Finding Significance Within the Mundane
Mundane: from the Latin mundus (world) thus mundanus (of the world)
Well-known poems that celebrate the mundane:
Something Is Going to Happen (from Delight) by Robert Penn Warren
The Road Not Taken; Dust of Snow by Robert Frost
The Red Wheelbarrow; This Is Just to Say by William Carlos Williams
Fog by Carl Sandburg
Miracles by Walt Whitman
Phases of Mundane Observation
Confining your field of focus to only what exists within a ten-foot circle around you, choose a suitable mundane subject, such as a pencil, ceiling fan, book, (Note: If you really must look beyond a ten-foot circle, then confine your observation to the space of the room.) Writing continually, move through these phases of observation in order to generate descriptions and brainstorm ideas for further writing.
Describe, in detail, the subject’s appearance, various parts, materials, size, weight, etc. Describe what it does. How does it move? What is its energy source? What does it sound like? Can you hold it? How does it feel? Evaluate What is its purpose? How does its existence make the world better? How does its existence make the world worse? Describe the subject’s positive impact as well as its negative impact. Does it have a personality?
Look around your ten-foot circle. Are there others? Now look as far as your eyes can see. Are there others there? Use your imagination. Are there others outside of your field of vision? Within the building where you are? Beyond the block? Across the city where you reside? The country? The world?
What other kinds exist? What other objects are related to it? What things have a similar look, function, movement? What other objects, mundane or otherwise, have a similar effect? Imagine if the subject of your study should disappear. What would happen? How would the world be changed? Why is the subject important to your own life? To the world?
Writing Prompts that Exercise Observation Powers
In your notebook collect a variety of images from an “outing” around your house or school. Include sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and textures. Be sure to keep each entry short (a single phrase will usually do), and don’t dwell on the significance of the image. Your object is simply to collect the images as a sensory record of your experience. Remember that poetry is not always confined by matters of narrative or logical continuity; seemingly disjointed images and sensations can sometimes provide a clarity and illumination which linear thoughts cannot.
Like the Snapshot Safari but with sounds alone. Just walk, listen, and write. The most challenging part of this exercise is to figure out how to spell the sounds.
Treasure Box of Priceless Things
The teacher places a variety of “everyday objects” in a box (eraser, paper clip, wash cloth, shoe lace, chicken bone, button, house key, etc.) As the box is passed around, students are asked to reach into the box and feel around until they feel an object they want to write about.
Walk a Mile in Something Else’s Shoes
Imagine what it would be like to be some mundane object, like a shoe or a coffee cup.
Thirteen Ways of Looking at Your Elbow
Come up with thirteen different ways of looking at a mundane subject. You may slow down by way # seven, but don’t give up (See Thirteen Ways of Looking at Your Knees and Elbows by Allan Wolf).
Treasure Hunts and Riddles
The teacher hides an object somewhere in the room and then describes its location in the form of a riddle. Students can also simply play a form of I-Spy by creating riddle poems about the everyday objects in the room. The emphasis should be more on choice of details rather than literary quality.
Everyday Object As Self Portrait
Generate a list of characteristics of yourself. Include internal and external characteristics. (Be honest, this list is just for brainstorming, and you won’t be required to share it unless you want to.) After your list is complete, choose an everyday object that you feel shares a common characteristic(s) with you. Make a list of other characteristics of the object. Now write a poem that illustrates your comparison. You may start by simply saying, “I am like . . . ”
Write down a list of questions to ask of some mundane subject. You can speak directly to the subject or else ask the questions generally. This list of questions might prove to be a poem in itself, or it may trigger a poem that provides an answer to one or more of the questions.
Multi-Voice Dialogue Poem
Similar to Inquisition, except this time your object actually answers back! Write a dialogue poem in which you conduct an interview or carry on a conversation with a mundane object. Your two (or more) voices can speak simultaneously or alternate, passing the lines back and forth.
Helpful “Mundane” Forms
Acrostic An acrostic (pronounced uh-CRAW-stick) poem is an easy way for students to summarize what they know about a topic by gathering together thoughts, facts, ideas, and details into a poem in which the first letters of each line spell out the topic at hand. Add an extra degree of difficulty to this form by also arranging the last letters of each line so that they spell out a word or phrase that is appropriate to the topic.
A cinquain (pronounced SING-cane) is a five-line unrhymed poem. It is easy to write and can be used in a variety of subject areas. Cinquains can be useful in helping students to gain new insights into a topic being studied. There are many variations. Here’s one that’s pretty popular: Line One: One noun that introduces the poem’s subject. Line Two: Two adjectives that describe the subject. Line Three: Three verbs (or verbals) related to the subject. Line Four: Four-word phrase telling feelings of the writer or describing the subject. Line Five: One noun (different from line one) that sums up the previous four lines.
The diamante (pronounced DIE-uh-MON-tay) is a perfect poem form to illustrate the contrast between two different subjects. The seven lines of this poem are in the shape of a diamond, with the different subjects acting as the top and bottom points of the diamond. Line One: Noun “A.” Line Two: Two adjectives describing the noun “A.” Line Three: Three “ing” or “ed” words describing noun “A.” Line Four: Four nouns. Two describing the noun “A”. Two describing noun “B.” Line Five: Three “ing” or “ed” words describing noun “B.” Line Six: Two adjectives describing the noun “B.” Line Seven: Noun “B” Note that immediately after writing Noun “A” in line one, the writer may want to go to line seven and enter the contrasting noun “B” there. Then the writer can go back and fill in the rest of the poem.
A limerick is a five-line poem, usually humorous in nature, arranged in a A-A-B-B-A rhyme pattern. Lines one and two consist of eight or nine syllables. Lines three and four consist of five or six syllables. The last line (which rhymes with the first two) consists of from eight to ten syllables. Limericks can be used to tell brief stories or to describe the characteristics of something being studied in class.
Write down a list of questions to ask of someone (or something) you encounter on your outing. You can speak directly to the subject or else ask the questions generally. This list of questions might prove to be a poem in itself, or it may trigger a poem which provides an answer to one or more of the questions.
White Goat, is your name Billie?
What are you thinking as you
Twist your head around the feeding bin?
Do you miss your kids?
Are they crying for you?
Will you be with them ever again?
Cheryl Bromley Jones, teacher
Do skyscrapers ever grow tired
of holding themselves up high?
Do they ever shiver on frosty nights
with their tops against the sky?
Do they get lonely sometimes
because they have grown so tall?
Do they ever wish they could lie right down
and never get up at all?
Write a letter as a poem, addressing someone or something you encounter on your outing.
Malcolm, My Man
Malcolm (my man!)
You don’t know me.
But I know you.
I dream of you.
In your blackness I see myself.
I long to be the man you once were.
What you are.
Who you are.
That is all that matters to you.
You’re like no one I’ve ever known.
I see all in your eyes.
Malcolm (my man!)
Man with no fear,
show me the way.
Malcolm, you had so far to go.
Death, so bloody.
Still it was a gift.
The end was inevitable and so was your memory.
True men live forever.
That is the way it will always be. Forever.
That is what I want to be.
Duane Shorter, student.
Foster Student-Centered Assessment Skills
Students compare texts to evaluate proficiency. Give students sample texts along a four point performance continuum and have them rank order them from most to least effective. Working in groups have them develop their own descriptions of each of the four score points and relate these descriptions to proficiency levels designated as Advanced, Proficient, Needs Improvement, and Failing.
Rank the following versions of the same poem from 1 to 4 with 1 being the least effective and 4 being the most effective. Explain your answers as best you can.
The boy put his best toy over his head and
threw it down on the floor
and broke it.
That made him sad so
he started crying.
He lifts the toy
his favorite one
above his head
He throws it—mad—
He kicks it—mad—
He stomps it—mad—
in to pie ces
His eyes grow wide
The Mad Boy
He lifts the toy
his best one
he holds it over his head
His eyes get wide
and he cries.
broke his toy.
Share Example Poems in a Multi-Modal Way
Be sure to present examples in a “multi-modal” way, appealing to a variety of the senses. For example, you might allow students to see the poem on an overhead screen, blackboard, or chart paper. Allow students to hear poems by asking them to close their eyes as you recite or read. Students can even touch the poem if it is written on some appropriate object (a poem about a pumpkin might be written on a pumpkin). Poems about food can be accompanied by an appropriate snack to appeal to the sense of taste. Strike a match to call upon the sense of smell as you read a poem about fire.
Students like to listen to poems read aloud, but they also like to do poetry as active participants. You might invite students to join you at the front of the class to help act out a poem as you recite it. Encourage students to repeat certain lines or sound out a calland- response of some sort. If you are illustrating a certain poetic device, you might ask your students to clap when they hear an example as you read aloud. Use your imagination and watch your students begin to use theirs.
Introducing Writing Activities
• Introduce the writing activity, technique, topic, or theme. A verbal introduction can involve group brainstorming or some other prewriting activity.
• Present an example poem(s) by an established adult writer(s). This could be in the form of a reading, recitation, or performance. Example poems should illustrate the technique, topic, or theme. Remember to think “multi-modal.”
• Model writing on an overhead, blackboard, or chart paper. Write a group example poem. Allow students to suggest opening lines. Suggest a structure if students get stuck. Keep it flowing. You can create a complete poem or just the beginning of one.
• Present an example poem(s) by a student writer(s) who has participated in the activity in the past. This is a great time to share a poem that you have written yourself.
• Allow students to write on their own. As much as possible, the teacher should write along with the students. This further establishes your class as a “community of writers” and lets your students see that writing is a lifetime pursuit. I like to alternate between “writing and roaming.”
• Allow students to share. Share as a large group (always in a circle) or in small teams. “Pair share” if sharing time is very limited.