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.

Beyond Counting Syllables: Thinking Through Haiku

The title for this week’s post is inspired by another of my favorite professional books, Thinking Through Genre by Heather Lattimer. In addition to providing readers with several genre-based units of study, such as memoir and feature articles, Lattimer offers a template and process for designing genre units in general, with goals and instructional focuses set for both reading and writing.

The process she maps out begins with the teacher immersing him or herself in the genre to be studied in order to consider to two critical questions: What do you want students to learn, understand and be able to do as a result of the study? and What about this genre is worthy of an ‘enduring understanding’—that is, why should we spend time reading and writing it?

To answer the second question, Lattimer looks at what specific genres do for us as readers and writers and how they affect us. Thinking through the genre of memoir, for instance, she writers:

“A good memoir will provide the reader with the opportunity to connect with the experience—to feel the emotions, empathize with the response, appreciate the learning that took place, and find community it what can be an isolating world. A great memoir will cause readers to reflect upon and better understanding their own lives and experience.”

And her immersion in feature articles leads her to this understanding:

“It should capture readers’ fascination and spark within them an intense desire to learn, not just about interesting people and place, but about ideas and perspectives.”

Thinking Through Genre doesn’t delve into poetry, let alone the sub-genre of haiku. But a few years ago I began using haiku in curriculum planning workshops to model Lattimer’s process in a way that I hoped would empower teachers to design genre units of their own. I begin, as Lattimer does, with immersion, sharing a handful of haiku, such as these which come from the journal “Modern Haiku“:

a jacket

on the playground fence

summer moon

Cor Van den Heuven

after the reindeer cookie

only a redhot

on her plate

Susan Delphine Delaney

stars at dawn:

the clatter of small change

on the coffee shop counter

Chad Lee Robinson

I ask the workshop participants to read them, attending to both what they notice and how they’re affected as readers. And if you were like some of them, you may have found yourself counting the syllables and noticing that none of the above conformed to the usual 5-7-5 pattern. A bit of googling will reveal that the haiku formula we often teach in schools is an inaccurate translation of Japanese characters into western syllables. And while generally there are no more than 17 syllables in a haiku, neither the number of lines nor the syllables for each line are as rigid as we tend to teach them.

But then . . . if haiku is not a short poem composed of three lines that each have a specific number of syllables, what is it? What does it do for us as readers? How does it affect us? What makes it worthy of our consideration? What might we say is its essence?

When workshop participants go back to the poems without syllables on their minds, they begin to notice other things. Some notice that there seems to be a pattern, with one line establishing a season or time and the other two creating an image. Others say that each evokes a feeling in addition to an image; others notice that they’re composed primarily of concrete nouns. Still others think that each one captures a moment while also suggesting other moments or events, as if the captured moment contains not just the present but the past and future, too: We see the jacket on the playground fence, for instance, frozen in time like a photograph, but our minds also wander to what happened before that and what might happen afterwards, so that the present moment resonates with both the future and past.

Almost everyone, however, acknowledges that they’re not as simple as they first appear. You need to slow down and attend for a moment, so that reading the poem stops time as well. And it’s this ability of haiku to make us slow down and attend to the momentary particulars of the world that the great haiku critic and translator R. H. Blyth says is “the Way of Haiku. It is having life more abundantly.”

Now that, it seems to me, is an enduring understanding worthy of true study. Thinking through haiku allows us to attend to the incandescence of individual moments, to stop and smell the proverbial roses in a way that makes us better appreciate the small wonders of world around us. And when we design instruction that helps students see this, first as readers then as writers, we get poems like these by three 8th graders, that have captured some of the essence of haiku:

Face lit by a screen

way past midnight

homework still not done

Nathan

Ferris Wheel seats

creak in the wind

Coney Island in November

Naomi

Cat’s sandpaper tongue

on my cheek

better than an alarm clock

Tryone

So attend to genre deeply, as haiku attends to the moment. And invite your students to do so as well. It is, indeed, a harder path, requiring that we connect with our own inner reader and not rely on someone else’s take. But it’s also more rewarding, for teachers and students alike.