Learning From Poems: Brevity

This year on Moving Writers, my “beat” returns to poetry as a foundational element of a writing classroom. Each month’s post will examine how we can learn about an aspect of writing from a specific poem or poems, then look at what it might sound like to extend those ideas to a writing lesson in any genre.

Photo via Nathan Wright on Unsplash

Poems are short.

Not all of them of course. I am excluding the epics here and embracing the contemporary New Yorker poems or poems published in the Academy of American Poet’s Poem-a-Day emails.

The brevity of poems allows us to slip them into lessons as we develop skills for writing in any genre from narrative to argument to informative research writing. And sometimes the skill students need to learn the most is brevity.

A colleague in my department is a seasoned veteran who likes to call it like it is. Not too long ago, she pointed out that some of the strongest writers at our school are also the most verbose. “If they can say what they are trying to say but are not being concise, is it really their strongest writing?” she asked at a PLC meeting one day.

The answer of course is no.

Sometimes, I admit, I am blinded by the volume certain students can produce, especially when I am pushing other students to dive deeper and elaborate about their ideas. Poetry reminds us that is possible to wield the power of language judiciously, that the right words can impart the strength of iron to a line that does not even fill the width of a page.

How might poems help us teach this lesson in a variety of genres and units? Consider three examples, each with a specific poem, a few guiding questions, and a script I might use to guide my students’ use of the poem as a mentor text.

via The Writer’s Almanac

Informative/Research Writing

Poem: “Lincoln” by David Shumate

Questions to explore:

  • What facts do you know about Abraham Lincoln that come up in this poem? What lines provoke more curiosity?
  • What helps the poet to fit so much information into so small a space and with so few words?
  • What makes this poem different than a Wikipedia article on Abraham Lincoln or a biographical blurb in a book?

Mentorship potential:

I might say, “As writers, one thing we can take away from this poem is that it’s possible to pack a lot of information into a little space. And of course there are parts in your essay where you will want to slow down and dig deep into something. But notice the list at the end of this poem. The writer does not need to tell us everything about these battles, both in the war and at home. Just listing them is enough to make the point that Lincoln’s life was exhausting! Part of the poet’s purpose here is to add dimension to a photograph of a famous man. So think about your purpose and make sure you are not blurring that purpose with too many words as you write. Which sections need more elaboration to fit your purpose, and in which sections might a quick list suffice?”

via ProQuest

Narrative Writing

Poem: “Peter and Thunder” by Michael Dennis Browne

Questions to explore:

  • What are the two most important details the poet includes in this scene? Why include these details?
  • What are some details of a thunderstorm the poet choses NOT to include? Why not include these details?
  • When we write narratives, we often discuss the “so what?” of the story . . . why it matters. Where does the poet address the “so what?” of this story?

Mentorship potential:

I might say, “This is a tiny story, only one scene, functioning a little bit like a dialogue. That little boy doesn’t say anything, but the dad knows exactly what he’s thinking. This turns out to be a poem about how adults are far less powerful than we imagine them to be when we are young children. Every movement, gesture, thought, points to that finale in the poem, and the honest reveal that everyone has fears they cope with, ‘thunder deep down in my own bones,’ as the father puts it. As you craft scenes in your narrative, remember you don’t have to show every detail to make the scene powerful. Images of lightning and trees tossing outside the window would not make this poem stronger. But the child looking at the thunder then suddenly back at his dad as if the father can fix it: that’s narrative gold!”

via The Poetry Foundation

Argument Writing

Poem: “Choices” by Tess Gallagher

Questions to explore:

  • What is the author’s central argument or claim in this poem?
  • What does this poem have to say about choices?
  • What makes this poem more memorable than reading a short article about what influences our choices?

Mentorship potential:

I might say, “I love the way this poem uses such a small, simple image to make a big point. Our actions have consequences. When we want something, we need to think not just about the benefits, like the view of the mountain, but the costs, like the loss of a nest. Sometimes when we pause for a moment, we realize that our first choice was not the best choice, and we change course. The branches, the mountains, and the nests make this idea visual for readers. In our argument writing today, is there somewhere you can make an idea, a supporting detail, more visual? Can you use a two-sentence concrete example or a one-line simile? This can make a point briefly and more memorably than rambling about it and burying a good idea in too many words.”

In Conclusion

These ideas are brief and I hope they provide some seeds to plant in your own classroom. I should note here that no poem falls squarely into the categories of informative, narrative, and argument. In the world outside of school, neither does most prose. So I never want to reduce a poem by cramming it into a narrow space like that. But poems often contain elements of these modes of writing — sometimes even all three — that we can tease out when working with a larger writing assignment.

This month, have fun finding the bits and pieces you can tease out of the poems you discover and love to demonstrate how brevity can move your writers toward their best work.

 How do you demonstrate the power of brevity when teaching young writers? You can connect with me on Twitter @theVogelman or engage on Facebook to continue the conversation. For more ideas grounded in poetry, visit Go Poems, an annual project I facilitate for National Poetry Month.   

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