Teaching Poetry- 2012 Workshop

Presenter: Jen McClanaghan


The Shrine Down the Hall:

Poetry Writing &

The New York Times


The Ideas Behind the Idea (or The Big Picture)

In a course I’ve designed, “Let the Great World Spin: Poetry and the New York Times,” a title borrowed from Colum McCann’s book, my students explore how a writer can be both engaged with and inspired by the larger world—in McCann’s case, with Philippe Petit’s 1974 walk between the Twin Towers. I have my students read the New York Times and write poems in response to news pieces they find engaging. Not only did McCann use Petit’s historical news story at the heart of his novel, but Philippe Petite decided on his tightrope walk after reading about the towers in a magazine at his dentist’s office.

My ideas here are twofold: 1. Even the most mundane journey (to the dentist!) can yield material for writing if we are engaged and open to the world all around us; 2. Being apprised of the news helps us tune into the world, and allows stories to intersect and combine with our own personal narratives, expanding the material we have to draw on.

I often find inspiration for my own work in the Times. I can then approach a poem from a new angle by braiding my story with someone else’s, thereby deepening my insight into a universal subject like love, ageing, death, peace, war, friendship and so on. 

Go in Fear of Abstractions (or The Little Picture)

I’ve often organized my workshops around poetic craft (line, voice, form, figurative language, imagery), but I find that for every assignment turned in, there’s one thing students universally struggle with: being concrete. Use specific details here. Instead of pretty, share with us how she spent three hours a week getting her hair done. What made him the best dad? Show us instead of telling us. Don’t be so general. Use an image here. Details draw a picture while also revealing something about the speaker. In workshop I often ask my students to think in terms of a movie. You’re directors, I say, so how do you film this scene? Often we discover there aren’t enough details, for instance, we don’t know the age of the speaker, we don’t know where the poem is taking place, or who is being referred to on the fifth line. Every poem should have an occasion and a stance toward that occasion.

One exercise is to have students bring in an object that relates to an abstraction (happiness, anger, beauty, etc.). Happiness might be bubble wrap, a cup of coffee, or the smell of mothballs. At the beginning of the semester I like to share a Powerpoint presentation of my obsessions and ask students to do the same. In mine I’ve included pictures of graph paper, snow, and seltzer water—all things I love. This is also a great place to talk about detail since the impulse is for students to make a general slide that says, for example, “family” or “church” without any distinguishing details.

If you were to name one thing your students struggle with in a poetry class, what would it be?

Let The Great World Spin (or How This All Comes Together)

How does this all come together? First, use the Times for education and inspiration. Poets are alert and empathetic, drawing connections between seemingly unrelated things. Let students choose stories they strongly react to. For other assignments, lead them to a story so they can see how each person handles the same material. The Times also has lots of resources on The Learning Network, especially a series called Poetry Pairings, which pairs a poem with an article. The newspaper gives students a place to start and it will hopefully intersect their poems in surprising ways. The Times is also a great place to visually underscore the idea of concrete detail and image. Successful stories, ones that elicit a reaction, often include specific details that draw a reader in. Explore how this is done. I like to show students a multimedia piece called “The Shrine Down the Hall,” photos of the intact childhood bedrooms of soldiers who died in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s a great way to illustrate how to write about war without relying on abstract assertions about patriotism, bravery or honor. What about the teddy bear in fatigues or the shoes lined up under the bed? What about the baseball trophy or the TV on the dresser? The key to unlocking the heart of the reader is always in the details.

Beware! My students often defend their use of abstractions as a way to include all readers. What this fails to recognize is that the more specific and detailed a poem, the more widely an audience will connect with it. If we hear of a plane crashing and killing all 125 people on board we are saddened. If we hear of the young couple flying to California for their honeymoon, two strangers holding hands, or the lone baby shoe recovered at the site, we are heartbroken.

Here’s something I’d like to try today: Let’s write a list of ten obsessions. Let’s write a to do list. Let’s write a food journal from yesterday. Also, what time did you get up? Where were you at 10PM? Put this aside and take a look at “River Legs” and the corresponding article. Highlight words, images, lines—whatever interests you. Look at all your material and see if you can begin to form a poem or come up with an idea for a poem. How did balancing these different things help come up with an idea for writing? Were you surprised by where your thoughts went once you generated this material? Share some ideas.

Do you have exercises you love? Do you have ideas about how to bring poetry into the community? Come up with a group list.


Links and Resources