Poetry: In the darkness, it rises


CC via Unsplash. Click photo.

I’m joining fellow teacher-poets for some December poetry writing with Mary Lee Hahn (A Year of Reading). Carol Wilcox (Carol’s Corner) and I are adding poems over in the comments section of Mary Lee’s poem place (Poetrepository) after she posts her daily haiku, Kevin Hodgson joins in via Twitter (@dogtrax), Leigh Anne Eck on her website, A Day in the Life, and others, too, I’m sure, who are writing in various locations around the internet. I just haven’t figured out where, yet.

I shared this poem over at Mary Lee’s, but the formatting in the comments section didn’t let me get it “right”, so I’m sharing it here, too.

One of the great gifts December gives me is a reminder of the boundaries of time. Days are short. Snow turns to ice, then melts to water. Frost appears and disappears. For me, summer has a timeless quality; winter is about temporary things.



Poetry: A Missed Opportunity

evolutionary robotics nancy waldman via Compfight

I’ve been so busy trying to write curricula1 that I haven’t had the time or energy to write much of anything for myself. So when a friend told me a story recently, I grabbed hold to see where it would go.

What emerged was a prose-poem…of sorts. Though I’m never really sure exactly what one is, I’ve played with the form. I’m studying prose poems by the likes of Louis Jenkins, Mary Oliver, and, one poem in particular by Robert Hass, A Story About the Body.

From Jane Hirshfield (Nine Gates: entering the mind of poetry) I learned that Japanese poetry “speaks of the nioi, it’s fragrance, and hibiki, reverberation, as qualities equal in standing to its ‘content.'” The prose poems I’m studying all seem to contain a rich layer of detail, even different stories, piled on top of each other. The close proximity of these stories creates almost a harmonic vibration, a polyphony, a resonant subterranean hum, which I love to listen to. Maybe all poetry does that?

So that’s what I’ve been thinking about lately, this way that stories slice time into measures that we play in the heart. Depending on where you end and where you start, a different tune emerges. What stories do you tell? Where do they end? Where do they start?

A Missed Opportunity

A friend told me about deer hunting recently; about how he spotted some wary does a good distance from the tree stand; about the long wait for them to come closer; about finally letting loose with one, then two, then the last of his three arrows, all missing their mark at that great distance. And then, only after the arrows were spent, did the does approach the stand, mere feet away when the buck arrived (eight points!), their close-breath pungent, their dew-wet bodies steaming in the cool dawn. What is the point of a story? Years ago we both felt a coldness grow; eventually our hearts became hard, then brittle. Do you remember? Our silence wrapped tightly around those days. And so we watched the years unravel like an old sweater. Once the yarn got wound back into a ball, needles clicked again. That’s what I mean when I say be patient. Stories end and begin in the heart. So will yours.

–Steve Peterson, 2015


  1. …which is, really, just to say that I have been barely keeping my head above the waterline that is daily life as a teacher, enough above to make a living, but not enough above to breathe very deeply, or to make a life, if you know what I mean? And there is a story that I need to tell about writing curriculum, too, and what that does to the soul.

Poetry Friday: More Renga with Friends

Moonrise Over Santa TeresaCreative Commons License Dawn Ellner via Compfight

I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised when Mary Lee Hahn (A Year of Reading) suggested we write another renga and Jan Burkins (Burkins & Yaris) agreed. Both are such adventurous souls! You can see a description of the renga form and our first attempt at writing one together here.

I loved being able to write a second poem in the same form with the same people. It was interesting to observe how having multiple opportunities to write the same thing opened up new layers of understanding for me; understanding of my process, our collaboration, and the ways the poem works to create meaning for me. Multiple tries at the same thing are important for kids; they are important for adults!

At some moment during the second attempt, I began to see the stanzas of the poem not as a linear form whose meaning resolved as I read, but as layers piled on top of one another, sort of like a pair of polarizing sunglasses that, when tilted just right block out the flashes of light on a lake in summer. The layered stanzas helped me see words and ideas in sharper relief and in deeper hues because they made certain images and words stand out.

For example, Mary Lee’s sharp wheel of cheddar/round of brie connected so nicely to the round cracker-moon in the stanza before, turning that image of fullness into one that I could taste as well. Similarly, Jan pulled from my crusts of bread a wide palate (fresh…sour…vast) that broadened my original idea of sparseness into one that had texture and verve. Finally, I loved the way Jan took my image of the wrinkled face and transformed it into a memory, which Mary Lee carried downstream to serve as the very soil for the renewal of a “new land.”

Lots for me to learn from these two! What fun to write together.

But enough of my marveling. Here’s the poem.

as the hummingbird sips the nectar

round moon not yet full
finds my cracker–full ‘til bitten
life full with roundness

sharp as a wheel of cheddar
smooth and creamy as brie

under the gnarled oak
an old couple tosses
dry crusts to the pigeons

we become what we take in
fresh foods, sour moods, vast ideas

mountain peaks tower
above the endless plains
full — sharp — old — vast — inspiring

toward evening, golden sunlight
settled on her wrinkled face

inside she’s a girl
surprised by her reflection
in her dreams she runs

river carries silt downstream
building up the new island

sweet alchemy —
orchard apples filled
by the light of a star

loose tooth lost with first bite
red orb of bittersweet

cold front passes through
scrubs away humidity
wren sings from the fence

once, he learned to see rainbows
in the oil on a street puddle

a skill important
for grownups who are often
too busy measuring

too concerned with to-do to
barter duty for beauty

You can find more poetry at Poetry for Children.

Building a Poem Place

I struggle with how to get more poetry in the hands of kids. Why? It all starts with my hope that others can have what I have. For me, poetry provides a place to slow down and see what is often unseen, to fill what might be empty, to hear a murmur in a world that shouts. In my hubris, I believe others might be like me in this regard.

Somehow I found out about Seattle’s Poetry on a Bus project. The project seeks to put poetry into the daily lives of people. Here is an example from this week’s featured poet.

from Poetry on a Bus. Click on the link to take you to see the archive.

from Poetry on a Bus. Click on the link to take you to see the archive.

But it is more than just poems on buses; it is also about fostering a city-wide poetic reflection on the theme of “home” as experienced by the citizens of the many home places that make up the people of Seattle. Poets fanned out into neighborhoods to teach workshops on how to write poetry. They met in community centers, churches, schools, businesses, wherever the people of that neighborhood met. Then they wrote poems. The poems on the buses are written by the people from the neighborhoods, regular people who have a story to tell, an image to share.


To build interest in poetry, one idea I had was to create a publically shared Poem Place outside my classroom where others could stop by and read as they went about their daily activities, kind of like a stationary bus, I guess.  At first, I would just put up poems that struck me or seemed to fit the time of year. Since I am inclined to look to the natural world and we live in a rural part of a rural state (Iowa), probably some of these would be connected to what students might see around them. I might also couple these with a short informational piece written by either me or by someone I found online, sort of like what Joyce Sidman has done in many of her wonderful books.

Since we recently moved to a 1:1 digital learning environment, I thought I could link the informational text(s) via that method as well.

So, maybe something like this, coupled with informational text on the history of tomatoes.


Poem is from the Writer’s Almanac. Click on the image to go to that page. (Made with Google Draw.)

Or this one since the bats are out at night, coupled with some short text/video about bats.

From Valerie Worth, Animal Poems. (Made with Google Draw.)

From Valerie Worth, Animal Poems. (Made with Google Draw.)

Or this one, since dogs are always so interesting to kids, then coupled with something on the history of dogs, or the science of anxiety.

From Mary Oliver, Dog Songs. (Made with Canva.)

From Mary Oliver, Dog Songs. (Made with Canva.)

My plan is to post these outside my room and online in a section of my classroom website. While I will be curating and publishing many of these early in the year, I hope that some students will begin to take over the job of finding poems and turning them into posters.

Maybe these poems and informational texts will foster conversations among students, between parents and children? Who knows?

Ideally, we might actually move toward something like what Poetry on a Bus does, which is to hold poetry writing workshops and gather poems from the students themselves. (I think I know some 7th and 8th graders who might be interested in that part!) But even if we don’t get that far this year, or ever, I think the project might be worth trying anyway.

I will keep you posted on how it goes as the year goes along.

Poetry Friday: Writing a Renga with Friends

Old house. Sibillini Mountains, Italy. Photo by Steve Peterson

Old house. Sibillini Mountains, Italy. Photo by Steve Peterson

A few weeks ago I approached Mary Lee Hahn and Jan Burkins about writing some poetry together. I proposed a Japanese form called renga, although I had never written in that form before. To start, the first poet writes a haiku. The second writes two longer lines, a bridge, based on the haiku. The next writes another haiku based on the 2-sentence bridge, and so forth.

According to the Academy of American Poets, the renga is very old. They say it gave birth to the shorter haiku. I can see how it might also have helped create the 5-line tanka form, too.

We finished our first renga a few days ago, and it’s time to reflect on the process. First off, I was super-excited to be writing with Mary Lee and Jan. I love Mary Lee’s poetry. She is a master of few words with many meanings. While I haven’t read much of Jan’s poetry, I think that everything she writes has a poetic feel to it. I was honored that both of them said, YES! Let’s give it a try.

The collaborative element was a lot of fun for me. I found that the form seemed to lend itself to a kind of contemplative practice. Since the lines are so short, and both the haiku and the 2-line bridge are designed to call forth an image and then give it a twist, there is a lot of room for interpretation. I found that large room gave me plenty of space to think not just about the words, themselves, but also about the writer of the words (in this poem, Jan.) What was going through her mind? What images did she use? I found myself wondering what she was thinking. Then, as I crafted my part, my mind shifted to thinking about Mary Lee, who would get the words that I wrote. I strove to speak what I heard inside me but to also open space for Mary Lee to write. I found myself wondering where she would take those openings. What was on her mind, in her heart at the moment?

Another fun part of this, at least for me, was the fact that the poem really did not hang together as a coherent whole from start to finish, that is, if you were looking for a tightly written poem. Rather, its “meaning” was something that I had to work pretty hard to infer. But, since the parts were connected, I began to see a few threads running through the poem that were, because of the exegetical work it takes to see them, almost more precious to my eyes. One thread that emerged was a focus on those propitious tipping-point moments when something happens that causes the next moment to be quite different from the preceding ones. The fires, thunderstorms, even the call of the meadowlark are examples of these. Another might be a sense of age, or loss that comes with age. And a quiet acceptance of the whole thing. Those images of dust and memories and time passing, for instance. At any rate, I had a great time looking back and trying to follow the threads.

I think I might like to try this kind of writing with kids. I can imagine that it might build a sense of community.

For much more poetry, please visit Margaret at Reflections on the Teche.

Poetry Friday Tag




So, here is the renga, without a title.

in the prairie dawn

a spider’s web snares the sun  —

cricket rejoices

meadowlark joins the chorus

breeze bends ripening wheat heads

whose lanky bodies

bow, sun’s church–peace be with wheat

and also with corn

they gather on folding chairs,

jello melts while the preacher prays

white-robed acolytes

shoulders shaking with giggles

two clouds hide the sun

even the adolescent stalks are sober today

word of fire in the neighboring field

this dark sky —

thunderheads poke fingers

at a thirsty land

near the abandoned homestead

ditch lilies toss flaming heads

who called this place home

does the ground remember

stories brought to earth

a faded calendar tacked

to the wall above the stove

try to imagine

the layers of memories

beneath the dust

how much memory is imagination

how much dust is history

sun slants through wavy glass

in the stale air

motes rise to dance

down the road, far down the road

reverberations can be felt

Poems: Paper Flowers and a Limerick


It’s been a long time since I’ve posted here. There are lots of reasons, I suppose, and many times I’ve started a post and never finished one. But I am trying to clear a bit more time to write, so I have taken up Mary Lee Hahn’s Po-emotion Challenge this April. I am leaving some poems in the comments sections at her blog; I thought I’d share the one that I left today, plus one more.

Today’s emotion was “sadness.” Here’s a nice, short post about sadness at Explore, one of Maria Popova’s superb websites. (“All sadness is is a way of sensitizing you to what really matters, what’s really meaningful.”)

This poem explores the strange expansiveness that sadness can sometimes bring.

IMG_0480Paper Flowers

If you were there
with me in the high desert
near Caspana, you
would have felt
the wind on your face,
thin and persistent;
heard it rustle the paper
flowers mourners stuck
in the fence on the day
their dead were borne
from the church;
seen them, too, their color
drained under
a relentless sun:
red to tattered pink,
pink to shredded white.

So wide this sky.
And so simple this wind
that erodes lives
like paper flowers
stuck in a fence, that
scatters pieces across
the high desert. If you
were there with me
near Caspana, you
might have felt the grit
in the wind, and the
roughness of your own skin
under the arid sun,
and, like me, offered
wine and coca leaf to
our scattered souls.

–steve peterson, 2015



Just in case you think, though, that all is serious, here is my poem for the emotion of “disgust,” a poem that came to me while watching Wisconsin play Kentucky during the NCAA tournament, and while lying next to my dog who had spent the day in the woods eating lord only knows what kinds of goodies.

It’s a limerick, of course.

There once was a dog from Decorah
Whose nose led him to fauna, not flora
From the snowbanks did melt
Aged deer guts he smelt
So, bad farts? He had a plethora.


Prose Poem: Frost

The frost came this weekend, which got me thinking about how things change, sometimes pretty darn quickly. Change has been on my mind lately: my father’s illness and the big changes it has brought to his life; how quickly my nation is marching (once again) to a war in Iraq; our inability to deal with a changing climate with any kind of effectiveness.

So, here’s a prose-poem (of sorts) that ponders how change can happen very quickly sometimes; at the same time it tries to recapture some of my writer-self that took a trip somewhere unknown for awhile. I hope it had a good time out there.


Have you ever noticed how days can go by and things change so slowly as to be imperceptible? Take summer, for instance. In Iowa, the sun glares at rows of corn for what seems like eons; the locusts lay down a wall of sound from behind the oak leaves. Then suddenly, like last night, the sky clears and the heat that had gathered in the rock wall, and under the leaves of the plums — so tenacious all summer — vanishes silently as an introvert at an office party. By morning, you wake to find Fall has already unpacked its valise, and the garden, filled with squash and cucumbers, wilts, tilting the color wheel from green to brown.

The ancients thought the world was flat, beyond which lay its rim. One minute you’re sailing blithely along, the next you’re over the precipice and in the jaws of a dragon. We modern people are wiser, of course, and know that there is no boundary, no limit, no moment where with a single step we leave one world behind and enter another. From deep within the middle the tomatoes are so ripe and red, the edge so very far away.

— Steve Peterson, 2014


Next Year Begins with Playfulness

Last year I noticed that we seemed to improve our thinking about literature after I had introduced the children to the idea of figurative language, in particular, the idea of metaphor. After some practice, we began to see how authors used metaphors or other comparative devices of one sort or the other — symbols, similes, analogies, personification — to convey meaning. I wrote about our exploration of a particular image in the graphic novel, The Arrival, and our playing with metaphor in Valerie Worth’s poem, fence.

In the past, I’ve introduced figurative language later in the year as we gear up for a unit or two on poetry. When I start fifth grade this year I plan to introduce the idea of metaphor (or, more generally, comparison) earlier, maybe even in the first week, so we can use these idea to talk and think about texts over the course of the year. At its root I believe figurative language is about playfulness. And that’s the point I really want to make from the get-go next year.

Dark emperorLast year we enjoyed Joyce Sidman’s poetry, in particular her book Dark Emperor. Her poetry offers a playfulness with language, a delightful use of personification, and a serious number of wonderful metaphors to feel, study, and talk about. I wanted more.

Earlier this summer I ordered a whole bunch more of Sidman’s poetry books. They just arrived.

IMG_0443One new book would be perfect for an early-in-the-year introduction to figurative language (and playfulness in general.) That book is Red Sings from Treetops: a year in colors. Gorgeously illustrated by Pamela Zagarenski, Sidman’s poetry explores how colors, even the meaning of colors, changes over the course of the year.


Using the language of colors (green, red, purple, white…) Sidman’s writing invites the reader to see these ordinary words in new ways, as creatures with their own lives. A rich emotional landscape emerges from her play.


A book of poems like that would be good enough. But in Red Sings perspective is also important. Can you imagine introducing the concept of perspective by exploring how the meaning of colors change depending on the season they are experienced? How does green look or feel in the fall?


Of course, often my favorite color-explorations are those that lie in the shadows. Chiaroscuro describes my perspective on life.

The darkness.


And the light.


Red Sings is packed with poems that not only invite the reader to think about color in new ways, but to see how color (green, for instance) has different meanings when seen from different perspectives. Awesome.

All this fits with some other reading I’ve been doing on how we learn. Work by Daniel Willingham, Daniel Kahneman, Peter Brown, et al, and a book I’m reading now (A More Beautiful Question) all connect learning to the  learner’s active manipulation of new information. To learn well, a learner has to engage her mind in a quest of some sort, often to answer a question or explain something puzzling or incongruous. This quest requires the learner to pick up and examine the new information with an open and searching mind; to have both the time and the inclination to play and to experiment; to connect and compare new information with other things she has learned or thought she knew; to ask the big questions that emerge from curiosity and interest: Why?/What If?/How?

I can’t think of a better way to begin that process of playful questioning than to experience how writers play with language, how they pick up and examine common words (like colors) and ideas like the seasons we have all experienced in order to arrive at fresh ideas about things that we thought were so familiar.

On Seeing Slowly — What the Children’s Poetry Taught Me This Year

The year ended. I packed up my room for a move to fifth grade and am just now back from a trip to Chile (more about that later). Finally, after all of that I have a bit of time to think back on the end of the school year and to celebrate some awesome poetry that the kids wrote this year.

I was impressed with the level of observation that the children brought to their poetry writing. For instance, these poems came from a photo prompt (taken from the National Geographic photo archive) that captured a lightning strike on the prairie.



And J’s:



What impressed me about these poems was not just the way the children tried to capture the dramatic image of the lightning, but the way they tried to work that image into something larger (a mood or feeling) that the image helped to generate. G’s poem became a meditation, using repetition and a really cool comparative device that I don’t have a name for (“Vikings say…”, “Greeks say…”, “But I say…”) I was struck by how contemplative and quiet G’s poem was.

J’s poem, on the other hand, dropped the reader right into the drama of the photograph through superb word choice and the use of personification. (I really do love her imagination. Wow. She’s a good poet already at just ten years old.)

Other poems emerged from a couple of trips we took to the creek that runs behind our school. Sure the creek is controlled and channeled (as is too much of school, frankly), but we practiced watching and waiting and noticing all of the small creatures that seem to disrupt even the most controlled environment — spiders and ants, violets and bladder campion, minnows, scuds, and water striders. Heck, some kids even found the rolling, roiling movement of the sediment carried by the current, and the play of the sun off the water’s surface sufficiently inspiring to write about!

There’s a poem here, even in the darkness of that culvert.

L’s poems lingered, floating on the current…



…to places far beyond our backyard. (Did knowing that the Japanese poet Issa wrote over 250 poems about frogs — and about 150 about dragonflies — help L. write at least two about the creek’s current?)


E.’s imaginary encounter — deer and wolf — happened during a moment of reverie near the creek.


I was interested to see poems come from books we had read. Another of E’s poems, Dark, came at least in part from our read aloud, The Dark, by Lemony Snickett. Snickett’s personification of Darkness captured E’s imagination. But E. did the rest, building tension by varying his line breaks and choosing words to heighten the drama for the encounter between Darkness and Light.


Other poems came from objects the children and I brought in to school. A robin’s egg that I found on the path in the woods behind our house became inspiration for J’s haiku, which nailed the “twist” that haiku poets like to put in their poems.


Still others found in poetry a way to connect with their funny side. A’s dry sense of humor shines through in this pet store poem that uses questions, repetition, and the blank spaces between thoughts to communicate ideas beyond the words on the paper.


Or J, again, with her love of cats. I love that last line (“fierce master of stripes”) and the first image, too. That “needle in a haystack” image came from her knowing that tiger stripes allow for good sneaking in tall grass.


So, what worked this year? I haven’t always gotten such good poems.

First, and mostly, the kids seemed open to the task. Maybe that’s because, at fourth grade, they are a bit older than I’m used to teaching. Surely that extra part of a year helped them experience how language has literal and figurative components.

Second, I resisted giving the children “forms” to write from. In the past as the children begin to bog down in their poetry writing, I would offer them mentor texts that have more of a formula for how to write a poem of that kind (for instance, W.C. William’s “This is just to say…”) or I would send them to some websites that offer a chance to write poems in a certain form for the kids to print them out. However, this year the only form I gave them was haiku (and that wasn’t really much of a form since I didn’t insist they follow a 5-7-5 format) and a lot of poems by authors like Valerie Worth, Joyce Sidman, and Laura Purdie Salas. I chose these poems because they looked at common ordinary things in ways that transformed them into the extraordinary.

Third, I spent the better part of March writing poems of my own using Ted Kooser’s Winter Morning Walks and Tom Hennen’s Darkness Sticks to Everything as mentors. My goal was to pick an image a day, describe it, and see where the image brought me. I like Kooser’s and Hennen’s poetry because they are image based. Yet they use that deceivingly simple image as a window into something deeper, perhaps grander. Of course, I read the children selected poems of mine, including ones that I posted on this teacher blog. Some of my courage to resist giving the children formulaic poetry this year came directly from my experience writing from images myself. I knew they could push through to something interesting because, well, I had done that earlier.

Finally, throughout the year I tried to develop an awareness in the children of what the phrase “seeing slowly” might mean. Early in the year we developed a model for how we learn; noticing and thinking were central to that model. When it came time to write poetry, we already had a good sense of what it might look and feel like to slow down a bit and notice the world around us. We had practiced it in our reading, our writing, our talking and our listening. Maybe that attention to paying attention had something to do with the poetry that emerged at the end of the year.

I am happy that summer is here so I have a bit more time to think and write and just be in this big ol’ world. But when school starts up again, I will try to take what I learned about poetry and seeing and slowing down as I begin a new year in fifth grade next year.

Poetry: Natural Selection

Aloe polyphylla Schönland ex Pillans
Photo Credit: brewbooks via Compfight

I’ve been packing my classroom for a move to fifth grade next year. That means a change in buildings and leaving the colleagues that I have worked with for the last 9 years. True, in a small school district like ours, we’ll still see each other, but this will be a change.

And as school has let out, I’ve had some delightful outdoor work to get the home place ready for summer. Weeding, digging, scything, planting, pruning, trimming are all about bringing plants under some kind of control, which they are not inclined to do on their own.

Both moving and my outdoor work made me think about my attempt to control and alter the world around me, to strive for (impose?) my order and my design. Which brought me to this poem.

Natural Selection

What is a weed?
you ask. Which is
a good question to pose
as you sort plants
in the garden. For instance,
this flaxen flower
brimming with beetles
amongst the beans?
Or this oak seedling
whose earnest taproot
has pierced its bronzed shell
to dive deep into the earth.
It would outlast you
by many lifetimes,
would over the years
transform the strawberries
into a forest. Is a weed
simply something you pull now
while you still have a chance?

Steve Peterson, 2014