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Reneé Weissenburger

Poetry can be one of the most rewarding means of self-expression. It can also induce insecurity and apprehension in even the most devoted students and teachers. Perhaps due to the romantic notion that great poetry appears effortless, many would-be writers find themselves staring nervously at a blank page. The truth is much less idyllic: poetry does not simply manifest on paper, born of genius. Like all writing, it warrants inspiration, experimentation, consideration, and revision.

Free verse can be a particularly helpful form for beginning poets. Because free verse places value on content over form, students need not fret over counting syllables, lines or rhyming. Henry David Thoreau offered a simple explanation on the merits of writer-driven style: “perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.” With free verse, students control every aspect of their poem.

There are many ways to introduce poetry in an accessible, and even playful, manner. I love to begin with simple word play and descriptive language. Focusing on imagery alone frees students from having to think about the poem as a completed entity. A great way to begin is to bring tangible items to evoke the senses. Music, scented items and textured objects can all be wonderful catalysts for creative descriptions. Allowing students to rummage through items such as cinnamon sticks, rose petals, sandpaper, velvet, and trinkets (a broken necklace, an old perfume bottle, a vile of sand from vacation, etc.) invites immediate interest. Crafting poetic images becomes a game rather than a chore. The goal is to get kids to think, write and speak with careful attention to detail. Once the students have a vivid bank of words and phrases, they can play with sequence for meaning.

A class-wide variation entailed projecting an image on a screen. Any image can work: Museum paintings, photographs of nature, documentation of dances or cultural festivals and postcards all invite rich descriptions. As students collectively make observations, the teacher can record their findings, encouraging as many synonyms as possible. When the board is filled, students can begin selecting the strongest words, linking adjectives with nouns, and playing with sequence. As each new arrangement is orchestrated, it should be read out loud, so students can determine what to delete, what to expand upon and how to punctuate.

Once demystified, poetry is not so elusive after all.