Poets to Come

The Figment Team is thrilled to introduce a new feature to the site—Poets to Come, an evolving, flexible curricular tool for incorporating poetry into the language arts classroom. Poets to Come is the exciting, inspiring brainchild of Emily Moore and Matthew Burgess, two New York City-based teachers and writers, who each month will share poetry writing prompts and teaching ideas with our community of educators. Be sure to join their Figment group “Poets to Come”  and check out their posts on our blog (and here through our educator newsletter).


Poets to come! orators, singers, musicians to come!
Not to-day is to justify me and answer what I am for,
But you, a new brood, native, athletic, continental, greater than before known,
Arouse! for you must justify me.

I myself but write one or two indicative words for the future,
I but advance a moment only to wheel and hurry back in the darkness.

I am a man who, sauntering along without fully stopping, turns a
casual look upon you and then averts his face,
Leaving it to you to prove and define it,
Expecting the main things from you.

-Walt Whitman

Hello Fellow Figment Teachers,

We’d like to invite you to be a part of “Poets to Come!” — an iterative group exploring ways to incorporate poetry into any and all language arts classes. We’ve spent the past decade teaching poetry to students ranging from kindergarten through college, and we’re currently working on a book based on the belief that writing poetry should be an essential component of any writing curriculum. Here on Figment, we’re hoping to share ideas with other teachers, and we look forward to hearing your own approaches to teaching poetry to young people.

Over the course of the school year, we’ll be sharing writing prompts that invite students to write with as many American poets and poetic movements as possible, starting with Walt Whitman (whose tribute to future generations of artists is the inspiration behind our title) and traveling through the rich tradition that follows: from Emily Dickinson to Naomi Shihab Nye, from Langston Hughes to Ishle Yi Park. We will be posting writing prompts and student work, and invite you to share your own classroom tricks, adaptations, and stories.

Walt Whitman:

For this section of our Figment group, we have tried to create writing prompts as exhilarating as water slides: push off, follow the curves and dips of the imagination, and plunge into a new poem. The idea is to bring students into the writing process in a playful, spontaneous way, making even the most remote American poet feel lively and approachable.

This month, we’re starting with some prompts inspired by Walt Whitman, which we hope you’ll ring in on. How do you teach Whitman? What happened in your classroom if and when you tried any of these out, and how did you adapt them for your own classes?

Here are two Whitman-inspired writing invitations to get us started:

Each Student a Cosmos!

Begin by having each student rewrite the famous opening of “Song 24” – “I, Walt Whitman, a cosmos, of Manhattan the son” – so that it applies to him or her personally: “I [full name here], a cosmos, of [city here] the [son/daughter/child].” Next, have the student describe his or her journey to school from the moment they leave their home, using “I see” or “I hear” whenever they get stuck. In my classroom, I also give the following, Whitman-inspired verbal prompts, each about two minutes apart from each other, as my students are writing:

  • mention a person or people you see working around you as you travel
  • mention something happening in nature
  • mention something happening inside your own body (They giggle at this one, but it leads to some great stuff!)
  • mention something happening in outer space

After the freewrite, invite students to share with each other and with the group. It is also productive to ask them what it feels like to actually be Whitman, and if and how writing like Walt Whitman changed their freewriting. Often, I’ll ask for a show of hands about who enjoyed being Whitman, and who found it difficult, then have them argue it out.

Talk to the Hand

You might start by reading the opening section of Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry” aloud: “Flood-tide below me! I see you face to face! / Clouds of the west—sun there half an hour high—I see you face to face.”  What is Uncle Walt up to—talking directly to the river, the clouds, and the sun during his urban commute? Write the term apostrophe on the board and briefly define it: when a poet speaks directly to an imaginary person, idea or thing.

The final section of this poem is teeming with Whitman’s exuberant apostrophe. You might go around the room and ask students to read it line by line. Notice how he talks to his brain, the hills, the ships in the bay, usually in the second-person command form with plenty of exclamation points: “Stand up, tall masts of Manahatta! stand up, beautiful hills of Brooklyn! / Throb, baffled and curious brain! throw out questions and answers!” Invite your students to imagine their own commute to and from school, and to write a poem that “speaks” to things that can’t speak back. What might you say to a stoplight, your jam-packed backpack, a squirrel, or a favorite pair of sneakers?

About the Creators:

By day, Emily Moore teaches English at Stuyvesant High School in New York City, and by night, she is one third of the all girl, country camp trio Ménage à Twang. Her poetry has appeared in The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Poetry Daily, and the 6th edition of Poetry: A Pocket Anthology.



Matthew Burgess has been a poet-in-residence with Teachers & Writers Collaborative since 2001. He is also a full-time lecturer at Brooklyn College, where he teaches poetry writing and composition. His children’s book on E.E. Cummings is forthcoming from Enchanted Lion Books, and his photographs can be viewed online at www.weathereyeout.com.

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