Mentor Text Wednesday: One-Line Poems and Snow

Mentor Text: One-Line Poems by Stuart Ross and Snow by Alice Burdick


  • Line breaks in poetry


For the first time in almost three years, we were able to make our annual trip to Nova Scotia. Though it’s a month full of fun and family, I still find time to read. I’ve got a library card there too. A nice thing about libraries is that their poetry section is populated with books by local poets.

As I flagged poems in the collections I read for possible classroom use, I found the work of a couple poets that worked together to build a lesson that I think will be useful to developing poets.

One of my early lessons in poetry uses the poem ‘Parents’ by Julius Lester which, if you saw Penny Kittle speak a few years ago, you may be familiar with. Essentially, the poem is a news article that is revised and edited to become a poem. It’s a lesson I love because it opens up the idea that poetry can simply be an act of editing and revising. It’s helped dispel a good amount of the “I can’t write poetry!” chatter from my room.

via Queen’s Journal

As I read A Hamburger in a Gallery by Stuart Ross, I flagged the ‘One-Line Poems’ he included. I always enjoy exercises in brevity, and knew there was a place for them somewhere in my classroom. A few reads later, I was reading Alice Burdick’s Holler, and her poem ‘Snow’ immediately made me think of both the one-line poems, and my ‘Parents’ lesson.

In my ‘Parents’ lesson, with my developing poets, we use Florida Man articles to practice crafting poems through editing. ‘Snow’ gave me a model to do this on a more “micro” level, but using their own writing. Could we begin by writing one-line poems, and then using ‘Snow’ as a mentor text for editing something into a more overtly poetic form?

How we might use this text:

Line breaks in poetry- At the heart of both these lessons is the idea that one of the things that makes poetry obviously poetry is the line breaks. ‘Parents’ might get us into stanza breaks as well. Using ‘Parents’ as a model, I’ve been trying to undo the notion that poetry is governed by rules and form, as they’ve been taught, and that it is can be about how we arrange what we write. I’ve said, many times, that if you can write sentences and paragraphs, then you can write poetry. I think this lesson will prove that.

I plan to begin by sharing the one-line poems. We’ll look at them and discuss them. I appreciate that Ross goes from something relatively concrete:


There is intelligence in the water.

…to something more abstract:


Something indistinct on the subway tracks.

(In the book, these were separated. The first set of one-line poems, more concrete, were together, and later, there were a set of more abstract pieces. I compiled them into a single page.)

I think we could have a wonderful time, crafting one-line poems. They’re observational, and sometimes insightful, but since they’re simply a single line, nervous developing poets may not balk as readily. As well, I think there’s be a lot of energy and good writer talk as they write and share.

I’d leave these collections of one-line poems in their notebooks, and another day, come back to them with Burdick’s ‘Snow’:


Every tree

a birch

in winter.

I anticipate that as we look at it together, they’ll see that it too, at its core is a one-line poem. However, Burdick has made choices, and has used line breaks to make it adhere closer to what we traditionally picture when we think of a poem. We’ll discuss her choices, and hopefully, get into other choices that can be made when we use line breaks – isolating words for impact, varying the lengths of lines, using patterns, and other things.

Using ‘Snow’ as inspiration, we’ll return to our previously written one-line poems, and use editing to turn them into short poems that “look like poems.” (Always, in the early stages of working with poetry, I feel compelled to deconstruct and explore what a poem is. Many of my students come from middle school with very fixed ideas about what makes a poem, such as rhyme and very set ideas of form. Though those can be present, I want them to know that they aren’t the hard fast rules they’ve learned they are.)

I really love when I’m able to find new poems to bring into the classroom, but when those poems inspire lessons that I think will help my developing poets understand, and make poetic craft moves? That’s the best!

What are your earliest poetry lessons? What mentor text poems do you use to help your developing poets grow?

Leave a comment below or find me on Twitter @doodlinmunkyboy!

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