This year on Moving Writers, I am dusting off some old-but-wise books on my shelf about writing, creating a tiny review, then considering how one passage from the book can inform writing instruction today, even decades after the book was first published.
This month, I’ll consider an excerpt from the book Poetry Is by Ted Hughes.
Length: 100 pages
Year of Publication: 1967
A Tiny Review: This book is aimed at helping poets develop their craft, but contains timeless wisdom all writers can use. The opening chapter is called “Capturing Animals” because he recalls animal description as one of his earliest writing endeavors in childhood. Other chapters include “Wind and Weather,” “Writing About People” and “Writing About Landscape.” Mentor texts abound from poets you recognize: Eudora Welty, Theodore Roethke, Sylvia Plath, D. H. Lawrence, and Hughes himself. Like most books that poets write about poetry, I come back to this one for skip-around reading, opening to a random chapter for some creative inspiration.
One Wise Quote (from the Chapter “Learning to Think”):
“At school, I was plagued by the idea that I really had much better thoughts than I could ever get into words. It was not that I could not find the words, or that the thoughts were too deep or too complicated for words. It was simply that when I tried to speak or write down the thoughts, those thoughts had vanished. All I had was a numb, blank feeling, just as if somebody had asked me the name of Julius Caesar’s eldest son, or said “7,283 times 6,969 – quick. Think, think, think.” Now for one reason or another I became very interested in those thoughts of mine that I could never catch. Sometimes they were hardly what you could call a thought – they were a dim sort of feeling about something. They did not fit into any particular subject – history or arithmetic or anything of that sort, except perhaps English. . . I was thinking all right, and even having thoughts that seemed interesting to me, but I could not keep hold of the thoughts, or fish them up when I wanted them.
There is an inner life, which is the world of final reality, the world of memory, emotion, imagination, intelligence, and natural common sense, and which goes on all the time, consciously or unconsciously, like the heart beat. There is also the thinking process by which we break into that inner life and capture answers and evidence to support the answers out of it. That process of raid, or persuasion, or ambush, or dogged hunting, or surrender, is the kind of thinking we have to learn, and if we do not somehow learn it, then our minds lie in us like the fish in the pond of a man who cannot fish.”
In Today’s Classroom:
Many of our students will identify with Hughes’s first paragraph as he elaborates on the frustration of the awareness of ideas that will not seem to congeal into words. Learning disabilities may make this feeling a reality for EVERY writing assignment for some students.
The metaphor visualizing ideas as fish in a pond that we need to catch is a good one I can’t wait to share with my student writers. I could even see it making a fine poster for future reference.
Hughes is admiring a problem here, but what can we do to help students who feel this way? Three ideas come to mind.
- Make sure writer’s notebooks are not used only for words. Recent research reaffirms the value of rough sketchnotes in learning. Angela Stockman’s excellent books on multimodal composition (one for elementary and one for secondary) remind us that even the final product we ask students to create may be composed without the primary focus on text. In your next assignment, where will you allow or encourage students to capture that first “dim feeling about something” recorded in a way that does not involve text?
- Use this Hughes passage as a mentor text for metacognition. What we have here is a master writer sharing metacognition about his own struggles as he defines what thinking is and how it works for him. Research shows that having students pause to do this is valuable to their learning, so why not invite students to write two paragraphs in their notebooks modeled after these, perhaps introducing their own metaphors for idea-seeking.
- Use a pond metaphor to help students notice their own ideas and “fish them up.” Read students the excerpt above, at least the part that relates thinking to fishing. Instead of the traditional webbing or listing techniques, share the “mind pond” visual below as a reminder of the patience and the watchfulness required to find ideas and name them before the flick away back into the depths of our internal pond.
I read this chapter of Poetry Is one week after fiddling with ChatGPT and wrapping my head around the current capacity of AI writing. I am sure that what will never become less valuable is the act of thinking. While AI may be able to quickly churn out explanations in perfect grammar, the act of fishing that Hughes describes is beautifully complex, challenging, and human. We must continue to find ways to help our students experience this and gain confidence as they do so. While Ted Hughes writes about the thinking process in the context of poetry, it is certainly a prerequisite for writing well in any genre we employ in our classrooms.
My book, Poetry Pauses: Teaching With Poems to Elevate Writing in All Genres, is due out from Corwin Press in February. You can connect with me on Twitter @theVogelman or engage on Facebook at facebook.com/movingwriters to continue the conversation.
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