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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.

This was the final week of the first series of poetry workshops at an alternative public high school in my town. We didn’t meet last week because the school was on winter break. Today only about half the group attended. I can’t get used the fact that even though these kids signed up for the workshops, they often have other things to do. I found out that one of the most active participants, and the chair of the group’s final project, now works at a local nursing home as part of the school’s program there, and is no longer available on Friday mornings.

While I get the idea that this alternative school is trying, in many cases in a last ditch effort before the students drop out altogether, to prepare them for “real life,” I find it very odd that apparently no one has told these kids that not showing up, and not telling the person who is expecting you that you can’t be there, is not a very good way to get along in the “real world.” The principal told me point blank that some of the kids are at work now on Friday mornings, but it she didn’t tell me that ahead of time, or work out a time when more kids could be at the workshop.

I digress. Today we talked about poetic forms. I started by explaining that we would be dealing with this topic very briefly, and that I hoped to introduce them to some new forms and deal with setting the record straight about one of my favorite forms. I suggested if they wanted to know more about forms in general or a particular form, I could help them find resources.

Then I shared some thoughts from The Discovery of Poetry by Frances Mayes:

“The poem’s form and content are interactive systems.” (Discovery of Poetry, p. 288)

We talked about the fact that most of the poems we’ve been reading and writing are in free verse – poems without a structured meter or rhyme scheme – but that free verse is a form as well. I threw out the idea of writing a poem, then writing the same ideas in another poetic form in order to really boil down what the poem is about – whatever content made it through that kind of rewrite is what would stay in the final poem, and perhaps a new form would emerge.

Mayes says, “Free verse is improvisational.” (Discovery of Poetry, p. 256) but also tells her readers, “In both free verse and metered verse, lines are as important to the poem as rungs on a ladder.” (Ibid., p. 260)

I briefly reminded them of what meter is (see workshop week four) and then talked about different kinds of stanzas.

Then I gave them a “Villanelle Map” which I found here:

I went over what a rhyme scheme is, what refrains are, and how the repetition in a villanelle is not just flat, but as Mayes explains, “Each time a repeating line reappears, it should have added significance. Rhythmically, the repetition seems to push the poem forward, like waves breaking behind waves.” (Discovery of Poetry, p. 301)

I gave them three villanelles as examples:

“The Waking” by Theodore Roethke

“One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop

“Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” by Dylan Thomas

I read “The Waking,” asking the group to look at the villanelle map as they listened. I had been seeing some pretty blank faces, but they definitely understood better once they heard the poem. Next time I discuss villanelles, I’ll read one first, then go over the form, then read it again.

We switched gears, turning to some of my favorite poetry – haiku and related forms. I told them I chose these forms to share with them in part because I wanted to clear up the common misconceptions about haiku that most people learn in school.

I’ll tell all of you what I told the workshop, and what I say at readings: if you’ve been told that a haiku is a poem that has a certain number of syllables (say, for example, 5-7-5) in three lines, please wipe that from your memory.

If you want to know about contemporary haiku in English, I highly recommend you read any of the following excellent journals:
Modern Haiku

bottle rockets

Simply Haiku

The Heron’s Nest

Frogpond – the journal of the Haiku Society of America (the journal itself isn’t online)

Any of those sites will lead you into other sites, and you can thoroughly explore the contemporary English language haiku scene in America, and beyond.

If you teach, or work with children, or simply want to help stamp out the 5-7-5 myth and help children experience the simple beauty of haiku, I recommend reading Spring: A Haiku Story, (classic Japanese haiku translated into English), selected by George Shannon, illustrated by Malcah Zeldis. And do not miss Haiku by Patricia Donegan, which is a wonderful book about writing as well as appreciating haiku, and includes what Donegan calls “haiku activities” such as making a book, or drawing and writing together (haiga). I used some of Donegan’s selections of haiku as examples for the workshop handouts.

Now for the definition of haiku, from the Haiku Society of America:

“A haiku is a short poem that uses imagistic language to convey the essence of an experience of nature or the season intuitively linked to the human condition.”
See for more notes on this and the other definitions I cite below.

I explained to the skeptical teens, who have heard about counting syllables since they were elementary school children, that Japanese haiku contain 17 sounds, called on, but that translators feel that only comes out to about 12 syllables or so in English. A haiku is one breath long, more or less – something I read somewhere in my haiku journey. If you have to stop for another breath as you read it out loud, you are likely not writing just the essence of the experience, as the definition says

As I do in my readings, I parsed the definition, going over each part and clarifying:

— haiku are about real experiences or memories, not imaginary situations
— they are verbal snapshots that use real images, not figurative language
— they capture the essence of the poet’s subject, with no elaboration
— they generally deal with nature or the season; many juxtapose two ideas or images to create an “Ah ha!” or an “ahhhh, yes,” sense for the reader
— the place where Japanese haiku use a kireji, or cutting word, is often marked in English haiku with punctuation or a line break; it’s the pause when you read a haiku out loud
— some English haiku, like Japanese haiku, use a season word, or kigo

I was getting some blank looks, so I read some examples from my own work, including poems from A New Resonance: Emerging Voices in English Language Haiku, v. 4, which you can find here, along with other fine haiku volumes:

We moved on to the H.S.A. definition of senryu:

“A senryu is a poem, structurally similar to haiku, that highlights the foibles of human nature, usually in a humorous or satiric way.”

Again, for more on this, you can take the link to the H.S.A. definitions page. I read some of my senryu, which I expected to garner some chuckles or nods or some response – the only one any of the teens visibly responded to was this:

Easter hymns
the flowers on her dress

Perhaps the humor in my senryu was too subtle for kids who live in a culture permeated by the sledgehammer style humor on The Comedy Channel? I’ve had outright giggles from other audiences who heard the same poems.

Anyway, sensing that I was not reaching them, I plunged on, reading the H.S.A. definition of haibun:

“A haibun is a terse, relatively short prose poem in the haikai style, usually including both lightly humorous and more serious elements. A haibun usually ends with a haiku.”

I handed out a page from Basho’s Narrow Road to the Deep North, which you can find here:

And two of my own haibun:

“Parallel Sunsets”

“A New York State of Mind”

I read this second one aloud. Perhaps because the subject matter was something a little more familiar – the kids have probably all seen pictures of Manhattan even if they haven’t been there – they looked a little more tuned in.

I suggested we try a haiku exercise that I sometimes use, by Timothy Russell. You can see it here:

I highly recommend you go to the site and try it for yourself, but here is my overview:

Basically, this exercise is designed to help your observation skills as well as your haiku writing. You write down the month or season, and then something about the day, preferably an observation of nature or the season. The workshop group came up with:

winter cold

Then, quickly write at least ten short descriptive phrases as you look around outside or take a walk, or whatever, jotting down what you see. Some of the phrases the group came up with were:

dead grassy field
pine trees swaying
leafless tree
the smell of cold

Next, you put the initial phrase together with some of the other phrases and come up with some haiku. Here are some we wrote together:

leafless trees
a sense
of cold

winter cold

winter chill
the cold air’s
dull scent

winter cold
I look out
at wispy clouds

One of my students had his mentor in the workshop today, a senior citizen who left just after the haiku exercise. He thanked me for furthering his education! Also, he chuckled at all the senryu.

I asked the group to spend some time writing in any poetic form, other than free verse. One person asked if she could write a “shape” poem, which I explained is called concrete poetry. She called it chaos – it was a jumble of words and phrases, and she was very pleased with it. Another tried a villanelle, a lovely piece about her grandmother. Another wanted to read a poem she’d written between workshop sessions, and it was a rhyming form, in quatrains, about a person she loves – which sounded vaguely like a familiar song lyric. At least two students tried haiku or senryu. They were all too wordy, awkwardly phrased, or about love and things like that, rather than nature. I guess old habits are hard to break. I was glad they tried, and I attempted to give accurate but gentle feedback.

They gave me a status report on the reading plans – and they haven’t made much progress yet. They have a venue, but haven’t set a date, and the person who is the chair of the event is working on Friday mornings and wasn’t in the workshop today. I asked them to get more of a plan together by next week, and we talked about the anthology plans, too. They were talking about charging people who come to the reading and want to read their poems and I suggested gently that they should make this a workshop reading, since it is their final project, and if they wanted to do an open mike poetry night some other time, that would be an interesting idea. When we first began discussing the reading, we talked about it in terms of a celebration of their writing, so I’d rather they focus their energies on revising and reading their work, rather than thinking of ways to make money from the event.

All in all, it was a rough day. I didn’t feel like I connected with the kids, and as I struggled to do that, I ate up time, so they didn’t have as much time to share their work at the end. However, they are still writing, and they heard about some things they’d never considered, and some poets and poems they weren’t familiar with before, so I guess that is good.

Next week, I will be there to meet with anyone who wants to share revisions, talk about editing, or discuss the reading. The following week, a new group of teens will be poembound, as I start a new cycle of workshops.