Saturday, April 7, 2018

2018 Post #24 -- Line by Line

by Allison Marchetti

There are poems that resonate deeply, and then there are poems that literally take the breath inside of us away. One such poem is “The Portrait” by Stanley Kunitz, about a mother who cannot bring herself to talk to her son about his dead father.

One thing that gives this poem its emotional power is the line breaks. Take, first instance, the first line:

My mother never forgave my father

The enjambed line begs the question, for what? For leaving her? Infidelity? Money problems?

The first time I ever read this poem (in high school) I could almost feel my heart stop when I came to the second line:

for killing himself.

When I first introduce my students to this poem, I let them know that it explores very emotionally sensitive material, and I give them the option to leave the room during our examination of it. Then I turn off the lights and let the poem “play,” -- that is, I run a PowerPoint into which I’ve typed up the poem, one line per slide. I put a timer on so each slide advances after 2 to 3 seconds. The poem unfolds slowly and painfully, and the surprise that originally registers on my students’ faces turns to horror.

The students are eager and shy to discuss this poem. We start with something technical -- the line breaks -- to ease our way in. What is the effect of breaking the first line after the word “father”? What is the significance of ending lines on words like “spring” and “born”? How do the line breaks in lines three through six affect the story? What else do you notice about the line breaks?

To expand this idea into a writer's workshop lesson, invite students to work in their notebooks. We write new lines or borrow old ones and play around with enjambment to create lines that shock or surprise.

Students love to type up their lines, print them, cut them up and arrange them in different ways on their desks. They use their phones to snap photos of the different stanzas and read them aloud to each other for feedback.

I love watching their faces light up and shift and change as they listen to the different versions of one another’s poems.

Further Reading:

Allison Marchetti is coauthor—with Rebekah O'Dell—of Writing with Mentors and Beyond Literary Analysis. Their popular blog Moving Writers focuses on writing instruction in middle and high school classrooms with an emphasis on voice and authenticity.

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