“Writing poetry is too hard.” This is the offense I hear my high school students protest frequently. I get it, but I don’t think it’s entirely true.
A year or so ago, Lyndsay and I took our kids for a walk to a nearby overlook we call Devotional Rock, a clearing that offers a front row seat to one corner of the Nantahala National Forest. When I threw out the idea that we should write a poem about our hike as a family, our kids—ages five and seven—jumped on it and immediately started throwing out lines like “When I look at the flowers and the bees it makes me happy” or “the trees sneeze drops of water.” Kids don’t care if something sounds poetic or if writing a poem might make them a “poet” with all the glory or pretension or lameness that might be associated with the title. They are free to take a shot at what they see with the best words they have.
Occasionally I would tease out some lines when I noticed them stopping in amazement at some small phenomenon. How would you describe that?
“The leaves are washing their hands.”
“It’s a dragon.”
“I always think those cocoons are little leaves.”
We didn’t write any of the lines down during the hike, but instead let our memories be our first editors. When we got home I asked them to tell all the lines they remembered. We wrote them all out. Then I asked them to categorize the lines as I read them out loud.
“Those are about flowers…that one is about butterflies.”
Lyndsay and I each threw in a line, and then I stitched it together with their categories. They loved hearing all of our words put together in fresh, playful ways…just as any human does before all of our other social, egotistical, and educational messes get attached to the word “poetry.”
While I clearly hope this exercise will in some small way prepare my children to deal with all of the complex baggage to come for poetry in high school, I am the one most in need of this training, the one quickest to forget just how easy playing with poetry can be. Plus, it’s fun. We’ve done this a few times since then. It works well in car rides home after other family adventures like playground dates, movies, or birthday parties. You should try it.
Hiking to Devotional Rock
By Sally Ann, Shepard, Chris and Lyndsay Slaten
As we go on our walk
I soon see
Hundreds and hundreds
Of wildflowers – firework weeds, ferns, and fairy wands.
They sneeze drops of water
For the handwashing of leaves
And the swimming of ants.
Butterflies and sweat bees gather nectar,
While we steal blackberries.
It all makes me happy
And I look to the sky –
The mountains and clouds
Gather for a meeting
Because they are friends.
When the trees wave
I always think of you.
When I look at the split trees
I think they’re interesting.
When the mossy boulder peaks out from the trees
it looks like a dragon.
On the road back
while we walk
on sparkling trails of mica
Like constellations scattered in dirt,
We see an endangered caterpillar
And rescue it to go make the kind of cocoon
I always think are tiny leaves.
What’s orange with black spots?
A butterfly, of course!
Do you think Devotional Rock is
beautiful or ugly?
Singer-songwriter Chris Slaten releases music under the name Son of Laughter. His most recent recording, No Story Is Over, was made possible by the generosity of listeners who hosted and attended his house and church shows across the country. He’s currently working on a musical about the life of Jacob, though he spends most of his time teaching high school literature in Chattanooga, TN, where he lives with his wife, Lyndsay, and their three delightful children.