a white lighthouse with a red cap on a rocky hill with a blue slightly cloudy sky in the background and a pool of water with the reflection of the lighthouse in the foreground

One Poem to Rule Them All

What’s New? While my fall semester involved introducing many amazing poems to my students during our writing journey, my spring semester first year writers are focused on the theme of games to support their writing journey. I still regularly introduce poems, but they are not our primary writing inspiration. However, I am always on the look out for great poems about games/play and so when a friend shared Slam, Dunk, & Hook by Yusef Komunyakaa I was very excited to share this poem with my students and my writing group.
I asked my students to write about when play had made them “Beautiful & dangerous” then offered three questions to inspire their writing:

  • What game do you play when you need to escape? 
  • What game is so much a part of who you are that you can disappear in it?
  • What game helps you know yourself better?

Yusef Komunyakaa’s Slam, Dunk, & Hook offers such rich language and imagery I can imagine many different writing invitations that could come from it. That is the power of teaching writing (even composition) using poetry and why one poem really can rule them all (for at least one writing class).

Original: I have been using poetry in my comp classes for several semesters now and while my roster of poems has evolved thanks to the poetry podcasts I listen to on my daily walks and the poems I encounter in the wild, this summer I made an effort to bring in some new poems into the rotation. So far I have 27 new poems which excite me, but picking the first poem I would share with my first year writers during the first week of classes is a journey.

I started my selection process with 10 poems and worry I may struggle with the selection right up until the start of class:

While each of those 10 poems spoke in some way to this unique moment in the lives of my students and the focus of our writing for the pieces they will eventually develop, I was also looking for a poem that could serve double duty. I wanted a poem that would both inspire students to think about what they value in the world, but also reflect on writing itself.

There will be classes when I share more than one poem, but I wanted to focus our first poetic deep dive on one text so we could explore it again and again and again using different lenses to explore the language. I have managed to cut my list in half by seeking one poem to rule all the questions I want my students to explore in our class meeting:

Which poem would you pick to help my students focus on a value and reflect on their writing?

Supper is cooking and I need to call it a day but I have narrowed it down to three:

Clearly, I can’t go wrong with any of these choices, but I still need to choose one!

After an evening walk when I listened again and again to these poems and a night when I left the task to my subconscious, I chose: The Weavers Were the First to Know only hours before I asked my students these questions in successive rounds of writing:

  • What traditions do you want to weave into the palms of your children?
  • The poet writes about taking up the craft of weaving for a specific purpose. This semester you are being forced to take up the craft of writing, but you alone have the power to choose your purpose. What is one aspect of writing that you want to focus on learning/improving this week?

If I was teaching argument for this unit then I might have added a question between these two: What arguments can you find in this poem? I know, thanks in part to my recent exposure to The Sunday Read: ‘The America That Americans Forget’, that there are many arguments to be found and I’m sure I’m missing others.

Unfortunately due to technology problems, I was not able to have students listen to this poem read in the poet’s own voice, I did share the reasons I carefully select poems to inspire thinking and writing. I thought this would be a beautiful lesson — and it was. Using poetry to inspire writing and reflection is definitely a twofer!

There are many reasons why I choose to incorporate so much poetry in a composition class, but I am still pleasantly surprised by the impact of this intense interaction with poetry on our community as humans, thinkers, and writers. I am excited to be able to grow my list of amazing mentor texts.

Pro Tip: The Academy of American Poets is a regular source of poetry inspiration for me. I often search their site for poems and Poem-a-Day regularly exposes me to new (to me) poets and poems. The Poetry Foundation also offers a rich collection of poetry and offers a Poem-of-the-Day. I also love to listen to some poetry podcasts such as The Slowdown and Poetry Unbound as they help me unlock still more questions to explore with specific poems. Where do you sift for poetry?

Image by lumix2004 from Pixabay

Author: Deanna Mascle
#TeachingWriting and leading #NWP site @ Morehead State (KY): Passionate about #AuthenticWriting, #DeeperLearning, #PBL, #Ungrading, and #HyperDocs.

2 thoughts on “One Poem to Rule Them All

  1. “Praise the dark, the moon cradle
    The sky fall, the bear sleep—
    Praise the mist, the warrior name
    The earth eclipse, the fired leap—”

    from Praise The Rain ….

    Thanks for sharing the links to those poems

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