As with most poets trying to write a poem—in any style— the difficult part is getting started. In the complex swirl of life there might seem to be too many options, or not enough, and so a young poet may look like a confused archer in a chaotic battlefield. What a good poet realizes is that you can only shoot an arrow so far–and any attempt to shoot for something beyond his or her range is a recipe for failure.
But don’t worry; deep meaning is closer than you think.
Meaning can be found in the most common of situations: sitting around a table, laying in a field, or listening to a song. A poem does not have to be an epic battle. It is simply a way of seeing that our experiences of life can—and maybe should all be—meaningful. The reaching for a gallon of milk in the fridge can be a metaphor for love and care; the ringing of a phone can mean you are connected, or a simple wink of an eye can signify a mutual understanding. A poem is a package that is opened by the reader and appreciated with the same immediacy, even if the full use of the gift comes later—which it should if it is a good poem.
Start writing about something close at hand. You may well hot the target in the sweet spot.
“Good writers don’t always make great poets,
but great poets always make great writers” ~fitz
Don’t let anyone tell you what makes a poem. Like a good meal, you know it when you taste it. If I were talking to a farmer friend of mine and he said, “Ya know Fitz, so much depends upon a red wheelbarrow glazed with rainwater beside the white chickens,” I might simply respond, “Yep, good thing you have a red wheelbarrow!” But, if I saw these same words framed in a poetic structure, I would be astonished at the power of the words:
So much depends
a red wheel
glazed with rain
beside the white
I read this poem by William Carlos Williams, and I don’t think of it as a tribute to wheelbarrows as much as it makes me wonder about the importance of importance and the dependence and interdependence of our lives, and so my mind drifts into the world of poetry that somehow transcends and reinvigorates common thought. I now wonder why three simple images–none of which are all that interesting–prefaced by the simple statement, somehow become transformed into something powerful when written as a poem.
Sometimes a poem transforms a simple story into a powerful emotional and intellectual experience. Here is a poem that should be very familiar to you: The poem “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening,” by Robert Frost, is one such poem. The story of the poem is not interesting in the slightest: A guy is driving his horse drawn wagon or sleigh through the woods on a snowy night, and he stops for a bit but then realizes he has promises to keep–and many miles left on his journey, and so he needs to get going again; however, Frost tells this story as a highly structured and metaphorical poem, and it becomes vivid, evocative, and haunting enough to become one of the most admired poems in the English language–and certainly one of my favorite poems:
Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
I don’t need anyone to analyze or tell me why I love this poem: I simply do! All I really know is that the older I get, the more this poem speaks to me, and so I keep returning to this poem as if it is an actual physical place that I need and want to revisit time and time again. I don’t think about the poem; I just let it make me think, and in thinking, it takes me to some scary and haunting places in my psyche
For all the poems I love, there are hundreds that I have read and discarded because they did not speak to me in a powerful way, or move me, or make me want to return to their words. This does not mean they are bad poems. It probably means I was not ready for them, or I was lazy when I read them because reading poetry is an exercise, not an amusement.
By being attentive when you read a poem, you become a better reader, a deeper thinker, and a better writer. You should read poetry like you are flying a plane for the first time, or climbing a precarious tree on a windy day; if you lose your concentration, you lose—and you lose the poem!
Assignment: Due Friday.
Share a poem on your blog that you like and think is a “really good poem.” Copy the poem (or poems if you wish) and write a narrative paragraph about your experience with this poem.
Use the narrative paragraph rubric in this way. It is a bit like the Ewing-Style Video Rubric
- Broad theme, narrow theme, one two punch: introduce the poem and the main themes of your ” Poem Experience.”
- Smoking Gun: Post the complete poem
- Head and Heart: write about how and why you like the poem–what it makes you think, what it makes you feel
- Get out: Finish it clean with a memorable, interesting and insightful sentence.
If you can’t think of any poems, ask your friends, parents or grandparents what their favorite poems are and see if those poems “speak” to you, too. I also have a pretty cool website called “Poem Miner” that has a bunch of my favorite poems. You should be able to find a poem you like there
NEW on WEDNESDAY!!!!!
Assignments and Projects: January 25 – 31
- MONDAY: Book and Story Reviews: use the Personal Reading Response rubric to write the two reviews. Post to your blog before Wednesday class.
- WEDNESDAY: Introduction to Poetry.
Homework: Download Fitz’s book, The Three Rivers Anthology. Read for 30 minutes. Click here to download Fitz’s iBook for free.
- THURSDAY: Sonnet Writing
Homework: Complete Sonnet and post to blog.
- Friday: Blank Verse Poetry
Homework: Finish blank verse poem and post to blog.
- Commenting: Comment on at least two posts for each of your classmates.
Listen to Kali’s poem. Post your response as a comment. Be sure to answer, “What does Kali try to “do” as a poet to make her poem effective?
Assignments: Details will be posted
- Classwork: Upload Podcast and post “Where I am From” poem to your blog. Post Book XXII Reflection to your blog: Due during class on Monday
- Homework: Read Book XXIII:
- Classwork: Read Book XXIV & Harkness Discussion
- Homework: Write final “Odyssey Metacognition” Write yoru metacognition in the form of a poem that uses the same style as Fagles translation of The Odyssey. Write for at least 40 Minutes straight–hopefully at least 500 words. Post to your blog.
- Classwork: Introduction to “A Poet’s Life.”
- Homework: Read and write poetry…
- Classwork: Poetry Workshop
- Homework: Read and write poetry
- Continue “A Poet’s Life”
Living the Life of a Writer
This week–and until Tuesday, you are being asked to “live the life of a writer.” To that end, you should be spending each day writing and reading–and reflecting on your writing and reading.
Reading & Writing: I would like to you to finish The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Tuesday by spending twenty minutes reading each class period and twenty minutes writing your short story. Do the same for homework every day.
I am looking forward to going over your poems with all of you in class in front of the class. From what I have seen, the palm is a pretty good; however, I think we need to work on where to create stanza breaks. Stanzas serve the same purpose as paragraphs. They signal the reader that there is a change in thought, tone and/or action. Sometimes they simply give the reader a break, a place to pause so they can think about what you have written.
No line should ever be longer than a reader (or you) can recite in a single, natural breath.
This week: Assignments and Projects
- go over poems and learn how to create a podcast of your poem.
- Homework: Read Book XX
- Create podcast
- Homework: read Book XXI
- Read Book XXII in class
- Reading Reflection
I stood in a long line waiting with Pipo for his first ever ride on a roller coaster. Things that move in strange ways are a big deal to him. When he first came to live with us, he was eight years old and had never even been in a two story house. On his second day here, we took him to Floating Hospital in Boston and strode into the elevator with an insouciance, which, in retrospect, reflected an utter lack of cultural awareness for a young boy in a strange land. The door shut, the elevator moved, and Pipo screamed and clutched me in his fear. Now, eighteeen months later, he stood wringing his hands, intermittently laughing and grimacing at the thought of the “The Yankee Cannonball.”
“Will it be scary?”
“Will I scream?”
“Will I throw up?”
“I don’t know. I might.”
“You better not!”
“We really don’t have to go.”
“Yeah, we do.”
I could see his head racing a hundred miles an hour. I distracted him by yelling at some high school kids who were swearing at each other. “Don’t do that.”
“Why? They shouldn’t be swearing.”
“What if they beat you up?”
“I’ll hide behind you.”
“Mama will beat them up if they beat you up.”
“She better. Comb your hair up so you’re forty eight inches tall.”
Leaning on his toes he was just the right height. Squeezing into the car the single safety bar held me in a crushing gut squeeze while leaving Pipo astonishingly free to squiggle and squirm. “Do people ever fall out?”
“What does ‘rarely’ mean?”
“It means that only kids who ask a million questions fall out.”
The cars slid toward the first hill and were grabbed by the chain. He held the hand grip, smiled, and raised his eyebrows in mock fear. “There’s the bus! I wish I was on the bus. I like the bus.”
“I like the bus, too.”
The first hill caught us both by surprise. “Oh, man.”
I couldn’t stop laughing. Pipo squinted his eyes and held the bar in front of him. I think he held his breath for ninety seconds. The girl behind us used every form of the F-word ever created. “Was it fun?”
“Want to go again?”
“No. Never again.”
We found the rest of the family in the water park. Dripping and shivering, they all ran up to Pipo and asked if he really went on the Yankee Cannonball. “Yup, but never again. No way, Jose’. Who wants to go on the bumper cars?” Denise looked at me like I was a bad father forcing his son to be a man. “He wanted to go.”
“Yeah, right. Was he even tall enough?”
“With a micron to spare. It was another one of those things he just had to do.”
Denise and I both understand that part of Pipo. When he decides to do something, he’ll do it, no matter how much angst it causes him—or us. He is not so much interested in overcoming fear as he is in facing his fears. He embraces fear as an experience and not merely as an emotion. It is a lesson in courage from which we can all draw inspiration.
The Yankee Cannonball is also a perfect metaphor for the written word. The empty page looms in front of us like the rickety roller coaster. We can’t call ourselves writers if we refuse to get in the car and go. We can’t call ourselves writers if we don’t tell the whole story, replete with every dip and turn of our inner and outer experience. We can’t give in to the temptation to leap from the car at the first sign of fear, and we can’t tell the story from a distance. But, that is exactly what so many writers do. They mistakenly believe that the cold reality of fact is more important than the multi-dimensional dynamic of experience. It is much safer to have opinions than to question assumptions. We want facts, and we want a sense of assuredness that we are making wise decisions in our lives, but are we always willing to take that ride with Pipo through the hairpin turns of experience? Are we willing to distill our facts through the directness of experience? Without the parable there can be no sermon.
Our lives our full of the parables upon which we can contribute an enduring legacy to the world. Those legacies are the journal entries, poems, songs, stories, novels, and essays that capture people’s imaginations and fires their passion, or simply stirs the embers of a world that needs pondering. I have no problem with the well-wrought essay that presents an impeccable line of reasoning and logical argument, but if I sense a fallacy, a hypocrisy, or a lack of magnanimity, I quickly create a distance between myself and the writer who is simply out to set me straight. Seek out the writers who know of what they speak, and you will be rewarded with a truth you can cherish and turn in your mind for years to come. To become that writer you need to return to the source of your own wisdom and chip away at the stone of memory until it takes a shape—the infinite and varied shapes of literature and writing—that can be held in our eyes and opened in our hearts, and our minds.
For years I have had an idea for a novel, but I never actually sat down to begin writing it. The idea was too complicated, the characters to diffuse, the length too daunting in the face of a busy lifestyle, but I thought of Pipo getting on the Yankee Cannonball in spite of every rational fear he had of roller coasters. So I began to take an hour or so out of every day and began writing my book. My car caught the clicking chain and took me to the point where gravity took over. I am barely down the first hill, but the ride is exhilarating and real. I see the track laid out before me, and, like Pipo, I’m not sure what every turn and twist will bring, but I do know there is an end to the ride, and that is where I draw my strength. Maybe I will walk away woozy and say “never again.” But at least I will know.
Think of what you “really” want to write.
And begin writing.
Please comment that you understand the assignments. Some few of you received very poor grades for last week’s journal entries.
- Comment on your classmates’ recent blog posts–at least the five below.
- Read Book XV
- Homework: Finish Book XV
- Read Book XVI
- Homework: Read Book XVII
- Read Book XVIII
- Homework: Read Book XIX
Class Four: Ketchup Day
Weekend Homework: Complete and post “Where I am from” poem. You may begin work earlier in the week. Use the rubric on iTunes.
Or download here: Where I Am From
Book XV is no the most exciting book in The Odyssey, but it “sets up” the next six books in an important way. I was thinking of this as I left Star Wars tonight (which, by the way) is a masterful retelling of The Odyssey). I liked the movie, but I did feel like I was missing something–more than likely the first six movies that would have filled the gaps of my ignorance:). The old lady with a huge mink coat sitting next to me couldn’t help. She came into the wrong theater. My sons were too busy slurping orange soda and popcorn to care about their poor, stumped father. The little kid behind me (who had obviously seen the movie several times already) helped as he whispered “head and hearts” to his cousin throughout the movie.
Few of us are playwrights or movie makers (yet) so setting up what w say or write is pretty damn important. Too much detail is always better than too little. Getting it just right is the sign of a great writer. Playwrights and movie makers have a distinct advantage in that they can simply “show the scene;” whereas a writer has to “set the scene” with a montage of images and actions–even in a simple journal entry (if you want your entry to rise above the stench of bad writing, and, I guess, even this simple note to my 8th grade class which aims to beg and plead with you to think not only about what you are writing, but also about “how” you are writing.
There is almost always a better way to write than the first thoughts that come to your head, so take these thoughts and do some polishing, refining–and sometimes demolition–to be sure you have done what you can in the time you have to make what you write look and feel real. Your writing should not be a puzzle, though it can be a mosaic of images and actions, similies, metaphors and cleverly reworked thoughts captured in cool phrases, interesting dialogue.
Remember that I grade as much on what you try to do as on what you do. The blogs are not the big game. The blogs are our practice field to work out and get better for the big game. And trust me: the big games will come throughout your life, and the irony is that if you have left enough blood and sweat on the field, you will have even more on the game days of life.
Your writing this past week is to write two entries based on Books XIII and XIV. (And yes, I know that these roman numerals are starting to get too bulky to write. Damn Romans. And you also need to write two entries of your own.
Anything. On your own. The miracles of your own creations. Anything.
Make them look good. Be proud of what you try to do, and more than likely you will be proud of what you do.
My apologies for being a bit late with this, but hopefully you are on the right track and “doing what needs to be done.
- Reading: Be sure to read Book XIII, “Ithica at Last” (a favorite book of mine) and write a reflection. When in doubt, use the narrative paragraph rubric to write your reflection because reading is an experience. Due on Thursday.
- Blogging: Keep in the groove of writing by writing four blog entries. If you post your reflection, it counts as a blog entry. All four are due on Monday.
- Punctuation: Pay attention when we are discussing punctuation and ASK QUESTIONS when you are confused or unsure.
Now for something completely different!
Sherman Alexie is a real “different” kind of writer than Thoreau, and he engages my senses and my intellect in a different–but equally powerful–way. Alexie makes me laugh a lot more than Thoreau, and he makes me ponder different things than Thoreau makes me ponder; however, both writers set out to do (and succeed) the same thing: both of them, through the power of persuasive writing, enable their readers to think differently and ponder life deeply, which makes for great literature.
Alexie is, however, a heck of a lot easier to read. If you are “stumped” in any way, go here to learn more about the book, its major themes and character analysis.
This week we will be reading “The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian” and writing our own story using a similar tone and voice as Sherman Alexie uses in his novel.
In the process, we will also be discussing writing techniques, effective punctuation practice and the art of the short story.
In the end, hopefully you will have a good story of your own and a good reading experience behind you!
Your story should be based on the experiences of a poor kid attending a rich school.
Use a voice similar to the voice in the novel we are reading.
We will spend each class reading, writing and practicing. Homework will include reading and short story writing.