One day, I had a sub, and I needed something for my advanced English class to do. We had been discussing some poetry, so I made a packet out of several poems with some questions. I know that a worksheet attached to reading is fairly sacrilegious these days, but it was a sub plan and these were questions I probably would have used in a discussion anyway.
So one of the poems that I used was a poem by Sarah Kay called “Scissors.” It’s from her 2014 collection No Matter the Wreckage and goes as such:
When we moved in together,
You keep your scissors in the knife drawer.
I keep mine with the string and tape.
We both know how to hide our sharpest parts,
I just don’t always recognize my own weaponry.
That’s it. The poem is six lines long. How do you even analyze a poem that is only six lines long in a high school English class? Poetry analysis is what you do to Whitman, Frost, Shelley, or Keats. you work and you wind your way through “Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey” or “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (the poem or the Iron Maiden song, take your pick), not six lines.
Yet here were my questions:
- Who is the “we” in the first line?
- Why is she comparing where they keep their scissors?
- What do the last two lines of the poem mean?
- How does this poem manage to be effective even though it’s only six lines long?
I have no idea if any of this is at all pedagogically sound, but I will say that I was at least trying to build up to that last question because it’s the big one: how do you say so much with so little?
One thing that I usually emphasize when teaching poetry is word economy, and this is not an easy principle to grasp. Very often, students are told to elaborate and write using greater detail because the writing curriculum is essay-focused. I have no problem with essays–if you read either of my blogs, that’s obvious–but at the same time, there is something to be said for the brevity that comes with writing a poem. It’s ironic, in a sense, that the six lines of this poem are incredibly elaborate and provide a significant amount of vivid detail, so much so that I can see what the scissors mean and what happens to the couple she is describing. This is a painful poem in a sense, one that cuts (pun intended) deep because of the way the reader can see those people as well as themselves.
So if we’re going to take this whole thing to its inevitable conclusion on the taxonomy of Bloom, we should ask our students to create six-line poems. But is that easier said than done? I mean, I’m sure that any teenager anywhere could crap out a six-line poem if they were asked to with the same lack of effort they use when asking me, “Can I write a haiku?” during a poetry writing assignment. But I don’t want poetry that was crapped out. Even if it’s not the best poem ever, I’d at least like to see some sort of effort put into a student’s poetry.
Perhaps–and this is probably going to blow your minds–you actually assign writing a poem that is longer than six lines and then the students have to edit the poem down to just those six lines?
Seriously, though … wouldn’t it be a great way to not only teach creative writing, but vocabulary, word meaning, grammar, usage, and mechanics? By trimming off all of the fat and getting down to the words that really matter or really mean something, maybe we’ll not only teach how to refine writing but teach an appreciation for the language it uses.
p.s. You should go buy Sarah Kay’s book. And watch her YouTube videos. And follow her on Twitter. Seriously. Go, now. Go!