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Facing the Page, For Teachers, Poetry Month
Poetry Writing With Adult New Readers, Strategy 1: The List Poem
You have not crossed the bridges I have crossed.
You have not listened to the music I have listened to.
You have not been in the top of the World Trade Center the way I have been there.
You have not seen the waves I have seen.
You have not fallen from horses the way I have fallen.
You have not felt the guns on your neck the way I have felt them.
You have not been in the sea with a big storm in a little boat the way I have been.
—Excerpt from "Don’t Give Me Advice," by Luis Marin, Tompkins Square CRW
This month is National Poetry Month, and here at the Center for Reading and Writing (CRW) some students are experiencing poetry for the first time. Writing a poem for the first time can be intimidating, but there are many possible ways to get started. In this post I’ll talk about just one of them, which is a list poem.
Defining a Poem
The first step when introducing poetry to students is to define poetry. Show what a poem looks like on a page. Explain that a poem is usually short, and that each line has a fixed length. It uses carefully-chosen language to express a feeling, and sometimes uses rhythm, rhyme, or repetition. One CRW student defined a poem as "few words, big meaning."
Writing a List Poem
A list poem is a poem in which each line begins the same way. List poems are wonderful for beginning writers especially, because the start of each line is provided, creating a comfortable way in (at least I have this part that I can write, and know I’m spelling it correctly). A list poem can be simple and powerful. One student, who struggles with depression, wrote a poem in which each line begins, "I love" followed by one thing that makes her feel happy.
5 Tips for Writing a Successful List Poem:
Read poems together as a group, to get students familiar with the sounds and rhythms of it. After reading a poem, ask if there is any line that students like or find interesting. Ask why they like it, what makes it stand out. Keep your ear open for things students say—does something sound like a list poem? "Every morning I..." "I want to read..." "If I had a million dollars I’d..." "I love the way..." The possibilities are endless.
When students are ready to begin writing, here are some tips to keep in mind:
1. Be specific
Help students bring their poems to life by including specific details. In other words, show, don’t tell. "I wake up early," becomes, "I wake up at 3:00 am every morning to go to work." Instead of "I cook Chinese food" help the student write, "I cook catfish with spicy sauce."
2. Five senses
Can you see this poem? Can you hear it? Smell it? Feel it? Taste it? Is this poem bringing a world to life? If not, think about describing with the five senses.
Pay attention to the order of the list. Does it have a beginning? A middle? An end? Does it need an additional line to bring it to a close?
4. Word Choice
Think about word choice. Could another word be more effective? Sometimes beginning writers want to use the word "beautiful," but write "nice" instead because it is easier to spell. Help the writer actualize the poem in her mind.
Don’t be afraid to edit. 'Make it Messy' is a good mantra for first drafts. They should have crossed out parts and additions. Are any items in the list extraneous? Are there unnecessary repetitions? Help students build the confidence to edit themselves.
Happy poetry writing to all! I’ll leave you with this list poem by Joseph, a student at the Tompkins Square CRW. The title is, "She Is Full of Life:"
When she smiles, life comes out of her.
When she walks down the street, she has a smile on her face,
people all around her look at her and see life.
When she comes into a room, she brightens up the room itself.
When people see her, they are also happy to see her smiling.
She makes the day.