Faith CoLab: Tapestry of Faith: Families: A Jr. High School Youth Program that Explores the Diversity, Commonality, and Meaning of Families

Writing Poetry with Youth

Part of Families

Anything goes into poetry. There are rules, but you don't need to know them; even if you know them, you can break them.

Poet Janet Wong, 2002

Why write poetry with youth? In many congregations, poetry is incorporated into services and ceremonies. When youth write poetry as part of a lifespan faith program, they demystify, understand, and own this important medium of congregational life. Poetry can be a wonderful means of self-expression. By trying poetry writing within the safe confines of a religious program, youth may find an avenue of self-expression. Writing poetry can be fun!

There are many ways to write poetry. In the Families program, poetry writing is one activity amidst many. The background information and tips below are therefore catered to "short-term" work with poetry. Make poetry writing accessible, fun, and spontaneous. Before working with participants, you may wish to review some background about poetry. Sections on types of poems and their building blocks are offered for review. Some poetry-writing tips follow those sections.

Youth react in a variety of ways to the prospect of writing poetry. The tips offered below aim to meet that variety. In Handout 10, Writing Poetry: Some Methods, we provide "recipes" to enable the reluctant poet and some guidelines to further support the inspired poet. Facilitators of this section may wish to pick and choose which tips or recipes they provide for the group. To that end, the recipes for several types of poems are offered on separate pages so they can be copied individually.

Types of Poems

There are many different types of poetry, and each varies in purpose. Five types are outlined below:

  • Lyric poetry expresses imagination and emotion; it is the "stuff" of much contemporary poetry.
  • Narrative poetry tells a story, with a scene, character(s), and sequence of events.
  • Prose poetry gives a snapshot of an idea or image.
  • Found poetry is everyday text reparsed into poetry.
  • Dramatic poetry is written for performance, often in multiple voices.

Building Blocks of Poems

There are five aspects to most poetry: focus, words, poetic language, rhythm, and form. Each is described below. For some writers, the shift from standard writing to poetry writing is made possible by thinking about these five building blocks.

  • Focus. Most poems have a central image, emotion, irony, understanding, or focus. Coming up with a focus can happen through writing a bunch of words or trying to imagine a scene.
  • Words. Choosing words and arranging words is at the heart of much poetry writing. When thinking about word choice, remember that no two words are exactly the same. A huge ice cream cone is bigger than a large one; a disheveled office may seem more interesting than a sloppy one. Different words have different connotations: sacred is different from special.
  • Poetic language. There are three familiar features of poetic language: sensory images, sound devices, and comparisons.
    • Sensory images. Many poets use the senses of sound, sight, smell, touch, and taste in creating poems.
    • Sound devices. Repeated sounds, or alliteration, are often used in children's poetry (e.g., mini muffin, Mickey Mouse). The repetition of vowel sounds, called assonance, is also used: How now brown cow? In addition, poets sometimes repeat a phrase to create a refrain.
    • Comparisons. Linking two things together, poets can create new visual images. When a comparison uses the word like, as, or seems, it is a simile (e.g., quiet as a mouse).
  • Rhythm. The patterns and beat created by words, punctuation, and spacing create the rhythm of poetry. Young children's nursery rhymes are created with repeated parallel rhythms. Sometimes rhythm is created through pause or through the repetition. There are no rules for creating rhythm in the freewriting of poetry; it is simply another aspect of poetry to keep in mind.
  • Form. There are many different forms of poems. The form of a poem influences the content and vice versa. Formula poems can be helpful in creating a "safe" avenue of entering into poetry writing. Free-writing can be more creative.

Poetry Writing Tips: Engaging Youth

In an article by David Fischer, "On the Road to Poetry" (Scholastic Scope, April 2002), the author quotes poet Janet Wong as saying, "Poetry is perfect for me because I'm busy. Writing a poem can be fast work. I usually try to write a first draft in five minutes. I take five minutes for a second draft and five minutes for a third and I've got something good."

Few of us might think of poetry as quick and freeing, but perhaps it's a good starting point for youth.

  • To help youth get started writing poems, first choose an approach. Will you encourage one type of poem? Will you advocate for youth to focus on one topic for their poems? Decide any parameters and priorities, and copy the materials from Handout 10, Writing Poetry: Some Methods, accordingly.
  • Do you need inspiration to start youth's poetry writing? Think about the session plan and use these tips from Linda Batt (Writer, August 2002, p. 20). As sources of inspiration she lists:
    • Conversations—real or imagined
    • Questions
    • Lessons—a poem can describe "how to"
    • A riddle
    • A memory
    • Contrasting stanzas, each from a different point of view (e.g., heavy metal from the mom's point of view and then from the fifteen-year-old son's point of view)
    • Humor
    • A photograph—describe through poetry a photograph, real or imagined
    • Ordinary details of life

Remember that, in this session, the process of writing poetry is more important than the product. Have fun!