Friday, June 19, 2009

Touching the Poem

I’ve written about poet Janet Wong and her work many times in the past, but she alerted me to a wonderful tidbit recently. Another reader took her “poetry suitcase” idea and tried it out with her own children—who are only 2 and 3 years old. Their responses were AMAZING! She reports that they were able “to listen to me read poetry for 90 minutes!” [Note that they also asked to read the poem again… and again… and again. I don’t think we repeat and reread poetry nearly often enough, IMO.] Here's the link to Minerva Canto’s blog posting at Mama Without Borders.

The secret? She made poetry physical, touchable, kinesthetic. She had the actual objects that were named or described in the poems, tied with twine to a copy of the poem itself. Poem + object x tied together = I get it! This concrete approach is just what young children need since they learn so much by touching. What a great display this could also make for a desktop or library. And I think it would be wonderful to get kids involved in choosing their favorite poems and selecting or even creating the corresponding objects. I even like the idea of a physical suitcase to hold it all. Minerva writes about a beautiful container that she creates herself covered in her children's art work—which is terrific—but I am also a fan of scavenging for old suitcases at thrift stores and garage sales. In any case, this use of poetry props is something worth revisiting—even with older kids who might be intrigued by finding objects for more abstract “grown up” poems. For example, what object would you tie to “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening”? A bell to jingle? A toy horse? A paper snowflake? And why?

For Poetry Friday, I’d like to mine a gem from Janet’s book, A Suitcase of Seaweed (Simon & Schuster, 1996). This is one of my favorite books, with poems organized in three categories reflecting the three cultural strands of her background: Korean, Chinese, and American. She manages to express her own cultural conflict/celebration while channeling emotions and experiences that anyone with dual or multiple heritage can relate to (like me with my German and American identity). Grab a fork and a pair of chopsticks and tie them together with this poem:

Albert J. Bell
by Janet Wong

Forty years of friendship

with my grandfather,
and still Uncle Al cannot eat

with chopsticks.

Forty years of friendship

with Uncle Al,

and still my grandfather forgets
to offer him a fork.

p. 17

[Link this poem with the picture book How My Parents Learned to Eat by Ina Friedman and illustrated by Allen Say (Houghton Mifflin, 1984).]

For more physical, hands on poetry+object connections, look for these poetry books, in particular (although MANY books lend themselves to hands-on connections, of course!):

Adoff, Arnold. 2000. Touch the Poem. New York: Blue Sky Press.
Frank, John. 2008. Keepers: Treasure-Hunt Poems. New York: Roaring Brook.
George, Kristine O’Connell. 2005. Fold Me a Poem. San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace.
Hopkins, Lee Bennett, comp. 1996. School Supplies: A Book of Poems. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Schertle, Alice. 1996. Keepers. New York: Lothrop, Lee & Shepard.
Worth, Valerie. 1994. All the Small Poems and Fourteen More. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Join the rest of the Poetry Friday round up at Carol's Corner. See you there!

Posting (not poem) by Sylvia M. Vardell © 2009. All rights reserved.
Image credit:


Mary Lee said...

GREAT ideas! I'm stashing this link in my back-to-school folder!

Sylvia Vardell said...

Hi, Mary Lee, thanks for stopping by. Great idea for schools, too!

Julie Larios said...

I love this, Sylvia. It underscores the idea that poems come alive most when their subjects are taken from the real, physical world. It's not as effective when a poet tries to make a poem's subtext (abstractions like "freedom" and emotions like "love" or "grief") be the subject, when the real job is to come at subtext indirectly - by making the subject of the poem "touchable." Thanks for talking about this today!

Janet Wong said...

Thank you, Sylvia, for your post! I think it would be really neat if families worked together this summer to fill a poetry suitcase with poems tied to basement/closet junk and old toys. That suitcase could then be given as a "Back to School" gift for a teacher or the librarian--a great way to start a new school year (and clean out the basement and closets)!

One of my favorite poem/prop pairs: Tie a dish and spoon to "Taradiddle" from Alice Schertle's HOW NOW BROWN COW (out of print, I think, but you can find it at your library). The poem ends with the line: "They never found the dish and spoon."

Sylvia Vardell said...

Thanks, Julie and Janet for your input and ideas! It's so fascinating to hear the poet's point of view, particularly regarding the tension between the abstract and the concrete.

And I love HOW NOW BROWN COW so much, Janet-- thanks for that mention-- maybe we can help nudge it back into print. :-)

Minnie said...

Thanks so much for writing about our version of Janet's "poetry suitcase." I'm glad I found your blog so I can mine it for more inspired ideas to share my love of reading with my kids. Warmly, Minerva

Scattering Lupines said...

Ooooh! I work with dyslexic children in reading... what a GREAT idea. I love it. I will be utlizing this with stories and poems alike.

Sylvia Vardell said...

And thank YOU, Minerva, for your inspiring example.

And for making the connection with children with learning difficulties. Everyone needs to TOUCH sometimes, to "get it!"

Carol Henson Keesee said...

What a great idea! With the release of my new book, The Angry Thunderstorm, our readers are making different crafts to go along with the book. One scout master created a thunder could pencil topper. One little girl created thunderstorm smooshies out of cosmetic sponges. One reader created finger puppets. Adding these elements make reading the book a lot more fun.