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Teacher-to-Teacher: Poetry as Noticing

By Janice Ewing

Instructions for living a life:

Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.

Mary Oliver (from “Sometimes”)

These are among my favorite lines from Mary Oliver, and I think that these “instructions” apply to poetry, too.  Once again we find ourselves in April, Poetry Month. Many of us have considered the value of giving poetry its special twelfth of the year, versus reading, writing and enjoying it all the time. This year, I’m feeling a little more mellow about that issue. I’ve come to believe that we can immerse ourselves and our students in poetry through all seasons, and still take the month of April to celebrate it with fun and fanfare.

In quieter moments, maybe this is also a good time to reflect upon where poetry comes from. To me, the seeds of poems emerge from noticing – the girl zipping her little sister’s raincoat at the bus stop, her hands gentle and patient; the boy fitting in a walk with his dog before school, each seeming to savor the early morning freedom; nature showing itself in the softening of the soil, the greening of the grass, the opening of a daffodil. Then what? If our noticings are saved in a notebook, some of them can be nudged and nurtured into poems. I decided to try a list poem.



The softening of the soil
The greening of the grass
The opening of a daffodil

The lengthening of the day
The warming of the breeze
The pounding of the rain

The nesting of robins
The trilling of sparrows
The bursting of plumage

In our own backyard.

If poetry is everywhere, how do we find it? If we heed Mary Oliver, we start by paying attention – to the edges of experience, the incidental interplay of color and light, the quiet gestures that tell a story.  Where do you find the seeds of poetry? How do you nurture them?

Janice Ewing is an adjunct for Cabrini College and a co-director for the Pennsylvania Writing & Literature Project. Janice co-facilitates PAWLP’s “Continuity Days” and this blog. She is an avid reader and writer, and especially enjoys writing poems.

7 Comments Post a comment
  1. ritasorrentino #

    Janice, you pack so much imagery in your writing. Your post is a poem itself, and then the added treat of your poem. Thanks for reminding us to notice, to pay attention.


    April 11, 2016
  2. Heather Heyer #

    You and Mary Oliver make a good point. We often miss the poetry in everyday life. Students are caught up in sharing their lives on Facebook or Twitter, so yes, they are paying attention to the world around them but they often misuse the opportunity to create poetry to interpret the world. People are paying attention all the time but not close enough to the art. In my future classroom, it might be interesting to create some sort of Twitter poetry project. Students will still get their 140 characters to update the world about their life but they must do it in the form of a poem. It would be kind of like Twitter novels but poems!
    Thank you for this lovely article!


    April 8, 2016
    • janiceewing #

      Heather, I love the Twitter poetry idea! It would lead students to not just think about the number of words, but to focus on the power and intention of each word. I hope others try that too. Much of social media involves posting events, but we don’t always think about word choice and small moments.


      April 9, 2016
  3. I love the list poem, Janice. I agree. We can read and write poems all year long, bot just in April. It is about paying attention. I particularly enjoyed your phrases “the edges of experience” and “the quiet gestures that tell a story.” A lovely post, really, that is both insightful and delightful! Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us! Lynne


    April 6, 2016
    • janiceewing #

      Thanks, Lynne. Your sharing of your poetry has been inspiring! You are inviting many others into the “poetry club.”


      April 9, 2016
  4. mbuckelew #

    As always your lyrical sense and your noticings amaze and nurture the soul.
    Your simple but specific ideas for where to start when looking for poetry are inspiring. I look forward to sharing this with my students/poets!
    Mille grazie

    Liked by 1 person

    April 6, 2016
    • janiceewing #

      Thank you, Mary. Your feedback means a lot to me. I hope that this post is helpful to your students!


      April 9, 2016

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