Thursday, 5 January 2017

Linda Baie hosts Poetry Friday this week at her wonderful blog, Teacher Dance. Be sure to check out the winter proverb in the blog header.

Happy Poetry Friday, friends. As I write this post on Thursday afternoon, we are expecting our first snow of the winter season.

I went looking for a “winter walk” poem (preferably, with dog), and instead landed on Henry David Thoreau’s essay “A Winter Walk.”

As an exercise, I took Section 4 (featuring a baying dog) and adapted it into poetic lines. Since I’ve been working on a prose novel for some months, thinking about phrasing and line breaks was a good work out for my flabby poetry muscles. It also helped me to engage more deeply with Thoreau’s gorgeous language as I broke it down into lines, paying close attention to sound and meaning. Many of us tend to focus on visual images when we write, but the sense of sound — and how it is brightened by the cold — is on Thoreau’s mind here.

As a winter baby, I especially love the final lines of this section. A walk on a cold day is, for me, “an elixir to the lungs, and not so much a frozen mist as a crystallized midsummer haze, refined and purified by cold.”

Have you ever tried adapting a piece of prose by another author into a poem? What did you learn? I wonder if this this exercise would work well in the classroom.


From “A Winter Walk,” by Henry David Thoreau
Full text at American Transcendentalism Web

We hear the sound of wood-chopping
at the farmers’ doors,
far over the frozen earth,
the baying of the house-dog,
and the distant clarion of the cock,
though the thin and frosty air
conveys only the finer particles
of sound to our ears,
with short and sweet vibrations,
as the waves subside soonest
on the purest and lightest liquids,
in which gross substances
sink to the bottom.
They come clear and bell-like,
and from a greater distance in the horizon,
as if there were fewer impediments
than in summer
to make them faint and ragged.

The ground is sonorous, like seasoned wood,
and even the ordinary rural sounds
are melodious, and the jingling
of the ice on the trees is sweet and liquid.
There is the least possible moisture
in the atmosphere, all being dried up
or congealed, and it is of such extreme tenuity
and elasticity that it becomes
a source of delight.

The withdrawn and tense sky
seems groined like the aisles of a cathedral,
and the polished air sparkles
as if there were crystals of ice floating in it.
As they who have resided in Greenland tell us
that when it freezes “the sea smokes
like burning turf-land, and a fog or mist arises,
called frost-smoke,” which “cutting smoke
frequently raises blisters on the face and hands,
and is very pernicious to the health.”
But this pure, stinging cold
is an elixir to the lungs, and not so much
a frozen mist as a crystallized
midsummer haze, refined and purified by cold.

A winter walk with Sam, 2012. Photo by J. Shovan


27 responses to “Poetry Friday: First Snow”

  1. Oh this is all gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous, Laura! What a terrific idea, and I think would be great for students to try. I was also struck by how the visual images you mentioned and the sounds you stressed work to create such a tactile response, too – I was “swimming” in all the liquidy, frosty words as well!
    & CONGRATS on the Cybils news! :0)

    • Laura Shovan says:

      Thank you, Robyn. Yes — I can imagine that students would come up with very different responses to the exercise. In turn, that could lead to a great discussion about line breaks and phrasing.

      Thanks for the high-five!

  2. Tabatha says:

    Thoreau seems like he’d be an amazing person to go on a walk with. His words are ripe for being made into poems — good call, Laura! I think this exercise does have classroom potential.

  3. Gorgeous, especially that third stanza. Worth hanging on a wall and reading every day. You broke the lines just right, like a fine diamond cutter, to let each image shine in its own facet. Also happy to hear the Cybils news! Congrats!

  4. Alice Nine says:

    Well-done! I’ve never done this, but I have done the reverse with students — converted poetry into prose. Wonderful descriptive text to work with.

    • Laura Shovan says:

      It’s interesting to see how the line breaks add breath and pause to what we are reading. I’ve done the opposite too. Sometimes I show students a poem we are studying as a block of prose. Totally different experience.

  5. Laura, thank you for sharing this incredible poem. There are so many vivid images and sounds throughout. Also, thank you for visiting me at the ridge and leaving such kind words. Best wishes on your novel work!

  6. Thoreau seems like a perfect writer to try this prose into poetry with. The imagery is so strong, but you do have to pay attention to sound as well. Now what prose do I want to play with?

    • Laura Shovan says:

      Hi, Kay. I hope you have fun picking something for this exercise. Now that I think about it, I did create a found poem from an interview with Etta James years ago. That was fun — completely different from Thoreau.

  7. Tara says:

    I will definitely try this out with a text in my classroom, Laura – I am so impressed with the way you broke these lines.

    • Laura Shovan says:

      Thank you, Tara. I tried very long lines, and then short (Kay Ryan style), before settling on this cadence. Once I had a rhythm that felt right, most of the lines flowed well. At least, I hope so!

  8. Keri Collins Lewis says:

    Love this! So much detail in his essay — the stalactites and stalagmites, the opening of gates. The essay was like a travel magazine article, and your poem like a postcard from the same trip. 🙂

  9. Linda Baie says:

    I never had students write a poem from the words of a published author, but did have them turn one of their personal essays into poems. I suspect they would love doing this, too. Your work made something new from Thoreau. Makes me wonder what he might think? I think Laura Salas shared a picture a week or so ago of ‘sea smoke’ when they were on a trip. Love “fewer impediments
    than in summer”. It is true, so quiet in winter.

    • Laura Shovan says:

      Thank you, Linda. It’s good to hear from you. It’s a kind of dance with someone else’s words — much to be learned.

  10. Such a really interesting way of approaching Thoreau, Laura. I read him in college and was so intimidated that I haven’t touched his work since. This is a really interesting way of approaching his writing, I think. I would like to try this with the middle schoolers I teach. I think they would love it! I also think it would help them understand a bulky text more deeply. Like you, I love the exhilarating cold of the last few lines. Enjoy your storm!

    • Laura Shovan says:

      Thank you so much, Carol! Please do give it a go and let me know how your students like the exercise.

  11. I want to tackle hug you! I’m in the very prelimary stages of planning poetry stations for a humanities class…and this is SUCH a good exercise. I have that “can’t wait to try this feeling”. Thank you for sharing. I will be looking for prose to adapt from a new book today.
    That last part “But this pure, stinging cold
    is an elixir to the lungs, and not so much
    a frozen mist as a crystallized
    midsummer haze, refined and purified by cold.”

    It is layered with beauty.

    • Laura Shovan says:

      Hugs are welcome here! Hooray — I’m so glad you can use the exercise in your class, Linda. Let me know how it goes. (Poetry stations — I’m picturing a train of poetry activities.)

  12. Diane Mayr says:

    Wow! I wonder if Thoreau consciously said, “Today, I’m going to write about sound?” He tackled it so completely in the excerpt you re-imagined as a poem.

    I tried the exercise once with a Dr. King speech

    I generally write poems so that the lines are all about the same length. It’s more of an aesthetic thing with me. I’m very fond of white space and visual symmetry. I would love to UNDERSTAND the whys and wherefores of line breaks and enjambment.

    By the way, I was completely taken aback by Thoreau’s use of the word “gross.” I always assumed the word, denoting something as being distasteful, was a late 20th century thing. In the 70s we used to say, ad nauseam, “Now that’s gross!”

    • Laura Shovan says:

      He writes with such clarity. I feel that he really wants the reader to understand and to sense what he’s hearing in the cold. Thanks for sharing your link. Yes, I think this exercise works well with speeches and with raw dialogue.

  13. Wow, fascinating, fascinating! Clearly I have never read Thoreau, or I would have remembered his curious combination of poetic phrase, of straightforward rather scientific cataloguing, of well-read reporting! Or maybe I did read this and without your carefully considered line breaks it just didn’t stick! I’ve done an exercise similar to this with poems–“here are my words, kids; cut them up and arrange them the way YOU would put them on the page, because poets decide where they want their words to go.”

    And thanks, Laura, for the Friday morning hugs. I have just got to get used to staying steady in a life (public, personal) more full of ups and downs than I’m used to. I think I need THREE Little Words: ready, steady, go!

    • Laura Shovan says:

      Hi, Heidi.

      I’ve always found his work too dense. That’s one of the reasons I liked this exercise. I could take a small piece of text and engage with it. Sending you all the hugs you need, my friend!

  14. […] last week’s poetry exercise with a bit of Thoreau, I had a feeling that our President-Elect’s words would make some […]

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Laura Shovan

Laura Shovan is the author of the award-winning middle grade novel, The Last Fifth Grade of Emerson Elementary. Her second book, Takedown, is a Junior Library Guild and PJ Our Way selection. Look for A Place at the Table, co-written with Saadia Faruqi, in 2020. Laura is a poet-in-the-schools Maryland.

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