Saturday, February 27, 2016

The Three-Line Poem

Continuing my opening salvos in my AP Language & Composition class about effective word choice and editing, my class moves from a three-word poem to a three-line poem, again requiring several drafts and commentary analysis.  The three-line poem is not an overwhelming assignment for the creation of poetry, as I have never been a fan of forcing kids to be creative and poetic.  The goal of the assignment is command of language and understanding effective word choice and structure for effect.

The lesson begins with an introduction of imagism, the style of poetry developed in the 20th century and popularized with the Lost Generation poets like Ezra Pound.  The conciseness of the genre makes it accessible and less intimidating to students while also encouraging tight command of language and the concept of le mot juste.  We read Pound's In a Station of the Metro, and discuss his word choice and structure.  The word "apparition" is key noting the suddenness of the appearance, as is the use of the colon to reveal meaning through analogy.  The faces are fragile, delicate, diverse, and vulnerable "petals on a wet black bough."  The simplicity of the poem creates its impact, which is meant to be immediate and momentary, rather than expansive and drawn out.  Imagism captures a moment, intending it for observation, much like a painting or sculpture.

The class then looks at several additional imagist-like poems I received in a book of poetry from an American-Buddhist monk named Joe Wagner, whom I met years ago in Taiwan.  Joe's study of poetry was linked to his meditation and intention to live deliberately, self-aware and in the moment.  From Joe's perspective, "poetry has the ability to stop the reader from thinking about life and directly experience it instead."  That is one of the most insightful comments I've learned about poetry, and I appreciate the meditative quality.  In pursuing effective language in the three-line poem, Joe develops a philosophy of poetry which seeks brevity as a goal.  For if a poem is too long, it risks losing the reader to the inevitable wanderings of the restless mind.  And if the goal is to affect and impact that mind, the poem must be able to stop the reader from thinking too much about it.

I share several examples of Joe's poetry, and I reveal them on an overhead (or a Power Point), slowly and one line at a time.  It enhances the effect.

The sadness of eating
On Christmas Eve

Out of the young
Chinese mother's head
A gray hair

Classroom quiet
The children
Take a quiz

Raising one finger
An old man
Stops the bus

Each of these poems produces insightful and enlightened nods and murmurs in the classroom.  The kids get it.  And, of course, we do what most poets hate, which is analyze and discuss the poetry and the word choice and the structure and the impact and the theme or meaning.   Then, I ask the students to create a three-line poem.  They are also required to submit an analysis of their process.  While I don't require numerous drafts, I do expect that their analysis paragraphs reflect an idea of revision and editing.  These poems are also "presented" to the class.  However, unlike my three-word poem, these poems are simply recited and received with no comment or analysis in class.  Many of them produce great reactions, from gasps to sighs to laughter.

The Three-Line Poem is a great exercise in command of language.

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