Poetry as An Act of Revision

Photo by Trust “Tru” Katsande on Unsplash

One key idea threads through my series this year about poetry as part of the writing process for other genres: poetry sharpens our diction. Frequent practice in reading and writing poetry tunes our eyes and ears to what works and does not work in our choice of words, the same way practicing guitar helps train the fingers or playing the trumpet trains the lips.

Taking snatches of time to have our students write poems in their Writer’s Notebooks on a regular basis provides training they can then apply to their other writing.

Each year in my ninth-grade English classes, I work with students on revising their personal narratives. These are not Honors level classes, and for some of the students, writing these narratives is a stretch. The conventions of dialogue, the pacing of the plot, the eye for imagery, and the deep reflective pool of a good conclusion means students need to integrate many smaller writing skills into a single piece.

To help with one of these skills — character development — we return to poetry in our notebooks.

After a full 48 hours away from our first drafts, I invite students to read the poem “Almanac” by Lois Parker Edstrom for our Poem of the Day. I share that in my first reading of the poem, the image that stands out the most is a literal one: “Soil sifted through their fingers/ imbedded beneath their nails.”

I’m a gardener, so I know this image well, and it shows me immediately that these grandparents in the poem were farmers, intimately connected to the earth. The poem never says this, but the image develops the character.

In our Poem of the Day routine, we always give a poem a second read, and I invite students to tell me what figurative images stand out to them when we look at the poem a second time. How do these images enhance our initial perception of these characters, these grandparent farmers?

Students highlight lines such as “moods of moons and seasons” and “They inhaled the coming season/ let it brighten their blood” as memorable and filled with figurative meaning.

Next we take three minutes to write a poem about one of the characters in our personal narrative that is kind of like this one. I challenge them to weave literal and figurative meaning.

There are two key rules here: No plot may be included, and no looking back at our narrative draft. Our singular goal is to hyper-focus on the character and create something that can exist and stand on its own. Here are a few samples of what my students have created this year, some with underlined “diamonds” they plan to use in their revision process for a personal narrative:

by Finn G.
by Gabriella B.

When the timer goes off and our three minutes are up, I say, “Now let’s be realistic — no one writes an excellent poem in three minutes. What we have here is a pile of rocks, some raw material to help us revise. Let’s pick out the diamonds. Where are the shiny phrases that are better than the rest? Today as we work on revising our narratives, try adding one or more of these diamonds into your narrative.” (Katherine Bomer’s book, Hidden Gems, provided this metaphor for me years ago.)

I see three primary impacts of poetry as a tool for revision of a larger piece:

  1. It takes our head out of the longer, sometimes more overwhelming work, of a major assignment. We look at something we are writing about from a fresh angle. For less experienced or confident writers, who often resist revision, this is especially valuable.
  2. It turns our Poem of the Day into a gentle mentor, an invitation to weave literal and figurative language as we describe a topic. This leads us to a fresh set of words that they may never have otherwise brought to their narrative draft.
  3. Students select the “diamonds,” evaluating which words are worth transferring and which ones were only useful for a moment to lead us to those gems.

As many students write their final pieces of the year, inviting poetry into their revision process may help them in all of these ways.

But poems can do more.

Teachers everywhere are finding that poetry can lead us to a happy place — or at least a pace of empathy and candor — as we face a time of crisis. May we remember this not only in the present as we work distantly with the writers in our care, but also in the future as we take our tentative, well-timed steps closer. We will be changed writers, learners, and teachers. May the poems we read and write be our stitches, helping us to heal.

— Brett Vogelsinger

How might you include a poem in the revision process for an assignment your students complete as we close this most unusual school year?  You can connect with me on Twitter @theVogelman or engage on Facebook at facebook.com/movingwriters to continue the conversation.  

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