At Play with Words

Kenneth Koch's book about his first experience teaching children to write poetry, Wishes, Lies, and Dreams, appeared in 1970. Over the years, his account of how he helped the children in P.S. 61 discover the excitement of making poetry—and discovered, to his surprise, how well they could do it—has given pleasure to many readers and courage to teachers who wanted to open up the pleasure of poetry writing to their own students. The children in P.S. 61, whose poems appear in this excerpt from the introductory chapter of Koch's book, are now in their forties, but their poems and Koch's description of the lessons that inspired them are as fresh and useful as they were 30 years ago.


My adult writing courses relied on what I somewhat humorously (for its grade-school sound) called "assignments. Every week I asked the writers in the workshop to imitate a particular poet, write on a certain theme, use certain forms and techniques: imitations of Pound's Cantos, poems based on dreams, prose poems, sestinas, translations. The object was to give them experiences which would teach them something new and indicate new possibilities for their writing.

I thought this would also work with children, though because of their age, lack of writing experience, and different motivation, I would have to find other assignments. I would also have to go easy on the word "assignment," which wasn't funny in grade school. My first poetry idea, a Class Collaboration, was successful, but after that it was a few weeks before I began to find other good ones. Another new problem was how to get the grade-school students excited about poetry. My adult students already were; but these children didn't think of themselves as writers, and poetry to most of them seemed something difficult and remote. Finding the right ideas for poems would help, as would working out the best way to proceed in class. I also needed poems to read to them that would give them ideas, inspire them, make them want to write.

I know all this now, but I sensed it only vaguely the first time I found myself facing a class. It was a mixed group of fifth- and sixth-graders. I was afraid that nothing would happen. I felt the main thing I had to do was to get them started writing, writing anything, in a way that would be pleasant and exciting for them. Once that happened, I thought, other good things might follow.

I asked the class to write a poem together, everybody contributing one line. The way I conceived of the poem, it was easy to write, had rules like a game, and included the pleasures without the anxieties of competitiveness. No one had to worry about failing to write a good poem because everyone was writing only one line; and I specifically asked the children not to put their names on their line. Everyone was to write the line on a sheet of paper and turn it in; then I would read them all as a poem. I suggested we make some rules about what should be in every line; this would help give the final poem unity, and it would help the children find something to say. I gave an example, putting a color in every line, then asked them for others. We ended up with the regulations that every line should contain a color, a comic-strip character, and a city or country; also the line should begin with the words “I wish.”

I collected the lines, shuffled them, and read them aloud as one poem. Some lines obeyed the rules and some didn't; but enough were funny and imaginative to make the whole experience a good one—

I wish I was Dick Tracy in a black suit in England
I wish that I were a Supergirl with a red cape; the city of Mexico will be where I live.
I wish that I were Veronica in South America. I wish that I could see the blue sky...

The children were enormously excited by writing the lines and even more by hearing them read as a poem. They were talking, waving, blushing, laughing, and bouncing up and down. "Feelings at P.S. 61," the title they chose, was not a great poem, but it made them feel like poets and it made them want to write more.

I had trouble finding my next good assignment. Fortunately for me, Mrs. Wiener, the fourth-grade teacher, asked me to suggest some poetry ideas for her to give her class. Remembering the success of the Collaborations, I suggested she try a poem in which every line began with "I wish." I asked her to tell the children that their wishes could be real or crazy, and not to use rhyme.

A few days later she brought me their poems, and I was very happy. The poems were beautiful, imaginative, lyrical, funny, touching. They brought in feelings I hadn't seen in the children's poetry before. They reminded me of my own childhood and of how much I had forgotten about it. They were all innocence, elation, and intelligence. They were unified poems: It made sense where they started and where they stopped. And they had a lovely music—

I wish I had a pony with a tail like hair
I wish I had a boyfriend with blue eyes and black hair
I would be so glad...

Milagros, grade 4

Sometimes I wish I had my own kitten.
Sometimes I wish I owned a puppy.
Sometimes I wish we had a color TV.
Sometimes I wish for a room of my own.
And I wish all my sisters would disappear.
And I wish we didn't have to go to school.
And I wish my little sister would find her nightgown.
And I wish even if she didn't she wouldn't wear mine.

Erin, grade 4

It seemed I had stumbled onto a marvelous idea for children's poems. I realized its qualities as I read over their work. I don't mean to say the idea wrote the poems: The children did. The idea helped them to find that they could do it, by giving them a form that would give their poem unity and that was easy and natural for them to use: beginning every line with "I wish." With such a form, they could relax after every line and always be starting up afresh. They could also play variations on it, as Erin does in her change from "Sometimes" to "And." Just as important, it gave them something to write about that really interested them: the private world of their wishes. One of the main problems children have as writers is not knowing what to write about. Once they have a subject they like, but may have temporarily forgotten about, like wishing, they find a great deal to say. The subject was good, too, because it encouraged them to be imaginative and free. There are no limits to what one can wish: to fly, to be smothered in diamonds, to burn down the school. And wishes, moreover, are a part of what poetry is always about.

I mentioned that I had told Mrs. Wiener to ask the children not to use rhyme. I said that to all my classes as soon as I had them start writing. Rhyme is wonderful, but children generally aren't able to use it skillfully enough to make good poetry. It gets in their way. The effort of finding rhymes stops the free flow of their feelings and associations, and poetry gives way to singsong. There are formal devices that are more natural to children, more inspiring, easier to use. The one I suggested most frequently was some kind of repetition: the same word or words (“I wish") or the same kind of thing (a comparison) in every line.

Once I understood why the Wish Poem worked so well, I had a much clearer idea of what to look for. A poetry idea should be easy to understand, it should be immediately interesting, and it should bring something new into the children's poems. This could be new subject matter, new sense awareness, new experience of language or poetic form. I looked for other techniques or themes that were, like wishes, a natural and customary part of poetry. I thought of comparisons and then of sounds, and I had the children write a poem about each. As in the Wish Poems, I suggested a repetitive form to help give their poems unity: putting a comparison or a sound in every line. Devoting whole poems to comparisons and sounds gave the children a chance to try out all kinds, and to be as free and as extravagant as they liked. There was no theme or argument with which the sounds or comparisons had to be in accord: They could be experimented with for the pleasures they gave in themselves. In teaching painting an equivalent might be having children paint pictures that were only contrasting stripes or gobs of color.

In presenting these poetry ideas to the children I encouraged them to take chances. I said people were aware of many resemblances which were beautiful and interesting but which they didn't talk about because they seemed too far-fetched and too silly. But I asked them specifically to look for strange comparisons--if the grass seemed to them like an Easter egg they should say so. I suggested they compare something big to something small, something in school to something out of school, something unreal to something real, something human to something not human. I wanted to rouse them out of the timidity I felt they had about being "crazy" or "silly" in front of an adult in school. There is little danger of children's writing merely nonsensical poems if one does this; the truth they find in freely associating is a greater pleasure to them—

A breeze is like the sky is coming to you...

Iris, grade 4

The sea is like a blue velvet coat...

Argentina, grade 4

The flag is as red, white, and blue as the sun's reflection...

Marion, grade 3

Children often need help in starting to feel free and imaginative about a particular theme. I asked my fourth-graders to look at the sky (it was overcast) and to tell me what thing in the schoolroom it most resembled. Someone's dress, the geography book-- but best of all was the blackboard which, covered with erased chalk smear, did look very much like it. Such question games make for an excited atmosphere and start the children thinking like poets. For the Noise Poem I used another kind of classroom example. I made some noises and asked the children what they sounded like. I crumpled up a piece of paper. "It sounds like paper." "Rain on the roof." "Somebody typing." I hit the chair with a ruler and asked what word that was like. Someone said "hit." What else? "Tap." I said close your eyes and listen again and tell me which of those two words it sounds more like, hit or tap. "It sounds more like tap." I asked them to close their eyes again and listen for words it sounded like which had nothing to do with tap. "Hat, snap, trap, glad, badger." With the primary graders I asked, How does a bee go? "Buzz" What sounds like a bee but doesn't mean anything like buzz? "Fuzz, does, buzzard, cousin." The children were quick to get these answers and quick to be swept up into associating words and sounds—

A clink is like a drink of pink water...

Alan, grade 5

A yo-yo sounds like a bearing rubbing in a machine...

Roberto, grade 6

Before they had experimented with the medium of poetry in this way, what the children wrote tended to be a little narrow and limited in its means—but not afterwards. Their writing quickly became richer and more colorful.

After the Comparison Poem and the Noise Poem, I asked my students to write a Dream Poem. I wanted them to get the feeling of including the unconscious parts of their experience in their poetry. I emphasized that dreams didn't usually make sense, so their poems needn't either. Wishes and dreams are easy to doctor up so they conform to rational adult expectations, but then all their poetry is gone.

Their Dream Poems contained a surprising number of noises, and also comparisons and wishes—

I had a dream of a speeding car going beep beep while a train went choo choo...

Ruben, grade 4

I dream I'm standing on the floor and diamonds snow on me.
I dream I know all the Bob Dylan songs my brother knows...

Annie, grade 4

My students, it was clear, weren't forgetting things from one poem to the next; they had been able to write more-vivid poems about their dreams because of the other poems they had recently written. To encourage them in combining what they knew, I next asked them to write a poem deliberately using wishes, noises, comparisons, and dreams all together.

A poetry theme that all my classes were ready for at this point was the contrast between the present and the past. To give their poems form and to help them get ideas, I suggested that they begin every odd line with I Used To and every even line with But Now—

I used to be a baby saying Coo Coo
But now I say "Hello"...

Lisa, grade 3

I used to have a teacher of meanness
But now I have a teacher of roses...

Maria, grade 3

Some of the content brought into their poetry by this theme surprised me. Among the primary and third-graders metempsychosis was almost as frequent a theme as the conventionally observed past—

I used to be a fish
But now I am a nurse...

Andrea, grade 1

I used to be a rose but now I'm a leaf
I used to be a boy but now I'm a woman
I used to have a baby but now he's a dog...

Mercedes, grade 3

I used to be a design but now I'm a tree...

Ilona, grade 3

I had forgotten that whole strange childhood experience of changing physically so much all the time. It came very naturally into the children's poems once I found a way of making it easy for them to write about change—that is, by suggesting the pattern I Used To/But Now.

These poetry ideas, and others that worked out well at P.S. 61, had some things in common. Each gave the children something that they enjoyed writing about and that enabled them to be free and easy and creative. Each also presented them with something new, and thus helped them to have, while they were writing, that feeling of discovery which makes creating works of art so exhilarating. The success of these particular assignments, as well as of some I gave later, was due partly to their substance and partly, I think, to the accident of my finding an effective way to present them. A child's imagination can be reached in many ways. Some ideas that didn't turn out so well, such as a poem about mathematics, would doubtless have worked better if I had been able to find a way to make them suggestive and exciting. In these first poems, in any case, I thought the children had come to like poetry, and had become familiar with some of the basic themes and techniques that make it so enjoyable to write.

The repetition form, which I often suggested they use, turned out to have many advantages. Repetition is natural to children's speech, and it gave them an easy-to understand way of dividing their poems into lines. By using it they were able to give strong and interesting forms to their poems without ever sounding strained or sing-song, as they probably would have using rhyme. And it left their poetry free for the kind of easy and spontaneous music so much appreciated by contemporary poets, which rhyme and meter would have made impossible—

I wish planes had motors that went rum bang zingo and would be streaming green as the sea...

Argentina, grade 4

One of the saddest things are colors because colors are sad and roses are sad two lips are sad and having dates is sad too but the saddest color I know is orange because it is so bright that it makes you cry...

Mayra, grade 3

Children can be fine musicians when the barriers of meter and rhyme aren't put in their way.

Another strategy I'd used more or less instinctively, encouraging the children to be free and even "crazy" in what they wrote, also had especially good results. They wrote freely and crazily and they liked what they were doing because they were writing beautiful and vivid things. The trouble with a child's not being "crazy" is that he will instead be conventional; and it is a truth of poetry that a conventional image, for example, is not, as far as its effect is concerned, an image at all. When I read "red as a rose," I don't see either red or a rose; actually such a comparison should make me see both vividly and make me see something else as well, some magical conjunction of red and rose. It's another story when I read "orange as a rose" or even "yellow as a rose"--I see the flower and the color and something beyond. It is the same when one writes as when one reads: Creating in himself the yellow and the rose and the yellow rose naturally gives a child more pleasure and experience than repeating a few words he has already heard used together. As I hope I've made clear, the best way to help children write freely is by encouragement, by examples, and by various other inspiring means. It can't be done by fiat, that is, by merely telling them to be "imaginative and free."

My first December visit to the school was during a snowstorm, and I thought there would be considerable sentiment for a snow poem. To help the children avoid wintry Christmas card clich6s I proposed that instead of writing about the snow they write as if they were the snow, or rather the snowflakes, falling through the air. I said they could fall anyplace they liked and could hurt and freeze people as well as make them happy. This made them quite excited. Children are so active and so volatile that pretending to be something can be easier for them than describing it—

If I were the snow I would fall on the ground so the children could pick me up and throw me into the air...

Ana, grade 6

We would cover the sun with clouds so it could not melt us...

Carmine, grade 6

A Lie Poem worked out very well. I asked the children to say something in every line which wasn't true, or to simply make the whole poem something not true. I know "lie" is a strong word; I used it partly for its shock value and partly because it's a word children use themselves. "Fantasy" is an adult word and "make-believe" has fairytale and gingerbread associations that I wanted to avoid. The Lie Poem, like the Wish and Dream Poems, is about how things might be but really aren't--though, as in Jeff Morley's "The Dawn of Me," it can lead to surprising truths.

Color Poems--using a different color in every line, or the same color in every line--were a great hit. The children had been using colors in their poems all along and they liked devoting whole poems to them—

Yellow, yellow, yellow. The sky is yellow. The streets are yellow. It must be a yellow day...

Elizabeth, grade 5

This whole world appears before me.
I wish to soar like a bird in the yellow-green sky...

Ruben, grade 6

I was looking at the sun and I saw a lady dancing and I saw myself and I kept looking at the sun then it was getting to be nighttime then the moon was coming up and I kept looking at it it was so beautiful...

Reana, grade 4

A poetry idea which, like I Used To/But Now, brought a new part of their experience into the children's poetry, was one about the difference between how they seemed to other people and how they felt they really were. I suggested a two-line repeating form, as in the Used To poem: I Seem To Be/But Really I Am. The sixth-graders were particularly affected by this theme, being at an age when private consciousness and social image are sometimes seriously different. For one thing, there are hidden sexual and romantic feelings which one doesn't confess—

I seem to be shy when she passes by but inside of me have a wonderful feeling—
As we went for a walk in the park I felt a wet kiss hit my dry skin.

Robert, grade 6

Other contrasting themes I thought of but haven't yet tried are I Used To Think/But Now I See (or Know); I Wish/But Really; I Would Like/But I Would Not Like.

I asked my students to write poems using Spanish words, which delighted the Spanish-speaking children and gave the others an experience of the color and texture of words in another language. I chose Spanish because so many children at P.S. 61 speak it, and I wanted them to be able to enjoy their knowledge of it. There is such emphasis in the schools on teaching Spanish-speaking children correct English that the beauties and pleasures of the Spanish language are usually completely forgotten. I chose 20 Spanish words in advance, wrote them on the board, and asked the children to include most of them in their poems. This worked out best in the fifth-grade class, where I asked the students to invent a new holiday (it was near Christmas) and to use the Spanish words in describing its main features—

On my planeta named Carambona La Paloma
We have a fiesta called Luna Estrella ...
We do a baile named Mar of Nieve ...

Marion, grade 5

... the estrellas are many colors
And the grass is verde.

Esther, grade 5

The children were not limited to the words I wrote on the board; I told them they could write their whole poem in Spanish, and some did.

The educational advantages of a creative intellectual and emotional activity that children enjoy are clear. Writing poetry makes children feel happy, capable, and creative. It makes them feel more open to understanding and appreciating what others have written (literature). It even makes them want to know how to spell and say things correctly (grammar). Once my students were excited about words, they were dying to know how to spell them. Learning becomes part of an activity they enjoy—when the fifth-graders were writing their Poems Using Spanish Words they were eager to know more words than I had written on the board; one girl left the room to borrow a dictionary. Of all these advantages, the main one is how writing poetry makes children feel: creative, original, responsive yet in command.


Kenneth Koch is a poet and teacher who was awarded the Bollingen Prize for poetry in 1994. His most recent book of poetry is New Addresses (Knopf, 2000). His most recent book about poetry is Making Your Own Days: The Pleasures of Reading and Writing Poetry (Simon and Schuster/Touchstone, 1998). This essay is excerpted, with permission, from WIshes, Lies, and Dreams: Teaching Children to Write Poetry (Harper Perennial, 1999).





American Educator, Fall 2000