Poetry for the Reluctant Poet

In honor of National Poetry Month, here’s a poetry lesson that can inspire writers of all ages.

On Valentine’s Day, a day when emotions are heightened in high school, for better or worse, I trotted out an assignment that would invite students to have fun writing poetry. These were ninth graders—generally willing to play along when I call something fun even if they don’t think it is—but I did my best to present them with options they’d find inherently appealing. They even laughed politely when I joked that if they wanted, they could write their poem on colored paper and cut it out in a heart shape.

I introduced them to the epistle, a poem in the form of a letter. I’d like to think that they were as interested in my definition of the word as they were in the sound of the word itself. They first responded with giggles, but after some coaxing, joined me, unabashedly pronouncing “epistle” in chorus while I repeatedly pressed the speaker icon on Merriam Webster, my computer corroborating our pronunciation.Screen Shot 2017-04-02 at 12.54.25 PM.png

I went over some options for the “recipient” (audience) of their epistle, starting with the classic love poem. I reminded them that love poems aren’t always interesting to people outside of the relationship. Then, I shared several variations.

Potential Subjects/Recipients:

  • (classically) someone you love or hate
  • (more subtle) someone you want to thank, or someone who is annoying you
  • a public figure or celebrity (dead or alive)
  • a fictional character
  • a person you don’t know but interact with (e.g., the mail carrier, the pizza delivery person)
  • the inventor/creator of something
  • an object or animal
  • to a real audience (you can actually share it)

I also suggested some variations in the context:

  • a letter and reply
  • an interesting location (e.g., a note on the fridge, a note on the neighbor’s door)
  • an undisclosed recipient (with clues so the reader could guess)
  • an interesting perspective (e.g., aliens looking at Earth, Beyoncé before the Grammys)

Before they started writing, I reminded them that poetry need not rhyme: a shock to many. I encouraged them to either draft several beginnings of different poems, or to focus in on a topic and continue crafting it. They worked happily for two consecutive class periods.

Since students were enjoying the assignment, I decided to allot (not to be confused with Alot) additional class days for their writing and risk dampening their enthusiasm by grading their poems. I asked students to choose one poem to revise (see my revision suggestions on the second page of the assignment sheet), and they “tracked changes” from an early draft to a final one in Microsoft Word. This allowed me to assess their poems primarily on their progress between an early draft to the final one.

Here are a few of my students’ topics:

  • a retelling of the customs agent’s mispronunciation of a friend’s name
  • a complaint to a student who blocks the hallway
  • an apology to my barista for a complicated coffee order
  • advice from Michelle Obama to Melania Trump
  • an ode to mom’s credit card

Please comment below if you try this assignment, or to suggest other poetic forms for young writers.

Special thanks to poet and writing teacher Ms. Svea Barrett for suggesting this form as a friendly genre for budding poets. Ms. Barrett uses Billy Collins’ “Litany” as a model in her creative writing classes.

Thanks to Mr. Joseph A. Kiely, who edited two sentences for comedy and clarity. And thanks to @AllieBrosh, author of “The Alot is Better Than You at Everything,” for helping English teachers cringe less and laugh more. (Yes, that was a Hamilton reference.)

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