Once they leave the elementary grades, students are typically loath to write poetry. One way to get them to do so is to use a template based on well-known poem. I get good results with N. Scott Momaday’s “The Delight Song of Tsoai-talee.”
To start, I read the poem and discuss it like you would any other. What do you notice? (Students will surely mention the repetition.) What’s the coolest line? (Many students dig that long track of the moon on the lake.)
From here, I ask students to use Momaday’s structure to write an imitation poem. Thus, all lines in the longer first stanza start with the metaphor-producing words “I am…” and all lines (except for first and last, which I have them use verbatim) in the second stanza start with the words “I stand in good relation to….” In the name of variety, I ask them not to stand in good relation to any of the same things as Momaday, nice as they are.
As a less-intimidating model, I compose my own imitation poem of this poem on the SmartBoard. I also demonstrate a little revision on the whiteboard by writing the rather prosaic line “I am the frost on the grass.” I improve it a bit by changing it to “I am the frost on the morning grass,” but we had already done a lesson on distrusting adjectives — especially if they would come readily to the mind of readers, given the nouns they modify — and students will usually allow that frost on grass is most associated with the morning.
Great! For revision the third, then, I write “I am the crystal on the first frost of November grass.” Still imperfect, but definitely becoming more specific and subtle — similar to the insights Momaday uses to show his intimacy with nature.
For further practice on both identifying unnecessary adjectives (because they’re obvious), write “cold snow,” “white clouds,” “green grass,” and “blue sky” on the board. Ask for a revision competition–something realistic, but, for readers, unexpected. You’ll see how much more satisfying student creativity is when they give you things like “blue snow,” “slate clouds,” “burnt grass,” and “tangerine skies.” (And yes, you might add, using the writerly trick of using a THING that is that color instead of the color itself, works wonders in poetry).
Without fail, the first drafts produced in 18 minutes or so are remarkable, especially when they correlate to each student’s daily life. I have students do a read-around with their groups and choose a favorite from each group to be shared with the class.
Each of these creations are named “The Delight Song of (Student’s Name).” Once placed in a portfolio and read by Mom and Dad, they often draw comments and (dare I say it?) delight.
As it should be!
3 thoughts on “Teaching an Imitation Poem with “The Delight Song of Tsoai-talee””
Ken, I have only one question. WHY? What is wrong with students being “loath to write poetry” as long as they’ve learned to read and appreciate good poetry. We don’t need more wannabe poets adding their sewage to the tsunami of poetry now flooding the market. We need an educated, enthusiastic audience of poetry READERS. This fad of having students fulfill a template with their own uniquely wonderful feelings truly sucks. It results in mechanical, inane poems, like the one I discuss in this little essay:
Logan Phillips posted on Facebook this poem by his 11-year-old poetry writing student; it received a flock of “likes.”
THE GUNSHOTS OF MEXICO
I come from the dangerous place. Because one day
someone shot my uncle. I was full of sadness, mad,
I wanted to kill the person who killed my uncle.
I come from El Rancho de Mexico where we feed cows,
grow plants. I come from the stomach of my mom,
where my mom carried me.
I come from the grass of the ground
because whenever it’s silent
I can hear the heartbeat of the earth.
Earth is beautiful, it gives us oxygen food.
I come from the goal nets of a soccer field
where my father taught me how to play.
I come from my family.
I come from Earth.
While writing benefits all kids, what I question is the focus on their writing POETRY and on praising the inane results of mechanical exercises. Time is taken away from the real task, teaching kids to think critically (wonder if Trump’s success has anything to do with the dearth of critical thinking in our education system?) and to embrace a respect for quality, a kind of loving, receptive humility in the face of excellence. STUDYING great art benefits all ages.
Underlying programs like Poets-in-the-Schools is the unexamined belief that “expressing” themselves in verse benefits kids. What is the goal of such programs ? Is it to strengthen self-esteem? Why pick on poor old poetry as the vehicle? The weird populist idea that true poetry comes unmediated from the soul has become a scourge, online and elsewhere, as every American over the age of six is currently writing poetry and trying to publish it. Why can’t writing a clear and thoughtful response in prose to a fine, child appropriate-poem provide the same dose of self-esteem? The teacher could even gently insinuate the values of cultural diversity, selecting poems by poets like Lucille Clifton or Pablo Neruda. Why are emotions valued over thinking? Because we all have feelings, and they’re more fun to wallow in than analysis? Is the goal to create good poetry? No, obviously not, as shown by the praise heaped on“The Gunshots of Mexico,” a fill-in-the-blanks exercise typical of poetry workshops for kids. I accept there’s no accounting for tastes, but, like a homunculus, this poem contains almost everything lame about bad contemporary poetry: admirable sentiments chopped into lines, bits of family memoir offered as profound discovery, a woe-is-me speaker-victim, sentimental personifications of nature….
I suspect the Creative Writing Industry advances children’s poetry writing programs for several reasons: (1) to ensure that future MFA grads will have jobs (most often poorly paid adjunct or free-lance positions) teaching kids already indoctrinated into the joys of poetic self-expression and (2) to keep the MFA (and, god forbid, BFA!) cash cow fat
Call me a poetry crab, call me an elitist crank and hater of children, just don’t call me late for dinner!
You’re making a number of assumptions, such as the writing program FOCUSES on poetry. It does not. Kids are exposed to *all* the discourses, mostly prose.
Also, I’ve had students who have developed a better appreciation of written poetry because they have written it, too. The reading-writing connection matters on all fronts. Your obsession with kids not being allowed to write poetry (while you ARE allowed to write it–I guess getting the green light at 30 or maybe 40) makes you sound like a poetry crab, an elitist crank, and a hater of children. What it does not make you sound like is late to dinner.
Ken, I was responding to your post about teaching kids through imitation. I don’t know about the other aspects of whatever writing program you’re involved in.
I think encouraging kids to write poetry and then praising their posted efforts causes and is caused by the infantilization of our culture.