Saturday, April 18, 2015

NPM Project: Jumping Into Form - Interview with Avis Harley

In preparation for sharing forms this month, I wrote to a number of poets and asked if they would respond to a short list of questions on poetry, writing, and form. I'm thrilled every time one responds positively and find they have all been extremely generous with their time.

Today I'm sharing the thoughts of Avis Harley, a former teacher and author of 5 books of poetry for children, including African Acrostics: A Word in Edgewise (2009), The Monarch’s Progress: Poems with Wings (2008), Sea Stars: Saltwater Poems (2006), Leap into Poetry: More ABCs of Poetry (2001), and Fly with Poetry: An ABC of Poetry (2000).

How do you begin a poem? 
Avis: It varies.  It can be a visual image, a musical thought, a physical sensation, or perhaps just a single word.  But before I start writing, I like to immerse myself in someone else’s poetry. Sometimes an idea might come from this reading, but mostly I return to my earlier inspiration.  A word grows into a phrase that grows into a line, and slowly, over time and many, many rewrites, a poem might emerge.

How do you choose the form of your poems?
It’s crafty business, poetry writing,
But poetic forms are so inviting!

Should it be free verse?  Rap?  Haiku?
Intravista?  Sonnet?  Clerihew?
Limerick?  Villanelle?  Elegy?
A Couplet?  Acrostic?  A parody?

A myriad of forms from which to choose,
but the content decides which one to use.

What tools do you use in writing poetry?
Avis: I enjoy playing with rhyme, and have three different rhyming dictionaries. My Penguin Rhyming Dictionary is a well-thumbed paperback.  Another book is A Rhyming Dictionary and Poets’ Handbook by Burges Johnson, where the words are grouped into one-syllable rhymes, two-syllable rhymes, three-syllable rhymes, and so on – a double-dactyl-delight.  I also like Walker’s Rhyming Dictionary.  It is a reverse-order dictionary and a handy source for eye-rhymes, where endings are the same in spelling but not in sound.  I love eye-rhymes, and wrote a whole book of them, but recognize this obscurity is hard to sell.  But they were fun to write, and here’s one of them:


Dandelions plough
straight through
cement.   Although
just a golden hiccough
shining in its tiny trough,
for Dandelion, that is enough.

I also use the thesaurus, plus a Webster’s and an Oxford dictionary.  Canadians sometimes have different pronunciations and spellings to the Americans for certain words.  The ‘u’ in words such as honour, savour, humour, etc., disappears when my poems go over the border, bringing back childhood memories of a big red X on a spelling test if the ‘u’ were ever omitted.

But most of the time we both agree,
except when saying ‘zed’ or ‘zee.’

For forms, I often refer to The Harper Handbook to Literature, edited by Northrop Frye, et al.  Lewis Turco’s The Book of Forms: A Handbook of Poetics is a wonderful resource.  A book I encouraged my teacher/librarian students to read when I was teaching a poetry course at the University of B.C. is called The Teachers and Writers Handbook of Poetic Forms, edited by Ron Padgett.  It’s full of useful information and reader-friendly definitions.   I am somewhat addicted to collecting books of form, if only to discover new and obscure kinds of poems I’d like to try.

What would you like students or children to know about poetry?
Avis: It doesn’t always have to rhyme or be funny. Poetry is the most inspiring and beautiful arrangement of words language can offer. Poetry is a producer of the ‘ah-ha’ moment. Robert Frost said “Poetry begins in delight and ends in wisdom.” I would like children and students to discover this delight and wisdom by reading lots and lots of good poems – all kinds. Poetry is meant to be enjoyed; too many ‘simile-safaris’ can kill poetry. I would like them to know the wonder of language, and to try writing their own poems, and learn through this experience that poetry writing is not easy, but so rewarding.  It is a lifelong friend.

Are there any forms you haven't tried but would like to? Why or why not?
Avis: Yes, there are a lot of forms I have not yet tried!  I have experimented with many different ones in two ABC poetry books I’ve written, and do have my favourites – especially haiku, triolet, sonnet, limerick, and acrostic.  I’ve always been intrigued with puzzles and word games: crosswords, scrabble, anagrams, acrostics, words-within-words, rebuses, and any type of word fun that could be a springboard for a poetic form.  I like to create poems with messages inside, and enjoy inventing my own forms.

Finally, one of your esteemed colleagues suggested I ask for a poem in a foreign verse form. Would you be willing to share a poem for this project?
Avis: "Foreign" can mean unfamiliar, and my choice of verse form will be unfamiliar, as it is an original poetic form I have created.  I’ve called it the intravista, where words within words, arranged downward, make a poem within a poem.  Here is an intravista about our old cat, Sockeye:

                        THE CONTENTED CAT

                        A thermal cushion arrives on my lap,
                           spurred on by the thought
                   of a blissful nap.  She neatly
                          washes paws and chin – then lets
              her heartwarming purr begin.
                   So pleasant that murmur of purr and meow,
                            there’s enough contentment
                     to unfurrow my brow.


By hiding a word within another word, the intravista continually surprises me.  Coming up with an unusual word to envelop another one always seems to spark an unexpected idea, and it’s fun to have an inner voice give you two poems for the price of one.  As April is the month of blossoms, and also Poetry Month, I’d like to close with this poem:

                      IN THE KEY OF BEE

                      Blossom weather!
                           The sun-dappled
                                         street is alive
               with humming.  Listen
              to these trees blissfully thrumming
                                in the soft key
                              of honeybees!


Poems ©Avis Harley. All rights reserved.

A million thanks to Avis for participating in my Jumping Into Form project this month.

Friday, April 17, 2015

NPM Project: Jumping Into Form - Acrostic

An acrostic poem is one in which the first, last or some other letters, when read in a line moving downward, spell out a word or phrase. Acrostic poems date back to ancient times. They are found in the Bible and Roman ruins. Chaucer wrote them in the Middle Ages. Christopher Marlowe, William Blake, Edgar Allan Poe, Lewis Carroll and others have written in this form.

Here's a bit of background on the form from Avis Harley's book, African Acrostics.
The acrostic is a playful poetic form that people have enjoyed writing and reading since ancient times. The name comes from akros, the Greek word meaning outermost, or end, and stichos, meaning row, or a line of verse. Although the form has many variations, the most popular is the traditional acrostic, in which the first letters of the lines, when read downward, spell a word or words.
... Acrostics offer the writer an intriguing framework for a poem, and single acrostics are not difficult to create. Think of a word, phrase, or even a whole sentence that catches your imagination. Then write it vertically. You can use one words per line, or many words—rhymed or unrhymed. A predetermined letter can sometimes spark an unexpected idea, and it's great fun to hide a word or message for your readers
Astonish yourself— s
Create a poem that
On its
Think of the fun when
It lets the letters help you
Text and Poem ©Avis Harley. All rights reserved.  
On my regular travels through classrooms I have noticed that students are often asked to write acrostic poems. Sometimes I see their names or the topic they are studying as the spine of their poems. Too often these acrostic studies are merely lists of descriptive words or phrases. Poetry they are not. I think good acrostic poems are hard to write. To inspire students in their acrostic writing you need strong mentor texts they can use as models. The books that follow provide outstanding examples of acrostics that work.
African Acrostics: A Word in Edgeways (2012), written by Avis Harley with photographs by Deborah Noyes, is a collection of 18 acrostic poems, each accompanied by a gorgeous photograph of the animal described. Poems cover the crocodile, rhino, kudu, lion, hornbill, elephant, stork, zebra, giraffe, buffalo, ostrich, African wildcat, lioness, bonobo, impala, hippo, bat-eared fox, and leopard. The book opens with a poem about the form.

ACROSTIC (uh-Kros-tik)

Welcome, all poets--both new
Or well versed. Non-rhymers or
Rhymers! Come,
Dive in headfirst!

Inviting all writers--
Now you're just the right age.

Explore the acrostic that rides
Down the page.
Get a word you
Enjoy and would like to define.
Write it down vertically
And fill in each line.
Your name is a very good way to begin.
Surprise yourself. Find that poem within!

Now that you've been introduced to the notion of a "word in edgeways," I doubt you'll ever look at an acrostic in the same way. In fact, Harley pushes the boundaries of the form and does more than write simple acrostics. Let's skip to the endnotes for a moment where readers will find descriptions and examples of the many forms found in this collection, such as the double acrostic, multiple acrostic, cross acrostic, and more. Here's an example of a double acrostic.

Eye to Eye

Ear-sails flap in a breeze.
Leather limbs in rhythm
Evenly swaying in step
Plod slowly over Africa.
Huge as a dinosaur, yet
tender soul from such
Noble mammoth alumni.
There is wonder abuzz,
Staring into eyes so wise.

Poems ©Avis Harley. All rights reserved.

The poems in this book are deftly created. The words spelled out vertically range from single words (herald, lying, poppet, outstanding) to phrases (wild stripes, cloud friends, fatherly advice, beauty in the beast). The double acrostics, quintuple acrostic (yes, that's FIVE words), and concrete acrostic deserve some special attention. The patterns that exist within them never get in the way of the poem itself, and finding them is a bit of a surprise. 
Spring: An Alphabet Acrostic (1999), written by Steven Schnur and illustrated by Leslie Evans, is a collection of 26 acrostics from April to zenith. The poems each serve as a complete thought about the subject and are crafted exquisitely with what seem to be just the right words. Here are a few examples.

After days of
Rain, the last
Ice and snow finally
Leave the earth.

Egrets, ducks and
Geese nest in the marsh
Grass, waiting for their
Shells to hatch.

Nestled under the
Eaves, a
Song-filled ark of
Twigs and grass.

Poems ©Steven Schnur. All rights reserved.

You will also find poems for the words buds, calf, dawn, frog, grass, hopscotch, infant, jungle, kites, ladder, May, outside, parade, quintuplets, raft, seeds, twilight, umpire, Venus, wheat, Xing, and young.

There are four books in this series, each one with carefully crafted acrostics. You can view some of the illustrations in the series and read a few more poems on Leslie Evans' web site.
Silver Seeds, written by Paul Paolilli and Dan Brewer with paintings by Steve Johnson and Lou Fancher, is a collection of 15 nature poems using the acrostic form. The verses are ordered to follow a young boy and girl through the day, beginning with dawn and ending with night. In between they encounter sun, shadow, hills, trees, leaves (though the word is leaf), a bee, butterfly, hummingbird, clouds, fog, rain, the moon, and stars. Here is the poem that gives the book its title and one on clouds.

Silver seeds
Tossed in the air
And planted in the sky,
Reaching out of the darkness
Sprouting wonder. 

Creamy scoops of ice cream
Under a
Dreamy blue

Poems ©Paul Paolilli and Dan Brewer. All rights reserved.

The poems in each of these collections are economical and evocative. The metaphors are carefully selected and spot-on.

You will notice that each of the poems shared are fine examples of the form, far removed from the school-assigned poems to write an acrostic using your first name, or some vocabulary word being studied. Now that you've had a chance to think a bit about this form, here are some resources you may find helpful.
That's it for acrostic poems. Come back this weekend for two new interviews with children's poets.

Poetry Friday - A Potpourri

Today I'm sharing some thoughts on form and writing poetry. These are the views of Kevin Boland (known to his baseball-playing buddies as Shakespeare), the main character in Ron Koertge's books Shakespeare Bats Cleanup and its sequel, Shakespeare Makes the Playoffs.

Man, sonnets are hard: counting
syllables in every line, trolling
for rhymes (SBC, p.16).

I'm still trying to slip in some inside
rhyme, just a few things that chime
a little but don't go bongbongbong
at the end of every line (SBC, p. 61).

He calls rhyme a benevolent bully because it'll make a poet
look hard for the right word and then maybe he finds
an even better one (SMTP, p. 11)!

The sestina is almost impossible. I tried one once
and after a couple of stanzas threw myself onto
the nearest chaise and wept. Copiously (SMTP, p. 80)

Poem excerpts ©Ron Koertge. All rights reserved

At the Storyteller's Inkpot, Koertge has written about working with a student/poet who refused to write in forms. It's an interesting piece that makes a good case for writing in form. And Koertge ends on a note that gives me hope. He says:
Most of my poems are failures, anyway, but as Samuel Beckett (Mr. Sunshine) famously said, “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
When I embarked on my NPM project this month, it was in part a reaction to rhyme exhaustion. Often times I think and feel the way Laura Shovan describes in her piece Why I Hate Rhyme. If you haven't read it, you should. And ultimately, it's not really hate. Laura says:
In reality, I don’t hate rhyme. Instead, I recognize that using rhyme in a poem is a complex task. 
Amen and AMEN. Many forms that I write in actually use rhyme, but I don't feel boxed in when following the "rules," but rather feel free to play within them. In doing this, the rhymes feel less forced and more thoughtfully selected.

I do hope you'll take some time to check out all the wonderful poetic things being shared and collected today by Robyn Hood Black at Life on the Deckle Edge. Happy poetry Friday friends!

Thursday, April 16, 2015

NPM Project: Jumping Into Form - The Sonnet

Oh sonnet ...

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
I love thee to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.

Do you recognize the lines above? They come from Sonnets from the Portuguese (this is 43) by Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

The sonnet is a fourteen-line lyric poem that originated in Italy and slowly made its way across Europe and to England. Sonnets were first written as love poems. The type of sonnet, Petrarchan (Italian) or Shakespearean (English) generally determines the structure and rhyme scheme. Before we get into the "rules" and specifics, let's start with a some words about the sonnet.

In That Book of Dad's 
I Borrowed

chapter two was about the sonnet.
Man, those made me want to go back to
haiku. Like a burger with everything on it,
sonnets are packed with roses and dew,
summer days, tender breaths, rocks and rills
(whatever rills are), and tons of wimpy guys
who apparently thought it was a thrill
to sit around with some sheep and sigh
about everything. I'm not that lame.
I'm just a former baseball whiz who'd like
to do what I used to do. Again.
Even if it means getting called out on strikes.
Sorry, Will, the sonnet's not for me.
Baseball's my love—not some thou or thee.

It Took Forever

to write that, and it isn't very good.
I finished, though, because I might be
skinny and sick but I'm not a quitter.

Man, sonnets are hard: counting
syllables in every line, trolling
for rhymes.

But it's really cool how everything fits
into fourteen little lines.

It's kind of like packing a lunch box,
getting in way more good stuff
than I thought I could.

Poems ©Ron Koertge. All rights reserved.

These two poems are from Shakespeare Bats Cleanup by Ron Koertge. Kevin Boland (known to his baseball-playing buddies as Shakespeare) is sidelined by mono and must spend time at home resting and recuperating. What's a boy to do when he's told he's sick and can't play the sport he loves? His father, who is a writer, hands him a marble composition notebook and says, "You're gonna have a lot of time on your/hands. Maybe you'll feel like writing/something down." Soon after this Kevin takes a book about poetry from the den and secrets it away to his room.
It feels weird smuggling something about
poetry up to my room like it's the new
As Kevin recovers from mono he writes about the death of his mother, girls, baseball, the past, and the struggles of a typical teenager. The poems take a variety of forms, including sonnet, couplet, free verse, elegy, pastoral, pantoum, and more. One of the things I love about this book is Kevin's perspective on writing and poetic forms, particularly the sonnet.

So how is a sonnet structured? First, most are composed of 14 lines and written in iambic pentameter. Iambic pentameter is the meter pattern of syllables. An iamb is a foot (two syllables in this case) that are unstressed/stressed in pattern. Since the prefix pent- means five, iambic pentameter is a line consisting of 5 iambs. It is stressed in this fashion:

da DUM | da DUM | da DUM | da DUM | da DUM

Italian Sonnet
  • The Italian sonnet is divided into an octave (8 lines), followed by a sestet (6 lines).
  • The rhyme pattern for the octave is a-b-b-a, a-b-b-a. For the sestet the pattern can be c-d-e-c-d-e OR c-d-c-c-d-c.
  • The transition from octave to sestet usually contains a turn.
English Sonnet
  • The English sonnet is composed of three quatrains and a final couplet.
  • The rhyme pattern is a-b-a-b-c-d-c-d-e-f-e-f-g-g
  • The turn in this version comes with the final couplet.
A Wreath for Emmett Till (2005), written by Marilyn Nelson and illustrated by Philippe Lardy, is a heroic crown of sonnets, or a sequence of 15 sonnets that are interlinked like a normal crown of sonnets, except in the heroic crown the last sonnet is made entirely from the first lines of the previous 14 sonnets. One of the things that makes this heroic crown such an achievement is the the last sonnet is also an acrostic poem, in which the first letters of each line spell out the phrase “RIP Emmett L. Till.”

The poems in this crown are not easy to read. They are unsettling, shocking, and sad, but this is an important event in the history of our nation that needs to be told again and again. The book ends with a short biography of Emmett Till, extensive notes on the 15 sonnets, and an artist's note. The tempera illustrations by Philippe Lardy quietly reflect the themes and moods of the sonnets.

One of the sonnets in this crown is written from the perspective of the tree witnessing the lynching, and echoes some of the sentiments expressed in Paul Laurence Dunbar's poem The Haunted Oak.

Pierced by the screams of a shortened childhood,
my heartwood has been scarred for fifty years
by what I heard, with hundreds of green ears.
That jackal laughter. Two hundred years I stood
listening to small struggles to find food,
to the songs of creature life, which disappears
and comes again, to the music of the spheres.
Two hundred years of deaths I understood.
Then slaughter axed one quiet summer night,
shivering the deep silence of the stars.
A running boy, five men in close pursuit.
One dark, five pale faces in the moonlight.
Noise, silence, back-slaps. One match, five cigars.
Emmett Till's name still catches in the throat.

Poem ©Marilyn Nelson. All rights reserved.

You can listen to an interview with Marilyn Nelson on NPR and hear her read the entire poem. If you are interested in using this book in he classroom, you can download a teacher's guide from Houghton Mifflin.
The Emily Sonnets: The Life of Emily Dickinson (2012), written by Jane Yolen and illustrated by Gary Kelley, is a sequence of sonnets that together tell the story of Dickinson's life. Written in the voices of Dickinson, her dog, sister, and others, each poem lovingly points back to the words used in Dickinson's own works. Back matter includes detailed information about the context of the poems and includes interesting and endearing anecdotes to accompany each sonnet.

Here are Yolen's words from the Author's note about the collection.
In this book of sonnets about Emily's life, I have given each poem a title and an indication as to the speaker, whether Emily herself, her sister Lavinia (Vinnie), her niece Martha (Mattie), her mentor/friend Thomas Wenworth Higginson, an unknown critic, or me (JY). I have tried to tell the truth of her life, but as Emily said: "Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—/Success in Circuit lies ..."

The Brick House (Emily Speaks)

No house in town was built of brick
Except the one that bore me.
The roof was slant, the walls quite thick.
My mother did not adore me.
My father's smiles were rare and swift,
A grimace more than joy.
I was the second child, a gift;
The first one was a boy.

We two, like sailors in a storm,
Clung desperate to each other,
Trying to stay safe and warm,
Small sister to big brother;
He strove so hard my life to save
From drowning in that icy wave.

Poem ©Jane Yolen. All rights reserved.

It's rare to find sonnets in poetry for children, so I have one more title to recommend.
Shakespeare's Seasons (2012), created by Miriam Weiner and illustrated by Shannon Whitt, is an introduction to Shakespeare that combines snippets of his verse (mostly sonnets) accompanied by illustrations that span the seasons of the year. Back matter includes a short note about Shakespeare and his work. Here is an excerpt.
The way people speak to each other has changed a bit since Shakespeare's time. This is why some of the words in this book—words from his sonnets and plays—may sound funny to you. But listen carefully and you can enjoy the music of his words, and the pictures they create in your mind.
The book opens with the season of summer and these lines.

Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date.
                                                                              Sonnet 18, 1-4

Most excerpts shared are four lines or less, though the longest quote is eight lines. Shakespeare's words, paired with Whitt's lovely images, make the language and ideas easily accessible for children. If you haven't seen this title, take a quick look at the images from the book at Shannon Whitt's web site.

If you are ready to tackle reading and/or writing the sonnet with your students, here are some helpful resources.
That's it for the sonnet. I'll be back tomorrow with another form.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

NPM Project: Jumping Into Form - Found Poems

At the most basic level, found poems are poems composed from words and phrases found in another text. Here is a more comprehensive description from the folks at
Found poems take existing texts and refashion them, reorder them, and present them as poems. The literary equivalent of a collage, found poetry is often made from newspaper articles, street signs, graffiti, speeches, letters, or even other poems.

A pure found poem consists exclusively of outside texts: the words of the poem remain as they were found, with few additions or omissions. Decisions of form, such as where to break a line, are left to the poet.
And here is what is written on the "About" page at The Found Poetry Review.
“Happy poets who write found poetry go pawing through popular culture like sculptors on trash heaps. They hold and wave aloft usable artifacts and fragments: jingles and ad copy, menus and broadcasts — all objet trouvés, the literary equivalents of Warhol’s Campbell’s soup cans and Duchamp’s bicycle. By entering a found text as a poem, the poet doubles its context. The original meaning remains intact, but now it swings between two poles. The poet adds, or at any rate increases, the element of delight. This is an urban, youthful, ironic, cruising kind of poetry. It serves up whole texts, or interrupted fragments of texts.” — Annie Dillard

Put another way, found poetry is the literary version of a collage. Poets select a source text or texts — anything from traditional texts like books, magazines and newspapers to more nontraditional sources like product packaging, junk mail or court transcripts — then excerpt words and phrases from the text(s) to create a new piece.
What I love about the Found Poetry site is that they describe different types of found poetry and where possible, provide examples. You can learn about erasure, free-form excerpting and remixing, cento, and cut-up. They also provide a quick but very helpful introduction to issues of fair use.

In an NCTE article on found and headline poems I found this most useful and inspiring language for thinking about found poetry.
Plenty of strong and beautiful poems are made from plain language. You sometimes hear such language in conversation, when people are talking their best. Listen. Sometimes you yourself say wonderful things. Admit it. You can find moving, rich language in books, on walls, even in junk mail. (From such sources you’ll probably find better poems, or better beginnings for poems, than from dictionaries and other word books.) 
So, poems hide in things you and others say and write. They lie buried in places where language isn’t so self-conscious as “real poetry” often is.
So found poetry is inspired by every little thing, you just need to keep your eyes, ears, and heart open to the possibilities.
The Arrow Finds Its Mark: A Book of Found Poems (2012), edited by Georgia Heard and illustrated by Antoine Guillope, is a collection of 40 found poems. The guidelines for creating the poems found in the book are outlined in the Introduction and are excerpted here.
  • Poets were asked to find text that already exists in a form other than poetry and present that text as a poem.
  • Poets could find poems from any source (other than poetry).
  • Poets were encouraged not to change, add, or rearrange words but, as in any creative endeavor, they stretched these guidelines and were allowed to make minor changes in order for the poem to flow more smoothly or make better sense. They could also change punctuation, tense, plurals, and capitalization.
  • Poets created their own titles that often gave the poems depth and added another layer of meaning.
  • Poets could combine the found poem with an other form.
So, the intrepid poets in this volume set out to find poems in the texts of everyday life. Here are a few of the poems they came up with.

Found by Janet Wong
on a box of OxiClean detergent

Pep Talk

Keep cool.
See a brighter solution.
Maintain freshness.
Boost your power!

Poem ©Janet Wong. All rights reserved.

Found by Amy Ludwig VanDerwater
in Drawing On Both Sides of the Brain
by Betty Edwards

Artist's Advice

Draw everything and anything.
Nothing is unbeautiful:
a few square inches of weeds
a broken glass
a landscape
a human being.
Observe your style.
Guard it.
Put pencil to paper every day.

Poem ©Amy Ludwig VanDerwater. All rights reserved.

Finally, I want to share one more found poem. This is a poem of a different sort. Please visit the Newspaper Blackout site to learn more about Austin Kleon and his work.
Poem ©Autsin Kleon. All rights reserved.

If you would like to try writing found poems with your students, here are some helpful resources.
Now that you are inspired, go out and find yourself a poem! NPM is half over, but I still have more to explore with you. I'll hope you'll come back tomorrow for another form.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

NPM Project: Jumping Into Form - List Poems

A list poem is a carefully crafted list, catalog, or inventory of things. Robert Lee Brewer of Poetic Asides writes this in his article List Poem: A Surprisingly American Poem:
The list poem was used by the Greeks and in many books of the Bible. But two of the most popular American poems, Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” and Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” are list poems. So what is a list poem? 
Basically, a list poem (also known as a catalog poem) is a poem that lists things, whether names, places, actions, thoughts, images, etc. It’s a very flexible and fun form to work with.
Whitman is one of my favorite list poem writers. Here's one that particularly stands out for me.

I Hear America Singing
by Walt Whitman

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,
The wood-cutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown,
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.

What is it about list poems that makes them so accessible? Perhaps it's because the list is so ubiquitous in our lives. Everyone makes lists, so finding them in poetry is not unexpected and makes them seem familiar.

In the book Conversations With a Poet: Inviting Poetry into K-12 Classrooms (2005), written by Betsy Franco, the chapter devoted to the list poem includes this background and helpful information.
The list poem or catalog poem consists of a list or inventory of things. Poets started writing list poems thousands of years ago. They appear in lists of family lineage in the Bible and in the lists of heroes in the Trojan War in Homer's Iliad.  
Characteristics Of A List Poem
  • A list poem can be a list or inventory of items, people, places, or ideas.
  • It often involves repetition.
  • It can include rhyme or not.
  • The list poem is usually not a random list. It is well thought out.
  • The last entry in the list is usually a strong, funny, or important item or event.
List poems abound in poetry collections and are sometimes found in narrative prose. Here's an example from the book Kartography (2004), written by Kamila Shamsie.
This litany of Karachi winter characteristics could easily be turned into a list poem, though I read it as a prose poem as written.
Falling Down the Page: A Book of List Poems (2009), edited by Georgia Heard, is a wonderful collection of list poems. It begins with this excerpt from the Introduction.
Out for a walk in New York City I see: yellow cabs speeding down Broadway; people lounging in overstuffed chairs at a coffee shop. I hear: cars honking; a dog barking in the distance. As I walk along I make a list in my head of what I observe just like Walt Whitman did over one hundred years ago in his famous list poems Song of Myself. The list or catalog poem is one of the oldest and most accessible of poetic forms.
... Poets meticulously craft their words to create list poems. Falling Down the Page highlights the wide variety of the list poem form, from a simple list of words with a twist at the beginning or end to more complicated and detailed descriptive lists. 
Here are two poems from this collection.

Are We There Yet? 
by Heidi Roemer

Ocean maps,
Weather maps,
Maps that chart the stars.

Road maps,
Train maps
Show us where we are.
Builder's maps,
Landscape maps,
Maps drawn in the sand.

Fold-up maps,
Rolled-up maps.
A globe held in my hand.

Tattered maps,
Treasure maps-
What secrets are they holding?

I like maps.
I read maps.
They get me where I'm going.

Poem ©Heidi Roemer. All rights reserved.

Recipe For Writing An Autumn Poem
by Georgia Heard

One teaspoon wild geese.
One tablespoon red kite.
One cup wind song.
One pint trembling leaves.
One quart darkening sky.
One gallon north wind.

Poem ©Georgia Heard. All rights reserved.

This is a wonderful book, full of surprises. It opens vertically and is visually very interesting. (It was designed by John Grandits, so this should come as no surprise to anyone who's seen his concrete poetry books!) This is not only a great choice for read aloud, but also a terrific mentor text for students learning to write list poems.

I want to close with this list poem by George Ella Lyon.

Where I'm From
By George Ella Lyon

I am from clothespins,
from Clorox and carbon-tetrachloride.
I am from the dirt under the back porch.
(Black, glistening,
it tasted like beets.)
I am from the forsythia bush
the Dutch elm
whose long-gone limbs I remember
as if they were my own.

Read the poem in its entirety.

You can also hear it read on George Ella Lyon's web site or listen to it in the video below.
There are a number of resources available for teachers wanting to use this poem as a model for list poem writing.

Now that your brain is filled with list poem goodness, here are some resources to help you begin writing list poems with kids.
I hope you have found this introduction to list poems helpful. I'll see you back here tomorrow for another form.

Monday, April 13, 2015

NPM Project: Jumping Into Form - Ekphrastic Poems

An ekphrastic poem is a vivid description of a scene or, more commonly, a work of art. defines ekphrasis in this way.
"ekphrasis"—a vivid description of a thing. Ekphrasis during the Greek period included descriptions of such battle implements, as well as fine clothing, household items of superior craftsmanship (urns, cups, baskets), and exceptionally splendid buildings.
. . .
ekphrastic poems are now understood to focus only on works of art—usually paintings, photographs, or statues. And modern ekphrastic poems have generally shrugged off antiquity's obsession with elaborate description, and instead have tried to interpret, inhabit, confront, and speak to their subjects.
Here is how the Maier Museum of Art at Randolph College describes ekphrastic poetry.
The creation of original poetry and prose in response to works of visual art, known as Ekphrastic writing, is a writing exercise originating in ancient Greece where schoolboys were assigned composition exercises about painting and architecture. Familiar examples are poems such as John Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn” (1819) or W. H. Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts” (1938).
Heart to Heart: New Poems Inspired by Twentieth Century American Art (2001), edited by Jan Greenberg, is a collection of poems inspired by and written to selected works of art by Alexander Calder, Jackson Pollack, Grandma Moses, Jacob Lawrence, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Georgia O'Keeffe and others. Pieces include paintings, photographs, sculptures and more. An illustration from Faith Ringgold’s Tar Beach is even included. This book was a 2002 Printz honor book.

In the Introduction Greenberg writes:
In college I discovered there was a long tradition of poets writing on art, going back to ancient Greece. I read Homer's description of Achille's shield and John Keats' Ode on a Grecian Urn. The list grew. Now in my books on American art, I find that including poetry enriches the text, adds an element of surprise. For what the poet sees in art and puts into words can transform an image, "giving us a sense," says the poet Bobbi Katz, "of entering a magical place," and extending what is often an immediate response into something more lasting and reflective. 
These connections between reader and viewer, writer and artist, resulted in this anthology, celebrating the power of art to inspire language. 
... Whether the word are playful, challenging, tender, mocking, humorous, sad, or sensual, each work of art, seen through the eyes of a poet, helps us look at the world around us with fresh insight. 
The book is divided into several sections, labeled Stories, Voices, Impressions, and Expressions. Some of the poems in the book tell stories, while others speak from the artwork itself as the voice of the object or a person depicted within. Some describe the elements of the artwork, while others still explore the nature of art and the artist.

In the section on Expressions is a pantoum by Bobbi Katz. It was written for an untitled Rothko work created in 1960. Here is how it begins.
Lessons from a Painting by Rothko
How would you paint a poem?
Prepare the canvas carefully
With tiers of misty rectangles
Stacked secrets waiting to be told.

Prepare the canvas carefully
With shallow pools of color
Stacked secrets waiting to be told
Messages from some unknown place
In the section on Impressions is a poem by Jane Yolen. Here is an excerpt. Can you guess which well-known painting it accompanies? (The title has been excluded for obvious reasons!)
Do not dwell on the fork,
the brooch at the throat,
the gothic angel wing
of window pointing toward
a well-tended heaven.
See how well you did by looking for the answer here.

The ekphrastic poems in this book are moving and lovely. In addition to those mentioned above, you'll find pieces by Kristine O'Connell George, X. J. Kennedy, J. Patrick Lewis, Naomi Shihab Nye, Carole Boston Weatherford, Janet Wong, Ron Koertge, and many others. Back matter includes biographical notes on both the poets and artists.
Side By Side: New Poems Inspired By Art From Around the World (2008), edited by Jan Greenberg, is a collection of poems inspired by and written to selected works of art from around the world. Most of the poems in this work were written or translated specifically for this collection. The artwork represents a mix of "ancient, traditional, modern, and contemporary art." Like her first work, Greenberg has divided this book into the sections Stories, Voices, Impressions, and Expressions. They are described this way.
In Stories, the poet looks at an artwork and imagines a story. In Voices, the poet enters the canvas and speaks in the voice of the subject depicted there. In Expressions, the poet is interested in the transaction that takes places between the viewer and the art object. In Impressions, the poet identifies the subject of the artwork and describes what he or she sees in the elements of the composition, such as line, shape, texture, and color.
In the Introduction, Greenberg says this about ekphrastic poetry.
And ekphrastic poetry has fascinated poets for centuries. The poet takes the time to sit and stare at an artwork, to think about what he or she sees and to write it down. It forces the viewer not only into more than taking in the image but also into finding words to express what he or she feels. Art may challenge our minds, but it also touches our souls. 
The poems in this collection are often presented in two languages. For example, you will find a poem written for Pablo Picasso's Dish of Pears, written in Spanish and translated into English, one for Reha Yalnizcik's Two Leaves in Snow, written in English and translated into Turkish, one for Wafaa Jdeed's Forest, written in Arabic and translated into English, and many others. One of my favorite poems was written in Japanese and translated into English. 
Dawn by Ei-Kyu
Dawn by Ei-Kyu

On Dawn
Translated from the Japanese by Sawako Nakayasu
Original poem written by Naoko Mishimoto

wind lulls, cornflower
eyelids close
asleep at night
a faint blue
spiral dream with
birds & insects
birds & insects

I love this volume because it introduced me to many works of art and writers I have never seen or read before. The back matter includes biographies of the poets, translators, and artists.
Paint Me a Poem: Poems Inspired by Masterpieces of Art (2005), written by Justine Rowden, is a collection of 13 poems inspired by paintings on display in the National Gallery in Washington. It is written for young children, so the poems here often capture a child's imaginings in relation to the art. You can view examples of the art and poems at the author's site.

J. Patrick Lewis was kind enough to send me some poems he is working on for a collection of ekphrastic poems. Here are two examples.
The Sleeping Gypsy by Henri Rousseau

The Sleeping Gypsy

Surprised by Moon, but at his ease,
The imperturbable lion sees
A water jar, a mandolin,
The wooden woman in her skin.

He does not put on brute display  
His fascination for the prey
That other nights on other dunes
Ruthlessly reddens other moons.

He must be fed but must be full;
No doubt his appetite is dull
From ravaging the wicked part
Of his corrupted lionheart.

Whatever reasons there may be
For this pastoral scenery,
Midnight capitulates to dawn.
The lion lingers, and moves on.

Sunday Afternoon by Fernando Botero
Image from LatinAmericanArt

Sunday Afternoon

Is it a picnic? Is it a lark?
Mother and Father swelling the park
with baby blue babies,
baby fat babies,
one bound for outer space,
one on the Ark.
Adolescently wavy,
the Admiral lookout’s
becoming a navy
all to himself,
while Father’s daydreaming
of roast beef rare,
or else the apostrophe
of Mother’s hair.

Poems ©J. Patrick Lewis, 2015. All rights reserved.

Finally, I want to point you in the direction of Irene Latham's Poem-a-Day Project for National Poetry Month 2015. Entitled ARTSPEAK!, Irene is writing a series of ekphrastic poems for a a wide range of images found in the online collections of the National Gallery of Art. Her project focuses on "dialogue, conversations, what does the piece say?"

If you are ready to begin writing ekphrastic poems with your students, here are some helpful resources.
I hope you've enjoyed this brief introduction to ekphrastic poetry.

Monday Poetry Stretch - Ya Du

Ya Du is a Burmese poetic form that uses climbing-rhyme. Each poem contains anywhere from 1-3 stanzas (but no more than 3). Each stanza contains 5 lines. The climbing rhymes occur in syllables four, three, and two of both the first three lines and the last three lines of a stanza. The first four lines have 4 syllables each, and the last one can have 5, 7, 9, or 11 syllables. The last two lines have an end-word rhyme. 

Here's an example of what the climbing rhyme pattern looks like.
x x x a
x x a x
x a x b
x x b c
x b x x x x c

Since ya du means "the seasons," the poem should contain a reference to the seasons.

I hope you'll join me this week in writing a ya du. Please share a link to your poem or the poem itself in the comments.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

NPM Project: Jumping Into Form - Interview with J. Patrick Lewis

In preparation for sharing forms this month, I wrote to a number of poets and asked if they would respond to a short list of questions on poetry, writing, and form. I'm thrilled every time one responds positively and find they have all been extremely generous with their time.

Today I'm sharing the thoughts of J. Patrick Lewis, former Children's Poet Laureate and author of more than 50 books of poetry. The book he curated, National Geographic Book of Nature Poetry: More than 200 Poems With Photographs That Float, Zoom, and Bloom!, will be released in October. You can read more about him at the Poetry Foundation.

How does a poem begin for you — with an idea, a form, an image, or something else? 
Pat: None of the above. A poem for me almost always emerges from a word, one word. “In the beginning was . . .” and so forth. And sooner or later, voila! another word appears. My latest collection began with the word “blue.” I decided to write a series of ekphrastic poems to classical paintings, all of which have a predominance of the color blue in them. If the ms. ever sees the light of
day, that will be its title—BLUE.

How do you choose the form of your poems?
Pat: In poetry, as in architecture, form follows function. In short, it depends on what one intends to write about. Limericks, obviously, are wholly inappropriate for the more serious themes, like civil rights, national monuments, or outstanding women. Likewise, you are unlikely to find sonnets as texts for the very young. I do have a fondness for villanelles, not in spite of but because they are so damnably hard to do well. Elizabeth Bishop took fifteen years to write “One Art,” and it shows. Why write if the challenge isn’t there?

Are there any forms you haven't tried but would like to? Why or why not?
Pat: I’m endlessly working my way through Robin Skelton’s indispensable The Shapes of Our Singing: A Comprehensive Guide to Verse Forms and Metres from Around the World. For any poet eager to experiment, there is a surprise on every page.

I would not write a diamante, which is undeserving of the name “verse form.” Unfortunately, teachers often use diamantes with students, who are then led to believe that writing poems is about the search for adjectives. Since writing poetry is difficult, it could never be about hunting for adjectives, which is easy. Poetry is the search for strong personified verbs.

What tools (rhyming dictionary, book of forms, etc.) do you use in writing poetry (if any)?
Pat: What tools doesn’t one use? Another necessary title that is bolted to my desk is Lewis Turco’s The Book of Forms (revised and expanded edition). Writing poetry without it is like crocheting without needles. I continually turn to Stephen Fry’s The Ode Less Traveled for its wisdom, humor, and suggested exercises. Rhyming dictionaries, yes, of course. The Random House Unabridged is on my dictionary stand, and within arm’s reach is Mr. Roget, silent partner in all my endeavors.

I shamelessly admit that I steal forms (as T.S. Eliot advised) from many a volume sharing space on my bookshelf by some now nearly forgotten poets— Samuel Hoffenstein, Harry Graham, the Carryls, père and fils, W.S. Gilbert, Arthur Guiterman, Ms. Anonymous, and of course, the unforgettable Lear and Carroll.

What would you like students or children to know about poetry?
Pat: I would like them to know that, at the age of seven, they should pay no attention to grownups who call them “poets.” They are not poets but practitioners. A seven-year-old who climbs up on a piano stool and bangs on the keys is not a pianist.

Second, and again to paraphrase Eliot, rhyming is not one of your holiday games. If children decide that rhyming is what they want to do, let them begin doing it—at the age of 30 or so. For now, just encourage them to write.

Finally, one of your esteemed colleagues suggested I ask for a poem in a foreign verse form. Would you be willing to share a poem for this project?
Pat: The is a Deibide Baise Fri Toin, an Irish verse form. The rhyme scheme is AABB; the syllable count, 3/7/7/1

North Star

            Night’s begun.
              When I can see just that one
              unimaginable star

              out in space
              winking at the human race,
             I feel positively sky-

Poem ©J. Patrick Lewis, 2015. All rights reserved.

A million thanks to Pat for participating in my Jumping Into Form project this month.