Capturing the World in a Moment: A Look at Small Moment Poems

Like the words fiction and nonfiction, the word poetry sometimes seems too broad and general to contain all the varied approaches, purposes and styles of poems. And when helping teachers design units on poetry, I usually recommend narrowing the focus down to a few different kinds—which is also a way to ensure we’re not teaching the same thing grade after grade.

By kinds, though, I don’t mean forms, such as cinquains, limericks or even haiku because, unless they’re grounded in the kind of enduring understanding I explored last week, we risk sending the out the message to students that form is more important than content—that it doesn’t matter if your poem is nonsensical or hackneyed so long as it adheres to the form.

Whether it’s the five prescribed lines of a cinquain or the dictates of the five-paragraph essay, this emphasis on form can lead students to either reduce or inflate whatever it is they might want to say in order to fit the form.  Prescribing a pre-determined form also deprives students of engaging in one of the most vital, challenging but necessary aspects of writing: discovering a form that ‘informs’ your content and supports your meaning. (To see a poet who found a form that helped her express her content in a powerful way, check out Amy  VanDerwater‘s villanelle “V is for Vulture“.)

Instead of that, what I mean by ‘kinds’ are poems that seem to have a similar purpose, intention or way of working, such as poems that are built around a central metaphor, like the ones I shared two weeks ago, or poems that describe an object or phenomena in fresh, surprising language, such as “Dragonfly” by Georgia Heard or almost anything in Valerie Worth‘s wonderful collection all the small poems and fourteen more

Over the years, depending on the grade, I’ve helped teachers gather different kinds of poems to use for either whole class studies or for learning centers or stations. We’ve gathered poems, for instance, that address social issues, such as “To the Pay Toilet” by Marge Piercy or “Coin Drive” by Janet Wong; and poems that explore identity, such as “Where I’m From” by George Ella Lyon and “I Am What I Am” by Rosario Morales. We’ve even collected poems about poetry, such as the Billy Collins poem I shared the other week and Naomi Shihab Nye‘s wonderful “Valentine for Ernest Mann.” But perhaps my favorite kind to study with students in grade five and up is what I like to call ‘small moment poems.’

Like their cousins, small moment stories, small moment poems zoom into an often autobiographical moment, but without the trajectory of beginning, middle and end or the trappings of problem and solution. They’re the kind of poems poet Charles Simic means when he says, “Poems are other people’s snapshots in which we see our own lives.” And I love sharing and studying them with older students precisely because of this. For in showing us our own lives in someone else’s moment, small moment poems invite us into one of the great wonders of literature: the way that the particulars of a story or poem can give way to a more universal expression of the human condition, which is another way of saying a theme.

To show you what I mean, let’s look at the poem “Taking Things Apart” from Ralph Fletcher‘s book Moving Day:

From Moving Day by Ralph Fletcher. Copyright © 2006 by Ralph Fletcher. Published by WordSong, an imprint of Boyds Mills Press, Inc. Used by permission.


As readers, we may never have moved to Ohio or had a ping pong table, let alone seen it dismantled, yet it’s the particulars of the poem that lets us feel the ache of being severed from possessions and places we love. That idea is conveyed through the things themselves—through the legless table and the beds left in pieces. And in this way the poem is both about this particular boy facing this particular move and the way we can all feel unmoored and anxious when our lives are taking such turns—as if our selves can be disassembled as easily as shelves.

Key to My Heart © Wendy Starling. Used with permission of the artist. http://www.wendystarling.com

By focusing on small moment poems, we can help students engage in thinking about what larger, invisible universal ideas the poet might be exploring and what aspects of the human condition their own small moments might speak to. As readers, students often do this through connections. But because small moment poems compress and distill a single experience in an accessible way, students are often able to zoom into the feelings underneath the poem, rather than get stuck on the literal level (making connections, say, to ping pong tables or cousins who live in Ohio). This also makes small moment poems great tools for helping students see the difference between a meaningful and what I sometimes call a “that’s nice, but” connection. The former unlocks the heart of the poem, usually via emotions, while the latter is just something the reader remembers that doesn’t necessarily plumb the depths without additional thinking.

Many wonderful small moment poems can be found in the following collections. Take a look and reconnect with yourself in someone else’s moment (just choose carefully for classroom use as some of the poems are not appropriate for younger students):

Poetry Anthologies Containing Some Small Moment Poems: Moving Day by Ralph FletcherThe Place My Words Are Looking For: What Poets Say About and Through Their Workedited by Paul JaneczkoWhat Have You Lost?, edited by Naomi Shihab NyeTime You Let Me Inalso edited by Naomi Shihab Nye, Poetry 180edited by Billy CollinsGood Poemsedited by Garrison Keillor.

6 thoughts on “Capturing the World in a Moment: A Look at Small Moment Poems

  1. Vivki, you explain the teaching of poetry as succinct and as beautiful as a poem itself. I love the photo of you and your mom. Happy Mother’s Day!

    • Thanks, Erin. Same to you. (And thanks as well for sending the end of that last missing sentence. Finding yourself was the perfect place to end.)

  2. Thanks, Vicki! I love the poems you mention here, as well as the visual of the square peg in a round hole as a metaphor for too-prescriptive teaching of forms.

    • Hello Audra! I did use this post as an opportunity to tuck in some thoughts about prescriptive forms, so I’m glad you appreciated that. My hunch is you’ve seen the same thing as I have, too many students writing acrostic poems or cinquains year after year after year, and most teachers I’ve worked with are fine with letting those go so long as they have something else to hold on to. Hope I actually get to see you soon!

  3. I recently stumbled upon your blog and I cannot tell you how much your words speak to me.
    It seems that every post is something I have recently mulled over. Especially this one, as just today I was teaching my second graders about small moment poems, about finding big feelings and zooming in on a moment that holds it. Their poems give me goosebumps at least once daily. I cannot imagine what a disservice I would be doing to them if I only exposed them to haikus and the rules of syllables. I can’t wait to show them Ralph Fletcher’s poem tomorrow. Thanks for this post!

    • Welcome! I love how the internet helps kindred spirits find themselves and connect. Your comment made me try to look for a quote I used to have on a refrigerator magnet about why we really read poetry, since I firmly believe that we don’t read poems to identify similes or count syllables. I couldn’t find the one I was looking for but I found this by the poet Amy Lowell, which I think is even more magnificent: “We should read poetry because only in that way can we know man in all his moods — in the most beautiful thoughts of his heart, in his farthest reaches of imagination, in the tenderness of his love, in the nakedness and awe of his soul confronted with the terror and wonder of the Universe.” Now that’s an enduring understanding that’s really worth teaching toward!

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