What is Orange? by Mary O’Neill

This is a really fun poem which can inspire children of all abilities to think and write creatively. In a way, this is one of the easiest poetry lessons to teach – and the results can be wonderful and varied.

It is based on a poem by the American poet Mary O-Neill. She was born and raised in Ohio and later lived in New York City. Her best-known works were inspired by colours. She died in 1990.

This poem is called ‘What is Orange?‘ and is a list, very skilfully done, of things that are orange. Here is how it opens:

Orange is a tiger lily,
A carrot,
A feather from
A parrot,
A flame,
The wildest colour you can name.
Saying good-bye
In a sunset that
Shocks the sky.

The full text of the poem can be found here. Here is an American school presenting a sung version of the poem (in a different order, slightly, from the written version).

Suggested activities
1. Show the children a Powerpoint slide either of things that are orange, a just a plain, bright orange background. An alternative is to present some objects and ask them what they have in common, eg a carrot, a tiger lily, a fox. What could possibly link these together?
2. Read the poem to them and work towards a class performance, either in groups or together.
3. Ask the children to work in groups to choose their own colour. Then brainstorm on a big sheet as many things as they can think of which are that colour.
4. Encourage children to think not in words but in phrases. Model them on some in the poem such as Saying good-bye/ In a sunset that/ Shocks the sky. If they chose blue, they could come up with The feeling you have when it rains on a Saturday or When clouds disappear and the sun shines on the sea.
5. Challenge the children to use all of their senses – not just sight.
6. Ask the children then to fit the images together in a coherent order. Why have they chosen to start with that? How does it link to the next word or phrase? Suggest to them that every word should count and have a reason for being there?
7. Children could work in pairs or groups to perform their poems. They could also produce Powerpoint presentations to illustrate their poems.

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Poems about places

I would like to suggest two contrasting poems about places – both are wonderful poems and conjure up the sense of place vividly.

Adlestrop by Edward Thomas

The first is called Adlestrop by Edward Thomas (1878-1917). Thomas is seen as a nature poet and his short life was ended when he died in the First World War. Adlestrop is a place in Gloucestershire where his train stopped one day. It was one of those occasions when the train stops at a station unexpectedly, and no one gets off or gets on. He captures the moment beautifully in four simple stanzas. Here is how it begins:

Yes, I remember Adlestrop —
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June.

You can read the full text of the poem here. There is a reading of the poem by legendary film actor Richard Burton here:

This is a longer film with pictures of the station, which match some of the phrases in the poem.

Midsummer, Tobago by Derek Walcott

Midsummer, Tobago is by Caribbean poet Derek Walcott (born 1930), a winner of the Nobel prize for literature. It evokes a moment in midsummer. You can feel the heat, see the river on this stifling August day. Walcott takes this opportunity to think about the past and the memories he treasures. This is how the poem begins.

Broad sun-stoned beaches.

White heat.
A green river.

A bridge,
scorched yellow palms

from the summer-sleeping house
drowsing through August.

The full text of this short poem is here. There is a rather unusual musical treatment of this poem here:

Suggested activities

1. Read one of the poems to the class. Get them to close their eyes. Divide the five senses out to groups. When they have heard the poem, what do they see, hear, touch, taste and smell? Now do the same with the second poem – how is this different?

2. Talk about the feelings of the two poets. They have not just described a place they have visited. They have managed to suggest what it means to them. How do the poets feel about these places? Don’t accept ‘happy’ or ‘sad’. Get a thesaurus out and ask the children to brainstorm the feelings of the poets.

3. Once the children are familiar with both poems, ask them to think of a place they have visited. They could first produce a shower of words associated with that place. Then ask them to list feelings they have about that place. If it is a fond memory, why?

4. Ask children then to write in the style of one of the poems (they may find the Walcott free verse easier). Make sure every word counts. Once they have put some ideas down, get them to swap their poems and see if any words can be removed.

5. Ask them to perform their poems to partners and to groups. Work on a second draft. Then perform them to the class.