Writing Poems by “Talking Back”
One of the best ways to learn how to construct a simple poem is to take someone else’s poem and use it as your structure. This is not cheating or copying, because you write your own version with your own ideas. For example your students could write their own poems based on William Carlos Williams’ poem The Red Wheelbarrow, but instead write about a topic of their choice. They use Willams’ simple one or two word lines as a starting point.
For a whole book on this topic, try Talking Back to Poems by Daniel Alderson. It has lots of examples and poems to use.
A haiku is a three-line poem with a total of 17 syllables (5/7/5). There are websites such as this that explain how to write a haiku and give a number of examples.
Don’t be too pedantic with haiku. Focus on the idea of the image in the first two lines and a small turn or twist into the third line. There are variations like rooku (specifically Australian), and there are freeform haiku which can be two lines of 8/9 or 9/8. Or once you have written a few, get the class to devise their own kind of haiku.
First Lines/Last Lines
Give your students several first and last lines to choose from, then ask them to write a poem using the lines they have picked. If you like, you can use lines from published poems, or make up your own, or use mine:
This was not the day
Beneath the bridge
The photos on the piano
In the small town, on the widest street
In the mirror
You must not call me
and the sound went on.
you ended with nothing.
painted on the wall.
like the black night.
too many flies in the soup.
only you will know the answer.
in the box.
There are many ways to use repetition in a poem:
1. Choose one word (e.g. nose, which can also be knows or nos) and use it at least ten times. It’s good to use a word that sounds the same but is spelled differently and has different meanings.
2. Repeat the same word or words at the beginning of each line. E.g. Someday I will, Can you hear, You will be, When I am – these are simple ones.
3. Write a line that can act as a refrain, then use it three or four times throughout the poem.
Write a poem in which you compare two opposite things (such as rocks and water, or smile and frown), or a poem about two completely different things (such as car and cloud, or tennis ball and snail). It’s often better to use concrete objects or actions rather than emotions or abstract concepts such as honesty or courage.
If you have access to a pile of old magazines, especially travel or those with interesting photos (or even print some off the internet), create a collection of images that are inspiring in some way. They might be creepy or mysterious or different in some way. Laminate them if you can, and keep adding to them. Use them in class as inspiration – ask the students to write down the first three words that come to mind when they look at the image, and then use those for a poem.
You can also choose a starter word yourself, something odd or chosen at random, and whatever the word is, they have to combine it with the image they have chosen. This leads to poems that are different and adventurous for many kids.
Choose a dictionary off the shelf (not online) and open the pages at random, close your eyes and point to the page. (If your students get to have turns at being the pointer, even better.) Do this three times until you have three good starter words. Combine these into a poem in some way. An extra challenge is to use each of the three words twice.
You can also take photos yourself of unusual things you see to add to your store of inspiration for poems.