Put That on the List: Independently Writing a Catalog Poem
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In these contemporary times, our lives are often driven by lists—to-do lists, shopping lists, wish lists. In this activity, students use that structure to write powerful poetry, modeled after Raymond Carver's poem "The Car." Working individually, students compose catalog poems based on concrete objects that hold personal meaning for them. They begin by brainstorming a list of their most prized or significant possession, then select two or three of the most meaningful. They then freewrite phrases that relate to each object and its importance in their lives. Next, students read and examine Carver's poem and draft a poem in the same style, focusing on their own possessions. These poems, stripped down in the most minimalist fashion, allow students to concentrate on important aspects of poetry, including word choice, phrasing and rhythm as well as the all-important “heart” of the poem.
ReadWriteThink Printing Press: Use this online tool to create a newspaper, brochure, booklet, or flyer. Students choose a layout, add content, and then print out their work.
From Theory to Practice
Through their reading of Carver's work, students ultimately understand the true spirit of poetry. Carver wrote, "Every poem is an act of love, and faith" (McCaffery and Gregory 72), and any lover of poetry would agree. But adolescents aren't typically lovers of poetry, and often they see the structure and substance of poetry as enigmatic and incomprehensible-and not very interesting. Which . . . is just how Raymond Carver felt.
Rilke is quoted as saying, "Poetry is experience." That's partly it. In any event, one always recognizes the real article from the trumped-up ersatz product which is so often top-heavy with technique and intellection and struggling to "say" something. I'm tired of reading poems that are just well-made poems (qtd. in Stull, "Matters of Life and Death" 179).
Carver's poetry offers readers something beyond the "well-made" poem. His poetry often tells a story, and it treads the same fine line between truth and imagination that one finds in his fiction. So too does it mimic Carver's fiction in its compression, its simplicity, and its precision. And always at its center is the truth of human feeling, often expressed in quite mundane terms. For these reasons, it's poetry that students can readily read and comprehend. When students understand, both on an intellectual and an emotional level, what a poet is saying, they can respond to his poetry in a meaningful way.
(Excerpted and Adapted from Rubenstein 64-65)
Common Core Standards
This resource has been aligned to the Common Core State Standards for states in which they have been adopted. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, CCSS alignments are forthcoming.
This lesson has been aligned to standards in the following states. If a state does not appear in the drop-down, standard alignments are not currently available for that state.
NCTE/IRA National Standards for the English Language Arts
- 1. Students read a wide range of print and nonprint texts to build an understanding of texts, of themselves, and of the cultures of the United States and the world; to acquire new information; to respond to the needs and demands of society and the workplace; and for personal fulfillment. Among these texts are fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary works.
- 3. Students apply a wide range of strategies to comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate texts. They draw on their prior experience, their interactions with other readers and writers, their knowledge of word meaning and of other texts, their word identification strategies, and their understanding of textual features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, sentence structure, context, graphics).
- 4. Students adjust their use of spoken, written, and visual language (e.g., conventions, style, vocabulary) to communicate effectively with a variety of audiences and for different purposes.
- 5. Students employ a wide range of strategies as they write and use different writing process elements appropriately to communicate with different audiences for a variety of purposes.
- 6. Students apply knowledge of language structure, language conventions (e.g., spelling and punctuation), media techniques, figurative language, and genre to create, critique, and discuss print and nonprint texts.
- 8. Students use a variety of technological and information resources (e.g., libraries, databases, computer networks, video) to gather and synthesize information and to create and communicate knowledge.
- 9. Students develop an understanding of and respect for diversity in language use, patterns, and dialects across cultures, ethnic groups, geographic regions, and social roles.
- 11. Students participate as knowledgeable, reflective, creative, and critical members of a variety of literacy communities.
- 12. Students use spoken, written, and visual language to accomplish their own purposes (e.g., for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and the exchange of information).
Materials and Technology
Copies of “The Car” from All Of Us: The Collected Poems by Raymond Carver (The Harvill Press, 1996)
- If students are unfamiliar with catalog poems, complete the ReadWriteThink lesson Put That on the List: Collaboratively Writing a Catalog Poem to introduce the genre before asking students to write the poems independently.
- Obtain copies of Raymond Carver’s poem “The Car,” which appear in his book All of Us: The Collected Poems (NY: Vintage Contemporaries, 2000).
- Familiarize yourself with biographical information on Raymond Carver in order to talk about the poem as a reflection of the poet’s life. Information can be found at the Websites listed in the Resources section, as well as Chapter One “Where Life and Art Intersect” in Raymond Carver in the Classroom “A Small, Good Thing” by Susanne Rubenstein (NCTE, 2005).
- Make copies or overhead transparencies of the Checklist, Reflection Sheet, and the student-written catalog poems “The Cat ” and “The Pole.”
- Test the ReadWriteThink Printing Press on your computers to familiarize yourself with the tool and ensure that you have the Flash plug-in installed. You can download the plug-in from the technical support page.
- examine the design of the catalog/list poem.
- consider the characteristics of contemporary poetry.
- develop an awareness of the subtleties of language.
- apply their knowledge to write their own poems.
- Ask students to brainstorm a list of their most prized, well-loved, or significant possessions. These may be items they own now, or they may be possessions from their childhood.
- Ask students to choose two or three of these objects, the ones that have the most "history,” meaning, and stories behind them. For each of these objects, ask students to do a quick freewrite of phrases and ideas that relate to the object and its importance in their lives.
- Read Carver’s poem “The Car,” a lengthy list of descriptive phrases that create a vivid picture of the poet’s car.
- Guide students to see that this poem employs the design of the list with its short phrases, use of rhythm and repetition, and ending “twist.”
- If students have completed the Put That on the List! Collaboratively Writing a Catalog Poem lesson plan, point out that one of the major differences between “The Car” and “Fear” is that its subject is an object of importance in the poet's life (rather than an emotion).
- Promote discussion by asking students to point out their favorite lines, as well as lines that confuse them.
- Compare the very concrete lines like “The car that burned oil” with those that hint at an unspoken story.
- Ask them to “fill in the blanks,” and tell the possible stories that the abbreviated writing in the list does not allow to be told. For example, students can imagine the tale behind the lines “The car my daughter wrecked” or “The car that hit the dog and kept going.”
- Help them see the powerful effect of not telling the story, of leaving it up to the reader’s imagination.
- Give particular attention to the ending, and ask students to discuss how it establishes the essence of the poem.
- Ask students to begin drafting a poem in this style, one that focuses on one of their own possessions.
- Tell them to refer back to their brainstorms and freewriting for ideas, but encourage them to change topics and/or extend ideas if something more meaningful comes to them.
- Offer the poems “The Cat” and “The Pole” as models.
- Ask students to discuss its organization and word choice.
- Pass out copies of the Checklist, which outlines the vital features of a good list poem, and go over the characteristics as a group.
- Compare the items on the checklist to Carver’s “The Car ” and the student poems “The Cat” and “The Pole.”
- Allow the rest of the session for groups to compose a first draft of their poems.
- Remind students that as they are writing they must work hard to establish a unique impression of their object. For example, many students may write about a backpack or a favorite pair of jeans, so it is vitally important to find the personal and specific details and words that characterize one’s own backpack or jeans.
- Instruct students to continue working on their drafts at home.
- During this session, focus students’ attention on revision and rewriting, leading to publication of their poems.
- Ask students to share the drafts of their list poems with another class member. Students should offer positive feedback as well as suggestions for improvement. Comments that encourage good revision should focus particularly on lines that are confusing, words that could be more powerful or more precise, ideas that might be added, and the relative strength of the ending.
- Ask each response group to answer this question: “What is the essence of the poem?” In considering the response, the writers should reflect on whether they have communicated the message they intended to communicate.
- Using the feedback from their classmates, ask students to continue to revise their poems.
- Remind students to return to the Checklist to verify that their final piece includes the specific features of a list poem.
- When final drafts are complete, ask students to write their poems on poster paper. If time and/or inclination allow, students can also illustrate their poems with artwork. Alternately, students can use the ReadWriteThink Printing Press to publish their poems in brochure or booklet format.
- Have student volunteers presents their poem to the class.
- Collect copies of the poems. Bind the poems together as a class collection, or post the poems in the classroom.
- Poetry deserves publication. Possible publishing options include:
- list poems displayed in the classroom with accompanying artwork.
- a class publication with all of the “possession poems” collected in a booklet, brochure or binder. Read as a group, this collection can be seen as a commentary on the adolescent experience in our times. Students can use the booklet format in the ReadWriteThink Printing Press if desired.
- submissions to print and on line publications that seek poetry.
- list poems displayed in the classroom with accompanying artwork.
- For a connection to popular culture, follow this lesson with the ReadWriteThink lesson plan You’re the Top! Pop Culture Then and Now.
- You can also introduce or extend this lesson by using picture books as models for additional poems. “Something Beautiful: Reading Picture Books, Writing Poetry” by Dean Schneider, from Book Links, April/May 2001 (v.10 no.5), provides a book list of picture books using list poem format.
Student Assessment / Reflections
- If desired, grade the poem as a complete writing assignment, using the Checklist to guide your evaluation and feedback.
- Students can also assess their own work and learning by completing a Reflection Sheet. Either pass out the sheet and ask students to choose four to five questions to respond to, or customize a sheet for your class, drawing from the options listed. Focus on asking questions that encourage writers to really think about their pieces and the processes that led to their creation. Each student can write a separate reflection sheet and then share their comments with other group members before all reflections are handed in to the teacher.
- If the class agrees to share their poems with an outside reader(s), the teacher might ask two or three of his/her colleagues to read the class poems and decide which is their favorite.