Child on Top of a Greenhouse
The wind billowing out the seat of my britches,
My feet crackling splinters of grass and dried putty,
The half-grown chrysanthemums staring up like accusers,
Up through the streaked glass, flashing with sunlight,
A few white clouds all rushing eastward,
A line of elms plunging and tossing like horses,
And everyone, everyone pointing up and shouting!
- Theodore Roethke
Process Reflection: Thought I'd look for a poem and maybe write about that for old times' sake, this being the first day of school. It wound up being an apt coincidence that this particular poem, with title and credit, adds up to exactly sixty-four words, so I decided to let Roethke be my guest writer today. Child on Top of a Greenhouse is one of the very first poems that I ever "taught" in any strategically systematic way. I was introduced to it by Barbara Helfgott Hyett, a Massachusetts poet-in-the-schools who was giving a workshop for elementary school teachers. She read it to us, then had us make observations about what we saw. Among the (many possible) observations, the fact that it is one sentence—a series of present-tense noun phrases, actually; lots of (almost exclusively) sensory details; the two carefully placed similes; the work that the title gets done; and perhaps most importantly, the fact that it is a memory poem conveying one particular (and emotionally charged) moment from the narrator's childhood (and, in this case, one in which he has done something he was not supposed to do). It's also noteworthy that the narrator does not detail what happens before or after the moment in question: there's one moment in the poem.
Once we had read the poem, she asked each of us to think of an emotionally charged moment from childhood. She then read us a series of questions she had put together (see an elaborated list below). While she asked the questions we were just jotting down words and phrases that came to mind that were associated with the memory. Once we finished that, we went back and circled words and phrases that seemed were sensory-based, interesting in terms of their sounds and shapes, and true to the memory. Our assignment was to use the words we had circled, add any connective tissue, and write a one-sentence, seven-line poem entitled "Child _____________________." It's close to a fail-safe assignment. I've used it with second-graders. I've used it with high school kids. I've used it with adults.
That one exercise became a core tool in my toolbox as I went about the business of learning how to better engage students in the reading and writing of poems, and in reading and writing more generally. The lesson was a classic example of the read-as-a-writer, write-as-a reader cycle that eventually became the heart of my teaching methodology. I started out with six or eight of these sorts of exercises, and a folder of maybe twenty "teachable" poems. I wound up with a folder for each letter of the alphabet with hundreds of poems in each folder.
This poem has always been fun to work with, both for me and for the students. Here's one student response that illustrates the kind of emotionally charged memory that it often elicits.
Child Tired of Losing
We raced to the playground. She won. She always won.
In front of us, the jungle gym.
The top was so high off the ground.
"Last to the top's a rotten egg!" yelled Jenny.
She started to climb. I started to climb.
She was ahead. She was going to win again.
So I pushed.
- - - - - - -
- - - - - - -
Steps in working through memory exercise:
1) Read model poem aloud.
2) Student reads model poem aloud.
3) What has the poet done
4) What line(s) do you like best? What images do you like?
5) Any questions about parts you do not understand?
6) Reread poem aloud.
7) Teacher may wish to share own memory at this point: "This poem reminds me of the time that I"
8) Ask student is to identify a particular memory and imagine being at the scene again. As you ask the following questions aloud, leading them through the memory, have students jot down notes on paper.. Not every question will have an answer. If a question does not seem to fit the memory, students should just wait for the next one.
Where are you? (If you were to find yourself there, how would you know where you were?)
What time of year is it? (How do you know?) What time of day is it? (How do you know?)
What is the weather like?
Where is the light coming from?
Who is with you? What are you wearing?
What can you see? Name some things you could you point to. Name some things you could touch.
What do the things you see remind you of?
What can you hear? What does each sound remind you of?
What can you smell? What does the smell remind you of?
How do you feel? Physical sensations? Emotions?
What is the most significant object in this memory? Describe.
Are any words spoken? Can you remember any of the exact words?
What actions or events take place? List them in order.
What color do you associate with this memory? What animal? What plant?
How do you feel about this memory now? Sad? Embarrassed? Angry?
What is the most important thing about this memory?
Is there anything else that I haven’t asked about this memory that needs to be said?
9) Ask students to look at their lists and underline or circle any words or groups of words would be useful to them if they were to try to shape this memory into a poem. Then have them number the chosen items in the order in which they might come up.
10) Students draft the poem by writing out the selected words in the selected order, and adding anything that seems to be needed in the way of connecting tissue.