In 1970, poet Kenneth Koch went into classrooms at a Manhattan elementary school and benevolently tricked children into realizing that every one of them was a writer.
It’s been a long time since I read Wishes Lies, and Dreams, his paperback memoir/anthology, but I do recall that the first thing he did was ask the students to write a list of wishes. After reading some of the lists aloud, he congratulated the kids on their poetry, which surprised them, because few of them had ever thought of themselves as poets. But poets they all were.
We’re not talking about roses-are-red rhyming here, either; in these and other exercises, with Koch as their guide, the children unleashed their creativity with sophisticated, eloquent, heartfelt imagery.
I do not read or write poetry, but I was enchanted by the results of Koch’s efforts, and I encourage you to use the following prompts to help you express yourself:
After you’ve tackled each theme, combine two or more of them in one piece of writing. Then, for a little more of a challenge, explore relationships between things:
- Being an Animal or a Thing
- I Used to . . ./But Now. . .
- I Seem to Be . . ./But Really I Am . . .
If you find yourself stumbling, use the experience and run with it. For example, in one of Koch’s exercises, a third grader who meant to write “a swarm of bees” misspelled swarm as swan. Instead of marking up the spelling error, Koch challenged the students to come up with similar fantastical expressions, giving as additional examples “a window of kisses” and “a blackboard of dreams.”
This book and its successor, Rose, Where Did You Get That Red? (the title is the opening line of a student’s poem), feature even more prompts, including, in the latter book, ten inspired by classic poems. Both books are still in print. If you’re a teacher or a parent, let children’s imaginations soar with these ideas, but not before you try them out yourself. If you’re not, don’t use that excuse to avoid these inspiring ideas.