Read an Excerpt
The Voices of Poetry
ONE DAY in a fifth-grade classroom I read to my students some poems about trees by James Reeves, Louis Simpson, Robert Frost, and Elizabeth Madox Roberts. Then we went outside to look at different trees and make notes.
When we returned, I suggested that we write poems about trees, those we had just seen or trees the students might know of at home or at camp, in Yosemite or Redwood National parks, or about a tree growing just outside the classroom window. It was my first day with this class, and I was pleased to see that they all began to write.
I have a habit of answering questions when I am teaching, walking around the classroom to see if anyone needs help. This day I noticed that many students were beginning their poems with "Some trees are tall, some trees are short" or "Trees are beautiful" or I like trees." None of these beginnings, understandably, seemed to inspire anyone to go further than one or two lines.
I remember this day particularly because it was the first time I had really thought about the voices of poetry and how, if used well, they could make all the difference in writing. I had been writing my own poetry, of course, never thinking about the voice I was using. But looking at these dull statements about trees and thinking about the poetry I had just read, I decided to try something new.
I asked one girl if she could tell me about a special tree she knew, just as Elizabeth Madox Roberts does in "Strange Tree."
Away beyond the Jarboe house
I saw a different kind of tree.
Its trunk was old and large and bent
And I could feel it look at me.
And thegirl began "Over the fence I saw a tree," a poem that uses a lyrical voice, her own voice, telling something of her feelings about the tree.
I suggested to another girl that she walk to the window and look more carefully at the tree growing outside, its branches almost touching the building, and speak to it just as Robert Frost did when he wrote
Tree at my window, window tree,
my sash is lowered when night comes on;
But let there never be curtain drawn
Between you and me.
When this girl began to write "Come into the room tree," she was using the dramatic voice of apostrophe. Other students in the class tried this voice, some asking their trees questions.
Five or six students wanted to try another dramatic voice, the mask, used by Louis Simpson in his poem "The Redwoods." It is a voice in which they pretend they are trees themselves speaking.
Mountains are moving, rivers
are hurrying. But we
We have the thoughts of giants
clouds, and at night the stars ...
Still others preferred to stay with the narrative voice, to simply tell about the trees without reference to themselves, as James Reeves does in "Tree Gowns."
In the morning her dress is of palest green,
And in dark green in the heat of noon is she seen ...
No one used the dramatic voice of conversation that day. But it was an important day, because it taught me how to help students change dull, trite statements into far more interesting work. And the students taught me that they did not have to be in high school or college to understand the possibilities for expanding their writing, for entering into the magic of these five voices.