The luxury of constraint: writing poems with seven-year-olds

Asiya Wadud

During the daytime, I teach poetry to young children. I bring them the work that has dazzled me: Kamila Shamsie, Adam Gianelli, Claire Wahmanholm, Eloise Greenfield, Wisława Szymborska, Harryette Mullen, Jamaal May, Georges Perec and so many others. Every now and again, the conversation circles back to constraint and how a limit can invite its own breadth, widening scope, expansive moment and leisure. 

With the second graders, we practice constraint by working with what we are given. The scope of ‘what we are given’ changes throughout the year and many experiments happen along the way. One experiment that I often return to involves magnetic words. I give each person seven or eight words and the idea is to use all the words to write a poem (the kids are also free to add eight of their own words to the poem). There is a tactile pleasure in the magnetic words and you can easily arrange and rearrange them— part of the pleasure is in trying to exhaust the possibilities. Here’s a quick poem using ten words. The measure of the poem isn’t in the poem itself but in whether there is now something to work with:

asiya 1 final

Here it is with the words shuffled:


Another form we work with is the diamond poem, which is a twenty-five word poem arranged across nine brief lines. The first line of the poem has one word, the second line has two, the third has three and so on. The five-word line is the center of the poem— after the lines decrease so that the form is like this:


With the second graders we talk about what is possible with only twenty-five words. Decisions have to be made. With the second graders, I am reminded of both the precision of the Englishes we know as well as their oversights, omissions, externalities and all else.

Here is a quick diamond, maybe you will try one too.


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