UNPACKING THE BACKPACK – Le Mot Juste

According to Mark Twain “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” Twain was undoubtedly a master of language, and when I teach rhetoric, Twain’s sentiment is central to understanding effective word choice. The goal is to affect the reader with what the French call le mot juste, “the right word.” One way I introduce my students to the power of diction is through the three-word poem. I learned it from a colleague, and one year it produced a true work of art, which I share with my students. The following is one of the best three-word poems I’ve ever read.

Algebra
Sucks
Bad

The students always laugh, or nod approvingly, at the blunt criticism of math, a nemesis to many. However, the lesson is not just about the rhetorical effect, but about how the writer achieved the final product through numerous drafts. His initial poem was “I Hate Algebra,” which was mostly an expression of anxiety about an upcoming quiz. In revising, he decided the source of angst was algebra, not him. So, on revision he removed the word “I” and added the contemptuous word “sucks.” The second draft became “Algebra Really Sucks,” which is certainly an improvement. However, the writer realized “really” is actually a weak modifier and doesn’t enhance the effect. The final draft is powerful and effective for the feeling it evokes, emphasized even more through intentionally poor grammar. 

My plan is for students to craft a three-line poem, using the most effective language, and to explain their writing and revising process. The simple structure – just three total lines – is not too overwhelming, as I’m not a fan of forcing kids to be creative and poetic. The lesson is introduced through imagism, the style of poetry developed in the 20th century and popularized by Lost Generation poets like Ezra Pound. The conciseness of the genre makes it accessible and less intimidating to students while also encouraging tight command of language. We begin with Pound’s classic poem “In a Station of the Metro”: 

In a station of the metro
The apparition of these faces in the crowd:
Petals on a wet, black bough.

As students make sense of the poem by discussing word choice and structure, the word “apparition” is key, noting the suddenness of the appearance. The use of the colon reveals meaning through analogy, as the faces are fragile, delicate, diverse, and vulnerable “petals on a wet black bough.” The simplicity of the poem creates its impact, which is meant to be immediate and momentary, rather than expansive and drawn out. Imagism captures a moment, intending it for observation, much like a painting or sculpture.

I also share poems from an American Buddhist monk named Joe Wagner, whom I met years ago in Taiwan. Joe’s poetry is linked to his meditation and intention to live deliberately and self-aware because “poetry has the ability to stop the reader from thinking about life and directly experience it instead.” That insight suggests a meditative quality. In his three-line poems, Joe’s philosophy of poetry seeks brevity as a goal. If a poem is too long, it risks losing the reader to the inevitable wanderings of the restless mind. If the goal is to impact that mind, the poem must stop the reader from thinking too much. I share several examples of Joe’s poetry, revealing them slowly, one line at a time, which enhances the effect of the words.

The sadness of eating
Pizza
On Christmas Eve

The power of the poem comes from the simplicity of the language and the structure which emphasizes the starkness of the moment. Another example perfectly captures a moment in every teacher’s life, one which students are generally aloof to. 

Classroom quiet
The children
Take a quiz

Each poem produces insightful and enlightened nods and murmurs in the classroom. The kids get it. When I ask students to create a three-line poem, they also submit an analysis of their process. While I don’t require numerous drafts, I do expect that their analysis paragraphs reflect an idea of revision and editing. These poems are also presented to the class. However, unlike my lesson, these poems are simply recited and received with no comment or analysis in class. Many produce great reactions, from gasps to sighs to laughter, and students hopefully grasp an appreciation for “the right word.”

Michael P. Mazenko is a writer, educator, & school administrator in Greenwood Village. He blogs at A Teacher’s View and can be found on Twitter @mmazenko. Ytou can email him at mmazenko@gmail.com