop, two weeks ago.

I talked a little about editing ideas, and asked them to think about a final project, perhaps a workshop anthology. I mentioned that the first group is organizing a reading. I didn’t get a lot of reaction, so I’m not sure which way this group will go in terms of a project.

As the students were leaving, one young man who had been sitting alone told another he should show me his poem. He did, and it was a very thoughtful, honest, and raw-edged piece. I said I’d noticed the two of them writing and writing, and they both nodded. The boy who showed me his work smiled and said firmly,“Yeah, I pay attention.”

I wonder how many times in his life he’s felt the need to point that out, or how many people look at his skin color, wardrobe, and demeanor and assume he’s not serious about classes? Before you brand me a bleeding heart, think of how many people have commented publicly on the fact that Barack Obama sounds thoughtful or articulate. To my knowledge, this hasn’t even come up in media coverage or commentary about any other presidential candidate.

True story: a couple of African American women who work at our public library told a friend of mine who also works there that they were certain Obama is from another country, because he doesn’t sound American. They were serious. Others who heard the conversation agreed, even after my friend googled his biography (never mind that it didn’t occur to these people that a foreign born citizen can’t run for president). This is the community in which my serious young poet lives.

I didn’t get a chance to copy down his poem, but it was about the frivolity of the wordpool, the fact that words like “rat” and “care bears” are uncool, and how he felt like throwing the journal page in the toilet after he copied down these silly words. He ended with the sentiment that even though the workshop got on his nerves today, no one said he has to be a poet. His final line alluded to his inner rapper, and the whole poem used many of the sound techniques we’d gone over.

I told him that he was dead on about care bears, and that rapping and poetry writing are not so far apart, and I thanked him for showing me his poem. Despite the frustrations of the giggling and whispering, the way the wordpool ended up being about predictable or stale word choices (peace and hate, love and hatred, etc.) rather than sounds, I realized as I thought over today’s workshop that some of the kids are “getting it,” or are writing in new ways, and that’s enough.

Actually, I like to think it wasn’t the workshop itself that got on this boy’s nerves, but that he was bothered by the group within the group, which generated most of the wordpool and chatted without regard for the others. Upon reflection, I think one of the problems with the group dynamic this time is that the principal told me she and her staff had decided which kids to “sign up for poetry,” whereas the first group self-selected based on their interest in writing.

You can lead kids to a new idea or a genre, give them a journal, and ask them to write, but you can’t make them like it or participate enthusiastically. Several of the kids in this group have lost their journals – the journals I drove about 45 miles away to purchase, that we talked about carrying around so they could collect poetic raw material. In the first workshop group, I had one person lose a journal, and she was upset about it and very careful with the second one.

Several of the kids in the first group showed me poems or other writing they’d done between sessions. Many of the kids in this group simply doesn’t care about poetry and writing enough to make it a regular habit. They’re there because they need some language arts credit, and they were told what time to show up. I think if you asked them, most would say it was a decent way to spend an hour – they don’t resent being there, or hate it. But they don’t love it either.

One reason my family embraces autonomous education is our deep belief that people who are self-motivated truly learn, while externally motivated students go through the motions. Although students who are controlled and directed by external forces and influences may learn something, they don’t love either the process or the result as whole-heartedly, and they don’t retain the learning because they don’t own it.

Think back to your own schooling – do you remember the things you didn’t really care about? Most of us forget whatever we had to learn after the test, but easily remember things we learned ourselves because we wanted to know.

It’s an important but very challenging concept – I know and believe in the freedom to learn independently, but in everyday practice, I often think of something I think my kids should hear or know or learn, and I have to stop my deeply schooled mind from pushing external controls on their autodidactic pursuits. I can tell them about, expose them to, and encourage them to explore further what I find to be interesting or important ideas, but they will each ultimately decide what is important and interesting in their own minds.

Next week, join poembound as we explore themes of “Wishes, Lies, and Dreams,” inspired by the book of the same name by Kenneth Koch.

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.