Learning From Poems: Music

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. Earlier this year, I have written about learning brevity and learning to use imagery.

Image via Freepik

When asked the question, “Do you think you’re creative?” 95% of second graders will answer “yes,” but only 5% of high school seniors will. A KQED article opens with this statistic and asks this question in its title: “Are We Wringing the Creativity Out of Kids?”

It’s easy to see how this can happen. As standardized tests and curriculum increasingly value logic, information, and argument over narrative and creative writing, students can lose sight of their own creative identity. How sad!

One way that we can invite students to restore this faith in their own creativity and still progress in academic writing is by helping students to hear the music that writers create with words.

Consider a passage from Erik Larson’s latest history book, The Splendid and the Vile. It’s about Winston Churchill — a topic I would be loath to read about under other circumstances — but I know that the music of Larson’s words can enthrall me with any part of history he chooses to write about. Listen:

“England braced for invasion. Troops piled sandbags and built machine-gun nests near the Palace of Westminster, home to Parliament and Big Ben. In Parliament Square, a small fortified redoubt–a pillbox–was disguised as a W. H. Smith book kiosk. Sandbags and guns adorned the grounds of Buckingham Palace, where the masses of tulips in the palace gardens were, according to New Yorker writer Mollie Panter-Downs, ‘exactly the color of blood.’ The queen began taking lessons on how to shoot a revolver. ‘Yes,” she said, ‘I shall not go down like the others'” (Larson 130).

It’s a paragraph out of an extended research paper, including precise locations, details, and quotes from people who were there. But it moves like music.

The passage starts with a short sentence, then moves on to progressively longer sentences, all of which gather momentum for the shocking image of a revolver-toting queen at the end. Words interact with consonanace and assonance throughout: “braced for invasion,” “book kiosk,” “Buckingham Palace, where masses of tulips.” Can you hear how these phrases create a bit of music through the word choice? And then there is the punctuation for the appositives, the dependent clauses, where the cadence almost suggest the words were created sitting at a piano rather than at a laptop.

If you have never talked about the “music” language can create with a class before, the poem “Mockingbird” by Kay Ryan is a fun place to start (See image below). As students enter the classroom, I have a mockingbird video from YouTube playing so they get a sense for how a real mockingbird sounds. When we read the poem, students do not need to understand every unfamiliar word to appreciate some of the playful way Ryan captures the music of this bird in her words. I share a Billy Collins quote with them and ask where they notice words that “enjoy being near each other, being together” in this poem.

But how can students transfer this sense of music to their writing? A few ways come to mind.

A PowerPoint slide I use as part of my Poem of the Day routine.

1. Create a found poem out of a drafted paragraph.

Students can take a paragraph of writing from a rough draft of an essay and break it into lines, making it look like a poem. When they do, and then read their work aloud, it becomes clear where the writing sounds un-poetic, where it lacks any musical quality. Superfluous words, wooden sentence structure, needless repetition, and lazy word choice cannot hide when we break our writing down this way. As an added bonus, we confront the grammar of our work more starkly.

Once we have changed the formatting, students can revise the lines as an improved poem before reconfiguring them into an improved paragraph.

And I guarantee after trying this with one paragraph, they will be ready to take a more critical ear to the rest of their composition.

2. Teach the power of anaphora and parallelism.

Anaphora is a rhetorical device in which several successive clauses begin with the same word or phrase. It is a type of parallel structure that helps a piece gather momentum and sounds musical because of its repetitions and rhythm. More generally, parallelism refers to a series of words or phrases that follow the same grammatical pattern, even if the words are different.

The poem “Remember” by Joy Harjo is an excellent of example of the power of anaphora as is “Samurai Song” by Robert Pinsky, and “Everybody Made Soups” by Lisa Coffman quickly demonstrates subtler parallelism.

Here is an example of how one of my students, Savannah H. takes the line “the world is a glass overflowing with water” from a Pablo Neruda poem and plays with anaphora in her writer’s notebook.

This technique is equally effective in genres beyond poetry. Checking my email this week, I stumbled upon this example of the technique in a missive from my district’s superintendent to our community:

An editorial article about healing from the emotional trauma of the pandemic ends with this simple series of parallel phrases: “Now is the time to address the root of the challenges before us and ensure a different destiny for ourselves, our children, and our country.”

When students reflect on what worked best in their essays, they are always quick to point out anaphora and other types of parallel structure that sound like the examples above. Why? It creates a music in their work. It creates flow and rhythm. It creates beauty.

I learned how to teach this concept from the book Image Grammar by Harry Noden. This book is foundational to my understanding of the artistic and musical effects we can achieve as writers through our arrangement of words.

3. Demonstrate the mic-drop power of a single line.

Poems have long used one-line stanzas for their “mic drop” power, and often at the end of a piece where a literal mic drop could happen.

Phil Kaye’s poem “Camaro” ends with a four-word stanza: “I do. I remember.”

Jacqueline Woodson’s standalone stanza-line, “We are so much more” from “Absolute” gives me chills every time I read it aloud to a class. Nikki Giovanni’s “Allowables,” a poem about killing a spider, breaks into a series of ever shorter one-line stanzas at the end, and the music slows to the dramatic, single-word-stanza: “Frightened.”

Poets have harnessed the music of short bursts of language for a long time, but this skill can transfer to other genres.

In her Buzzfeed opinion piece, public defender Liz Oyer writes about COVID-19 vaccinations in prison, using this one-line paragraph, a pivotal moment in her article: “As I spun my wheels, more and more of my clients got sick.” Built into a longer paragraph, this line has not particular music, but isolated, shorter than what’s around it, the line stands out. Like a quick, high strain of the violins, it heightens our attention to the urgency of this issue.

In her reflective essay, “The Day I Got Old,” Caitlin Flanagan meditates on aging and concludes her piece with a long paragraph describing an old photograph. Well, she almost concludes with that. Then there is a single line that captures the conundrum of looking at old photographs of oneself in a few straining notes: “The four of us: the Flanagans. I know that girl. I am that girl.” An award-winning editorial about saving snow days, written by a fifteen-year-old student, uses a similar approach for the closing paragraph.

Keep your eyes open as you read from your favorite sources of nonfiction, the articles you like to share with students. Musical, mic-drop moments like these abound.

Closing Thoughts

While learning brevity and learning to use imagery are each important skills student writers can transfer from their work with poetry, it’s crucial to remember that reading and writing poems can revitalize a student’s creative identity, helping secondary students to see that they are not just students but creative beings. We want more than 5% of seniors believing that about themselves!

Learning to listen for and create music with words is just one way to accomplish this goal. We can help students create writing that is not just efficient, accurate, and clear, but also playful, dramatic, and arresting.

1 Comment

  1. Thank you for this very thoughtful and helpful piece. It has come at the right time. Although I teach fifth grade language arts, I see so many ways that your article will help me with the poetry we are currently writing and with future analytical pieces we will be writing in the near future.

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