Art Postcards as a Poetry Trigger

by Kathleen Flenniken, View Ridge Elementary School

I’ve been collecting postcards from art museums for years, but it was only a few years ago I thought to put them to use in the WITS classroom.  Since then I’ve collected with my young audience in mind and incorporated examples from more styles and periods—landscapes and seascapes, portraits, abstracts, even a photo or two of architecture.  I provide two or three times as many cards as class members so nobody feels stuck with the dregs, lay them all out on a table or ledge, then ask students to quickly choose one that speaks to them.  They write down the title of the art as the title of their soon-to-be poem.

I’ve developed a few postcard lessons.  It’s often helpful to add prompts and/or a wild card element to a writing assignment like this to avoid a predictable response.   In this lesson with fifth graders I wanted to incorporate their fifty-or-so vocabulary/spelling words.  I typed them in, copied them a dozen times, printed and cut them out.  The resulting pile of words went in a lunch sack.  I deposit little hills of them on each desk and ask students to draw a dozen, lay them out, replace duplicates and words they didn’t know.

Then I led the class through a series of prompts based on their art postcard.  Here is an example of my prompts, though you could easily adjust or adapt it:

  1. in a phrase/incomplete sentence, describe the general scene and use one of your vocabulary words
  2. in a phrase/incomplete sentence, describe a detail in the painting, and use a new vocabulary word
  3. in a phrase/incomplete sentence, describe a detail in the painting using a new vocabulary words AND a simile
  4. put yourself in the poem, either as a figure inside the painting or commenting on the painting—no need to use a vocabulary  word unless you want to
  5. make a statement or ask a question, using a new vocabulary word
  6. in a phrase/incomplete describe another detail on the painting, new vocabulary word optional

Six questions for a six line poem, though it didn’t always turn out that way.  Some of my students wrote many more than six lines. Some are still thinking in terms of paragraphs instead of lines.  I encourage incomplete sentences to encourage them to get to the meat of the idea.

Sometimes I suggested to the class that their details be sensory, could even be an imagined smell or sound.  I could have asked them to include a detail outside the frame, or just before or after the captured moment in the painting—you might like to try that. These prompts, simple as they are, ask the student to really study the picture to keep finding new things to notice.  Often the most interesting lines come at the end of these exercises, when students are forced to be creative, to look in less obvious places and use more difficult vocabulary.

Here follow links to a few images and the 5th grade student poems and lines those images inspired.

by Tonvi

The icy cold
wind hardening
ice and leaving
no trace of the
rocky causeway that
used to be
and the bravado sun
forgetting its position
on top of the misty sky
leaving the land damp and cold.
The only animals to live here
must be as diligent
as the fox from the fairy tale
“The Gingerbread Man.”
I the lost wandering speak
cold as can be would rather
be somewhere else
somewhere warm and less lonely
then the icebound river
up on the mountain
below the misty sky with no sun
And the cumbersome footprints?
Left to follow only disappeared
through the snowy landslide
The damp leafy trees have the last
extraordinary color till the fall
by Sylvie
an era of snowbound whiteness
glistening like polished silver
it seems nothing can adapt to this beauty
it’s a causeway of sleek ice
by Zoey
A foreboding angel of goodness
her face full of compassion
her wings blatant as a hill covered in snow
who is she staring at, she seems
to have eyes only a decade old
her arms adept at laying around clouds
her face as extraterrestrial as a daydream
the feathers like holy graffiti on a white wall
her face full of equanimity
the dress forgets her small frame
her wings a fugitive of nature
their extraordinary feathers flapping
gently in the breeze
Abstraction White Rose
by Evelyn

antibiotic for sadness
curves of a causeway
Abstraction White Rose
by Ainsley
A comma’s night mash
white blue black
like a half-full
blatant white
like curves on a
somewhere in the
I am playing
with pandas
are the streaks
of yellow
curt like an
antisocial old
Those black caves
are condominiums
Rent one if you like
Balmy, cream-colored swirls
Extravagant shadows lurking
Articulate as a mother singing a lullaby

The Flatiron
by Julien
The graffiti on the tall office wall
and the damp air like a swamp.
The strong yet berserk men trying
to row their boat away from the
dock. The condominium
with cracks on the side.
No matter how many times you
hit it, it won’t fall down.

The Sun and the Moon
by Sydney
an extraordinary
vision of warm and
cold and happy and
sad. musical notes
as if coming from an
auditorium. a decrepit
fence from the antebellum
period. I wonder
if someone’s crying
from the window
above? is the man
a boor? is he a
dear? the cumbersome
flower falling all
over itself.
A lonely shadow that no one sees
yet makes the whole picture POP
Child in a Straw Hat
by Esther
An ambiguous background
Biodegradable hat
The girl’s mouth like a decrepit old woman.
I give the girl a cookie
and her frown turns into a smile
Why is the girl’s expression un-balmy?
The adverse eyes slowly look like small crescent moons.

The Leap of the Rabbit
by Ela
The rabbit has no compassion,
jumping across the sky like a bravado
soldier, the flowers like fugitives amongst
the color of green and blue.
Decrepit leaves but some fresh too. The rabbit
pretends to drink water but
does he really? The absurd rabbit
jumping from lily pad to lily pad like
a frog jumping in the desert. The scent
of a swamp uncut and untamed.
Arrival of the Normandy Train, Gare Saint Lazare
by Wui
The train black as the steel of the judge’s hammer
strange packages smell like drudgery
in the old era
it pulls in.
ambiguous smoke looking
like a lost

One Response to “Art Postcards as a Poetry Trigger”

  1. Ann Teplick Says:

    This is GREAT, Kathleen ~ the art, the prompts, and the poems.
    So many powerful and unusual images.

    Ainsley’s “A comma’s night mash/white blue black/sounds/like a half-full/auditorium…” (“Abstraction White Rose”) has pretty much melted me.

    Now, to build upon my collection…

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