Demystifying Poetry

Editor’s Note:On June 22nd 2010 the poets of No Choice but to Follow gave a reading at PunahouSchool after which each poet led a workshop for different aged students ranging from those about to enter the sixth grade to those going into the twelfth grade. Linked poetry was described as “Poetry Tag,” because students were encouraged to lock onto someone else’s poem to write their own. Each poet followed her own plan and process. This is Jean Toyama‘s experience.

Bamboo Ridge’s recent partnership with the Hawaiʻi Council for the Humanities pushed me to think again about the workshop we No Choice but to Follow poets held at Punahou. Writing—writing poetry in particular—is often thought of as a “language arts” thing as opposed to a “humanities” thing. Yes, I agree, this is a silly way to divide learning. After all, when we write, aren’t we most often writing about what makes us human? Our desire for connections (culture, history, anthropology, etc.), our search for what is right (philosophy, religion, law, etc.), our need for expression (communication, the arts, etc.) constitute the stuff of our lives.

In discussing this experience, my sister, Bette, pointed out that the classroom reflected not only the product of renshi, linked poems, but also its spirit, collaboration. For her, the most amazing thing about No Choice but to Follow is that it is the result of strangers who got together for one year and found connections through words. She hit on something that I had not really thought about, collaboration in the classroom. This is most appropriate, since renshi is also called collaborative poetry.

I was lucky because the teacher of the class, Chase Mitsuda, had already built class solidarity and the students were more than willing to help and encourage each other.

I was also lucky in choosing Langston Hughes’ short poem “Ennui” that led the 6th graders to think about serious issues like poverty:


It’s such a
Being always

You’ll see below what some students did with this idea by expanding on it. On the other end of the economic scale, Mattie Stepanek’s poem, “About Wealth” led some students to considerations about war and peace, ecology.

About Wealth

The richest
Person is the one
Who is
With all
The earth.

But I’m getting ahead of my story.

In my remarks at the reading, I wanted to make linked poetry appealing, so I called it “poetry tag” like other “tag” games. My purpose was to demystify the writing of poetry.

Having taught poetry to university students, I’ve learned that many dislike it because they fear it. “It’s so hard to understand,” the students have said. Given this experience, I approached this poetry workshop (I have never taught poetry writing) with an exercise to dispel that fear, to instill relaxation (fun).

I prepared a handout of some Langston Hughes’ short, short memorable poems that are easy to understand. I wanted to let the students see that poems need not be long or complicated. I also included some poems by Mattie Stepenak who started writing at the age of four and died when he was thirteen, just to let them know there is no age requirement for writing poems. (Oprah made him famous.) These were students going from fifth to sixth grade.

We read the poems together and tried to identify “why they are poems.” Students were given 10-15 minutes to link to one of the poems; that is, one of the lines in red. (The handout is available at the "Teachers’ Corner Handout".) Many students chose the last line of Stepenak’s “About Wealth” which ends with the line “the earth.” In the first class everyone wrote a poem and read it. One student who said that he hated poetry (unfortunately, I had used that word in trying to dispel the fear) came out with quite original lines. And as I said, everyone wrote something. Since Chase had already built class solidarity (after only one day) by having them shout out encouragement to each other with a “Hey!”,the energy level was high. Very cute. It was wonderful to see them all alert and interested.

Having never taught this age group, I didn’t know what to expect. When I saw the completed poems on the Art of Writing website, I was amazed. Every student was engaged, giving voice to their feelings.

If you go to the website, you will see that every poem has merit. This is what Chase emphasized during class, there is no right way, no wrong way, just your way.


I was very impressed by the content of the poems. These young people show that they are reflecting on the very issues that we adults are thinking about: poverty, ecology, personal issues. Moreover, they say what they think with a refreshing directness. You could say, if you needed to say it, that here is the “humanities content.”

I’ve chosen a few poems here because of the strength of the sentiment, the humor, the language or the different approach. (See my comments below.) It was hard to choose. On another day I might have chosen differently.

These poems use Hughes’: Poor


Being poor is painful
you are always waiting for someone merciful
you have nothing
no bed
no house
no food
no water
you sit on the street everyday
waiting for something that is
good to you.

The writer here gives substance to the “nothing” by being specific. No bed, house, food, water. The repetition of “no” emphasizes the idea of lack and creates a rhythm of two stresses, making the idea emphatic. The use of the second person, places the sense of poverty within the psyche of the reader.


Being poor sucks!
It is such a bore
To be poor.
I would like to make some bucks
and not be poor anymore.

You can feel the determination of the voice and the humor in the rhyme of “sucks” and “bucks”. The writer almost repeats Hughes’ poem “It’s such a bore/being always poor,” but varies it with his own version of the line. The “it is” and the “to be” change Hughes’ rhythm, making the line less fluid, more emphatic.


Having no friends
makes your life bend
out of place.

“bend out of place” makes visible the feeling of not having friends. It probably makes allusion to the expression, “bent out of shape,” combined with “feeling out of place.” You know how he feels without friends.

This one uses Stepanek’s: Just so much to do . . .

Just so much to do
But I don’t want to do it.
And I have to get to it
Anxiety and laziness fighting.
What to do what to do.
Too much to do
Frustration drives me crazy.
There’s soccer and swimming.
Clubs and golf.
More and more pile up.
Just so much to do.

The second line, “But I don’t want to do it” reverses our expectations. We see a will that’s overwhelmed. Then the reversal continues, “And I have to get to it.” The back and forth, the psychic fight, are felt through the repetition of “to do” along with the “do it” and “to it.” The internal rhymes intensify the feeling of anxiety and frustration. It all piles up. Here is a solid understanding of the conflicts of modern life, frustration, anxiety, laziness.

These use Stepenak’s: The earth.

The Earth without Money

No money, more trees
No money, no war
No money, no fighting
No money, more peace…

So why do we have money,
When we can have all that?

So succinct! Such simple symmetry! The logic here is clear and direct with no mincing of words. What a great discussion on values. It makes you think.

The Earth

I’m melting
Help me
Stop the cars
Stop the buses
Stop everything that melts me
Ride on bicycle[s] instead of motorbikes
Just walk
I need help

The Earth

I am the Earth I need help, help me help me
help me I’m dying help me help me help me,
I’m burning help me help me I am the earth

Both these poems let the earth speak; we feel the urgency of the pleas. All three poems use repetition to great effect. In the second, the strength of the sentiment comes in the succinct “stop the cars/stop the buses; stop” There is no flabbiness here. The last poem begins and ends with “I am the Earth” and the cry, “help me…I’m dying…I’m burning” in between. The symmetry and the repetition make it easy to remember. These students are very aware of present and future issues of ecology and life styles.


JEAN YAMASAKI TOYAMA is a poet, scholar, translator, and writer of fiction. She is emerita professor of French at the University of Hawaiʻi at Manoa, where she taught and was associate dean of the College of Languages, Linguistics, and Literature. She lives in Hawaiʻi where she was born and raised.

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