by GABRIELLE LENSCH PLASTRIK
I love teaching the writing of poetry maybe more than any other thing that I can imagine teaching, so I am biased. Regardless, the lesson below is not only my perennial favorite; it is also the students’. It appears in my curriculum next week, and I have been eager for that class period since the poetry and nature unit began three weeks ago.
Perhaps, as the year winds down, some of you might have some time to squeeze in a great lesson, especially if you’ve already taught imagery because this lesson will help reinforce that earlier lesson. There are plenty of variations. Over the years, I’ve learned that different music evokes different sorts of poems. It seems essential that it be only instrumental or the words find their way into the poem, which isn’t as much a sensory experience as repetition of someone else’s ideas. I’ve used Clementines when other fruits were exorbitantly expensive, and that worked less well because the fruit was so familiar. Nothing is as good as Buddha’s Hands.
I still remember the first time that I touched the strange leathery skin and thought of the inside of my father’s palm—hardened from a tractor accident when he was a child. At the very end of this post, you’ll find the poem that I wrote when Thylias Moss taught a version of this lesson to me in an advanced poetry workshop at the University of Michigan.
Sensory Imagery and Poetry Writing:
Accessing the Writer’s Senses through Mystery
- To help familiarize students with sensory imagery
- To encourage students to appeal to senses using sensory imagery in their own writing
- To help students express themselves creatively in writing
- Walden Overhead (see below)
- Buddha’s Hands (a citrus fruit available in the fall) or Star Fruit (available in the early spring)
- Silk Road Journeys: Beyond the Horizon (cd)
- Citrus Jelly Beans
- Have a passage from Walden on an overhead.
- A student will read it aloud.
- We will define any terms they need for understanding.
- Then, we will discuss the types of images being evoked and how they enhance the writing.
- Tell students that they will be taken on a journey through the types of imagery that deal with the senses and that there is some mystery involved—show them the mystery bag.
- Explain the rules of the activity: It is crucial that students understand the importance of keeping their eyes shut when they are told to do so. Also, remind students that they do not need to change the subject of their pieces in order to introduce a new sense. They should try to find a way to incorporate some aspect of that sense and then continue on with their writing.
- Have students begin writing—they may choose their topics. If a student asks for a prompt, I would tell him/her to write about a journey, as it may make the activity easier for a student already struggling with choosing his/her own prompt.
- After students have written for five minutes, tell them that their journey is about to begin and that they need to close their eyes. Walk around the room with the Buddha’s Hands extended to the students’ hands. After all students have felt the fruit, return it to the mystery bag.
- Students should incorporate what they felt into whatever they are writing.
- After three minutes, interrupt students by asking them to pause and close their eyes. This time, they will smell the fruit.
- After all students have smelled the fruit, they should incorporate the scent into their writing.
- After three minutes, interrupt students. They should pause and close their eyes. Each student should receive 2-3 citrus jelly beans to eat.
- Once, they have all eaten the jelly beans, they should incorporate what they tasted into their writing.
- After three minutes, interrupt students again by asking them to pause and close their eyes. This time, they are to listen to “Echoes of a Lost City” for about 30 seconds.
- The cd will continue playing as they work to incorporate what they have heard into their pieces of writing.
- After three minutes, interrupt students. This time, the fruit from the magic bag will be revealed. Show students the fruit.
- Have them incorporate some aspect of the way the fruit looks into their pieces of writing.
- Then, reveal the name of the fruit and have them incorporate the name into their pieces.
- Give them three to five minutes to write.
- At the end of the class period, ask students to hand in the pieces they have been writing. (Photocopy their free writing before tomorrow’s class period and file their first drafts.)
Begin tomorrow’s activity: Breaking the lines and rearranging the words from the Walden passage. (Then students will break the lines and rearrange the words from their writing.)
After students have finished revising these pieces of writing (several class periods later), students will be asked to identify the different types of imagery in their own final products. In addition, rough drafts will be distributed, and students will compare the way the images function in the original draft to how they function in the final draft.
Acknowledgements and Citations:
This lesson has been adapted from a lesson taught to me by Thylias Moss at the University of Michigan in a poetry workshop during fall term 2003.
Thoreau, Henry David. Walden and “Civil Disobedience”. Ed. Owen Thomas. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1966.
Yo-Yo Ma and The Silk Road Ensemble. “Echoes of a Lost City.” Silk Road Journeys: Beyond the Horizon. Sony BMG Music Entertainment, 2004.
“At length, the sun’s rays have attained the right angle, and warm winds blow up mist and rain and melt the snow banks, and the sun dispersing the mist smiles on a checkered landscape of russet and white smoking with incense, through which the traveler picks his way from islet to islet, cheered by the music of a thousand tinkling rills and rivulets whose veins are filled with the blood of winter which they are bearing off” (Thoreau, 201).
Palmed (my poem):
I used to try to imagine my father’s three middle fingers
sewn to the seven-year-old skin of his abdomen—
the one trying to teach the other how to grow,
to regenerate what the tractor and the land shred
while dragging his body, behind and against
for three long sweeps of summer soy beans.
What if I had been one of the other boys,
not close enough to the edge to have fallen off,
and had tried to make myself heard over the engine snarl?
What if I had cried watching the team’s best batter
squirm beneath the spikes of the plow?
I would curl my nail into his warped palm,
see if I could make his skin remember the arc
and then laugh when for the few seconds it did.
I wonder, now, if his mother cried
for the six months her oldest son could only sit
while his brothers and the other boys played.
I wonder what it felt like
when, in his direction, she smiled.
I saw, in the produce aisle, Buddha’s hands,
phât thu in Vietnamese, and shaped my body to my father’s leg.
He lifted the fruit to my nose and pulled my small fist inside the cup
of it’s gnarled gypsy fingers, nails stretching to read my palm.
The twisted hand leather, like a snake’s abandoned skin,
had formed over the years into a callous as hard
as watching both parents fight sickness, death.
I used to press left-over baby-pudge,
ringed around my wrist and nearly white
against the tanned skin of his hardened hand-heel—
the tip of my finger touching just below
the place my father couldn’t feel.
And he’d tell me how the curl of tendons saved him from Vietnam:
He escaped Iowa and Vietnam in the fir
and hand-built tepees of Colorado
where he beat time for a band,
drove a funeral hearse, sewed stitches
in his arm when his body eventually bled.
He left Colorado in the hearse he had bought himself,
drove to Mexico and hid in the green seeing leaves
of a different sort of farm.
He held his hands above his head for government guns
after money and months—for the acres of drugs,
avoiding the war—and he came home
to orphaned siblings he no longer knew
and whom he couldn’t see because long hair
and a generation blinded their foster parents’ eyes.
The army doctors asked for push-ups
and found air between his finger curl and the wooden floor.
They sent him free one practice shot away from friends:
snipers in the Red River Basin who lay their bloody, fallen heads
in the lime green seat of first the trees, then the palms of Buddha’s hands.
He never knew they squeezed the fingers
for the juice that scented his vodka,
his body years past youth. He never knew
that the hand he pushed mine inside
carried in its flavor the last thing he would taste—
the easy way out.
If he were still here and were to lay within those watered claws—
five fingers reaching for their mates,
would he admire the succulence of their skin,
rest his head in the jungle smells, bitter juices
or would he see my round face in the glossy green peel,
press his left middle finger to my baby nail’s arc
and try once more to escape?
Gabrielle teaches English and Drama at a school for gifted students in Madison, WI.