By Donnie Welch
In his short poem “To Make Words Sing” Langston Hughes writes:
To make words sing
Is a wonderful thing–
Because in a song
Words last so long.
I’ve always found this to be sound advice! In first approaching poetry as a reader, teacher, or writer I find the rhythm of a piece.
I love the sounds of a poem read aloud. Reciting helps me better understand the piece, especially the voice of the writer which is one of the most difficult abstractions of the genre. What’s more, with a little bit of rhythm behind it a poem can really come alive! The rhythm could be a subtle snap, a sharp clap, or noises created on a device.
Rhythm is an experience everyone can share, and it’s infectious. When a song I love comes on my shuffle, I can’t help but bob my head and tap my toe. The rhythm of song creates a physical, bodily reaction within me which connects me to the music and musicians. This same kind of surprise, movement, and joy can be found in the rhythm poetry and helping readers discover that is what I get to do every day!
To begin, I’ll sometimes have poets make their own musical instruments. This approach is one I use with smaller workshop sizes and would be great if you’re a parent at home or a teacher with a small class size.
Make Your Own Musical Instrument
Empty Plastic bottle for each poet (any size will work and produce different sounds)
Beads, googly eyes, coins, etc.
Glue (hot glue works best, but bottled will do the trick too)
- Give each poet a plastic bottle with tissue paper, glue sticks and markers to decorate their bottles.
- Pass around the beads, googly eyes, coins, and other small objects and have poets dump them inside their bottles. Objects of different density make different sounds as they bump against one another so feel free to experiment a bit. Also feel free to use a funnel of some sort or any other adaptions as needed to make this as independent as possible for the poets. Note: If swallowing and choking is a concern use an object with a larger cap size like a gallon popcorn or trail mix bin. Sealing them will be a bit more difficult (you’ll need the hot glue) but then you can have poets place larger objects inside.
- Seal by placing glue or hot glue around the rims of the bottle cap and tightening it back on. Let sit over for overnight and next session start jamming out!
Now, when you read poems, you can have the poets make a beat to compliment the reading with these self-made rain sticks, maracas, and shakers. I like to start with a basic 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4 pattern, and let the readings grow in complexity from there. I’ve found that the poets will start exploring rhythm themselves and show you where they want to take it. Think of your role from here out as more conductor than instructor, you’re not just leading the group you’re also an integral part of the performance.
If poetry is something altogether new for you, the Poetry Foundation’s website is a good place to start finding pieces. You can filter searches through their collection of “Poems for Children” and “Poems for Teens” and even narrow the search to “Topics” to find the specific passions of your reader(s).
A few pieces I work with that are on Poetry Foundations site are:
Poetry is a genre of writing tied to the moments. Moments made so special that they were worth exploring in depth, so while you read and share these moments don’t forget to make some of your own! For example, when you read “Openin Night” by Shel Silverstein set up a little stage, a few chairs with blankets for curtains would work, and make the setting a bit more real. Or if you’ve just finished reading “Mix a Pancake” by Christina Rossetti then maybe go make some pancakes!
Donnie Welch runs inclusive, sensory and movement based poetry workshops in schools, cultural institutions, and community centers in NYC. He has worked with organizations such as the New York Public Library, Brooklyn Public Library, Bronx Museum of the Arts, JCC Manhattan, and the Rebecca School among others. Along with his work in arts education, Welch is a published poet and children’s author.