Delight Songs

This lesson is part of  Writing Our Way Through: clear, fun, and engaging “lessons” for writing at home with young people. 

Author/Teaching Artist: Matthew Burgess

Age Range: All ages

Materials: Paper and pencils/pens 

Overview

This is one of my favorite lessons to kick off a workshop because it is meditative, fun, and accessible to everyone. Even better, it provides a strong foundation for all writing exercises that follow because it emphasizes one of the essential elements of imaginative writing: the inclusion of specific, sensory details.

With younger kids, I call these “delicious details” and I often ask: “What do we add to our writing to make our writing more exciting?” (In booming unison, they reply: “DELICOUS DETAILS.”) With my college students, I emphasize specificity, vividness, and the power of the particular over the general. If this isn’t yet clear, read on and you’ll soon see what I mean. 

The Steps

1. When introducing a “mentor text,” which is the poem or prose passage that will serve as inspiration for the activity, I like to give a little bit of context. Before reading N. Scott Momaday’s “Delight Song of Tsoai-Talee” aloud, you can mention that he is a contemporary Native American poet who, at six months old, was given a special name from an elderly paternal relative. “Tsoai-talee” roughly translates to “Rock Tree Boy.

2. Depending on the mood in the room, I like to invite participants to close their eyes while I read the poem, and I preface it with the following instruction: Notice the way the lines of the poem create pictures or movies in the mind. The point is not to be solemn or overly serious, but to create a relaxed, peaceful mood that heightens our sensitivity and focus.

3. Read the poem aloud slowly, in a natural voice. When you finish the final line, pause to allow everyone to ‘return to the room’ slowly.

4. Ask one or more of the following questions: What did you notice? What lines stood out for you? Did any particular lines or details feel especially vivid? I recommend avoiding analysis or conversations about “meaning” for this lesson. We want to get creative soon, so it’s generally better not to activate the analytical mind at this moment.

5. That said, the leader of this activity should highlight one key point: Momaday’s use of vivid (“delicious”) details. Notice the way he doesn’t just write: I am a wolf, I am a star, I am snow. He writes, “I am the hunger of the young wolf,” “I am the farthest star,” “I am the glitter of the crust of the snow.”

6. Before writing begins, ask a volunteer to share one possible line beginning with “I am…” If someone shares a line with “delicious details” in it, show your enthusiasm and suggest that they might include it in their poem. If someone shares a line that might be even better with an additional detail or two, affirm the line as is and also ask: Can you think of any details you might add to make this line even more exciting?

I remember when one of my second graders, Frederick, raised his hand and shared, “I am a polar bear.” I said, “Great! Polar bears are incredible. Can you add a delicious detail or two to that line? He paused for about seven seconds, his face visibly flickering with ideas, and replied, “I am the menacing eyes of the polar bear in a blizzard.”

7. The simple instruction before we begin is this: write a list of lines beginning with “I am….” and compare yourself to other things. These details can be found in the natural world, as in Momaday’s poem, or they can be things found in the city, in space, underwater, anywhere. Try to write a minimum of three, and if you get on roll, keep writing as long as you wish. When you reach the conclusion, you might experimient with something similar to Momaday when he repeats, “I am alive, I am alive,” but that’s optional. (Note: if a participant feels compelled to take this in another direction, or to write declarative statements with fewer metaphors, let them go with it.)

8. As usual, set the timer for 5-7  minutes. Everyone writes together. When the time is up or you feel a natural conclusion has been reached, invite participants to quietly read what they’ve just written. Then we share aloud.  If you notice that participants are feeling shy or unsure, you might invite participants to read one line, or a few lines, rather than the whole poem. You can go around in the circle so that everyone can shares as much or as little as they wish. (‘Passing’ is always allowed.)

9. The student poems below could be read in tandem with Momaday’s poem, or you can read them as a concluding activity. Also—as always—participants can smoothly segue to drawing pictures inspired by their newly written poem.  

Literary Terms, Forms, and Devices: Metaphor, repetition, “list poems.” 

Acknowledgments & References: For more ideas, see Larry Fagin’s classic T&W book, The List Poem: A Guide to Teaching & Writing Catalog Verse. 

 

N. Scott Momaday. Photo from Poets.org

Mentor Text
The Delight Song of Tsoai-talee

I am a feather in the bright sky
I am the blue horse that runs on the plain
I am the fish that rolls, shining, in the water
I am the shadow that follows a child
I am the evening light, the luster of meadows
I am an eagle playing with the wind
I am a cluster of bright beads
I am the farthest star
I am the cold of dawn
I am the roaring of the rain
I am the glitter of the crust of the snow
I am the long track of the moon in a lake
I am a flame of four colors
I am a deer standing away in the dusk
I am a field of sumac and the pomme blanche
I am an angle of geese in the winter sky
I am the hunger of the young wolf
I am the whole dream of these things
You see, I am alive, I am alive

I stand in good relation to the earth
You see, I am alive, I am alive
I stand in good relation to the earth
I stand in good relation to the gods
I stand in good relation to all that is beautiful
I stand in good relation to the daughter of Tsen-tainte
You see, I am alive, I am alive

–N. Scott Momaday

Student Poems 

I Am 

I am a ninja, silent but deadly.
I am a brain, here to learn.
I am a rover, here to explore.
I am a dinosaur, here to roar.
I am a sun, here to shine.
Everyone can become
what they want to be.
Everyone has a different legacy.
We all have different personalities
in many ways. We have one life— 
make it a good one.
I am Rae-Shon Sanchez.
I am a poet.
Bye.

–Rae-Shon S., Grade 2

I Am 

I am a glowing horse galloping in the night.
I am the snowstorm freezing the air.
I am the Nature creeping in light.
I am a white feather falling from an eagle.
I am the crisp, shining white snow.
As you see, as you see
I am alive. And so here I am
standing, thinking about
who I am.  

–Naomi C., Grade 2

I Am 

I am the mystery of the sea.
I am the mystery of the sea.
I am an ice bear blending in with the snow.
I am the center of life
because life goes up and down
but at the end it turns around.
I am an eagle flying across the world
without sleeping.
I am the galaxy turning around
and finding more universes.
Every threat might be scary
but every threat might save your life.
So every imagination you have is real.
All you have to do is just look.

–Jimmy G., Grade 2

Matthew Burgess is an Assistant Professor at Brooklyn College. He is the author of a poetry collection, Slippers for Elsewhere, and several children’s books, including Enormous Smallness: A Story of E. E. Cummings and The Unbudgeable Curmudgeon. He recently edited a collection of original lessons and prompts titled Spellbound: The Art of Teaching Poetry (Teachers & Writers Collaborative, 2019). Matthew has been a teaching artist with T&W since 2001, and he also serves as a contributing editor of Teachers & Writers Magazine. His new book, Drawing on Walls: A Story of Keith Haring is forthcoming in May 2020. To learn more about what he’s working on, visit www.matthewjohnburgess.com.



'Delight Songs' have 2 comments

  1. March 22, 2020 @ 7:11 pm Liz Asch

    I love this so much. Poetry can sometime feel inaccessible or hard to appreciate. These lessons and exercises make reading/listening to poetry so enjoyable and accessible and they make the writing of poetry feels so very much in reach. Thank you so much! What a gift.

    Reply

  2. March 23, 2020 @ 3:58 pm Megan Buchanan

    Thank you, Matthew!
    I offered this lesson to my ELA students this week and here is the first response I received back this morning!

    I am an eagle soaring through the skies
    I am the squirrel chattering amongst the trees
    I am the wind an invisible force
    I am a sequoia tree standing tall and proud
    I am the sun smiling upon the world

    James, 10th grader
    (The Greenwood School – Putney, Vermont)

    Reply


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