Recently I returned to an earlier incarnation, teaching a couple poetry classes at the high school in New York Mills, a town in upstate Minnesota where I've just completed a writing residency. I taught poetry pretty intensively for a number of years but that was a while ago. I loved re-entering “the classroom.” (As if it’s the same classroom, wherever one is—and that’s true, in a certain way—and not, in others. But I digress.).
Kasey Wacker, the teacher, had informed me that her 11th graders had all written poems, but not many, and not in quite a while. I chose a lesson built around an excerpt from Wallace Stevens’ poem “Someone Puts a Pineapple Together.”
Like his “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” each line in this poem asks the reader to look at a pineapple in an entirely new way. The second stanza, for example, reads:
4. The sea is sprouting upward out of rocks.
5. The symbol of feasts and of oblivion . . .
6. White sky, pink sun, trees on a distant peak.
As I held a pineapple aloft, we discussed Stevens’ strategies for waking up our powers of perception. Not only does Stevens give us a new image in each numbered line; he also changes up the syntax (a whole sentence followed by two fragments), the use of punctuation, the music of the language, the scale (from a rock to a mountain), and the type of figurative language employed (metaphoric in lines 4 and 6; symbolism in line 5). The vocabulary too is full of surprises, like the word “sprouting” where you’d expect “spouting”—so you get the spouting action of water but also the sense that the water is alive, growing up out of the rocks.
And that’s just one stanza!
I then gave the students each their own fruit or vegetable and asked them to employ some of Stevens’ strategies to write their own poems. With remarkably little experience in the genre, they dove right in.
My coachy takeaway? Find some teenagers to hang around with. They are coming into their full power as interesting individuals with big brains. Yet their curiosity and permeability can remind us older humans to break out of our ruts and responsibilities, give ourselves fully to life, receiving life’s goodies in return.
Kasey sent me all 40 poems afterward. Part of me wants to publish all 40. Instead, I'll tantalize you with a smattering of the great work Kasey's students did (see below). Even in this sample there's a range of forms and tones—enjoy!
What (brussels sprout)
Round like a watermelon, yet small.
The fresh smell, a Sunday morning in May.
Each layer barely over the next.
Like the veins in a heart.
They go towards the center.
The whole is nothing without the center.
The center is irrelevant without the whole.
Each layer a limb, each piece a muscle.
With more power in than out, the body develops.
One day it stops, and the Sunday morning turns to Monday. —Jake
This Thing I Found (brussels sprout)
Green and round,
this thing I found.
With veiny leaves,
and no fleas. —Maddie
The Things You Can See (small yellow pepper)
1. The bulb hung alone on the tree.
2. The tiny pot held the most beautiful upside down flower.
3. Would they ever pull the sword out of the stone?
4. Can you hear that bell . . .
5. Look! That bird has no legs.
6. The mushroom was covered in bumps. —Kaitlyn Dykhoff
A Cherry Pulled Apart (ground cherry)
1. The dark green rivers within
2. The tail of the taut mouse slips away
3. An egg inside a frail shell
4. Wrinkling away as new arrives within
5. The brightness within the dark
6. Veins of the animal show through battered skin
7. A hut of darkness with life within
8. The old man hardened with kindness in his soul
Poem (reaper pepper)
The wrinkled red reaper is as hot as the summer
days gives you chills like the winter nights.
Red as blood, vivid as a memory, exotic as a bird.
Its thin hide reveals the tasty beauty inside.
At Peace (potato)
The bird, plump and bald
perches; bathing in the light,
in a deep slumber.
The Hand (ginger)
1 From the swallows of the tomb
2 came the hand
3 crawling creepily, steadily
4 it emerged
5 into the dawn, the light
6 it wrinkled, decaying
7 twisted, crisped, squirming
8 dying in the rays
9 from the bitter son
10 so back to the swallows
11 it retreated
12 sobbing, anguished, lifeless
- December 2016
- January 2017
- Feb 20, 2017 Dream On - Part 4: A Dream Analysis Technique Feb 20, 2017
- Mar 7, 2017 Dream On - Part 5: A Dream Analysis Technique (cont.) Mar 7, 2017
- Mar 20, 2017 Dream On - Part 6: Dream Analysis Example Mar 20, 2017
- May 28, 2017 This Thing I Found: Teens Teach Us How to See Freshly May 28, 2017
- Jul 17, 2017 Goodbye Self-esteem, Hello Self-compassion – Part 1: Bashing Vasco Jul 17, 2017
- Jul 31, 2017 Goodbye Self-esteem, Hello Self-compassion – Part 2: Mirror, Mirror Jul 31, 2017
- Aug 15, 2017 Goodbye Self-esteem, Hello Self-compassion – Part 3: Real Love Aug 15, 2017
- Jan 1, 2018 Back to the Garden - Part 1: "Aesthetic Shock" Jan 1, 2018
- Jan 15, 2018 Back to the Garden - Part 2: "A Pretty Big Failure" Jan 15, 2018
- Feb 3, 2018 Back to the Garden - Part 3: "You're a Good Egg—Happy Easter" Feb 3, 2018
- Feb 18, 2018 Back to the Garden - Part 4: Mountain Lion Footprints on the Deck Feb 18, 2018
- Mar 19, 2018 The Alchemy of Service - Part 1: Mouse Soup Mar 19, 2018
- Apr 6, 2018 The Alchemy of Service - Part 2: Mom, It's Only a Nickel Apr 6, 2018
- May 5, 2018 The Alchemy of Service - Part 3: Joann Wong! You Are Chinese! May 5, 2018
- May 6, 2018 The Alchemy of Service - Part 4: Fireworks and Tears May 6, 2018
- May 26, 2018 The Alchemy of Service - Part 5: Watch Out, Someone's Behind You May 26, 2018
- Jul 10, 2018 Leadership Without Ego - Part 1: The Workshop Was Neutral Territory Jul 10, 2018
- Jul 29, 2018 Leadership Without Ego - Part 2: The Kids Melted Under That Praise Jul 29, 2018
- Aug 19, 2018 Leadership Without Ego - Part 3: The Dalai Lama Breaks All the Rules Aug 19, 2018
- Sep 10, 2018 Leadership Without Ego - Part 4: I'm About Ready to Swear Sep 10, 2018
- Oct 1, 2018 Leadership Without Ego - Part 5: Everyone Everywhere Deserves to Make Art Oct 1, 2018
- Oct 23, 2018 Leadership Without Ego - Part 6: Mayberry with an Edge Oct 23, 2018
- Nov 23, 2018 Managing to Build Bridges - Part 1: The Pressure to Be a Certain Type of Girl Nov 23, 2018
- Dec 9, 2018 Managing to Build Bridges - Part 2: Such a Bad Kid Dec 9, 2018
- Jan 13, 2019 Managing to Build Bridges - Part 3: I Felt Pretty Stupid Jan 13, 2019