Farmhouses to Xboxes: Getting Creative with Poetry in the Classroom

Photo: Reed Radcliffe

In my grad class Monday, we read poems by American Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Ted Kooser.  One of his poems, titled “Abandoned Farmhouse,” I found particularly striking.  Here it is:

“Abandoned Farmhouse,” by Ted Kooser

He was a big man, says the size of his shoes
on a pile of broken dishes by the house;
a tall man too, says the length of the bed
in an upstairs room; and a good, God-fearing man,
says the Bible with a broken back
on the floor below the window, dusty with sun;
but not a man for farming, say the fields
cluttered with boulders and the leaky barn.

A woman lived with him, says the bedroom wall
papered with lilacs and the kitchen shelves
covered with oilcloth, and they had a child,
says the sandbox made from a tractor tire.
Money was scarce, say the jars of plum preserves
and canned tomatoes sealed in the cellar hole.
And the winters cold, say the rags in the window frames.
It was lonely here, says the narrow country road.

Something went wrong, says the empty house
in the weed-choked yard. Stones in the fields
say he was not a farmer; the still-sealed jars
in the cellar say she left in a nervous haste.
And the child? Its toys are strewn in the yard
like branches after a storm-a rubber cow,
a rusty tractor with a broken plow,
a doll in overalls. Something went wrong, they say.

I loved it so much, I decided to use it in my 11th grade American Lit class.  I had students read the poem and then write a version of it for themselves, explaining what the objects in their lives have to say about them.  They had great fun with the task, and their poems were delightful.  Here are some of the lines I enjoyed the most (each of these lines is from a different poem).

He had no life, says the worn game controller of the Xbox.

She struggled with math, say the crumpled papers in the trash can.

He was almost illiterate, says the gradebook marked with D’s for vocabulary.

He was a drummer, say the calluses on his fingers.

He had lots of friends, say his grades.

He doesn’t care about fashion, says the Goodwill bag.

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