Friday, May 16, 2008

Review: Poetry Matters

Writing a Poem From the Inside Out by Ralph Fletcher. HarperCollins, 2002. Grades 3-7. This conversational how-to book for young poets is just the thing for the crazy hectic/lazy spring days that fill our classrooms in May. We've stacks of projects to finish, publication celebrations and performances to share and loose ends of assignments scattered like chewed pencils piled in desk corners. We need one more quick poetry unit to tide us over... something that can be done outside under the trees with our writer's notebooks balanced on our knees. Here comes a fascinating, friendly, instructional read aloud from a poetry master. Tuck it in your bag and take those kids outside!

Fletcher shares his belief in poetry on his web page:
"Maybe you've heard before that poetry is magic, and it made you roll your eyes, but I believe it's true. Poetry matters. At the most important moments, when everyone else is silent, poetry rises to speak.

I wrote this book to help you write poems and to give practical ideas for making your poems sound the way you want them to sound. We're not going to smash poems up into the tiniest pieces. This book is about writing poetry, not analyzing it. I want this book to help you have more wonderful. moments in the poetry you write. I want you to feel the power of poetry. it's my hope that through this book you will discover lots of ways to make your poems shine, sing, soar..."

He fills his book with clever examples of poems he has wrestled with, grounded in stories of his family life with children and grandchildren. He also gives examples of poems written and revised by kids and other grown up poets. He says

"The three pillars of poetry are emotion, image, and music."

His first three chapters elaborate on that, and the remaining sections of the book unpack the toolbox poets use to refine and revise their work. He closes by sharing ideas about how to "go public" with your poems.

Interspersed with these down to earth lessons are interviews with Kristine O'Connell George, J. Patrick Lewis and Janet Wong. I particularly enjoyed a poem Lewis shared from his then-soon-to-be published book called "Please Bury Me in the Library: Poems About Books and Reading". When asked what sort of writing tasks Lewis does on a regular basis (prewriting/brainstorming, etc.) he says "Communing with nature, keeping a journal, joining writers' workshops - all of these undoubtedly inspire the aspiring. I confess I don't do any of them." Ha!

When asked why she loves to write Janet Wong says "It only takes five minutes to write a good draft of a poem. I can jot down a first draft of a poem and then go and eat a bag of potato chips; come back and spend five minutes writing a second, different draft and go for a swim; write a third draft the next day or the next week, and so on. I write between ten and fifty drafts of most of my poems, and the hardest part is always having to choose the draft - or parts of a draft - I like best." I find that very encouraging!

Kristine O'Connell George, when asked where her ideas come from, says "For a long time I thought my ideas lived in the medicine cabinet in my bathroom. [...] Lately, however, my ideas seem to be located on the back patio, where I like to sit with my feet up and watch my weeds grow." I think it's wonderful for kids to hear that other people write great poems just the way they do. And that all great poems come in surprising ways, but take hard work and persistent crafting.

One of the chapter opening quotes that really grabbed me is the one Fletcher put at the beginning of chapter six, 'Crafting Your Poem':

"The world is full of poets with languid wrenches who don't bother to take the last six turns on their bolts." -X.J. Kennedy
Ah. Back to work now.

What book do you take with you when spring fever pulls you outside?

The Friday Poetry roundup is at Two Writing Teachers. Enjoy!


Jenny said...

This is one of my favorite teaching-poetry books, though I should probably say "inspiring-poetry" books instead. I love all of Fletcher's books about writing and always found that the kids in my class were able to relate well to them...

Sara said...

Oh man, do I love that Kennedy quote!

The biggest thing I've learned about writing poetry is that it isn't shy---it will visit me anywhere. And I do mean anywhere. I try not to be shocked by what it loves, or how it choses to approach, and just write.

Tricia said...

I'm on my second copy of this book. I love it and use it often. I just wish it wasn't such a cheap little paperback. I want this baby in hardcover! Thanks for sharing the excerpts. Janet Wong is my hero!

Elaine Magliaro said...


I have POETRY MATTERS--but haven't looked at it in some time. I think I'll reread it this week. Thanks for the review.

P.S. Janet Wong is going to be the speaker at the spring dinner meeting of our reading council next Wednesday. I'm really looking forward to seeing her again.

Liz in Ink said...


Ain't that the truth...

MotherReader said...

I'm going to look for this book at my library right now. Thanks for the recommendation.

Cloudscome said...

Trisha I do have a hard cover edition. It's a library binding ISBN 0-06-623599-5, copyright 2002.

jama said...

Love the Janet Wong quote. This book looks very interesting. Thanks.

Kelly Fineman said...

Evidently, I need this book. Thanks for the review!

Mary Lee said...

"We've stacks of projects to finish, publication celebrations and performances to share and loose ends of assignments scattered like chewed pencils piled in desk corners." Succinct description of my classroom right now!

Thanks for bringing Ralph off the "school shelf" and out into the general poetry public.

laurasalas said...

I love this book, Andi. It's one of my favorites to recommend both to kids and to beginning adult poets. His voice is so encouraging and non-judgmental!