The following article was originally published in print by Teachers & Writers Magazine. The featured image is from poets.org.
Zest, shape, and surprise—a good writing exercise revs me up, even if I taught it the week before. It surprises new things out of me and my students. “The Lost Sense”—a writing assignment based on Federico Garcia Lorca’s poem “The Little Mute Boy”—works like that. Each time I teach it, I feel called to attention by Lorca’s poem. I invent strategies on the spot to loosen the bounds of the normal and expected. I want students to experiment with new combinations and see the world afresh.
I also hope that they will stumble around, briefly deprived of a sense they take for granted. I’d like them to glimpse how they might cope, recognize a longing to recover their lost sense, and learn to appreciate how their other senses adapt. Although I do speak about “handicaps” when I teach this exercise, my emphasis is more on compensation than on deficiency. When someone loses a sense, I say, the other four senses become more acute. Sound develops color; you can smell the color of lead.
Step One: Synesthesia: Substituting Senses
First comes a conversation about compensation. We talk about the sensitive hearing of people who are blind, or the way sign language draws with dancing hands.
As the students identify them, I list the five senses on the board: sight, hearing, taste, smell, touch.
Next, we play with synesthesia, the mixing of senses. For example, I might ask the class to suggest a color which I write on the board: brown. Next I ask them to tell me what instrument plays that color. Hands go up, and I take suggestions: drum, saxophone, trombone, bass fiddle, viola.
Then I ask each student to write a color on a sheet of paper and couple it with a texture. Since the words for textures don’t come as readily as those for color, we brainstorm a list of textures, which I write on the board: pebbly, sandy, scratchy, silky, smooth, cool, icy, prickly, rough, slippery, slimy, sticky, velvety, and so on.
Students read aloud their combinations of colors and textures when I call on them.
Step Two: Surreal Sense
Usually I present this exercise to a class that has already written poetry for at least several days. We’ve discussed free verse, seen how repetition gives a song-like quality to a poem, and considered the virtues of compression and surprise. They know that poetry comes from real life but transforms experience by, among other things, comparisons.
Now I explain that the poem I’m about to read by the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca departs from real life in radical ways. It enters a surreal realm: surreal means above the real, beyond the real.
I mention Salvador Dali. “He painted pictures of clocks dripping over walls to suggest how slow time feels when you’re bored. Lorca’s poem has some very odd ideas, but on inspection, you’ll see that they work just like Dali’s limp clocks.”
Before I read the poem, I also discuss what a translation means and tell them that W. S. Merwin translated this Lorca poem from the Spanish.
The poem has parentheses, too, I tell the students, and ask them when you’re supposed to use parentheses. “To set something off that’s private,” they’ll say. “Or to add a thought that isn’t in the main line of thinking.” Acknowledging the correctness of these answers, I suggest that Lorca uses parentheses in radical ways, to capture another version of reality and enter it into the story of the poem. I promise to cup my hands to show when the parentheses come.
Here is the poem:
The Little Mute Boy
The little mute boy was looking for his voice.
(The king of the crickets had it.)
In a drop of water
the little boy was looking for his voice.
I do not want it for speaking with:
I will make a ring of it
so that he may wear my silence
on his little finger.
In a drop of water
the little boy was looking for his voice.
(The captive voice, far away,
put on a cricket’s clothes.)
There’s a lot going on in this little poem. The surreal elements occur in the imaginative leaps and the metaphor for loss that Lorca creates. For example, on first glance it’s odd to think of looking for a voice in a drop of water. Why would a lost voice gravitate toward water? Before answering this, we discuss what mute means and what things in the poem have voices, though not in the usual sense.
Water has a voice, a drop of water has a voice. We brainstorm different voices of water: raindrops, a dripping tap, waves lapping or crashing, a brook gurgling, water splashing around a car, the clunk or tinkle of an ice cube in a glass, the hiss of steam. So it’s not so odd, after consideration, that the little boy looks for his voice in a drop of water. Water has so many voices, his might have gotten mixed in by mistake.
Crickets also have voices. Most city children don’t know that you rarely see crickets, but you hear them. A cricket trapped in a room can sound like a conductor tuning up an invisible orchestra. So, it’s not so surprising that the king of the crickets might steal the little boy’s voice. (Speaking of the cricket king, Lorca created a fairy-tale aura, similar to that of some of the biomorphic creatures that artists such as Joan Mir6 and Paul Klee created. Students might enjoy giving names to some of the creatures in works by these artists.)
I ask the children to imagine reasons why the cricket king would steal a human voice. (This empathy gets them ready to imagine what it would be like themselves to live without one of their senses.) Maybe he’s tired of his own chirp; maybe his own child was born mute and he couldn’t find a cricket to give up a voice; maybe the king is making a collection of beautiful voices from all over the world, and the boy’s caught his ear. At the end of the poem, when the captive voice puts on the cricket’s clothes, what motive for the theft becomes more likely?
The second stanza in the poem is even more odd than the others. Here somebody speaks of making a ring out of the voice so that “he may wear my silence on his little finger.” This shift in voice and point of view may slip right by some students, and it’s up to the teacher to decide whether to stop and discuss it or not. It is probably the boy who is speaking to the thief, but it is also possible that it is the thief who is speaking. I like the ambiguity here because it draws us into a deeper understanding of how we label a handicap a deficiency rather than recognizing its status as a beautiful, rare exception.
Step Three: Life without a Sense
Since most of us take our senses for granted, I want students to brainstorm some personal reactions to losing one of their senses. To begin, I ask each student to decide which sense they are willing to relinquish for the duration of the poem, and to write this sense at the top of their paper. It is interesting how many of them choose taste or smell, almost as though they’re unwilling even to play with the possibility of losing sight, hearing, or touch. It is worthwhile to discuss these choices with the class, and to investigate why we rely so much on sight, hearing, and touch. It helps make them more appreciative of the gifts these senses bring, and sympathetic to those who live without them.
After everyone has chosen a sense to lose, I ask them to write down what they would miss most from this sense. Many will write “the taste of pizza.” Red, spicy, gooey foods appeal mightily to fourth graders.
Next, I ask them to consider how losing this sense might endanger them: unable to feel a hot stove, or to hear an oncoming train.
What would confuse you or what would you be unable to do, if you lost your sense? I ask next. Couldn’t tell hot peppers from cold milk. Couldn’t tell if my socks matched or if I pulled the cereal box I want from the shelf.
If you lost your sense, what would be the benefits? Wouldn’t have to smell rotted garbage in summer. Or feel sweaty hands when you shake hands with one of your parents’ friends. Wouldn’t have to listen to your sister play the trombone.
Step Four: Creating a Net of Surprises
Robert Frost’s description of free verse as playing tennis without a net set me thinking about ways to create forms that will surprise young writers to do things they wouldn’t normally attempt. Or, to think of it another way, I want to rub rules against their imaginations to light a fire in the shape of a song.
For this exercise, the net I create with the class is based on guided associations. It works like this:
- Each student writes a list of words.
- The list is individual in substance yet general in categories.
- I create the categories on the spur of the moment, but I am guided by the notion of travel or a journey, and so I usually include some items of travel paraphernalia (something like a map, maybe) and some element of geography (like a continent, ocean, etc.). I also want to encourage synesthesia, and so will pair categories, saying, for example, “A Color,” and next, “The Texture of That Color.”
- Next, I explain that I will say a category and they will write a specific item in that category.
Here are the categories I used recently with a fourth grade class:
an item of clothing—M. F. G.
a unusual color from the sixty-four color Crayola box
a sound in nature that fits this color
a continent or country or place a texture
And here are several lists:
Step Five: Writing a Poem of Searching for a Lost Sense
Getting the class ready to write their own poems, I reread Lorca’s poem aloud and mention some of the strategies he uses. I write these on the board:
- The parentheses that give away clues or the actual location of the lost sense.
- Repetition of lines that talk about searching.
- Looking in unusual places that turn out to have some connection to the sense.
- A wish to do something with the sense that might emphasize its loss or how much you miss it.
- What the lost sense does without you.
I also emphasize writing about how you would compensate without the sense:
“Tongue, now that you’re swallowed
I must sniff myself through
a pizza . . .
The sky has the color of cymbals
now that blue has drowned
A rose petal against my face
smells like a tickling kiss . . . ”
“Remember,” I remind the students, “you’re on a journey to find your lost sense. Think of various ways to travel, think of oceans, glaciers, deserts, rivers, bridges, crossroads, or small spaces like stairs, drawers, closets, pockets, toothpaste tubes, clock faces.”
Finally come the instructions about the net of words: “You must use every word on your list in the order they’re written.” Then I take the last part back: “But if you must move them around, you can. Don’t be afraid to make all kinds of leaps in sense, and at the same time think about the way your lost sense would operate if it were really lost. Where would it go? How would it react to your calling it? How would it like to be cornered and captured? Does it miss you too? Has it changed into something else?”
Step Six: Writing and Reading
I write along with the students for about five minutes, explaining that I’ll do that and then help them afterward. My last words of encouragement before I pick up the chalk for my own poem are: “You don’t have to know where this poem will take you when you start. Use your first word and think of some connection between it and your search or your lost sense, then move on to other strategies we’ve listed.”
Here’s a fragment of a poem I wrote about my lost taste:
Taste has left its cape
in my closet, then
disappeared in its folds.
Pizza flops on my tongue
like a leftover tail.
Burnt sienna flavors
every meal with its
How I miss
Meanwhile, my taste,
swashbuckler of meals,
forks its way across
the border. Sends me
a postcard on a chili:
“Amigo, look for me
under the sombrero
of a nose, in a
mountain of tacos.”
Rascal, I know him
watering his bushes,
a figment of teeth,
a jouster of corn.
Here are some poems by fourth grade students and one by their teacher Judith Pfeifer, from Pine Hill Elementary, Cottage Grove, Minnesota:
Sense of Sight—Larry Hui
I can’t see what I’m trying
to find. I am trying
to find my quilt.
If I find it I will
use it to keep me warm
in the winter. It’s soft
as a baby’s skin. If I
find fire red as the sun.
I will go to China to find
a dragon that can blow
fire or it might
have my quilt. I
will listen to the
I have no sense of taste.— Jeff Hillyer
I have been looking for
it. Little Swedish spike-headed
ants have taken
my taste. It is calling
out to me, it sounds like
a dripping faucet when
it yells. It is held
captive in a brick red
blob which has a big
fat coat in it.
A parka was sitting on the table— Kyle Magyar
when I went to put it on
I lost my taste.
That day everything I ate
I wondered about pop, so I
bought root beer. Still
no taste, but they
gave me a green harmonica.
Did my taste go to Greenland or Texas?
Just tell me where he went!
Then five years later I ate some pizza
and finally found him.
I’m looking for my sense of hearing.—Conrad La Doux
How can I find it without
being able to hear?
I already looked in Florida,
in someone else’s shoes.
I followed a yellow bee flying
in the air.
I felt something as
Oh where Oh where is my
sense of hearing?
How I miss being able
to hear the bees buzzing
and the color blue
sounding like a trumpet.
I also miss talking
on the phone.
Hearing flows out of me through—Judith Pfeifer
the warm soles of my cowboy boots.
My own footfalls on the stairs
are strangely silent.
The magenta sunrise reflects
on the surf slamming
soundlessly against the rocks.
My parrot’s fluffy feathers rise
in frustration as his whole body
strains, shrieking unheard on top
of his cage.
My coffee maker drips but only
the light tells when it is ready.
Its final “thunks” are gone.
As I leave to search for sound
at school, the door slams shut
behind me but the bang is missing.
The key turns in the ignition.
I wait trying to feel the car’s vibration.
It shudders, I hope it will
move as I shift and step
on the accelerator.
Children come at me, eyes wide
and lips moving. Their crucial
messages are empty holes
in the air.
Desks scrape across the floor
unheard. Children move their
mouths at each other appearing
fascinated by facial movements.
Suddenly I hear a whisper.
The heating unit fan kicks in.
Reality returns with a rush
of classroom cacophony.
I consider the pros and cons.
Margot Fortunato Galt is the author of five books of nonfiction, including two from Teachers & Writers Collaborative, The Story in History (1992) and The Circuit Writer (2006). Two other books of her creative nonfiction were nominated for Minnesota Book Awards: Turning the Feather Around: My Life in Art (Minnesota Historical Society), a first-person narrative of George Morrison, one of the most prominent of Native-American artists; and Up to the Plate: The All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (Lerner). She has taught writers from K–12 to adults; been an administrator for The Loft, Minneapolis’ center for writing and the arts; and also published three books of poetry, most recently The Heart Beat of Wings (2018), from Red Bird. She lives in St. Paul, with her librarian husband.