What I See in Children’s Writing

FROM THE ARCHIVE


Jack Collom

From: Teachers & Writers Magazine
(1982, Vol. 14, No. 2)

Download: What I See in Children’s Writing

Jack Collom worked in the T&W program. He is the recipient of a grant in Poetry from the National Endowment for the Arts Literature Program. His most recent collection is The Fox (United Artists Books). 

Jack Collom spent twelve days in January and February, 1982, as poet-in-residence at St. Jude Catholic School, in northern Manhattan, under the aegis of Poets in the Schools. He conducted poetry workshops with eight classes of 5th-8th-graders six times each. Most of the kids were of Hispanic background. He has chosen the poetry they wrote as examples of what he finds remarkable about children’s poetry.

I have never worked a day in a school without getting excited about some of the things the kids wrote. Generally speaking, though, their poetry shows little sustained versification skill, precision of thought, conscious subtlety or breadth of metaphoric reference. Lacking these possibilities for involvement (or distraction), the mind turns to and focuses on the tiny “moves” from word to word, musical, imagistic, ideational. The effect is a back-to-basics concentration that seems refreshingly simple and aesthetically solid.

Children tend to write works that contain wonderful flashes of poetry. They show little appetite for revision and their writings are often lifelessly conventional or generalized. But they, being youthful, are “naturals.” The descriptive word most often applied to children’s art is “fresh.” What does this mean? I think it chiefly means that, in lacking a sophisticated adult context of moral or other philosophical acceptability into which impressions must fit, the child is likely to get simple, direct, sensory takes on phenomena, and find words to match. The verbal juxtapositions may thereby be full of surprises. However significant the elaborate adult skills are in poetry, and this is not to deny that significance, the spirit, the vivifying spark, remains surprise, which is proof of accuracy to the moment, of originality.

The first day’s writing in my workshops is usually in the form of “I Remember” poems. Each “line” of the poem begins with the words “I remember.” The students are encouraged to write in the terms of ordinary talk and relate personal memories, using details. The matter of details needs a lot of pushing, since kids, though having the fresh eye, are beginning to order their world, often lack faith in the personal fact and will produce unedifying essences like “I remember going to the movies with my friend” (end of memory). Lively examples are best for urging detail.

I remember when I was in 3rd grade and my best friend liked the same guy until we found out he was making love letters to Nancy Grand. l remember when my best friend and I gave the biggest Halloween party ever and he left Nancy so he could get some soda. My friend was dressed as a man so she asked Nancy for a dance. Nancy was so romanced dancing she did not know she was on the edge of the swimming pool. As she fell she cried out, saying, “Oh you rude gentle man!”
Eyerilis Fernandez, 5th grade

In “making” love letters, the oddity forces a fresh look at the word and at what is done to produce a love letter. “Making” love letters seems a solider venture than “sending” or even “writing” them, thus a greater challenge to the frustrated girl duo. The speed and economy of statement make the introduction of the third girl, Nancy, coming right after the second girl, a socko expansion. “Biggest… ever” by its exaggeration casts the event into the archetype­ familiarity of myth or fairy tale. “Romanced dancing” is both odd and concise and adds the musical focus of rhyme. “As she fell” skips over the push, but we know it more quickly than if we had been told. There is a formal, poker-­faced tone (effective by contrast with the content), as in “As she fell she cried out, saying, ‘Oh you rude gentle man’!” charms by its oddness, intensifies the slight fairy-tale flavor, illuminates the paradox in the “man’s” both dancing and dousing. (Throughout this article, I recommend reading the piece a second time after reading the comments.)

I remember going to the store with my uncle and I got shot.
I remember going to school and they mugged me.
I remember going to the movies and a monster tried to eat me.
I remember going home and my mother was not there.
I remember going to my friend’s house and he would not let me play.
l remember going to the park with my friends and one of them hit me in the head with a ball.
I remember making new friends and one of them hit me with a spitball.
I remember watching TV and it broke on me because I kicked it.
Danny Santiago, 5th grade

Memory coughs up, typically, catastrophe, more easily believable and interesting, even to oneself, than blessedness, less vulnerable to have expressed. There’s a shift of reality level from “shot” and “mugged” to the monster line, and that shift retroactively changes the light in which we take the first two lines, introduces playfulness. Also, the abruptness, lack of transitional devices, lets the change simply be there, in a quasi-physical way. Adults often lose poetry via attempts at palatability of shift. The understatement, then, of “mother was not home,” the lack of ornament, shows that mere absence can be as disastrous as violent attacks are. Then the piece goes off into a humorous accumulation of futility, with a mea culpa bow at the end. A shapely, funny (but not whimsical) confession.

I remember when there was a fire in my building. I went to school. Everyone asked me what happened. I was so happy.
Gilma Alvarez, 5th grade

An adult would not, generally, admit so clearly that the happiness of getting attention could supplant the fear proper to a building fire. And simplicity makes it stand out.

I remember the day I had to go away down to the lake.
I remember the water was light like the sunlight. In the early morning.
Oyelino Genao, 5th grade

“In the early morning.” If this sentence fragment were written by an adult, I would think it a derivative attempt at poetic tone. But because I trust a kid, this kid, not to have mixed that much in literary style, I’m brought back to the thing expressed, a key slant on the identity of water and light, in lake dawn. I am struck with a positive response to ignorance, but the “ignorance” is a transparency for pure observation.

I remember when it was snowing, all of that snow comes from the blue sky and ends up on the street.
Cynthia Gomez, 6th grade

The child’s touch, syntactically, is the use of the term “blue sky” (not just “sky”). The presence of “blue” makes the color (white) of the snow implicit, which in turn brings out the complicated color and all of the street. Which in turn, by contrast, opens thoughts of what whiteness “means.” All because “blue” was spoken.

I remember when I locked myself in the bathroom in the dark. The darkness came over me like a monster and swept my feet with fear.
David Kalicharan, 6th grade

“Swept my feet.” A perfect kid’s-observation. That the feet were chosen makes the monstrousness more inclusive (head to foot), but the verb “swept” is the crux, one of those applications never seen before but instantly recognizable (language thereby extended).

l remember when a car hit me and I jumped up into the hot air.
James Gausp, 6th grade

“Hot” makes the car-reality emerge. With the presence of temperature, the car is no longer merely a hitting thing. The air heat, being sensory, reminds us of the car’s heat, motor, smells, dirt, metal, gas.

Writing about common things (hand, egg, hair, street, floor, rock, etc.) helps maintain and express the sense that in the overlooked daily minutiae reside endless energies for us.

NYC Street
Cars honking people talking all the
stores open big crowds in the stores
drop your 20-dollar package does any­
body care no nobody they all just
step on it they don’t look where
they’re going just want to get home!
Juan Martinez, 7th grade

Lack of punctuation (common with kids) in this case creates an unbroken rush appropriate to the New York street, and in many cases tends to promote the everything- flows sense much poetry seeks to uncover.

By the way hair comes out in the morning, it describes the experience you could have had during the night.
Priscila Leon, 8th grade

A good idea, a possible “branch” of phrenology for the software psychics of the day. “Come out” is the perfect verb form, with its dual meanings of emerge and result, and “could have had” seems to hint at dream, without denying the chance of “real” adventure.

New York can be colorful when thunder and lightning are splashing through the dark skies…
Maria Villacis, 8th grade

Most adults would not be loose enough to apply “splashing” to thunder too, but it gives the dimension- sound and light­ that raises images, even questions, rather than wrapping them up.

The egg amazes me, its
oval shape is so soothing…
Jorge Gezao. 6th grade

That soothing is amazing amazes me, and that oval shape is soothing soothes me.

A nose is like a hole in the wall.
But that’s not all. It falls between
your mouth and your eyes,
but when it falls it snores.
Jose Rodriguez, 7th grade

Children love rhyme. Adults love rhyme. Many in the poetry workshop business have scorned rhyme because we know more subtly expressive alternatives, and because we know kids do abuse rhyme, let it take over and thus blot out everything else (and because we’ve been following our own historic rebellion), but rhyme is great; it does give a simple power, often funny by the nature of sound (extreme emphases). It makes solid connections. Also, kids often use rhyme in scattered ways, thus not committing the inaccuracy of over-regularizing life’s energies. In this poem, the double use of “falls” is very quick.

The acrostic is an admirable form for student use. There’s only one letter of requirement per line, which gives enough to go on (kids are often at sea without something leading on) but doesn’t over-dictate. The form’s lightness tends to stimulate surreal juxtapositions and other originalities. Also, the requirement comes at the line beginning (not at the end as with rhyme), so once the letter is worded the rhythm is free. Acrostics encourage interesting line breaks, show the kids that lines are not just sentences, or thoughts, but also sound units and fragmentation devices. The form abets the development of subtle, surprising, “off” connections between the spine word and the text, as well as the economy of lists and near lists (elimination of connectives).

Again
Left alone.
Offended by others.
No one cares when my love
Escapes and comes to an end.
Martha Perez, 8th grade

“Escapes” is an “off” usage hinting that even benevolent love may be a prison of sorts. That to be left alone “offends” is similarly interesting.

Running in circles
Of love and passion,
Brainless.
Everything is
Really happening because I am
Thinking of you.
Robert Marte, 8th grade

A spirited love solipsism.

Under the artificial me which
No one really knows, I try to
Deliver the message that I hope
Everyone will see. What is
Right or wrong, I am
Starting to find out.
Trying to know which one I should do.
Although I am confused and
No one is listening and I am almost near
Death,
I’m trying to
Nervously tell
God to fill me with understanding.
Jane Martinez, 8th grade

This elaborate, sincere poem has, perhaps by luck, an appropriate confusion that balances the nervous rhythm (mostly via line breaks) to express a mental process shaking along towards the goal of understanding.

Closed is
Like blocking
Off
Something that might be
Excellent, or maybe it’s just a plain
Door.
Jose Garcia, 6th grade

Line length here delineates a shapely double shutting- the slow “Off” prefiguring the final “door.”

Period
Pacing every sentence,
Erasing every meaning,
Riding always at end,
In and out of things;
Outstanding point never
Dies.
Richard Suarez, 6th grade

“Pacing,” ”Erasing,” “In and out and “never/ Dies” bring up a complexity of questions about the effects and nature of a period it would take books of philosophy to close again.

Climbing a mountain and
Reaching the top seems to
Open the gates of the
Sun rising and
Shining over me.
Joyce Walters. 5th grade

The relationship of “Cross” to the lines is original but immediately clear- the religious spirit calling out the light.

Every
Day is like a
Dream from
Yesterday.
Eddy Almonte, 7th grade

Complete daily prophetic fulfillment in one’s given name. Also the musical resonance of “Every day /Yesterday,” “Day/Dream” and the name “Eddy.”

Crying
Roses
Every moment
Every day
Pretending I like it.
Maribel Cairo. 7th grade

A fresh and perfect rendition of the Ugly Duckling situation.

Pisces
ls my
Sign
Cool
Every time. Can’t
Stop thinking why I’m so fine.
Ana Grullon, 7th grade

A charming boast. Interesting vowel progression, with an I in every line but one.

Bouncing
Along
Like the ground was just there to
Let it spring back into the air.
Juan Martinez, 7th grade

Neat. Check the rhythm, which is ball-like (as the bounces get shorter).

Fire is an
Incredible friend
Ready to turn into an incredible
Enemy
Santiago Negron, 6th grade

Rhythmically shows the turn.

Math is
An interesting subject.
To me it is a
Hymn of numbers.
Carmen Alvarez, 6th grade

The last line a beautiful epiphany.

Open your mind to the
Universe and
Run back home and get your lunch.
Juan Lugo, 7th grade

A perfect deflation of overly expansive language.

There are very few collaborations in the following samples. In other connections, however, I’ve found this cluster of forms to be extremely rich, especially as training. Due to the compositional trade-off, the burden of intentionality is lifted. Instead of a point to make, the work’s main thrust becomes a common language to speak. The gap left by purpose tends to be filled with association and response. Focus on syntax as play (a big attitudinal step toward mastery) is encouraged by fragmentation of story and sense.

l have seen
the tree on the corner
in a spring bud
and summer green
yesterday
it was yellow gold
then a cold wind began to blow
now l know you really don’t see a tree
until you don’t see its bones.
Tamara D. & Yvonne Luna. 7th grade

Here the “moves” resemble those of a contemporary poem, adult. “Seen” is echoed in “tree…corner.” “Corner” expresses a vulnerability of position. “In a spring bud”-a natural prophecy. “Summer green”-sound of “seen” again, also a seasonal progression. “Yesterday” is sensible and rhythmic. “Yellow gold” among the spare lines is a striking extravagance, appropriate redundancy. The last two lines leaf out even more and serve a perfect summing-up thought, with sound unsullied.

flea
flea fly flow
vista
commala commala commala vista
na, na, na, na, na, na a vista
she’s eni meine epo meine who wa
awa who mcine
shana meine epo meinc oh wa awa
he’s bip billy epo an tope sho
wa awa
awa ani shhhh.
Sandy Arthurton & Jodi White. 9th grade

Original experimentation with sound. The burden of sole authorship being removed, the two had the nerve to play with the poem.

The Moon-It’s a Busy Place
Stars walking all over.
Working hard to shine,
Who still after years get very little
pay. But they get a day off to watch
Their favorite program the Jetsons
and afterwards go out to light and
play with their pals, but all of a
sudden bang boom pop poop a little
star with her star-pox who got sick
and wants to find out from what,
so she goes to the doctor and finds out
she’s allergic to the moon.
Estella Pando & Maritza Rodrigues, 7th grade

Astral anthropomorphism, a little goofy charm.

The “lune” (adapted from a form of the same name by poet Robert Kelly) is a simplification of formal haiku. Instead of counting syllables, in which act many kids might become overly concerned with the mere mechanics, one counts words: 3/ 5/ 3. With lots of good examples given and discussed, the students do abundantly demonstrate a fine apprehension of the power of tiny, non-expositional, word-by­word effects, plus the necessity of balanced rhythm, which looms large in a short piece. Thus there’s a push toward the knowledge that ideas do not exist without their expressive articulations; and the importance of language “per se” is brought home.

When the sun’s
rays hit the shades, it
lights up lines.

This piece (dashed off by a Nebraska 5th-grader years ago) excellently illustrates the possibility of poetry being plain talk of the immediate environment (sun striking venetian blinds on classroom window). It is also a deceptively complex maze of sound correspondences and play: simple rhythms in lines 1 and 3 contrasting with syncopation of line 2 (differing syllable lengths, comma pause, consonantal percussion), n’s around soft “the” in line 1 forming a sound­swing, “ray-shades” assonance and “hit-it” rhyme, soft central “the” repeated, five terminal s’s, “lights-lines,” “sun’s-up,” n again in “lines,” t in “lights”- until “lights up lines” carries more import than the physical window pattern alone. I advise students that the author probably didn’t calculate all this but that a careful, though nonspecific, concentration can let the musical phrases come.

In trains people
are like crazy because they
push to fit.
Richard Gard, 5th grade

Idea-concisely crushed. And that it is crazy to “push to fit” is an idea with benevolent social repercussions.

Sky is light.
Sun will fill the air.
You will see.
Monica Grief, 5th grade

Double meaning (see and understand) of last line covers the matter, eye to brain. Plenty of scope in a tiny poem.

Peo, Peo, Peo.
The bird in the window
is very hungry.
Naomi Rodriguez, 6th grade

To me, “Peo” makes hunger immediate and religious.

ln every snowflake
there is a beautiful village
waiting for you.
Anelsa Lugo. 6th grade

A lovely thought, not too original (perhaps influenced by children’s Iiterature).

Black is dark,
red and yellow very bright.
Purple is both.
Brenda Tavarez. 6th grade

 Perfect economy in an original classification of colors.

To give students an unknown word to define playfully allows them obvious free imaginative rein and a chance to imitate a style (the dictionary). Nothing else to do, so play will out. Then, having begun so, upon being asked to make poems out of these images, they’re likely to expand the sense of pure image play.

Mosaic:
a brass instrument or a 2-legged animal or a Chinese calendar or a French word or a drop of blood.
a pair of moccasins, a new traffic sign, children from another planet.
a married boy, a crazy cloud.
something made of horses’ legs.
a person’s name that comes from the sky and glows in the dark.

The person is a cloud that glows in the dark. It comes from the sky and sings through the night. Every night I hear the tone, it sounds so beautiful that I sing with that person. Then that person comes out from the sky and starts singing the song once more. Then I knew who the person was, but she’s beautiful. She told me her name and it was Mosaic. Then she sang a song about her name.
Sandra Santiago. 5th grade

Praline:
a duck with a burned leg.
a bag of dirty tricks.
a line of peas.
a beautiful flower with the scent of Death.
a mouse that sucks blood.
a soft road with cushions to sleep on, or maybe a tent.
a pair of blue pants.
the planet of
the peas came on TV.
the green takeover.
Daniel Constant. 6th grade

I don’t wish to dwell on haiku here, but one of the chief effects in such compression may be a stunning time-warp, as in:

Snow on a bare tree,
suddenly sunshine comes through.
Pop! The leaves come out.
Maribelle Suarez, 7th grade

You don’t have to make
your bed. because sooner or
later you’ll be dead.
Marc Santiago, 7th grade

One of the great areas of possible expression which are at least as poignantly available to children’s sensibilities as to adults’ is that of place. Kids are, by nature of their special need to define themselves, especially keen in getting takes on their surroundings, and are also likely to be open, without prejudice, to the local facts. Generally, kids need only be pushed in the direction of details to uncover a vivid, individuated articulation about the places they know.

Feeling low and
Feeling down,
I go to the special place.
I quietly sit, forcing myself to stay.
I was out, now I’m back.
Now I want to play.
But my fingers won’t bring forth a melody.
I try to imagine myself far away
from what is reality.
I’m sitting in a little corner of the room.
It’s small and it’s ordinary.
But it’s my special place.
Because it’s the only place that I can
Run away with my mind.
Sitting very still,
Only my fingers doing the moving.
I concentrate very hard.
And suddenly I’m not there anymore.
I’m in my imaginary world, completely gone.
The only trace of me that’s left in
My little corner of the room
Is the melody that my hands bring
Forth, from the magic box in front of me.
Jane Martinez, 8th grade

This place in Dominican Republic is in the country. There is no electricity but there is a feeling of necessity to talk in the dark. We make jokes and riddles but then there’s sleepiness and people start to leave. We are all in what you might call a shack but there’s no doors, just logs, which hold the shack up, and the roof is all of tree palms. Now it’s very dark, we put one candle in the middle of the shack and then the candle goes off because of the breeze. So then we wait and then moonlight comes from the sky of the night. And the moonlight gives light to the outside of the shack, which is good; when we go we can see where we are going. It sometimes gets spooky and I get nervous but the stories, jokes and riddles calm me down. After that I sleep on the rocking chair.
Rafael Torres, 8th grade

Innocence- of literary conventions, of a matured scheme of thought, of regular English usage- in children allows certain brightnesses to come through that tend to pass less freely into the poems of adults. Relative innocence of grammar and syntax leaves room for oddities of expression to emerge and force, in the reader/hearer, fresh looks at the words or combinations used. Innocence of philosophy (except the most obvious generalities) allows original and concrete juxtapositions of idea. The concreteness, the dominance of sense data, leads to speed, concision, sudden leaps and shifts, and playfulness of association, qualities that seem to resemble the momentary workings of the mind. Innocence of literariness encourages unembellished, “natural” speech patterns, with their history-honed rhythms, economy and fitness of emphasis. Innocence makes possible an ease of communication with the moment. Children’s works sometimes have a clear documentary authenticity of the immediate authorial awareness.

These qualities, resulting from lack of sophistication, as I take it, are valuable. In adults’ poetry, violations of English standards are commonly allowed, even encouraged, as artistic experimentation, and then judged on how they seem to work. Children may be similarly abetted in their originalities. (I often wonder how many striking images or phrasings are thought of only to be crossed out or even unwritten as “stupid,” or as risking disapproval, and lost to us all.) We understand the necessity of “the child in the poet,” so why not create similar room for the poet in the child without harming educational discipline? In fact, the child who takes to poetry experimentally will certainly develop a love of language leading to increased mastery of standards as well as to an artistic sense. If the initiation into making

poems is led with an appreciation for untrammeled, even jarring, verbal energies, with teacherly suggestions formally poised between too much and too little, the poetic impetus may then exist, in the first place, and then can move toward exactitude as work goes on. It’s important not only to praise the successes written but also to point out just how they seem to succeed, because technical details, especially when put in physical terms, can be both absorbing and reassuring to children.

In any case, the seeing and judging of children’s poetry should proceed case-by-case as, on whatever level, the best of it is made.


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