The Busy City: Playing with Noise in Poetry

 I want to share something really cool that formed in class today. We had been talking about noises in poems — noisy things, words we liked the sound of, onomatopoeia — and decided to write a group poem about a crazy, noisy city night. Everyone, including me, was given a small slip of paper. We each wrote one line. Then I put them in the best order that occurred to me.  The poem it formed was really exciting, and the class thought so too. There was a kind of wildness and unity, and of course a real noisy, visceral liveliness in it. But enough talking about poetry like an abstract wine taster — you can read it yourself.

The Busy City

I can hear the peaceful sound of the city. Honk! Honk! Honk! Honk!

I hear a sound that sounds like somebody going flop. No, a car.

Up the escalator, down the very tall stairs. Honk goes the cars. Well goes the man, why’d you hit my bumper.

Basher — THWACK! Crack! Gun — RAT-A tat tat. Plink, Jink, SLAKT! Freedom! Boom!

Honk, crash, boom, eeeoooeeeooo.

The town was noisy. Boom, crash, splat. Everything was noisy. Creak, bang. Too loud, too loud. The town is too loud.

Hewwwph…. The wind of the storm. Honk, honk, whew. A traffic jam. Stop the! — bang, bang. The guns in a riot. Croak, criou, criou. Insects in the night. Hewwph. Honk, whew, bang, croak, criou. The city.

There were rock bands playing and pots slamming together. Tornado!

Creak, squeak, creak, squeak, wipers sweep the splashy glass the splishy fishy puddle washing wheels crossing hills heading home through the rain beat streets.

The moths are buzzing with their golden wings under the light of the moon.

Boom crack. Sound. My heart beat goes on and on. On.

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James Bond and the Past Perfect: teaching grammar through poems

My name had been Bond. James Bond.As I was organizing things for the first class of the year yesterday, I found a gem from the archives. We had been learning about the past perfect tense and how weird it is to try to write in it in any extended way. Instead of just blabbing at the kids about this, I had them write a group poem. The rule: everything had to be in past perfect. It gets weird, as group poems do, but the first line and ending are priceless. I love that the class not only answered to the prompt but found the potential humor in the stiffness of the tense. Please read in a serious, Bondish voice.

My name had been Bond. James Bond.

I had eaten and swum all day.

It had been a dark, stormy night

And I had still eaten and swum all day.

I had hit the fallen tree with what I had eaten.

I had drunk frozen swingsets

After I had swum and eaten all day.

I had conquered the fallen chipmunks

After I had swum and eaten all day.

Now my name is Bob. John Bob.

And I still eat and swim all day.

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The Homonym List

Writing about puns got me thinking about homonyms, which made me think of The Homonym List. My little sister was a math kid. She used to put pictures of the math books she had finished in the photo cover of her school binder, where most people put pictures of horses or Christian Slater. (Did I just date myself?) Let’s just say she liked to organize and catalogue.

Bare feet?

 At some point around 4th grade, she and my parents started keeping a list of all the homonyms they could think of. Because it was my sister’s project, the list quickly turned into a spreadsheet. For a long time, our conversations were full of things like “What about bear and bare? Or bought and bot?” Which is really kind of funny, because of course you can’t hear the difference between homonyms, but everyone always had to say both of them. Or in the case of extra-awesome ones like err, air, ere, and heir, all four. The list got very long — there were several hundred entries, but I’m not sure exactly how many, since it was “preserved” for the future on a now-obsolete computer. And in a way, that’s alright, because it leaves the challenge open.


Or bear feet

I am hoping to make a homonym list in my class this year — maybe a collaborative one between classes, or a gently-competative one. I like the idea of it being a word project that lets the budding spreadsheet nerds among us loose, while also being a really fun way to explore the ridiculous spelling quirks of the English language. It’s also a way to learn a lot of interesting, old words without awkwardly Learning Vocabulary Words.  

On a side note, I’ve been in England for the past few weeks, and there are some lovely cross-accent homonyms. I think my favorite is how when British people say “artistic,” and I say “autistic” it sounds the same. 


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Very Punny

So I have a soft spot for bad puns. It’s probably why I get along with seven year olds. I’m talking really bad, like why did the golfers wear two pairs of pants? In case they got a hole in one! I learned that joke off a Dixie cup. 

But the thing is that puns are a great entrance into wordplay and verbal humor, which can be immensely complex and intelligent — just look at Shakespeare. If I was naming kinds of intelligence, I think I’d say that wordplay was one, but maybe that’s just because I enjoy and admire it.

I credit my dad with developing my love of a bad pun. He loves some bad ones. My mom is certain her sense of humor is superior, but no one gets her jokes, and when she tells other people’s she tends to clean them up so much that she ruins them. Which can be funny, but not in the way she meant. Regardless, my house as a child was a place where people were often groaning over each other’s invented jokes. Like my brother’s: What grows on mills in the morning? Mildew! No one says this is a great joke, but it’s not any worse than the jokes on a Dixie cup.

Here’s the deal — the bar on puns is really low. (Which reminds me — man walks into a bar and says “ouch!” I love that joke. I know, but I do.) This means it isn’t hard to invent jokes that are at least as worth their space as the ones in kids’ joke books — and better, because they’re original. A great place to start is with homonyms. Homonyms are jokes waiting to happen. They are also the bane of beginner spellers. Playing with the potential for humor in them can help transform them from a minefield of spelling failures into a mine of dumb jokes. Like the one about the lady who saw her first gray hair and thought she’d dye. Or the Boy Scouts’ camping trip, which was intense. Or how people who jump of bridges in Paris are in Seine. Sorry, I know, they’re terrible. Your kids can come up with better, I bet.

And even if you don’t think they’re funny, they might. My sister and her best friend laughed for years over their version of Knock knock, who’s there, Mickey Mouse’s underwear. It went Knock knock, who’s there, Mickey Mouse’s cary-car. Yeah, I know. Some humor is impenetrable.


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