Screen-Free Poetry: Searching for Sound and Rhythm

This is a guest post by Megan White, Visitor Services Specialist at the Library. 

April is a good time to step away from screens for an hour or two and head outside to enjoy the world unfurling. It’s also National Poetry Month. In celebration, we’re offering another Screen-Free Poetry activity.

As spring stretches its legs, the natural world fills with abundant sounds: birds call to each other, frogs erupt in a nightly chorus, fox kits yelp from down the street, and very, very quietly a rabbit hops through the grass. All of this chatter can be excellent fodder for poetry.

Robert MacFarlane’s “Lost Words” can give you and your children inspiration to get started. The book is filled with poems geared towards children. They are meant to be spells that call attention to the natural world. Like incantations, they are most powerful when you read them out loud together. Here are a few lines to try:

Illustration of a bird in leaves and ferns

Olive Whitney for L. Prang & Co. Wren’s nest and ferns, 1874; Prints and Photographs Division

Fern’s first form is furled

Each frond fast as a fiddle-head.

Reach, roll and unfold follows.

  •  What letters and sounds stand out when you read the poem out loud?
  • Do any emotions come up when you hear the sounds?
  • Move your body while someone else reads the lines aloud. What shapes and movements do you make?
  • Did you learn anything new about ferns after reading these lines?

Head outside, find a natural area to settle into, and pay extra attention to the sounds around you. Follow the sounds with your eyes to find interesting creatures and plants. Sometimes you can follow the sound of rustling leaves until you find chipmunk scampering to hide in a drainpipe. Once I heard a soft scratching and saw a pair of raccoons climbing up a neighbor’s tree. Find a plant or animal that draws your attention, and listen to the sounds it makes and the sounds of the world around it. Make a list of those sounds. They might be scraaaatch, swishswishswishswish, errrr. When you spell those sounds out the words are called onomatopoeia.

Then think of words with similar sounds and put them together. This is called consonance if the sounds are consonants and assonance if they are vowel sounds. Let one group of sounds lead to the next group of sounds. Your poems don’t have to rhyme, and if they do, they can rhyme in the middle of a line instead of just at the end. Here’s an example:

An illustration of a squirrel holding an acorn

L. Prang & Co. Gray squirrel, Northern gray, Sciurus migratorius, 1872; Prints and Photographs Division

Squirrel scritch scratched scattering seeds

Pattering, chattering, mad-hattering in the trees.

Cross hatch, no match, racing riot rustles oak leaves.

Keep listening and watching, and adding sounds and words to your poem. When your poem seems complete, read it out loud to see if it feels like a spell or shows something interesting you noticed about your plant or animal. If not, change some words and read again. When you’re done, read your poems to each other to make them come alive. You can also make an illustration to go along with your poem. Check out the Library’s Audubon print collection or prints published by L. Prang and Co. for inspiration.

Find out more of the Library’s programming for National Poetry Month, including this poetry spotlight with Victoria Chang and Brenda Shaughnessy.

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