Dada in Our Hearts: teaching French Surrealism and Dadaism to children

Last week, I introduced the class to French Surrealist poetry and Dadaism. This sounds very highbrow, but actually this poetry is right up the kids’ alley. Why? Because it’s totally nuts. Basically, these poets were responding to the insanity of World War One by deifying nonsense. But lots of it is very lively, wondrous nonsense.

Hugo Ball as a performing obelisk, c/o wikimedia.

I told them about Hugo Ball and his “abstract poetry,” where he would get rolled onto stage dressed as a blue cardboard obelisk and recite things like “gadji beri bimba glandridi alula lonni cadori….” (Which is nonsense in French, too.) They loved it.

I read them poems like “Dada Song” by Tristan Tzara, which has lines like “Eat chocolate. Wash your brain.” and “Hello” by Benjamin Peret*, with images like “my opal snail my air mosquito” and “my casket of sunlight my volcano fruit.” I talked about how one thing these poets wanted to do was bring together images that were very, very different than each other, like an opal and a snail, to make something that was crazy but that made you see something in a new way, like how snails and opals have a similar shimmer.

I read them some in my terrible French and wrote some phrases in French on the board. Then I had the class turn upside down in their seats so they could see the world from a new perspective. I told them they could write while upside down if they wanted. I told them to write a crazy poem with crazy images, using nonsense words if they wanted and French words if they wanted. Lots of enthusiastic, giggly writing happened. But not all of the writing was empty silliness. There was also a real wild sense of wonder and play. I’d like to share three poems.

The first poem is by Isla. She wrote it in English and I am helping her translate it into French. I love the feeling of this poem and its layers of images. I think it was mostly inspired by a poem I read by Marceline Desbordes-Valmore. She was writing in the early 1800’s, so she isn’t a Surrealist, but  I wanted to share her work to show a) the dreamy imagery that was already a tradition in France, and b) how beautiful it was. Her poem is titled “The Roses of Saadi.” Isla’s is titled “Ange,” or angel.


White birds in

the clouds. Snow

flakes falling


My feathered


come to me

come to me

my feathered


enjoy warm

air with

your soft feather

wings enjoy


The second was written by Dara in French with no help from me (but a lot of help from the French dictionary) and then translated into English. I like the feeling she writes about of having the whole cosmos in one precious stone, as well as the rhythms she’s using. In it you can see the simple grammar that thinking in a second language encourages. Here it is in English:

Space Rock

My opal is the space

In the night it is the white

Like the moon

In the day it is orange

Like the sun

My space rock

The third poem is by Cadence, and was written upside down. It feels like a direct descendent of the dark humor and wide-ranging images of the Surrealists.

A Life Upside Down

Is a squished

grape not a

ripe lemon. A

shoe stomping

on my heart.

A stranger

upside down

died again.

The end.

Anyways, it’s been a blast. I would recommend the anthology Modern Poets of France, translated by Louis Simpson if you want enough French Surrealism to turn you upside down.

(And if you want more Frog Hollow, come to our open house, Monday April 6th, 7:00 pm, 1919 E Prospect St, Seattle.)

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Homonyms: Fun Four Yew Two

My two classes have been having a friendly competition. Each class has been collecting homonyms of the sounds-the-same-but-spelled-differently-and-means-different-things variety. We set the end of February as the end of the official competition, but neither class wants to stop collecting. As of now, the Carnation class has around 155 homonyms, while the Seattle class was around 275. However, the Carnation class found a six way homonym. (I can’t give it away, but it involves contractions, archaic words and proper nouns.)

The kids are hooked. It’s really fun and both the emerging spellers and the word nerds really like working on it. We let the families help, and some of the parents are hooked too. “I found five more just on the drive over!” said one mom. And even though it sounds like we have a lot, I know there are zillions more. So far in this little blog post alone there are: two/to/too, have/halve, been/Ben (or been/bin — different pronunciations make different homonyms), having/halving (but on our list that wouldn’t count since it’s just another form of have/halve), a/eh, but/butt, mean/mien, we/wee/whee/wii (if you throw in brand names), while/wile, way/weigh/whey, are/r/our, its/it’s, some/sum, more/moor/Moore, one/won, no/know, there/their/they’re — and I might have missed some. It’s infectious. I’ve been editing my novel and I find myself writing them on the margins (sheik/chic, rye/wry).

If you want to try this at home, I recommend making some kind of alphabetized chart (or spreadsheet if you want to get techie). We put them under the first possible letter — so rye/wry would go under “r” — to keep doubles easier to spot. We made columns so we could spot the sets of three and four (and five and six). Once you get going, you might never stop. But it’s worth it. Enjoy!

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Life, Summarized

I found this in my classroom a while back:

“They kept on fighting for four hours intell they looked at each orther and giggeld and in the end they got marreid and they ate grapes for the rest of there lives. and then they had to go get glasces.”

Which pretty much sums it up.

Want to hear more about life, children and writing?  Come to one of Becca’s upcoming free talks.

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Teaching Great Poetry to Children: Gerard Manley Hopkins

Gerard Manley Hopkins is pretty much my favorite poet. That’s kind of a silly thing to say, since having a favorite poet is like having a favorite food, and how could I choose between ice-cream and fresh blueberries and the perfect hamburger and my boyfriend’s tom kha soup? Poetry is delicious in at least as many ways. But anyhow, I really, really like Gerard Manley Hopkins and I want to share him with my students.

Hopkins as a boy.

The thing is, his poems aren’t necessarily that easy for them — there is dense language, religious language, archaic language. However, there is also wonder and despair and an exulting love of nature, all of which children understand.  Also, there is so much word play and music, so that even if you don’t understand every word, it still sounds cool. Hopkins doesn’t hold back, and kids respect that.

Still, I’ve had hits and misses introducing his work to my class. The first time, I think I read too much of it, and their eyes glazed over. This year, it worked better. I began by telling them about Hopkin’s life — how he’d been a gifted poet as a young man at Oxford, how he loved another man and didn’t know what to do about because of the time when he lived, then had joined the Jesuit priesthood and burned his early poems, how he had been sent to Dublin, where he was sad and homesick, how he loved nature, how he died young of typhoid. They felt a lot of sympathy for him by then.

Then I read a couple of his poems, starting with “The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo” and suggested everyone just listen to the sounds. We’d already talked about alliteration and rhyme, and I told them he was a master at it. I pointed out some particularly musical phrases: wimple-water-dimpled; too too apt to, ah!, to fleet. The class particularly loved how many times he repeated the word “despair” in the lines Be beginning to despair, to despair/Despair, despair, despair, despair. You’ve got to hand it to the Victorians — they don’t beat around the melodramatic bush.

Then we moved on to the classic “Pied Beauty,” and we talked about how he joined words to make particular meanings: rose-moles, fresh-firecoal. We talked about how much he loved nature and how carefully he observed it, and how because of the way he was religious, just taking a walk outside was like having a vision. This is something that many of the children, of many religious backgrounds, seem to understand.

Then, because they were still listening and I couldn’t help myself, we read “God’s Grandeur,” which is one of the most deeply-felt poems I know about people messing up the earth and the earth’s continuing resiliency, which again is a beauty and pain that many of the kids feel deeply.

By then it was high time to write, so we wrote poems about lists of things we liked, the way Hopkins does in “Pied Beauty.” I encouraged specificity, music, particular and fresh words. They wrote some beautiful poems, and a long story about Thanksgiving. Several weeks later, when we were talking about what to make a crankie of, one of the Seattle students suggested Hopkin’s poems. We’re making a crankie of “Pied Beauty,” and it’s bursting with the same exuberant wonder for nature that the poem is. I’ll try to post it when it’s done.

By the way, to give credit where it’s due, I drew my Hopkin’s prompt from Kenneth Koch and Kate Farrell’s excellent book SLEEPING ON THE WING, which is a great anthology for teaching poetry to kids, and which has all the Hopkins poems we read in it as well.

Want to hear more ideas about teaching poetry to children? Come to one of Becca’s upcoming free talks.

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