When I teach poetry workshops to undergraduates, I sometimes suggest that students ask their subjects “What is this situation, really” or “What is this subject, really?” I then include exercises that required students to extend these metaphors. I also use exercises that required students to list metaphors and edit the list to create poems. They then compose titles that they think are the metaphorical threads running through the list poems they had created. These two exercises are useful in getting students to begin to understand that poetry was more than emotion on paper, and I explain to them that these two approaches are two ways poems can be composed.
The exercise below works well to introduce poetry to students who major in other disciplines and who take a poetry writing course to experiment with language. It is also effective for the serious young poet. (The two exercises comprised an earlier contribution of mine to the Pedagogy papers of AWP in the late 1980s and early 90s. I share them for what they are worth to readers.)
1) Ask students to choose poems that speak to them. They will need to feel confident that they have a clear understanding of the poem.
2) Ask students to locate a metaphor in their poems or identify what they believe to be the central metaphor in their poems that in particular speak to them.
3) Ask students to respond to the perceived metaphor either by using the metaphor themselves, assimilating the poet’s idea or by reacting to the metaphor and creating a metaphor of the student’s own.
4) Ask students to elaborate on and add to their initial, short drafts.
5) To assist the student in assimilating what they have performed through the assignment, ask the students to write an assessment of what they were trying to achieve in their poem.
The exercise I have outlined below is one for the more advanced student who is beginning to understand that to write poetry is enter a conversation in a long tradition and thus includes ideas.
A Step Further: Writing a “Found Poems” Poem
A more challenging exercise is to ask students to read an author’s works and gather metaphors, irony, and images on the author’s more frequent subject. Ask the students to compose poems using the author’s words only or with as few lines as possible by the students. You may even use this assignment as a collaborative exercise by the class.