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Golden Shovels are “Real Cool”
“Goodness in Mississippi” by LaWanda Walters
“The Golden Shovel (1981 & 1991)” by Terrence Hayes
Writing technique: Poetic form
Over the holiday break, I received an email from Allison asking if I’d consider writing some mentor text posts. I was taking my holiday quite seriously this year, and since that hewed a bit close to work, I didn’t respond right away.
However, over the break, I was also reading The Best American Poetry 2015. Reading poetry has actually become a bit of a habit since I decided that it’s something that I want to get better at teaching. So, even though I had dedicated myself to a work-free holiday, I was reading this book of poetry, flagging pieces that I would use in my classroom.
And, I came upon LaWanda Walters’ poem, “Goodness in Mississippi”.
Right away, I knew I was using this piece in my classroom, and I knew I had a post I’d be forwarding to Allison for consideration.
So it is that I find myself taking a break from marking on the first day back in January, working on this post.
Because the first thing that I did was try to find a copy of the poem online.
Instead, I found an article about Walters’ poem, explaining that it was a Golden Shovel poem. And I learned what that meant. Developed by poet Terrance Hayes, the Golden Shovel is a poetic form in which the poet uses the words of an existing poet. The last word of each line in the new poem is a word from the existing poem. If one reads only the last word of each line of the new poem, they read the existing poem.
Both Hayes and Walters use Gwendolyn Brooks’ powerful We Real Cool.
What’s neat is that in my research on the form, I found a pair of Hayes’ poems using Brooks’ poem. Right away, I had a nice little mentor text set. Three poems of the same form, using the same source of inspiration, about three different things – no other phrase for that then “real cool.”
In looking more closely at the poems, there’s a nice contrast in Hayes’ 1991 “Golden Shovel”. Instead of simply ending each line with the word as it exists in Brooks’ poem, he inserts line breaks into longer words, “weakened” becomes the “we” needed at the end of his first line.
How we might use them:
- I’ve taught “We Real Cool” and it’s a poem that students like to talk about. The brevity, the imagery, the word choice, the tone – all those things seem to speak to students, especially those who have pre-conceived notions about what poetry should be, namely something that they avoid. But that’s always been the end of the lesson really. What a great extension this would be.
- The more I think about this, the more I can’t help but wonder what students’ reactions would be if you presented them with one of these Golden Shovels first, before exposing them to “We Real Cool“.
- I’m a big fan of Austin Kleon’s work around “stealing like an artist,” and can’t help but wonder what kind of discussions we could have with students around this form. At the very least, we’re modeling the practice of attributing the poet and/or poem being used. There will, no doubt, be students who would term this as some relatively uncreative theft though, or at the very least, some lazy writing.
- I’ve also done a number of poetry activities using existing texts, blackouts and the like. This form is a fantastic addition. Before researching the form, I knew that this poem would find its way into my classroom. How could it not? I flashed back to last year’s AP class discussing William Carlos Williams’ “So Much Depends”, and how much they would have loved capping our discussion by writing a Golden Shovel using that confounding little sentence of a poem. Or the one about the plums.
- What if my students chose what they felt was a key quote from their novel, or research topic, and used the Golden Shovel format to write a poem that captured the essence of what they were presenting to me? Wouldn’t that be a lovely addition to a multi-genre project, or honestly, a fine little project all its own?
- A rock and roll heart beats in my chest. How much fun would it be to use song lyrics as the inspiration of a Golden Shovel?
- Could we use the Golden Shovel form to compose poetic criticism, or appreciation of folks by using their tweets as a basis? (Imagine a whole class of Jaden Smith tweet-inspired poems.)
- I teach high school, but I’m married to an early years teacher. The Golden Shovel form could be used in her classroom too, though I’m not sure We Real Cool would be my choice for the wee folk.
In learning about this form, I came across a variety of lesson plans, so I know that this form is not new to everyone. That being said, one of the reasons that I’ve chosen to focus on poetry as of late is that it’s a challenging part of the course for many students. Giving a reluctant poet a form such as this one, one that actually gives them a length, not to mention words, may just be a launching pad for them into some strong poetic writing. As I considered the ways I could use these poems, and this form, I knew that I had something with strong potential to engage writers.
Have you tried a Golden Shovel in your classroom? How might you weave this poetic form into your instruction? What would your students do with this? Leave us a comment below, connect with us on Facebook, or on Twitter @doodlinmonkeyboy, @msjochman, @rebekahodell1, and @allisonmarchett.