Poetry & Structure: Falling in Love… and Holding it Together — A Guest Blog Post by Amy Ludwig VanDerwater

Amy Ludwig VanDerwater is a writing teacher and children’s poet in Holland, NY.  You can read her daily children’s poem and find writing ideas, book recommendations, and tips for students at her blog, The Poem Farm.

Children’s poems such as these have embroidered my life with a layer of beauty and meaning.  They have also taught me how to say more with less, how to wait for one word, and how to recognize and experiment with different writing structures.

Some people are plain afraid of poems.  Some are plain afraid of writing.  Some are not afraid, but are unaware of how many ways we can organize thinking on paper.  As a writing teacher, my hope is to help people find poems that make them whole and also to learn about organization from poetry, where the writing is often “short and sweet.”

Why Poetry?

Poems, denser and more immediate than novels, can feed our student readers in many ways.  We may quickly laugh together, instantly connect with a sad moment, learn something new, or be reminded of a friend in a mere few lines.  We can develop tastes and favorites in poets, and we can memorize lines to keep forever inside of us.  Poetry is the great teacher of many lessons, lessons about life and language too.

Structures in Poetry

One family of lessons that poetry can teach us is a course in structure, the many ways we can organize our ideas.   Structure describes the bones of a piece.   Is it a list?  Does the piece of writing have two parts?  Is it a series of questions and answers?  Is it about one discreet blip in time?

Out here in the country, when our children find an animal skeleton, my husband can tell us if it is a raccoon or a groundhog.  He knows the shape of things in nature, and with poems we can easily see the shape of ideas made out of words.  When we identify and understand the ways that other writers organize their ideas, we will naturally borrow and try these “dress up structures” out for ourselves.

Katie Wood Ray’s Wondrous Words changed my writing life in a profound way.  Where I once saw blank paper, I now see endless possibility.  And while I highlight list, circular, and back-and-forth structures above, you can read about many more patterns and learn how to recognize others in her groundbreaking book.  Katie explains, “Picture books are short, and so considering a structure at work in a shorter text is much easier than in a longer text….Once writers get an initial understanding of a certain crafted text structure, they will recognize the structure in many other texts.”  Poems are even shorter than picture books, and their structures are often easy to name.  When children read Lee’s circular “Sing a Song of Cities,” they may notice, “The beginning matches the ending!” Ah, a circle.  Young writers may ask, “How might I try this out in my own poem or book?”

At times, poetry gets pushed aside and pushed away from read aloud time.  Seeing the potential for structure-lessons in poetry is one possible way to encourage poetry-reluctant teachers to celebrate poems.

How Might We Explore Structure and Organization Through Poetry?

Structure-of-the-Month – We might set up a constant bulletin board highlighting one structure for each month.  If the structure for October is a list structure, the board will include an explanation of this structure, a poem such as Charles Ghinga’s “Life is a Snowflake,”  read aloud books on the chalk-rail written in this structure, and student pieces which reflect this way to organize writing.  If we’re lucky, we’ll find a quote about organizing writing like this, and if we’re smart, we’ll include a diagram of how the structure works.  Students can decide and draw how to represent various structures visually.

“Imagine it Differently” Game – As a class, we can pull out a favorite poem, picture book, article, or other text and discuss, “What if this had been a two part book?  How might it go?”  Students turn to partners and verbally rewrite a different way this book might have been organized

Structure Notebook Play – When we discover a new way to organize writing, such as writing through the days of the week as in Arlene Mandell’s poem “Little Girl Grown”  or Eric Carle’s The Hungry Caterpillar, we can use structure-play notebook exercise.  Students can find a notebook entry, re-imagine it in the new structure, and begin drafting it in this way on a facing page.  When I wrote my local NPR essay about our family’s struggle with lice, I let Arlene’s poem and Eric’s book guide me as I wrote “A Week of Lice.”   I was amazed at how the piece almost wrote itself when I knew where to go… Monday through Sunday.  As Katie says, “When you have a strong vision of something, you don’t need as much revision.”

Revision Unit with a Structure Focus – Later in the year, we can teach a revision unit spotlighting structure.  We can look at Rebecca’s “You and Me” and write our own poems that go back and forth between two voices.  Using poems as texts to study, students can learn to fashion old material in new ways, ending up with pieces in many structures.

Poetry Anthology Highlighting Structure – Students who love writing about the same topic over and over again  might learn different structures of poems and write about one topic in many different ways.  Similarly, at the end of a content area unit, students might publish a poetry anthology showcasing what they have learned in different poetic structures.  Lisa Westberg Peters’ book Earthshake, is an example of a poetry book which approaches a scientific topic from many organizational standpoints including recipe, instructions, and even obituary!

With any of these ideas, I would be sure to give copies of poems to students, highlighting each structure.  Such small texts may be glued into notebooks in a structure section, a poetry section, or just scattered throughout to use as reference.

As writers, we all deserve to be well-fed.  Structure-study through poetry is one way to invite children – and ourselves – to the overflowing table of possibility in writing.

I am very thankful to my generous teachers-from-afar, Lee Bennett Hopkins, Rebecca Dotlich, and Charles Ghigna for their generosity in allowing me to share their poems at the beginning of this post.