Friday, June 3, 2011

recomposition

I come to you today from Cabin 21 in Boyds Mills, PA, where I’m attending a Highlights Foundation workshop with David Harrison and enjoying a much-needed creative retreat.

There are times to be grateful for the hovering between asleep and awake that comes during the wee hours. Last week I wrote about visiting my son’s 2nd grade class with a poetry exercise—a new exercise that came to me during one of those thinking-but-not-too-hard moments. No doubt this technique has been obvious to other poetry teachers out there, but I was chuffed when I saw how well it worked to focus children’s attention on the structural aspect of poetry. I asked the children “recompose” one of my poems by cutting the words from an unstructured block and pasting them to create line and stanza breaks.

I picked a short poem from Pumpkin Butterfly, another seasonally appropriate one inspired by my son’s preschool utterances. First I “activated prior knowledge” and checked to see what the kids knew about botany (not much, although they easily identified the sunflower) and the instruments and style of jazz music (quite a bit).

Botanical Jazz

Quiet down, flower—
not so loud!

All this stretching your neck
and spreading your arms
bellowing your brassy yellow sass—

you’re breaking our eyedrums
trumpeting all that color and sun
blowing that blazing yellow jazz. . . .

Belt it out, flower—
we’ll join in!

~Heidi Mordhorst, 2009


I read the poem through twice, very slightly emphasizing the line breaks. (This raises a question that I’d enjoy seeing addressed in the comments: are you a poetry reader of the school that faithfully indicates line breaks in every style of poem, or are you a reader of the school that reads through line breaks in support of the natural phrasing of ideas?) I deliberately didn’t show the page.

Then I handed out a sheet with blank lines—three-quarters the width of the page—at the top and the words of the poem across four fully justified lines on the bottom.

The directions were to think about how to arrange the words to make the poem Sound Good to Your Ears and Feel Good in Your Mouth. Several children were unsure at first whether they had to use all the words—they thought I was asking them to reWRITE the poem—so guidance was needed : “Keep all the words of my poem in the same order, but you decide how many words to put on a line; you decide how many stanzas to make.” I made a big deal of it when I noticed Alexandra quietly reading her arrangement out loud to test the sound of it—“that’s exactly what poets do!”

Here are just three of the varying arrangements that the kids came up with.

Quiet down, flower—
not so loud!
All this stretching your neck
and spreading your arms bellowing your brassy yellow sass—
you’re breaking our eyedrums
trumpeting all that color and sun
blowing that blazing yellow jazz. . . .
Belt it out, flower—
we’ll join in!

H.T.


There were several kids who strung the gerund phrases into long lines like this. This one was very deliberately centered and shaped, which I can't easily reproduce here.


Quiet down, flower—not so loud!

All this stretching your neck and spreading
your arms bellowing your brassy yellow sass—

you’re breaking our eyedrums trumpeting
all that color and sun

blowing that blazing yellow jazz

...Belt it out, flower—we’ll join in!

C.I-C.

That's one of a few where stanza breaks were employed, and the new enjambments are quite effective…

Quiet down, flower—
not so loud! All this stretching
your neck and spreading your arms bellowing
your brassy yellow
sass—you’re breaking our eyedrums
trumpeting all that color and sun blowing
that blazing yellow
jazz…Belt
it out,
flower—we’ll
join in!

J.S.

And that's one where, without realizing she was doing it, the student’s arrangement resembled the head of the sunflower on a five-line stem!

These new imaginings absolutely have me questioning whether the published arrangement of “Botanical Jazz” is the ideal one…

But the very best surprise came from Jack O., who was concentrating so hard on his cut-and-paste task that he was halfway through rewriting a new poem before I caught up with him. It was too late to go back, so I encouraged him to finish, and boy, did he make this set of words his own! He even cut out individual letters to spell new words he needed. How confident! How clever! (Please note that Jack has experience of tae kwon do—we used to see him there every Thursday. Did this influence his recomposition?)


Jack’s Botanical Jazz

Quiet down, flower—your so loud!

you’re breaking our neck your

yellow jazz and yellow color e d

Belt i s blowing u s a w a y


Wow, right?


Today’s Poetry Friday Roundup is hosted by Toby the Terrific at The Writer's Armchair. See you there!

4 comments:

  1. i used to faithfully "read" the line breaks in poems when i was young until the day i heard a poet (don't remember who, but it was in high school) read through and totally ignore their formatting. up to that point i believed the arrangement on the page indicated how they were to be read but have long since realized this isn't necessarily so. john ciardi, for one, has rhymed verse with punctuation mid-lines and i've heard him read the sentences, ignoring the rhythms of the verse.

    i've ended up reading the punctuation in poetry, reading breaks between stanzas as a breath, and where there aren't any breaks or punctuation i tend to read closer for meaning and rhythm.

    when i write, my art training comes to play: i structure by how things look and feel. to me.

    of the student examples above my favorite is jack's, who didn't follow the rules. in his instructions for how to produce a dadaist poem from collaged text taken from newspapers, tristan tzara said that when the assemblage was completed "the poem will resemble you." they may have been your words (and letters) but more than any of the others jack's poem is jack's.

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  2. I utterly agree, and the exercise will become more open-ended when if and when I use it again. Jack went somewhere beyond "You are the boss of your poem" toward "You are the boss of all poems."

    Thanks for stopping by, David.

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  3. Jack's bold poem is my favorite, too. I confess I don't really understand line breaks in any rational way. I don't know how they're supposed to be done, or read. I just go by instinct, and I like surprises in poetry so I'll sometimes make breaks that surprise. I wonder how other poets decide. (I should take a formal poetry class sometime.)

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  4. Hi, Heidi. What an interesting exercise. I also don't have much experience with line breaks, so your post was a type of "exercise" for me all by itself. I also like Jack's poem, but there is something about H.T.'s poem that I really really like. I especially love the one extra long line, and how it makes me speed up, adding some extra pacing to my reading. I suppose there is so much variation in how poetry is intended to be read and in how people read it, which makes this exercise even more interesting. Thanks for sharing :)

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