Breaking free from the formula
I overhear a student telling his table partner, “This is my first best poem.” There is so much pride in this comment, as well as enthusiasm for writing future poems. Writing poetry in my creative writing class has become very rewarding for my students—and for me, too.
Many middle school students have not had much previous instruction, practice, or success at writing poetry. Some of my 7th and 8th grade students may have written formulaic poetry in the past. You know the kind: diamonte, acrostic, cinquain. Before anything else, I must guide them past the idea that poetry has to rhyme. All too often students resort to forced rhymes and predictable poetry. The extended metaphor often yields an authentic and insightful piece of writing. The objective in this lesson is to focus on an interesting and original comparison by juxtaposing an abstract idea with a concrete object.
We start by dividing the white board in half. On one side we list concrete nouns, on the other we list abstract nouns. Students usually need a little coaching with abstract nouns. Freedom, Guilt, Hope, Regret, Fear, Pride, Trust, Experience, Greed, Sorrow. We generate a list that fills the board. Students keep adding to it as the week unfolds.
Next, we code the abstract nouns with a little red minus sign for words that have a negative connotation and a green plus sign if they have a positive connotation. We then connect one abstract noun to a concrete noun. For example, “disappointment is a sour apple” or “hope is a lantern.”
Time for a mentor text
Enter Emily Dickinson’s “Hope Is a Thing with Feathers”. I show students all the words associated with birds in this poem: perches, sings, gale. We go back to the concrete word they chose for the metaphor and list as many words as possible that are associated with that word.
I explain that an extended metaphor describes two things simultaneously. While the poet is describing a lantern with its sturdy handle, the rays of candle light, and so on, he is really describing the concept of hope. We read a few extended metaphors from students of yesteryear. Together we analyze what makes the two examples work.
We notice the title is the first line – the metaphor. We agree that eight lines are sufficient. Any shorter and the poem is too brief; any longer than eight lines and it becomes repetitive.
Reflecting on the lesson
I have decided the most valuable step is creating a list of those words related to the concrete noun. If the concrete word is “ocean,” then related words could include wave, tide, swell, riptide, shore, sandy, salty, seagull. If the word is “candle,” related words could be wax, wick, flame, flicker, light. Invest well in this step so young writers will have enough substance to make their extended metaphor interesting and well developed.
Sharing extended metaphors on the class blog is a treat. After several days of composing and revising the poems, students are eager to share. They enthusiastically comment on each other’s poems and fervently read comments on their own poems.
There is no greater sense of shared accomplishment than hearing students ask, “Can I write another one?”