by Allison Marchetti
In her poem “A Valentine for Ernest Mann,” Naomi Shihab Nye posits that “if we re-invent whatever our lives give us / we find poems.”
Gary Whited does just that in his poem “My Blue Shirt” about an ordinary garment whose wrinkles, scent, and fabric offer lessons to its wearer about life.
As a teacher, I love this poem for its ability to help students mine the commonplace stuff of their lives for beauty, and also for its ability to help students create metaphors in their writing. Here’s a series of steps to helping students write powerful metaphors:
- First draft reading: Read the poem out loud so students have a sense of what it’s about.
- In their notebooks, invite students to sketch the blue shirt in the poem, using the details in the poem to flesh out their drawing. Students should capture the wrinkles, the buttons, and any other details they notice.
- Second draft reading: Invite students to read the poem like a writer, marking how the poem was put together, and any craft moves they notice (see picture of student work).
Ask students to pay special attention to figurative language and how the writer crafts the metaphor at the end. Discuss what they notice as a class.
- For homework, ask students to choose an ordinary-but-interesting object (the boots in their closet, the misplaced fork in the pencil drawer, the white coffee cup with the chipped edge), and to describe the object in list form.
- The next day in class, have students share their description lists with one another. In pairs, students can highlight the details that have the potential to also describe a person. For instance, Gary Whited uses the phrase “unbuttoned” to describe the blue shirt; this is also a word that could describe a person who is not afraid to be vulnerable.
- Finally have students use their planning to craft a poem that imitates Whited’s as closely as possible (see student work below).
Allison Marchetti teaches high school English in Richmond, VA and is the co-author of Writing with Mentors (Heinemann, 2015), Whole-Hearted Analysis (Heinemann, Spring 2018), and the blog movingwriters.org.