You don’t have to suffer to be a poet; adolescence is enough suffering for anyone.
As a young student, I spent many hours with pen to paper in my narrow-ruled spiral notebook, writing deep, angsty poems about the mysteries of the heart and mind. My poems were awful—blessedly, they are long gone—but I loved writing them. They let me capture what I was thinking about, and let me try to find words to describe my feelings, by allowing short little lines that didn’t really have to follow traditional rules. I could write without the expectations of sentences; instead, I could just shovel my joy and angst into pointed phrases and place them however I wanted on the page . . . and call it a poem.
Punctuation? No need. This is poetry.
Connecting thoughts? Pshaw. Poetry, man.
Character, plot, and rising action? Nope. Not here. Because it’s a poem.
I was also delighted to discover that in poetry, anything and everything could be described in metaphor. So if I was writing about my jerk of a boyfriend, but didn’t actually want to mention said boyfriend, I could spin the whole thing into mentions of rattling thunderstorms or runaway trains or lonely sunsets. It was like being anonymous and wide-open, all at once. And secretive, too: I knew exactly what I was talking about, but anyone reading my poems would just have to speculate. (There was no one reading my poems. But still.)
I had a lot of material for my cryptic, mysterious poems. There were the good things, the stuff that I still think of: a group of friends I adored; the beauty of the Pennsylvania hills where I ran long, slow miles alone; professors I admired and adored; my side job as a cocky and successful bartender. And there was the tough stuff: disgusting fraternity parties, pretentious professors; unkind or judgmental people who made me feel less-than; a homesickness so deep it felt like an open wound.
For a time, poems were the sole way I had to try understanding the world around me. They were so forgiving, so helpful, and—yes—so easy to write.
Later I would learn that excellent poets are doing the exact opposite of throwing metaphors onto a page, willy nilly, and pronouncing it a poem. They are scrutinizing every word, every pattern, every comma and period. They are precise. They think about their poems being read silently, and they consider the cadence they’d like if read aloud. They imagine their readers, and seek a shared experience through the words on the page. And, of course, they think about their metaphors, aiming for the sweet spot in which a reader can make a “connection to self” that is real and surprising and new.
Poetry is deliberate.
But for young writers, it doesn’t have to be. There was no harm at all in my post-adolescent poetry journals. They weren’t being written for publication, for feedback, for scrutiny, or for attention. They were written for me. They served as a gateway between the person I was and the person I wanted to be. They were also the gateway between myself as a casual writer and the one who would eventually care very much about each punctuation mark.
I hope we are making room for this type of writing for our students, because there is joy in writing without structure or scrutiny. There doesn’t always have to be done with structure and expectations. Sometimes, it can just be.
This week we look at poetry in celebration of the start of National Poetry Month. Plus more as always — enjoy!
Contributor, Choice Literacy
Long an avid reader, Jennifer Schwanke has worked as an educator for 15 years. She taught middle school language arts for six years before moving into administration at both the middle school and elementary level. Jen enjoys thinking of more effective ways to present literacy to students at these vulnerable ages. You can find her latest thinking at her Leading and Learning blog.
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Shari Frost explains how teachers can get creative with poetry notebooks:
Katie Doherty finds poetry is a powerful tool for helping her middle school students understand the value of schema while reading:
We’re featuring spring-inspired poems and insights from Shirl McPhillips all month long. In “A Spring Villanelle,” she highlights the pleasures and challenges of using a strict poetic form:
Here are 30 easy and practical suggestions from the Academy of American Poets for celebrating National Poetry Month:
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Tara Smith describes how she eases her sixth-grade students into writing poetry through careful selection and analysis of mentor poems:
Shirl McPhillips shares a new poem, as well as some practical tips on moving from random observations to vivid details to poetry:
Megan Skogstad finds the right mentor texts can help her fourth graders move beyond acrostic poems:
In this week’s video, Christy Rush-Levine’s middle school students work on a choral reading of a poem:
In an encore video, Leslie Lloyd’s third graders analyze literal and figurative language in Donald Graves’s poem “Bully”:
That’s all for this week!