One of the mainstays of my creative writing classroom is poetry transcription, a writing exercise I learned from Rob Lockhart, a teacher with the Boyd County school system. I learned PT from Rob in 2004 during the Morehead Writing Project Summer Institute and have used it with every grade, class, and ability level since.
In linguistics, transcription is the act of rendering spoken language into written language. Similarly, in medical transcription, a transcriptionist listens to a doctor’s abbreviated verbal recordings and writes down the information in a patient’s files.
With poetry transcription, I read a poem out loud to my students, word by word, line by line, break by break. As I reach each word and line, I give students information on capitalization, punctuation, spelling of homonyms or odd non-words (I’m looking at you, ee Cummings), line and stanza breaks. They listen intently to my cues and write what they hear. At the end, a student reads the whole poem from start to finish out loud. We may or may not discuss it. Or the poem might just hang there like an unbroken piñata or a mushroom cloud, depending on how our meta-moods are swinging that day.
The guidelines are simple:
1) Choose a short poem. Transcribing The Raven will lead directly to your death. I look for a poem under 20 lines.
2) Speak slowly and distinctly, especially when you first start teaching the process to your students. Repeat each line twice.
3) Tell students if words are capitalized or lower case. Tell students what punctuation is used, and spell out foreign or complex words and homonyms that could be confusing.
4) Give students cues for all formatting, so they can transcribe the poem as accurately as possible. For example, if I were to transcribe Ezra Pounds’ short poem “In the Station of the Metro,” I would say something like the following: “Okay, folks, the poem we are transcribing today is ‘In the Station of the Metro’ by Ezra Pound. The title is capital I-In, lower-case t-the, capital S-Station, lower-case o-of, lower-case t-the, capital M-Metro. The title is In the Station of the Metro. Below the title, you write the byline. The byline is lower-case b-by spelled b-y, capital e-Ezra, spelled e-z-r-a, capital p-Pound, spelled p-o-u-n-d. Okay, is everyone ready? Here we go: The first line, first word, first letter is capital T-The, apparition, spelled a-p-p-a-r-i-t-i-o-n, of these faces in the crowd, punctuation semi-colon. That line should read: The apparition of these faces in the crowd semi-colon. Next line, this is the second line, first word, first letter is capital p-Petals spelled p-e-t-a-l-s, on a wet, punctuation comma, black bough, spelled b-o-u-g-h, punctuation period. That line should read: Petals on a wet comma black bough period. Okay, who would like to read this poem?”
5) Make sure a student, not you, reads the poem at the end. You’ve just been talking for five straight minutes. Let another voice reveal the whole poem. It’s a wonder and a joy when they hear the whole thing as a unit.
Each year, I ask students to give me feedback on the effectiveness of my instructional strategies. Every year, the feedback on poetry transcription runs about 75% to 80% positive. One big fan stated: I loved the poetry transcriptions. They not only exposed me to lots of different poetry, but I also learned so much about word choice and line breaks. As the poem slowly unveiled itself, I would find myself holding my breath to find out what word or line would come next, and those experiences defiantly(sic maybe? sic maybe not?) influenced my own writing.
For the 25% or so of students who said they didn’t like poetry transcriptions, all of them also stated they never understood the purpose of the exercise in the first place. Get it together, Teach! This is the kind of feedback teachers need and love. With an activity such as this, stating the objectives clearly and frequently is paramount to its successful use in your classroom.
Poetry transcription serves four purposes:
- Poetry transcription is a listening activity. I use it as a bell-ringer because there must be complete silence in the room for students to hear you. After introducing poetry transcription to a class and doing two or three practice transcriptions, I explain to students that I will not repeat a line after I’ve delivered it twice. A student fan who recognized the value of the listening component stated: I learned to hear and listen for certain things, especially punctuation. I also got to see the difference of seeing poetry as a whole and seeing it delivered word by word.
- Poetry transcription is an awareness exercise. The transcription requires awareness and observation of every jot and tittle. Writing poetry from the inside out leads students to recognize the value of the smallest dash. The awareness gives rise to great craft questions like “Why do you think the poet capitalized these common nouns?” or “Why do you think the poem broke the line here and not there?” One student wrote: Poetry transcriptions helped me pay attention to the importance of line breaks, punctuation, and spacing. Another wrote: The process forces you to notice every individual line and word of a poem, which causes one to consider why the author chose it. By result, I considered my own word choice and sentence composure more than I had before.
- Poetry transcription is a writing activity. Even though students are not writing their own poems, they are getting inside the mind of a great poet and learning the nuances of rhythm, diction, imagery, and line breaks. Low performing students can be successful at writing poetry through transcription just by listening and writing without the added pressure of being creative or original. A student wrote: It taught me how to value every single letter that is placed in a poem.
- Poetry transcription is a low-stakes poetry-exposure activity. We can luxuriate in the words, the pauses, the units of language, the lines, the clauses, the stanzas, without having to “tie the poem to a chair with rope/ and torture a confession out of it,” as Billy Collins said. I like an activity where analysis and explication are never mentioned. After the poem is read, we can have a discussion about the sounds and tones and mood and diction if we want, or we can just savor it for a moment and move on. Plus, over the course of an academic year, students amass an anthology of more than 150 wildly diverse poems. One student wrote: When we got to the poetry unit, I went back and reread all of the poetry transcriptions. It mainly helped me get ideas. They’re kind of like daily inspiration, and they also showed me different structures, topics, and such. It’s like a smorgasbord of poems in my little black notebook that I can go and read any time I like. And from a kid who wasn’t a fan, but saw its merits: Poetry transcriptions allowed me to experience a different style of writing, and even if I didn’t necessarily enjoy them all, exposure is the best possible thing you can get when you are developing as a writer and searching for a style.
If you are a teacher in Central Kentucky, I would be happy to come to your classroom and lead this activity with you and your students.