Templates For Writing Poetry - (Sometimes, with Young Children)

by Pamela Hobart Carter

an essay about my love-hate relationship with templates, when gathering poems from small children.

Based on a craft talk at “It’s About Time” at the Ballard Library, 10/11/12



Recite Neruda, in translation, “Ode 

to a Large Tuna in the Market”—

Among the market greens/ a bullet/from

the ocean/depths,/a swimming/projectile,/


I saw you,/dead.No, “Ode to a Tomato.” 

Explain “saltcellar.” Stop before the line 

about murdering the tomato. No, 

start with the children closing their eyes. 


No, start with breath. Now, close your own eyes. No,

start on the playground in your down coat. Chase

each running child to a standstill. Crouch. Pose  

a series of questions. Sort the answers 


on the page. Read this shape back to the child 

for her approval. When she runs away                        

what lies on the page is her poem. Wait.

Are you writing your poem, or helping 


a child to write hers? How shall you begin? 

How to help a child create a poem? 

To craft your own? Too many ways to start—

Give thanks for templates from prior poems.


I teach. I write poetry. I am learning to connect the two. 

My first efforts to collect poetry from preschoolers involved only my own students, five-year-olds. I ignored templates, designed my own poetry lessons, and took down the children’s words as best I could. The results were a not unsatisfying hodge-podge.

When Doug Johnson conditioned publication in his journal, Broken Circles, a gathering of poems for hunger, (Cave Moon Press, 2011—sales of Broken Circlesgo to food banks), with a pledge from featured poets to spearhead our own fights against hunger, I joined a handful of others to put up food-centric poetry readings, with contributions to food banks as entry. Deciding to hold a reading-fundraiser at the preschool prompted my first venture into collecting poems from all of the school’s students and lining our entryway with their odes to food.

Food. Familiar since birth. What better topic to start poetry with small children? But how to introduce the idea of a poem with such young children?How to gather an ode from a semi-verbal, illiterate three-year-old? How to gather poems from seventy-some small children by a specific fall date?

Poet Emily Bedard, a parent at our school, located for me an essay by Rachel Zucker about writing odes with her child’s class. I used Zucker’s “Third Eye Ode to Chicken Nuggets and Other Delights” (https://www.poetryfoundation.org/features/articles/detail/69688) as my teaching template. Thank you, Emily! I introduced the concept of poetry Zucker’s way—as seeing what the third eye sees—to each class in the school. Zucker herself had relied on poet Kenneth Koch’s Wishes, Lies and Dreams: Teaching Children to Write Poetry, (Harper Perennial, 1970). We made a train, each copying earlier teaching templates. 

I also used Rachel Zucker’s specific formal template with the children.  A template she borrowed from Danielle Pafunda’s ode structure: 1 stanza, 4 linesOne word describing the subject/ One word describing the subject/ Fact about the subject/ Wild card line (imagine your subject speaking, or acting, or speak to your subject). Another template train.

The teaching template is robust, and I recommend it for those with young children in their lives. After the third-eye introduction, the class brainstormed a list of tools a poet needs to make a poem. The brainstorms went something like, “paper, pens, words, ideas.” We may have added concision and rhythm, or special sounds and music. I asked each child to think of a favorite food and to draw it. Then I took dictation, one at a time. Often I posed a list of questions and offered prompts to satisfy the template: Shape? Color? Smell? Taste? Reminds you of? 

The children came to see their third eyes as metaphors for their dreams, imaginations, observations, and memories. I cherish the conversations about the realness of this third eye, about representation, and about seeing within ourselves. 

A handful of the youngest three-year-olds had little language. I was thrilled to come away with any words from them. With talk-happy children, I made up shorthand to keep pace. I was loose with the template.


From a four-year-old chatterbox:


Peanut butter. 

Just peanut butter. 

When we go to the store and press

the button, it crushes the peanuts. 



From a three-year-old whose parents send him to a speech pathologist, a great victory: ODE TO JUICE






Acting as solo amanuensis for seventy non-writers was a too-slow process. The reading-fundraiser deadline loomed. I recruited assistance from half the teachers, leaving them to harvest the poems, and was thankful for the Koch-Zucker-Pafunda template. Without it we could not have divvied the ode-gathering process.

The teachers did not enjoy every minute. One said, “That was hard,” in an accusing tone. Ha. I wondered, does she believe making poems is a snap? But her dismay had less to do with degree of effort than with having felt yoked to the template when the children were not delighting in it, and nervous how to proceed otherwise. This teacher’s pain clarified my experience of templates. 

I love them and hate them. 

The raft of ways to begin a poem may overwhelm. Templates provide concrete choices. I love templates most as ways to begin.

An example: I have been struggling with a poem about how dogs think and my curiosity about thought without language. After many, long, futile sessions, over the course of months, I found an e. e. cummings poem that resembled what I envisioned this dog-thought poem might sound and look like. 

by e.e. cummings (from 100 Selected Poems)

may my heart always be open to little
birds who are the secrets of living
whatever they sing is better than to know
and if men should not hear them men are old

may my mind stroll about hungry
and fearless and thirsty and supple
and even if it's sunday may i be wrong
for whenever men are right they are not young

and may myself do nothing usefully
and love yourself so more than truly
there's never been quite such a fool who could fail
pulling all the sky over him with one smile

I stole its shape, substituting my own verbs and nouns. I tried to preserve tone. I broke my poem into line pairs and kept the skinniest thread of partial rhyme. 

may my mind one day be open to silent
dogs who hold the secrets of stillness …

dogs never know a vacancy in their lives
dashing through the woods wild as wordless wind

A new poem shook out. 

Now when I am stuck for a poem shape, I search for a template in the poetry of others, and often use this substitution method. (And recommend it for experimentation, if nothing else. Try the e. e. cummings.)

Sometimes, as on reading Natasha Trethewey’s brilliant, sad loop, “Myth,” hunting up a formal template inspires imitation, and the content follows. Perhaps her poem will make you want to write forwards-and-backwards, too. 


by Natasha Trethewey

I was asleep while you were dying.

It’s as if you slipped through some rift, a hollow

I make between my slumber and my waking,


the Erebus I keep you in, still trying

not to let go. You’ll be dead again tomorrow,

but in dreams you live. So I try taking


you back into morning. Sleep-heavy, turning,

my eyes open, I find you do not follow.

Again and again, this constant forsaking.


Again and again, this constant forsaking:

my eyes open, I find you do not follow.

You back into morning. Sleep-heavy, turning.


But in dreams you live. So I try taking,

not to let go. You’ll be dead again tomorrow,

The Erebus I keep you in—still, trying—


I make between my slumber and my waking.

It’s as if you slipped through some rift, a hollow.

I was asleep while you were dying.

It is human to wish to live in ordered space and time where poems and stories explain some of the surrounding mysteries. We like to designate beginnings, middles, ends, and rebirths, and name these, despite our inability to hit them on the mark. E.M. Forster said it in Howards End, “A funeral is not death, any more than baptism is birth or marriage union. All three are the clumsy devices, coming now too late, now too early, by which Society would register the quick motions of man.” Yet templates suggest we may make order, that our chaos—our existence—is sortable.

Templates may resemble Forster’s baptisms and funerals but they give tangible sense to intangibles. How many lines to place on the paper? How many beats in this line? What is the shape, the rhythm? Where does this poem end? If we write the middle of a poem first, the template frees us to start where we are, and identify it as the middle. Bring on the constraints! 

Templates may hone our wandering, if we are wanderers, and challenge the already-focused to link arms with tradition. Embracing tradition connects us to history. Templates open membership to the Club of Poets. Use of a familiar poetic arrangement may further readers’ understanding because of getting to compare apples to apples, (ode to ode, villanelle to villanelle). There is richness in such familiarity, as fat volumes of sonnets attest. 

Enjoy the same patterns, the same inhalations, the same structures. Try what succeeded for The Greats. How did she say this? Where did he retool the template himself? Here, where his line is a beat short—when the subject died, the breath had gone from the body and the poem. We feel such a poetic decision more fully, if we know the template. 

A template may be a contract. I write sonnets, villanelles, and triolets. I have even written a couple of Billy Collins’ parody-of-strict-templates, the paradelle. In his own, he mocks senseless adherence to form by ending with a silly string of leftover words. 

I tinkered with the paradelle template:4 stanzas, 6 lines each, First 3 stanzas—1st and 2nd lines the same, 3rd and 4th lines the same, 5th and 6th lines composed of all the words from the 1st and 3rd lines and only the words from the 1st and 3rd lines. The final stanza—all the words in the 5th and 6th lines of the first three stanzas and only the words from the 5th and 6th lines of the first three stanzas.Mine shuffles the words in the repeated lines.


In summer, her days stretched. She lost time sense.

She lost time sense in summer, stretched her days.

She slept and dreamed in soft sanctuaries sheltered by shade. 

She dreamed and slept sheltered by shade in soft sanctuaries.

She dreamed time slept in. Sheltered by her summer soft 

days in shade she lost sanctuaries and sense.


Will she gain the gist of ground again?

She will gain the gist of ground again.

Still, she loves the games her mind plays.

She plays the games her still mind loves.

The gist of the games will ground her 

mind still. She plays again. She loves gain.


She wonders if she sleeps or wakes through these reveries.

She sleeps through these reveries. If she wakes, she wonders.

Even her drowsy self knows what is true and what is fiction.

And, even drowsy, is what her true self knows fiction? What is?

What if she is drowsy or is her true fiction? Even through 

reveries, she knows these: self, wonders, wakes, and what sleeps. 


What is the gist of these reveries, plays, and drowsy games? 

Will she gain in wonders? If she dreamed or slept through days 

and what her mind knows stretched her true self, she lost. 

Still, she sleeps by sheltered ground, in the sanctuaries’ shade. 

She wakes; loves again, even. 

Her summer sense of time is soft fiction.


The template may be that which I wish to break. 

I hate templates most when they are robotically accepted as lock-step rules.

More confident in introducing poetry from the inside-out, mindfully, I’m trending away from using templates, except as back-up, with preschoolers. I will continue to collect poetry from small children (and recommend it to you). With or without templates, it is worthwhile to capture poems from small children for one such as this, by a four-year-old: 


 Juiciest fruit in the world

 like sugar

 it drips down my chin

 it slowly slowly drips

I have more confidence in my teaching of poetry, and my methods of gathering poems from children, than in my own poetry writing. Until my confidence grows, I plan to lean on the wealth of templates. 

So many ways to begin.