Mentor Text Wednesday: Chiaroscuro

Mentor Text: Chiaroscuro by Billy Corgan


  • Parenthesis
  • Editing


You may have noticed that I’ve settled into a bit of a rhythm in my Mentor Text Wednesday  posts, alternating between prose and poetry.

I may have mentioned this before, but perhaps 5 years ago or so, I really felt I wanted to do poetry better in my classroom, both the reading and writing of it. This means I read a lot more poetry now.

I’m always drawn to the poetry section of any bookstore. However, there is something special about the poetry section of the used book store, thrift shop or charity book sale. Maybe it’s the way that you can stretch the book budget there, but in reality, it’s probably that you can take a chance on more books, and really find some gems that you might not have otherwise snagged. (Oh, there are duds too!)

Especially fun is finding very niche poetry texts you didn’t expect to find. There are some treats on my shelf, to be sure. One that made me chuckle when I pulled it from the poetry section of a charity sale a couple of years ago was Billy Corgan’s blinking with fists. Yes, that Billy Corgan. The Smashing Pumpkins guy.

via TimeOut

I’ll be honest, it’s not all good. Just like some of the Pumpkins’ deep cuts, there are some clunkers. But there’s some good stuff too.

How we might use this text:

Parenthesis – Maybe it’s because I see so many of my students using brackets so awkwardly that I find myself drawn to effective use of them. Last week, I had one of my classes looking at a Shea Serrano piece where they’re used wonderfully.

What’s interesting is that the use of parentheses, especially in poetry, is really about purpose. A writer really needs to know why they’re using them, and what the effect they want to have is. ee Cummings used them differently than other poets did, for sure. But, in the majority of poems I’ve seen them used in, they’re used sparingly.

Corgan uses them liberally here. And maybe that’s the conversation we have with our writers, trying to discern his purpose. Is this a “ghost” poem created by echoing each line in parentheses, with some subtle changes? Are the parenthetical lines an inner monologue, the things the speaker feels they can’t say out loud? Is it an attempt on Corgan’s part to make us consider the meaning of each line? It doesn’t need to be clear, because we can, and should, take what we need from his poem, but that conversation about purpose, and then some time to write a poem using parenthesis could be an interesting exercise for our young poets.

Editing and Revising- If we consider the fact that Corgan has presented us with two attempts at each line, then we have an editing exercise tailor made for us.

Maybe a first step is to ask our students to create the best version of this poem by removing the version of each line that they feel is the lesser. Done collaboratively, this is going to encourage a lot of good authorly talk.

Could we ask our poets to do what Corgan does? To add, in parentheses, an alternate version of each line in their poems? There’s a couple of things embedded in this idea. First off, there is the idea of considering how to alter each line. Is it through punctuation, like the addition of the comma after please in the second stanza? Is it through subtle changes, when “your paper” becomes “the papers”? Or is it word choice, like changing leaves to departs? Is it a completely different line?

And when they’ve done that, we could ask them to make cuts to their poem, keeping only the best lines.

Like many of us, I’m often a little leery of the writings of celebrities. Like the purists will remind you, lyrics aren’t necessarily poetry. And I’ve admitted, Corgan doesn’t always stick the landing in this book. (In fact, there’s a poem in the collection that I’m tempted to build a lesson around, just so we can learn that using devices indiscriminately and inconsistently doesn’t really work at all.) ‘Chiaroscuro,’ however, allows us to explore a device with intent, which makes for a useful mentor text.

Celebrity writing – what have you pulled from it that you’ve used in your classroom? Maybe I’m being a little mean here, but which of these vanity projects fell flat for you? What mentor texts do you have that you feel explore a somewhat obscure device well?

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

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