Monday, January 16, 2012

Personification: Making a Poem Breathe

by Laura Krauss Melmed

A few months ago, I had the good fortune to attend an amazing production of the play, Warhorse, on Broadway.  The horses, main characters in the story, were portrayed by life-size puppets, each made of a wire armature with three people, clearly visible, operating it.  The way the puppeteers moved the horses, including making them breathe, brought them absolutely, convincingly to life.  In poetry, the device of personification performs a similar function by breathing life into inanimate objects or forces of nature through the use of words, usually including evocative verbs.

A lesson on personification should begin with reading some poems that utilize this device.  In the following poem excerpts, three poets have used personification to describe “night,” each in a fresh, original way.

from Taking Turns
by Norma Farber

When sun goes home
Behind the trees
and locks her shutters tight –

Read the lines and ask the students questions such as the following: What occurrence is Norma Farber writing about?  What images did her words created in the mind’s eye?  How does she manage to describe something that happens every day all over the world in such a unique and vivid way?  Which specific words or phrases give the excerpt its strong imagery?  The poem is called "Taking Turns"  because once the sun has gone home, other things begin to show up in the sky. Can you guess what they are?  What do you think Norma Farber has to say about them

The next two poem excerpts can be similarly read and discussed, and all three compared:

from Night Creature
by Lillian Moore

I like 
the quiet breathing
of the night,

The tree talk
the wind-swish
the star light.

from The Night
by Myra Cohen Livingston

The night
creeps in
around my head
and snuggles down
upon the bed . . .

Once the students have caught on to the concept, let them have a try at writing their own poems utilizing personification.  First write three headings on the board or on three pieces of chart paper:  Action Words, Places and Nouns.  For Action Words prompt the students to come up with a large variety of verbs by asking them what actions different parts of the body can do, what actions various animals might perform, what sounds different animals make, etc.)  For Places, have students throw out a bunch of settings, such as city, forest, beach, meadow, swamp, mountain. For Nouns, elicit various inanimate objects and phenomena that might be found in those places.  Now have the students chose a season and a place for the title of their poem.  They can then choose from the nouns and verbs to write a four line poem, as in the following example (although in the quoted examples the poets used rhyme, you should not require this of your students).  Here is an example I wrote:

Summer in the City
The sun glares angrily
At the sweating sidewalks,
As they lie there dreaming
Of a day at the beach.      

Your students will have fun making their poems breathe!

P.S. You can find the poems from which these excerpts were taken in Talking Like the Rain, A First Book of Poems, selected by X.J. Kennedy and Dorothy M. Kennedy, Little, Brown, 1992 ("Taking Turns" and "The Night"), and Sing a Song of Popcorn, Every Child's Book of Poems, selected by Beatrice Schenk de Regniers, Eva Moore, Mary Michaels White, and Jan Carr, Scholastic, 1988 ("Night Creature").

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