Movin' on with Nellie: Descriptive riddles and Poetry: a lesson


So, Wikipedia lists April as National Poetry Month. I’ve written poetry all my life and when I fell in love, I wrote volumes, too.

When I teach, I often introduce students to description and poetry. Reading from Patterns for College Writing, we would read Cisneros, Alexie, Marquez, Cummings, Orwell, White, Plath, Dickinson and Chopin. Some of the articles were essays, some poems. The first stanza of Emily Dickinson’s poem is, “A narrow Fellow in the Grass/ Occasionally rides—/You may have met Him--did you not/ His notice sudden is—”

In the spring, I’d present description writing to the class and send them out on a scavenger hunt for descriptors at their favorite place — a hiking trail, a restful place, a hidden gem. The objective was to use their silent senses like taste, sound, smell, touch and their oft use sight intelligence. 

Sending the students out after class was an opportunity for them to experience the world in a more conscious manner. I asked them to sit and to absorb the presence around them. First sensation is likely sight and so I asked them to chronicle what they saw with words of sight — brown, green, swallows, mellow yellow. Sense of smell – musty sage, ponderosa pine. Touch — scratchy, sheer, smooth, sharp. Sound—hum of utility lines, tumbling water, rustling feathers, creeping wind. I asked them to collect 25 words for each of the senses before they left their favorite place.

Some students in Colorado Springs would venture to the Garden of the Gods, and some in the valley visited the Sand Dunes, Penitente or Zapata Falls. Some students found a lake, a backyard quiet spot or their napping spot. Part of the task was to capture the moment in a sketch or photograph; then, at home, create a poem, a riddle, with their word list.

“Don’t name your favorite place; but let the others guess your place when we read them to each other,” I would encourage them.

One submitted poem ended: “Blowing snow around as if it were a tornado and/Then rustles the trees/The icy snow sticks to my face and/I feel the wetness drench my clothes/Now I know how sweet nature is.”

I would also share my descriptive poems with the students, like this exert from “Gypsy Aunt Leona.”

“Her slender but wrinkled fingers/turn each spare fuzzy ball/on the floor, /on the mantle, /on the table. /Her eyes won’t let her walk peaceably but regrow amazement, puzzles, /questions and then excuse all answers. Curves/are bewildering and so she tosses away/dog chews and paper letters with names/she can’t read.”

One student wrote about his process: “To write my riddle I observed subtle details about where I was. The things that people notice but don’t ever really look at became apparent to me. I listed words, as many as I could and later used a thesaurus for more. They were hard to find sometimes. I looked for descriptions and differences in my surroundings, and for opposites and unusual words or phrases to try to keep the mystery of my riddle. It’s a little like Emily Dickenson’s poem but much easier to read and understand. It was a fun assignment and I could relax and play around with words which I like to do.”

Poetry in April, descriptive lessons and evolving weather make for mindful reflections. I think it’s time for another poem.

— Nelda Curtiss is a retired college professor who enjoys writing and fine arts. Contact her at columnsbynellie

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