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2019 Post #27 -- Still Life

by Allison Marchetti

One of the greatest lessons we can give our young writers is to pay attention. Nature walks, writer’s notebooks, guided imagery--all of these are wonderful tools for sharpening the writer’s focus. Another tool is the still life in words.

Jim Daniel’s poem “Work Boots: Still Life” describes a pair of work boots drying in the sun. Like an artist painting the tiny details of a thing, each line reveals the hidden layers and larger-than-lifeness of an ordinary pair of boots. The poem builds to reveal much about its wearer, to whom the boots offer the “promise of safety | the promise of steel.”

Daniels’ poems make holy ordinary moments. They are snapshots of everyday life--brushing your teeth at the sink with your sister, a pair of workboots left to dry in the sun, reading in bed with your littles close--written in beautiful, simple language, and they reveal a hidden beauty that is there simply if you pay attention.

Lead your students in an exercise that will help them pay attention to something ordinary and paint a still life in words:

Choose an inanimate object in your bedroom or home that has some significance behind it: that pair of shoes you always reach for, the old hoodie, the stuffed animal you can’t bear to pack away.

Make a two column chart in your notebook. In the left-hand column, describe what you see in plain language. Like a painter, look closely, making your way around the entire object, seeing it from multiple angles. What’s there that you’ve haven’t noticed before, even though you’ve likely looked at it thousands of times? A tiny rip at the seem, some dried chocolate smeared by little hands?

In the right column, make a list of “deeper meanings”: think about what this object means to you, where you’ve used it, or worn it, memories associated with it, etc.

Use Jim Daniels’ poem to think about how you might pair each description with a deeper meaning. Play around with interesting and unexpected similes and metaphors that breathe life and story into this inanimate object.

Consider borrowing Daniels’ syntax in the last three lines: A ____________ reveals a ________, a __________, the ______________ to tie it all together.

Offer the option of bringing in a picture of the object and pairing it with the typed poem for a beautiful still life gallery walk in your classroom.

Further Reading




Allison Marchetti is co-author with Rebekah O’Dell of WRITING WITH MENTORS and BEYOND LITERARY ANALYSIS (Heineman). She is the co-founder of Moving Writers, a blog for secondary writing teachers. She lives with her family in Richmond, Virginia.

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