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Calling on the Muse: Exercises to Unlock the Poet Within

I think that I shall never see ... well-disciplined creativity! How often has that thought crossed your mind? Don't despair! The experts -- working poets who teach their craft -- share their secrets for instructing and inspiring budding poets. Included: Exercises to help students access their creative powers and produce well-crafted poems.

Teaching poetry can be a tricky business. Concentrating too much on the theoretical aspects of poetry, such as rhyme scheme, scansion, feet per line, and poetic form can stifle students' creativity. Turning students loose with only pen, paper, and instructions to write a poem, on the other hand, can result in undisciplined drivel. Helping students achieve that delicate balance of theory and creativity is never easy.

Give the following techniques and exercises a try. Working poets use them to teach and inspire students of all ages.


"When we go into schools, our focus is to get the students to write, not to teach the theory of poetry," said Faith Vicinanza. She is the organizing force behind Words in Motion, a collective of poets who perform and teach in schools and other venues. "We want them to put something down on paper, something significant.

"Through the years, I've developed a whole set of exercises designed specifically to get students writing from a particular place," Vicinanza added. "A lot of teaching of poetry makes it seem much too difficult, too inaccessible for the lay person. But writing poetry is a simple form of self-expression. That's what I try to convey in my classes."

Vicinanza shared with Education World four exercises she has used successfully in workshops with both children and adults.

  • I'm sorry, but . . . "There's a wonderful poem by William Carlos Williams in which he apologizes for eating someone's plums," explained Vicinanza. "He ends the poem with 'but they were so sweet'. I have my students write a tongue-in-cheek apology. They're sorry for something, but at the end there's always a reason why they enjoyed doing what they're expressing sorrow for. An example of this is 'I'm sorry I broke your window, but it's the first time I ever hit a home run.'"
  • Be something else. "This is a very cool exercise," Vicinanza explained. "I have the kids be something. It might be a drop of rain, the color blue, a school bus, or a stalk of wheat. I ask the class for suggestions and write them on the board as the students shout them out. Then I ask each student to choose one. They have to be that object and tell me what they see, where they go, and how old they are. They can even make up a little biography of their object. This works very well."
  • Through the carnival door. "This exercise works better with high school kids or adults," noted Vicinanza. "I ask students to imagine they're at a carnival. They see a very strange-looking guy disappear into a doorway that somehow wasn't there a few seconds before. They follow the guy, and they have to tell me what happens once they're through the door. Where have they gone? What do they see? It's amazing what the students come up with."
  • The strike out exercise. "For this exercise, the students give me a list of suggestions for different subjects to write about. I pick one, and they all write on the same subject. For example, the subject could be wind chimes or a stone wall," Vicinanza said. "Then everyone gives me a word. We make a list of the words and the students have to write a poem that doesn't use any of the words on our list. This forces the students to be more creative."


Elizabeth Thomas, an accomplished performance poet who frequently conducts in-school workshops, is the director of Words Alive, a program that sponsors distinguished poets to work with high school students.

"When I go into schools, I try to get the students to think outside their normal boundaries," Thomas said of her approach to leading workshops. "In school, the students might be coming from math class, where they're not used to using the right side of their brains. As the poetry person for a day, I have to come up with creative ideas that help the students stretch their imaginations.

"If I tell the kids to simply write a poem, it's not going to happen. You have to find the fun in it," added Thomas, whose Web site, UpWords Poetry, often features student writings from her workshops.

One of the exercises Thomas has used successfully is the Emotional Workshop, in which she asks participants to write a five-line poem.

  • The first line of the poem involves an emotion: sadness, anger, confusion, hurt.
  • The second line describes the emotion as a color. For example, a student might describe anger as "red as a stop sign;" happiness might be "as pink as a puppy's tongue."
  • The third line starts with "It happens when . . .." For example, "Anger happens. . .when I'm told to get up in the morning." "Confusion happenswhen I have a test but don't do my homework."
  • The fourth line begins with "It sounds like . . .." For example, "Sadness sounds like. . .a kitten left out in the rain."
  • The last line of the poem repeats the original emotion.


It would be hard to find a poet with more teaching credentials than Pit Pinegar. A member of the Litchfield Performing Arts group, Poetry Alive, Pinegar teaches at the Greater Hartford Academy of Arts and is the teaching director at the International Women's Writers Guild Conference. She's published two books of her own poetry and will soon publish a book about teaching poetry to children. "In many of the exercises I use, I'm trying to get the kids to think in terms of poetry and not prose," Pinegar said. "The necessity of writing in complete, well-punctuated sentences is constantly drummed into the kids' heads. So, often they're not used to expressing themselves in abbreviated thoughts. I try to break down their resistance to that."

Pinegar uses two exercises to accomplish this:

  • Make a list. "I have a whole series of list-based poems, about 20 variations. In one of them, I choose six general, unrelated words from a list of suggestions the kids give me. Then I ask them to use all the words in a poem," explained Pinegar. "A variation of this is to choose one word from the list and build a poem around it."
  • Everything including the kitchen sink. "This is another exercise I often use," Pinegar added. "I ask the students to list all the details they can remember about a place that's very familiar to them. It might be their bedrooms, their classroom, or the kitchen sink. After they've made their lists, I ask the students to work them into poems."

These exercises and others, used in workshops led by accomplished teaching poets, are designed to help students access their creative powers and produce well-crafted poems. Any one of them can help get your students' creative juices flowing -- and help you create some poetry-writing exercises of your own.



Kristine O'Connell George Poet
Kristine O'Connell George offers poems for children as well as tips and exercises for teaching poetry.

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Article by David Martin
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