Ok, on the surface, this technique might look a little like something you’d use for a poetry writing class. In truth, I picked it up in a college creative writing class. But, when I first introduced it to the high school students I tutor for their AP English Literature tests, it turned into a really excellent way to reveal the inner workings of the poetry they were studying.
So, what in the world am I talking about?
Well, you have a pretty well defined syllabus for the poetry section of whatever class you’re teaching, right? Right. You’ll teach them epic poetry, and then maybe sonnets, then blank verse and then modern poetry. For each of the genres, all you need do is assign each of the students a poem. Then, you’ll ask them to write their own using the assigned poem as a model.
Depending on what you’re trying to emphasize in the unit (i.e., form, theme, rhyme scheme), you’ll want to encourage your students to ape that particular achievement of the poet.
This might sound a little strange, so let’s try an example. For your enjoyment, a mirror writing exercise on Robert Frost’s “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening”. I’ll put Frost’s on one side and my exercise on the other, just for your own edification. For the exercise itself, I’ll be emulating Frost’s form, meter and rhyme scheme.
The Exercise (4 out of 5)
Whose Woods These Are I Think I Know
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.
He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound's the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And now for my mirror poem,
The Young Confederate Marches
I am but young, with only time
And age to spend. But here, nearby,
The whaling whine of cannon grounds
My summers, loves and tiny crimes
To dust. I march among the mounds
Of dead, in time to beating sounds.
Not drums, but hearts. Not flutes, but feet
On bones of fallen soldiers, ground
To dust. Who we, of course, will meet
In time. And other youths shall beat
The bones I leave behind, abhor
The boom of cannon shells and weep.
Perhaps we'll have our youth once more—
A few more games along the shore.
Instead, today, I march to war,
Instead, today, I march to war.
Putting it All Together
So, obviously, I’m no Frost. And, I took some liberties with the form and rhyming scheme that Mr. Frost probably wouldn’t have taken. That’s ok. I just needed to get through it, and I think you get the idea. So, what, exactly, are we doing here?
No, we are not working on improving your student’s ability to write poetry. Let them worry about that on their own time. What this exercise really does is pull the students away from reading the poem they’re working on, and force them to analyze the poem. Oh, yes, of course, they produce some semi-original work and some of the results can actually be quite good, but that’s secondary to your goal. Your students get a real taste of the work that goes into writing poetry. They get an opportunity to pull open the guts of a poem and look at how it all works.
And no, the regular way of teaching that, by having them write out the rhyme scheme and perform scansion on the lines, doesn’t work. Why? Because it’s boring! Not only that, but it creates a huge detachment from the work itself. And that sort of misses the point of poetry to begin with. I like to think of the usual way of teaching poetry and my exercise as different in the way it might be to look at the diagram of a car engine and building one yourself. Or, if you were a biology lab fan, the difference between seeing the frog in your book and cutting him open yourself. Which teaches the concept better?
Ok, enough proselytizing. For now. Once you’ve had everyone put their mirror poems together, circle the wagons and have another read off. This time, you’ll want your students to read both the original poem and their creation. Critique should, in no way, cover the quality of the work—only its adherence to the original poem. As the moderator of these round-table discussions, your job is going to be making sure that no one crosses that line. At the end of the discussions, everyone should have a deeper understanding of how their poem was put together.