By John Oughton

Poems often begin in memory and end in discovery.
–Glen Sorestad

Getting Started

Many poems use some relatively simple process or “trick” to create their effects. Glen Sorestad suggests one above, which reveals how many poems based on family memories, snapshots, or historical events work. Understanding the process makes it easier to understand the poem, because the reader then has a kind of map to follow the poet’s imaginative leaps, associations of unexpected things, and the other surprises that makes poetry what it is.

In a way, it’s like the famous scene in the movie Dead Poets Society when poetry teacher Mr. Keating encourages his students to stand on their desks. He wants them to experience how a shift in perspective is like reading a poem and suddenly viewing the world through someone else’s eyes. Let’s look at some ways that we can get students, through contemporary Canadian poems, to stand on their desks.

The approach I am about to suggest can be useful both to help students see their way into published poems, and to inspire them to try mirroring the process with a new poem of their own. The two activities, of course, are quite complementary; by comparing the student’s creation with the original, one can see where practice, editing, and expertise make a difference. One can also realize that the original poem is not in fact an impenetrable literary code, but rather has a way of working through which it makes its effects. Similarly, one pop song uses a repetitive, heavy bass-and-drums beat to become memorable; another uses sudden alternations between quiet and loud passages; a third succeeds because of the contrast between a rough, low voice and sweet, high voices in the chorus. Ask your students if they can name songs with obvious choices like these.

To show how this could work in a class, I will present excerpts from three contemporary Canadian poems, each of which uses a straightforward process or technique. You could explain the process first to your class, but you could also let them discover it by giving them copies on paper, reading it out loud and asking appropriate questions like “How does this work?” “Is any part or phrase repeated throughout this?” “If you drew a diagram showing the progress of this poem, what would it look like?”

Excerpt Number One


It’s a seed given And the soil must be prepared to spur its growth: tilled to a soft loam lightened by aeration of earthworms made mealy and rich from residues of other years other harvests It needs a gardener always in attendance meticulously pruning the sturdy plant that thrusts green shoots towards the sky dreaming within itself a perfect blossom

— Doris Hillis

This is an example of the “extended metaphor” or “analogy” technique. In this case, the second part of the metaphor or analogy is expressed only in the title; the reader is expected to connect all the gardening imagery below to the process of birthing a poem. Ask your students what they think each of the gardening steps or needs described compares to in a creative process like writing a poem. Who is the “gardener”? Who or what might play the role of earthworms? How do our memories provide us with “other years other harvests” that add to the creative growth?
If you want to turn this into a writing workshop, ask students to choose an activity, art or craft they know well, outline its steps, and compare it to another kind of process only in the title. You might sketch a beginning on the board, like this, to give them the idea;


Nobody gives you a detailed map The road only goes one way When you wake up, the car’s already rolling....

Excerpt Number Two

In the next poem excerpt, John V. Hicks calls on a well-known fairy tale but shifts our perceptions of it.


I cannot kiss you, frog, although you be A prince in anatomic disarray, Although there may be truth in what you say, And your release from spells waits only me To strike the powers of darkness and free You from a witch’s shackles, let the day You hope for dawn, become the shining way….

This poem is putting a spin on “The Frog Prince.” Hicks has chosen to have his words spoken by the girl (the possible future Frog Princess). In fairy tales, characters seldom struggle with the complexities of the real world, but Hicks’ ”girl”seems to be doing so. After Harry Potter, few students will have trouble with terms like “spells”, but they may need some help with “anatomic disarray” and “shackles.”
Here are a couple of ways to let students engage this poem.

1. Complete the sonnet, keeping to a regular rhyme scheme like the one (which appears to be ABBA, ABBA. So they could make the last six lines CDCDCD, or CDECDE.) Tell students their job is to suggest why the girl “cannot kiss” the frog and release him from her spell. Is it because of her previous experiences? Because she doesn’t believe in happy endings? Or does she just find amphibians, like, yucky?

2. Invite students to write their own poems, using a different fairy tale. Their task is to write from the viewpoint of one of the characters in a well-known fairy tale, but make that character say or do something different from what happens in the original. For example, Hansel and Gretel decided to stay with the witch instead of returning to their boring parents:
“Who can resist a house made of cookies, candy?
And she says she’ll teach me to bake
Better than the non-witch chefs on TV….”

Excerpt Number Three

Finally, here’s a short excerpt from the late Cree poet Marvin Francis’s poem “Word Drummers.” Poets have always been conscious of the sound and rhythm of words, whether they write in evenly-metred lines or not. Today, music and performances genre like rap, hip-hop and spoken word continue this tradition, selling millions of albums in the process.

“those word drummers pound away and hurtle words into that English landscape like brown beer bottles tossed from the back seat on a country road shattering the air turtle words crawl slowly from the broken glass”

First, have students read this out loud, stressing the rhythms as much as possible. Ask them to find the rhymes and other sound echoes half-hidden in here (“hurtle/ bottles / turtle…” ”brown/slowly/broken….” Is there a student in the class with a solid sense of rhythm who could drum on something (boxes or empty water jugs work well if there are no drums handy), finding the pulse in these lines while someone else reads it.
Then, you could ask them to try a couple of responses:

1. Write a poem answering the question “who are the turtle words, and where do they go?” Turtles live a long time; what will these turtle words do when they have escaped the broken bottles?

2. Challenge them to become “word drummers” themselves. They can do this by writing a poem perhaps titled “New Word Drummer”(or “New World Drummer”) that has a strong rhythm, with or without rhymes. Tell them the meaning doesn’t matter as much as the sound; just imagine a list of words, images that keep going to the beat and lead wherever they go, like:

“Sadness, gladness, don’t dilute my badness I’m the seal that makes hunters squeal The poetitian making new flaws Don’t beat me with laws…”

John Oughton is the author of four books of poetry, with a fifth slated for publication late next year, and somewhere over 300 articles, reviews and interviews. He is a member of the League of Canadian Poets, the editor of Poetry Markets for Canadians, and a former editor of He does faculty and curriculum development work as a professor at Centennial College in the eastern end of Toronto.